The table round which the family was gathered was actually four tables: two long and two short, pushed into place to form a large square, room to seat a score or so of hobbits, with an open space at the center. A palely silver candelabrum glimmered there atop a slender silver stand that lifted it several feet above the table so that it might shed a fair light on the polished surfaces below. It was fashioned in the shape of the White Tree of Gondor, and it had been a gift from the High King and Queen Arwen to Thain Peregrin and his Lady on the occasion of their last visit to the northern Court at Annúminas. It was slim and beautiful and artfully devised, of Elvish design and Dwarvish manufacture, an heirloom now of the House of Took, and its delicate silver branches were alight with many candles. The littlest children gazed up at it in awe, as if it was a star.
There were eleven children in all around the table, seven of them not at all expected, but Pippin was taking the unexpected in stride tonight, Pervinca noted, and for this she bent a smile on Merry: his coming this afternoon had done Pippin a great deal of good. He had spent far too many evenings of late tucked away in his library, brooding in front of the fire, leaving his possets untouched and deftly avoiding explanations. But there had been no thought of that tonight; he and Merry had come down off the hill and acquiesced in high good humour to supper with the family, though Pippin had certainly been taken aback to find his entire brood—some of whom he believed to be far away in Long Cleeeve—awaiting him outside his dining room! Such a look he had given Merry! But it was plain to see how glad he was, and how deeply moved. Galen and Laurelin’s families, together with Amethyst’s from Whitwell, had arrived at the Smials in the late afternoon, and all of them were anxious to see him: the children crowded round eagerly, and the adults looked on with open affection, their concerns carefully concealed behind the gaiety of a family reunion. Pippin had looked round at them all in stunned silence, and for a moment it seemed that his rediscovered brightness would desert him as his eyes brimmed and blurred with tears. He raised a sleeve to dab at his eyes (did he never carry a handkerchief?) and then he stopped and laughed at himself, and opened his arms to gather them in.
The littlest hobbits were Galen and Bryony’s, two small russet-haired lads of nine and seven years and a wee maiden-faunt with dark curls and periwinkle-blue eyes—Elladan, Paladin and Adamanta Took. Elladan, who had been confined to the nursery with his little brother on his previous visits to Tuckborough, was agog now at the size and magnificence of his grandfather’s House and his family’s holdings, and he had asked a great many questions of anyone who had a moment to listen, receiving their responses with a thoughtful gravity reminiscent of his father; small Paladin, on the other hand, listened to the same with a sparkle of excitement building in his sunny blue-green eyes and Pervinca thought: Here is one like Pippin! There are plans hatching behind that innocent face! But of the wee lass she had seen little, as the child had gone straight to sleep in her father’s arms almost from the moment he took her up out of the waggon, and continued to sleep soundly all the while everyone else bustled in and round about with the travelers’ many bags and baskets. Galen, who had been somewhat downcast before their arrival, had met his wife’s bright smile over the curly little head on his shoulder and mouthed his thanks with feeling; there was no doubt he was very glad they had come.
In addition to their mother and their Uncle Hugo, the little Tooks had traveled from Long Cleeve with their cousins, Elwing and Elenna Vale. A double birth was a rare and marvelous thing in the Shire, and not always easy. The advent of Hugo and Laury’s twins had been cause for some concern, and Diamond had hastened to Long Cleeve to make sure that all that could be done was done properly. But Laury had proved resilient, in the manner of Tooks, and the twins had done, as well: they had ten years now and were strong and healthy little hobbits. They were also identical in every way, with wild amber curls like Laury’s and the clear, light brown eyes that came of their father’s folk. They were warm and inquisitive, and as starry as their Elvish names, and their dainty ways put the older folk of Tuckborough in mind of Mistress Diamond; there were smiles and whispers here and there of the Fairy.
It was generally agreed that the mark of the Fairy was on all the Long Cleeve grandchildren, and indeed, they seemed to shimmer with it, but it was also present in subtle ways in the Whitwell and Tuckborough families, where it appeared unpredictably in quicksilver smiles, or flitting, faerie-wise expressions, in skillful hands and in young and gladsome minds that sometimes chanced upon the deep solemnities of time.
Wil Proudfoot had joined Hugo and Bryony’s train at Whitwell, together with his two younglings, Peridot and Geron. Hugo had dispatched a quick letter to Wil in the wake of Laury and Galen’s rushed departure, and Wil, who had already seen a thoroughly anxious Amethyst off to Tuckborough some days before, had agreed by return post that if Father Peregrin was as cruelly undone as the case Fair had presented to Galen indicated, the three of them should not stay behind with the children, but should go at once to complete the family circle that must support him, and to bring what comfort they could to Amy and Laury and Galen, as well as to Fair and Goldilocks, who had thus far shouldered this alone. To his children, who were older than the others, he as yet said nothing, save that he had it in mind to join the family at The Smials now that the planting was in.
Wil and Amethyst’s daughter Peridot was a frank and pretty girl of sixteen with flashing green eyes and a dark chestnut braid down her back, wishful of a more sophisticated life than she could find as a matter of course in ‘pokey’ Whitwell and always delighted to come to Great Smials where her mother had lived as a girl. Her brother, who was three years younger, was like her in colouring, but he was by nature more thoughtful, restrained, and coolly perceptive. They were in many ways like the two sides of a Shire penny, Auntie Pervinca thought: Peri had inherited all the sparkle and dash her parents were famous for, and Geron (named for the Old Took, which had to count for something) had come into all their common sense. She had to concede (having heard rumours) that such an overlay of rationality in a young Took did make him seem a bit proud at times, but that lasted only until he had occasion to smile. It was the same quicksilver smile that so often lit his Grandfather Peregrin’s face, mischievous and endearing, and no match for anything so small as pride.
The four Tuckborough cousins, who met the visitors in the lane with whoops of delight, had helped to carry all the bags and necessaries up to the guest rooms and—having gently led their tired little cousins to the nursery where a lovely tea was waiting for them and soft beds and blankets laid down for resting—then took up Peri and Geron as companions of old and proposed a walk into the village. It was Market Day and there were errands to do: their mother needed some spices and a case of sewing needles, Uncle Galen had a packet of curative powders waiting at the apothecary, and Auntie Pervinca had asked them to bring her a little jar of linden-flower tea. Further, Auntie had passed along several more coins than they would need, and these they could spend as they liked on sweets or fancies. Goldilocks and Amethyst, taking cider with Pervinca on the lawn while Laury and Bryony saw to settling the little children inside, saw them off with an encouraging wave: a gaggle of handsome children, growing up and happy to be abroad in their little world.
Fair’s firstborn, Perhael was nineteen now, and already beginning to anticipate the freedom of his coming tweens. The folk of Tuckborough and The Smials considered Per much like Thain Paladin in style, being quick and careful and discreet in his youthful dealings, though reminiscent of Mayor Samwise in aspect and bearing, being sweetly fair of face and earnestly civil in manner. His handsome features were capped with neat brownish curls and his eyes were the same spring green as Pippin’s (though Diamond had ever maintained they were lit with stars rather than sunlight.)
His sisters were a study in contrasts: Rosearwen at seventeen was darkly tressed, with pale roses in her cheeks and a clear violet gaze; in manner she reminded Pervinca more and more of her own sister Pearl: adept and capable, but dreamy, too, and more than a little enamoured of romantic ideals. If Pearl had been born a lad, Pervinca knew, there was no doubt whatsoever that she would have gone adventuring right along with Pippin! This was, of course, something Glorfinniel would never do. At fifteen, she was the image of Goldilocks, bright as the sun, with eyes like the sky on a clear summer day. Like her mother and her Aunt Elanor, far way in the Tower Hills, Glory was a country girl with the heart and countenance of an Elvish princess, but as she was Fair Took’s child as well, she was completely unaware of the effect.
The youngest of the Tuckborough cousins was Gardner, born the same half-year as Geron, and at thirteen, a sturdy reflection of Sam Gamgee in every way, with honeyed curls and grey eyes and a kind expression that—when now and then it grew fierce in defense of some small child or beleaguered animal—had often made his Grandfather Peregrin smile knowingly and his Grandfather Samwise blush, though his old eyes gleamed with approval.
In the crush of family, Merry had managed to catch Pervinca’s eye and moved to rescue her; he drew her into the dining room where Goldilocks, making sure all was in order, met them with kind and customary consideration, no quarter spared to honour the dear old folk. Pervinca’s clever green eyes missed nothing: she knew Merry was usually annoyed by this sort of extra fuss, but he seemed altogether easy this evening, smiling at Goldilocks in the kindest way. Now, what are you about? she wondered, but the family had spilled into the room by then and he had turned away before she had a chance to study him properly. He stood watching with a fond and slightly thoughtful expression as Pippin met the littlest children with grandfatherly exclamations of amazement and delight, and the older ones with sweet good humour, and at length Merry said, laughing, bending close to her ear: “Dear me! I really must get Bo and Berry wedded, Pink. We’ve twice the table space at the Hall and not even half the progeny!”
“Well, I shouldn’t worry,” she said jokily. “Tooks don’t always stop to think things through and so go on at a great rate, but Brandybucks always take more time than they ought to consider, so naturally it takes a little longer to see the job done. But there! I hear you’re planning on wedding Berry to Tom Gamgee soon, Merry. I’m glad to hear it’s to happen at last—and I’m sure they’ll catch you up in no time at all!”
“Pink!” he murmured, guiding her to one of the high, soft arm-chairs set out for the three elders at the head of the table. “You can’t repeat what Goldilocks told you to anyone for at least a week. I’ve irons in the fire, my dear—schemes, if you must know!”
“Have you?” she chuckled. “Really, Merry, I don’t know how you do it: you make such a respectable old figure, but you’re every bit the scamp you ever were! We don’t change much, do we? Well, I’m ninety-nine, if it please you, and all the dames of my circle are either deaf or departed, so your secrets are safe with me.” She wagged a finger severely. “Just you remember I want to be invited to this wedding, sir, and furthermore, I want to dance!”
He laughed and tweaked one of the stiffly dressed ringlets that peeked from beneath her cap, as if they had been tweens again instead of the silver-haired ancients they most assuredly were. “That’s the spirit!” he said approvingly. “I promise there will be dancing, cousin—and I shall lead you out myself!”
“I should think you will!” she sniffed, as the older children descended on him with cries of affection and bore him away. She would look forward to it: Merry was a good dancer and far more energetic about it than any of the other old gentlehobbits that were left to her, saving Pippin (who naturally had not danced since Diamond had begun to fail last year). She did so hate strolling at a snail’s pace through a country dance—though she had been the first to admit that she was beyond the Springle-ring now, especially when danced atop a table, a neat trick that once upon a long time ago Cousin Everard had made all the rage. She and Pippin had greatly admired this and learned to perform it together with such sparkling dash that they were often asked to do it at parties as they grew older. A good thing, too, for it had caused Filibert Goodbody to notice her—her!—the quiet, biddable younger sister used to being overlooked by all the fellows who were forever buzzing around Nell, waiting for her to choose. Nell had been a very handsome girl, and extremely popular, and Fili had come with all the rest to pay her court—but he had seen and chosen Pervinca instead, and ever after maintained she was the prettier, too! They had danced through fifty years of happily wedded life and every day afterwards she wished he had lived longer. He had been gone for ten years now and she did not have nearly so much fun without him. Their two daughters had long since married away from Tuckborough and while she went to stay with each of them for several months during the year, she still felt her home was here at Great Smials, where her father had brought them all when they were yet very young and where she and Pippin had come full circle just as their parents had, to become venerable elders of the Ruling Family.
The venerable Thain Peregrin had just finished off a particularly lively song and a mug of beer when he was yet again presented with the unexpected, this in the person of the youngest of his grandchildren, the luminous, four year-old Adamanta Took, who had darted all unlooked for from the far end of the table to his side, where she burrowed up under his arm. Adamanta had just spent several long days traveling from Long Cleeve in her papa’s waggon and had protested coming to supper by being sleepy and cross, but she had stood on her chair listening to her grandfather’s songs with a delighted smile on her rosy little lips and a laugh in her bright faerie eyes, and when he had done and the table was yet laughing and applauding, she had slipped quietly down and run forward to press close against him, looking up at him inquiringly. “Hullo!” he said gently, for she had been shy with him before. “Do you want to come up?” And now she nodded solemnly and held up her little arms to be lifted.
“Addy!” Galen and Bryony discovered at the same time that their little daughter had escaped her chair, and Galen, laughing, made a move to come for her. But Pippin shook his head: “Oh, leave her yet a moment!” he pleaded, smiling down at the bright little face and lifting a hand to stroke the tousled curls that lay on her forehead. “I hardly know this one, and I think she likes me!”
A ripple of laughter went round the table and Galen sank back in his chair with a smile and a friendly wave of his mug. Merry, whose turn it was now to keep the children amused, thereupon set about discovering silver pennies in the twins’ ears—a marvel that was followed with avid attention by the rest of the children, who had an idea that silver pennies for all might now be forthcoming—and Pippin bent his attention to the little lass now perched upon his knee. Pervinca watched from behind her wine cup. The child was named for Diamond, and was very like her, with that same uncanny light in her eyes, and the same ready smile, a winning little creature and altogether taken with her grandfather, who appeared to be equally enchanted. He fed her a sweetmeat from the store he always managed to tuck into his pockets after meals, and sang ‘This Little Hobbit’ whilst tweaking her downy toes, and then they played at pat-a-cake, patting faster and faster until they ended with a great swooping slap of hands, laughing uproariously, as if they were the oldest of friends. He bent to kiss the top of her head and she scrambled up to kiss his cheek, twining her arms around his neck and hugging him fiercely. “I do like you, Grand-Per!” she said, and laid her head upon his shoulder with a sigh.
“Oh!” Pippin caught his breath, and Pervinca, for all that she was very hard of hearing, was close enough to hear the sob that nearly snagged the word out his throat. She turned toward him and he looked at her, with eyes suddenly pale and flat with confusion. He clasped the little one to him in hands that seemed now to tremble, and bent to hide his face in a gesture that was unmistakably weighted with grief. Save us! Whatever is the matter now? She touched his sleeve. Pippin? But he shook his head and looked away.
Merry, moving round the table, had at this moment come upon a virtual hoard of silver pennies—all of them hidden, it seemed, in small Paladin’s ears—and had set about extracting them and tossing them into the air with the same abandon Gandalf had once employed in launching flocks of fire-spark butterflies over the heads of shrieking Shire children long, long ago. Little Paladin was laughing richly and helplessly as more and more pennies squeezed themselves out of his ears, and the rest of the children scrambled to retrieve the falling silver or encouraged the others to do so. Merry looked up with a grin, well satisfied with the success of this play, and met Pippin’s eyes across the table.
Pervinca saw the look that flashed between them, the wound of regret dark in Pippin’s eyes, and the swiftly veiled appraisal that met it in Merry’s. Fair and Amethyst, watching Merry, followed his gaze back to Pippin, and the look that passed between them made Pervinca catch her breath. Still, she knew that all this evening the tension had been building, Pippin’s young folk pale with waiting, their handsome faces either drawn with strain or shadowed with helpless vulnerability, and all of it passing over the children by means of hectic illusion, faltering now as Pippin was. In the steady gold and silver light of the White Tree it was plain to see that Pippin’s moment—the one they had all been waiting for—had come, and just as plain to see that he held it now at arm’s length, in some dread he had not felt before. She knew he could feel their eyes on him; he bent his head, studying the tablecloth, holding the child. Adamanta drew back in his arms to stroke his cheek. “Play, Grand-Per?”
Pervinca swept a glance around the table. The grandchildren were busy, out of their chairs now, laughing and chattering as they hunted out the silver coins, but the adults sat still in their places, trying to maintain the illusion but unsure of what must happen now. Merry stood frowning. “Pip?” he said soundlessly.
Pervinca rose abruptly, gathering her shawls; she bent to kiss her brother’s cheek, brushing Adamanta’s silky curls with her hand. Pippin looked up, blinking to focus. She smiled sturdily down at him and flicked a glance at the table beyond, and as if he had forgotten how and just remembered, he drew a deep breath. His eyes cleared and then kindled with light, and he smiled at Adamanta. Behind him, Merry slipped into his seat and caught Pervinca’s eye, nodding imperceptibly.
She faced the table. They were the elders. It was the duty of the elders to walk ahead, to reassure the younger folk when the path grew steep or rocky or strangely unfamiliar. And it did for everyone at some time or another, for no one among them had yet walked it to the end. Pippin’s path had taken a turn, it seemed, one he was unsure of, and in consequence his children’s must too, for they loved him well. Still, she was sure it would all come right, as soon as Pippin had a chance to speak to them. That was it, of course; they were waiting for him to tell them, but he could not—would not—in front of the children.
“Well, hasn’t this been a splendid evening!” she said, looking round at them all. “I can’t remember the last time I had such a lovely time! But it has been a long day and I think now it is time for some of us very old and very young folk to go to bed. Who will walk up with me?”
There was a pause, and several sets of eyes turned to Goldilocks, who was the Young Mistress now and had the right to say when supper was over. Fair turned as well, and was surprised to find her daydreaming, far away and lost in time, her blue eyes veiled with memory. He touched her wrist, a tiny crease between his brows.
Amethyst rose; the iris eyes that were her mother’s legacy shone dark and wide in the candlelight, lingering for a moment on her father and then sweeping round the table. “Auntie Pervinca is right,” she said in a soft, brisk lilt. “We have forgot the time! Come, chicks, and give your goodnights—yes, all of you, now!” she added, as the older children started to protest. “It’s late, and tomorrow will be another busy day!”
The table broke up, everyone getting to their feet. The children went forward to say goodnight. Amethyst turned to Wil and caught Hugo’s eye as well. She put a hand out to her brothers, “How if we lasses see the children up to bed,” she said, “and you fellows see Papa and Uncle Merry settled in the parlor? We shan’t be long.”
Goldilocks came out of her thoughts. “Oh, I beg your pardon!” she cried softly, passing a hand across her eyes as Fair drew her gently to her feet. “I was that gone, thinking of my Dad! It—it was Uncle Merry’s coins, of course. We used to play that game at home. How Little Tom would laugh!” She touched Fair’s cheek. “Love, will you see that the brandy is set out and the tea, and anything else Father might need? Auntie, will you take my arm on the stairs?”
“Just coming!” said Pervinca. She turned and gave Pippin her hand. “Peregrin,” she said evenly. “I don’t think I’ve had you to tea in some time. Shall we say four o’clock tomorrow afternoon in my sitting room? You come, too, Merry. I can see the two of you have all manner of news to share and I assure you I shall not rest until I hear the whole of it.”
She bent a trenchant glance on each of them in turn and then passed grandly from the room on Goldilocks’ arm; they stood looking after her.
“Oh, save us!” murmured Pippin.
“There are advantages,” said Merry soberly, “to being an only child.”
“What if they won’t listen to me, Merry?” he had demanded, clutching Merry’s arm as soon as they had been left alone in the parlor. “What if they don’t understand?”
“They’ll listen,” Merry reassured him, glad of a few minutes alone while the younger lads went off to see to the various libations. “They’ve wanted nothing else all evening but to hear what you have to say, Pip. And they will understand; you tell them the truth and see if they don’t.”
“What was I thinking?” Pippin asked, wringing his hands. “I can’t explain what I’ve done—well, what I nearly did. Save us, Merry, what will they think of me?”
“They’ll think the same as I did, Pippin: that you tried to shoulder something you weren’t meant to manage alone. There’s nothing shameful in trying to shield your family from fear and grief, but this was a special case: you couldn’t know how complicated it would become.”
“Aye, but I’ve a dark streak, Pippin, and I think about things like that. Further, I had the advantage of clear thinking. I wasn’t worried that I might die at any moment. How are you feeling, by the way?”
“Well,” said Pippin, considering. “I’m feeling well for now. I don’t feel like anything’s stirring yet. Though,” he finished glumly, “I’m sure something will.”
“Galen must hear the whole of it before it gets much later,” Merry said. “I’m in hopes he may be able to think of a way to ease you through those spells once you’ve given him the particulars. Bless you, Pip, but you did give me a turn there at the table tonight! It took a moment before I could make out what was the matter.” He smiled kindly. “She is a charmer, that little lass, isn’t she? Were you very much torn? She’s the image of Di.”
“She is that,” Pippin sighed heavily. “Faith, Merry, I don’t think I really knew what it would mean to leave them all until she climbed up and settled in with me like that. And then for an awful moment all I could think was: how can I do this? How can I go away and never see any of them again?”
“Yes, it was written all over your face,” Merry said. “Pervinca saw, which is no doubt why we’ve had that alarming summons to tea tomorrow.” He grinned suddenly. “But Pink lays a very fine tea, so I shall go to her scolding with an appetite, at least!”
“Aye,” said Pippin, still adrift in self-reproach. “Pink saw, but worse, so did Fair—and Amethy!” He closed his eyes and shook his head unhappily.
Merry forbore to speak for a moment; he always found it very touching that Pippin still used his eldest daughter’s baby name: Amethy. It had been one of her earliest attempts to say her own name when she was little more than an infant—not her short name, Amy, which meant ‘little friend’, but her longer, more grown-up jewel-name, Amethyst—and Pippin, captivated by her pretty, lisping attempt at precision, and perhaps reminded of his own dogged determination to keep up at the same age, had taken it up with a proud papa’s nostalgic delight. Even now, whenever he spoke the name, his face softened and his green eyes grew quiescent, like shaded brook water. Merry wondered about this: he knew that Pippin loved every one of his children, that he had followed the blooming of their various temperaments and Talents with breathless excitement; but he knew, too, that there had ever been fixed, deep in Pippin’s heart, some unspoken sympathy for Amethyst. It was never discussed, and Merry was fairly sure that only he and Estella and Diamond had ever marked it. The other children seemed genuinely unaware of it, except in that they all generously agreed that Amy knew their father best and, when they were young, could always be counted on to get them back in his good graces on those riotous occasions of Tookish excess when they had thoroughly disgraced themselves.
He said: “Pip, Fair heard enough beforehand from Galen to know how it must be for you. This is no new hurt for him. As for Amy, I think you underestimate her strength. She’s not as much like Di as the others, it’s true, but she’s remarkable nonetheless: for one thing, she understands you better than any of them, and for another, the lass has a will of iron: look how she cut the rug out from under Sancho Proudfoot when she set her heart on young Wil, no matter his place in the succession!”
Pippin laughed at that, his eyes lighting with amusement. “The succession! Save us, Merry! Every generation of Proudfoots has a little less wealth to succeed to than the last, They’ve no notion of economy—at least not the principals—and they have far more sons than they have holdings or dowers for. The succession Sancho had in mind was mine! Though why he thought seriously that I would give my Amethy to Blanco when she loved Wil, just because Blanco was the elder and his heir, was beyond me. I explained it very carefully: we Tooks marry for love, not for property. Amethy didn’t care that Wil hadn’t a plot to call his own, especially when she could make him master of Whitwell with my blessing. Sancho thought I was a fool to welcome a dowerless third son to my House, but Wil has proven what I always suspected: that all the Proudfoots’ common sense drains like honey off the top of the stack and trickles down to the youngest sons—and a good thing, too, because they have to scramble, poor lads! Wil’s done wonders with Whitwell, and Peri and Geron are smart as whips, and very handsome children, too! Amethy knew Wil’s value even as she knew her own heart—but I’m sorry to think Sancho never did.” He gave a contemplative grunt. “Rumour has it these days that Blanco is managing his inheritance none too well—even after he contrived to land a wife with a portion to match his own.”“Huh!” said Merry derisively. “He married a Bracegirdle: another family with more children than sense!” He patted Pippin on the back as he turned away to the desk. “Don’t worry about Amy, Pippin. She’ll be fine.”
Pippin sighed and opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it. He watched Merry gathering writing materials for a moment and then he settled in his favourite chair before the fire, taking a pipe and a packet of leaf from the pocket of his jacket and turning his attention to packing the carved and polished bowl. Hugo’s work, Merry thought, glancing at the pipe with a practiced eye. The Vales of Long Cleeve had been woodcarvers for generations, and the modest Hugo’s quiet ability rivaled a fair amount of Elvish work Merry had seen throughout the years, as did pretty Bryony’s extraordinary weavings, in particular the shining silk ribbons she made for gifts and special occasions. Estella had pronounced those ribbons a triumph of invention—“As if they were woven of light!” she had marveled—and if anyone had known anything about weaving light it was most certainly the artist in Estella. She had bought an entire box of Bryony’s ribbons for Berry, rolled and wrapped with lavender cotton and tucked away against her only daughter’s wedding day. Merry, lighting his own pipe, felt a little twinge of pain to think of this; Tom had come courting Berry several years after Estella had passed. Merry knew that since then Berry had quietly tucked a great deal away in her wedding chests—though of course he had not known that she was perversely holding the lot of it against the day she was no longer engaged in looking after her aged and enfeebled father! Gah! Was there ever a sweeter or sillier girl than his? He hoped Berry would see the sense of marrying Tom now; he felt quite anxious about seeing her wed before he quit the Shire—and not just for himself, but for Estella, and for Sam and Rose, as well. He would have to stand for all of them, the only one left.
“Ah!” Pippin sighed blissfully, whiffing up smoke through the stem of his pipe and loosing it in extravagant fashion to the space above his head. “Longbottom Leaf! Just what I needed after such a day as this! I mean to hold Aragorn to his pledge of barrels, Merry; do you think he realizes how many we shall need? I think we should carry some with us on the road, too, don’t you? It’s nice to have a pipe round the fire at the end of a long day.”
Merry’s heart lifted to hear that Pippin was already looking forward to their journey and the promise of a new life beyond it; it seemed that dying was very far from his mind now. A glow of happiness leapt up in him, but he tamped it firmly down: they were by no means on the road yet. The House of Took had still to be consulted, and beyond that, Galen would most certainly have his hands full trying to find a way to ease Pippin’s pains for the next few weeks. He turned his thoughts back to Pippin’s pleasurable imaginings.
“Yes, a smoke round the fire is a comfort at the end of the day,” he said judiciously, blowing a cloud of his own over the desk. “I think a barrel of leaf—well, perhaps two— would last us across the plain to the Gap of Rohan. There’s a King’s outpost there, if I remember, these past forty years or more. They’ll be bound to have some in stores there if we’ve run out by then. But Pip, you must hush now: I must see to this letter in what little time we’ve got.”
“Ah!” said Pippin, laughing softly. “That will be to your bold little friend from the river. What a splendid lad he must be, to take you on so! Imagine it! Give him my regards.”
“Huh!” said Merry, and he bent over the note he had promised:
He read the letter over to Pippin, who laughed appreciatively, and was folding it into its wrapper when the door opened and Pippin’s young folk came rushing in, carrying betwixt them a tea tray, a dish of sweet biscuits and a basket of nuts for filling in the corners, and several decanters of spirits. “We’re late and I’m sorry,” said Fair, coming swiftly forward. “The children were fractious, and the older ones especially so at being sent up so early. It was necessary to present a few diversions.”
“I quite understand and it is I who should apologize, lad,” said Pippin sincerely. “There is so much out of kilter just now, and most of it my doing, I’m afraid. I mean to set it right, though, whenever you are ready.”
Amethyst was carrying a tall mug of Buckland beer wrapped up in a linen napkin. While the others set down the dishes and decanters on the serving table and drew chairs toward the fire, she went to Pippin and set the mug down at his right hand. “Papa,” she said, clasping his hand. “Have you everything you need?” And Pippin said gratefully, “I do, Amethy,” and hearing her name spoken so, she smiled and dropped a kiss on his forehead.
Among such a handsome gathering, it was surprising that any one should stand out from the others, but Amethyst was particularly striking this evening, even in a constellation that included Laury’s burnished golden good looks, Bryony’s autumnal glow and Goldilock’s silver-blonde loveliness. She wore a simple gown of plum-coloured wool over a snowy white chemise, the sleeves gathered at the elbow and again at the wrist in a soft ruffle with points of tatted finishing lace falling over her small, tapered hands. Her dark curls were caught up in a pair of silver combs her father had given her on her coming-of-age, and even now, at fifty-one, she had that shimmering, indistinct air of youthfulness that attended all of Pippin’s children. Despite her coloring, Merry thought, she was not so much like Diamond as she was like her grandmother Eglantine: warm, gentle, profoundly courageous and deceptively simple. It was her eyes that set her apart tonight: deep and darkly eloquent, and when they looked upon on her father, vivid with hopeful compassion.
It was the custom of the Thain’s family to disperse themselves in the sitting room according to whim, and very often the younger folk repaired to cushions on the thickly carpeted floor. To that end, a great number of luxurious cushions were scattered about the room and Laury and Goldilocks threw several down now in lieu of fitting extra chairs into the intimate circle being drawn around Pippin and the hearth. Amethyst drew one toward her and settled at her father’s knee, and Wil took the chair behind her. Fair and Goldilocks shared the settle opposite, with Laury and Hugo on cushions at their feet; and Galen sank into the last chair but one with Bryony on an upholstered stool close beside him. The remaining chair, Merry realized, was for him, and they were waiting.
He tipped a circle of red wax onto the back of the envelope that held his letter, and rummaged in the stamp box for a Quickpost shilling stamp. Taking up the brush from the gluepot, he affixed the stamp to the front of the envelope, dropping a shilling into the box by way of payment, and settled the letter in his pocket as he moved to join the company. “Remind me I’ve got to nip down to the post box this evening after, Pip,” he said, settling in the chair that had been held for him. “I promised this letter would be off to Buckland as soon as ever I came.”
“What’s this? Has Berry set a watch on you these days, Uncle?” Fair teased, handing him a brandy.
“Certainly not!” he blustered, obliquely conscious of his dignity, but Pippin grinned wickedly and demolished it. “I think Uncle Merry has met his match,” he confided, as the young folk settled in. “There’s a lad come to Brandy Hall who’s not the least bit intimidated by the Magnificent and who is worried about the old gent traveling by himself all this way without a servant to see to his needs. It’s the lad who’s requested a report of Merry’s whereabouts, and you are witness to how meekly he has complied!”
“Pippin!” Merry hissed, rolling his eyes in mock alarm as Fair and the others raised a spontaneous chorus of good-natured derision. “Hush, you! I’ve a reputation to maintain!”
“Oh, it’s far too late for that, Uncle Merry,” laughed Fair. “We all guessed long ago that your bark is worse than your bite!”
“Well!” he huffed indignantly, as Galen leaned over and winked, patting his hand. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Amethyst and Goldilocks giggled fondly, and Laury, peeking beguilingly over Hugo’s shoulder, laughed outright. “Uncle Merry,” said Bryony, her eyes sparkling, “you are a terrible tease!”
He was attempting to dismiss this with an airy wave of his hand when Fair frowned suddenly and said, “But is this the motherless lad from the river-folk you told me of, whose father is down on the Barway?”
Here was a surprise to the rest and it prompted a feminine outcry. “What? Ah, poor little lad! Left alone? How can that be, and how did you come by him, Uncle?”
“Never you worry about Master Jamy Bucket,” said Merry, his eyes narrowing with counterfeit disdain for the boy even as his breast warmed to think of him. “He’s a swaggering little rogue, and one who can well look after himself, I’ve no doubt—though I think he’s been pleased to find some friends at the Hall after a lonely time.” He sought to explain. “He was contracted to the Dockmaster and then to the Post when his father went downriver, though I’m not entirely clear why that should be. He brought me Éomer’s letter.” He smiled to remember Jamy’s impudent conversation. “We liked each other from the first.”
“That’s because he reminds Merry of me,” Pippin told them, nodding smugly, a mischievous smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Which tells you all what a splendid little fellow he is! I can tell you, I should very much like to meet the lad who can give the Magnificent a set-down!”
“Don’t think I didn’t give him one back!” Merry declared. “‘Old as dirt’ indeed!” He sipped his brandy with a contemplative smile as the younger folk gasped and laughed despite themselves. Pippin seemed to fall easily into stirring sauce these days, though perhaps tonight he was hopeful of relaxing everyone till the talk must come round to serious matters. Still, thought Merry, the children couldn’t be held at arm’s length much longer; Pippin must get on with it.
“Heroes often come of such madcap striplings as Jamy and your father,” he ventured, smiling fondly at his cousin. “They are reckless, to be sure, but they are also very brave, with hearts that burn for others long before themselves. Tonight you will hear a tale that will make clear to you how brave your father is, and how much he loves you all. He, of course, will say it is no such thing, but I know you will be the wiser judges of that.”
“Merry! For pity’s sake!” Pippin flushed crimson and wagged his white head in consternation, but all the same he recognized his cue. He shot a last, anxious glance at Merry for reassurance, took a deep breath, clasped his hands round his pipe and, looking gravely round at them all, began to speak.
\“My own,” he said, the lines around his mouth drawn deeply with strain, “I am sorry to have frightened you. I meant to spare you pain, but Uncle Merry tells me I am not so cunning in deception as I once was, and I expect it may be so. Certainly, I have not practiced to deceive in many, many years; it does not come so easily now!”
He smiled wistfully, put his pipe between his teeth and whiffled up a cloud of smoke. “Well, you shall hear the truth now, and something more besides. First, though, we have to go back a great many years, so you can understand what has been happening to me, and why, and what must happen now to set it all to rights.”
A small frown appeared between Galen’s brows. He leaned back in his chair, steepling his hands, and frowned sideways at Merry. “Aye, Galen,” said Pippin soberly, seeing the sharp suspicion in his look “Uncle Merry does figure in this story—but like me, he had forgotten it had ever been. Let me tell you how it was:
“All of you have heard the tales of the year I spent adventuring in the Wide World, when I was yet a reckless tween. For all I went heedless into danger, I have always been proud to think it was an honourable year when all was said and done— though there were many hardships, and a few terrible losses that we reverence still today. I thought that I had described it all, but recently I came to realize that there is one strange tale of that time that you have not heard, and must hear now: the story of the price I was made to pay for going so young and so unready into the Wide World.”
A collective sigh, hardly more than a whisper, was loosed upon the quiet tension of the room, and Pippin paused, uncertain as to whether or not it heralded an anguished interruption, for he, like Merry, had felt the air stir with their distress. But no outcry came, though all their eyes followed him, wide and filled with dread, and so he continued gently:
“That price came due in the year I came of age, and it was harsh by every measure you might imagine. I bore it for a year until I was delivered, and the duty seeming paid, and then I forgot all about it. How could that be? Well, I mean to tell you. But first understand: I have only remembered what happened then because that long ago duty has been renewed, and the symptoms brought to bear on me again. No, don’t be frightened; let me tell you the whole of it now, and then we shall see what must be done.”
The young Tooks prepared themselves now to meet the worst of their imaginings, and Merry winced to see it, for it reminded him forcibly of Theo, who had risen to the same occasion with such transcendent grace, and of Bo and Berry, who were as yet unsuspecting, and who, he realized now, deserved to hear from him and not from Theo news that must shape the rest of their lives. With a brief shock of pain it came home to him at last, what Theo had known before he did: that he and Pippin were leaving the Shire forever. Save us! he thought, bewildered suddenly by the turn of events: Did we ever have a choice but to come to this day?
And now, close upon his fireside, Pippin told his children what had come to pass, and spared no detail in his long narrative, and true to his nature shed no tears—for life would be what it would be and this was part and parcel of it and so must be lived out with grace— and they, reeling as his truths burst one after another into the light, reached out for one another, stunned to silence, until at last he had told it all and they saw how it must be. Fair’s green eyes went blank with shock and Laury’s bright with tears, while Galen put his head in his hands and Amethyst buried hers, sobbing, on Pippin’s knee. The rest sat still and shaken, unsure of what next to say or do, save to hold close the ones they loved. The shocked silence held for a long, breathless moment, and then when it could no longer hold their grief, gave way to a storm of sorrow, and they wept bitterly for their loss and his. And Pippin wept then, for they were much distraught, but when they saw this, they rose and went to him and kissed him, one by one, and took him in their arms to comfort him.
The box was set into a hedgerow at the top of the lane, where it opened onto the Stock Road, convenient to the passing post-rider. But the lane was dark now and overhung with shadowing trees, with only a peppering of white stars overhead to lighten the way. Merry looked around: there was always a row of lanterns set out on the porch for sojourns into the dark at Great Smials. He found them and took one up. He lit the candle with the flame from the porch lamp, and set out across the park, breathing deeply of the scents that filled the darkness: the spice of the hills, the lingering sweetness of meadow flowers folded against the night, and the faint, wind-born aroma of rich, black earth, fresh and sharp, from the fields roundabout. Beneath his feet, the lawn felt clipped and cool. He held his lantern up, and the light spilled down just ahead of his toes, palely lighting his way. He walked slowly, savouring the silence and the freshness of the outdoors.
Several lamp posts had been set along the lane (the Tooks being not only ingenious in matters of convenience but also surprisingly forward-looking), each housing a large horn-shielded lamp that burned hospitably through the night for the benefit of anyone who might arrive late or unexpectedly at the Smials. The first of these marked the intersection of the lane and the Stock Road; the others were positioned at intervals along the lane as it swept down toward The Smials. The lamplighter had been and gone already: Merry could see one of the lamps shining through the trees not too far ahead on the edge of the park. He angled for it, noting the change in texture beneath his feet as the cushioned lawn gave way to the hard-packed earthen surface of the lane, and when he came into the circle of lamplight, he looked up the lane to see another flame gleaming further on. He moved to go when suddenly a voice came fluting across the park:
“Uncle Merry? Uncle Merry! Wait!”
He wheeled and peered back into the murk, but could make out only a lantern bobbing toward him, held by a shadowy figure. “Who’s that?” he called, though he thought he knew, and in answering, the voice confirmed his suspicion: “It’s Goldilocks! Oh, do wait up, Uncle!”
He did wait while she hurried across the lawn, wondering why she was not inside with the others, struggling to come to terms with the unalterable truths of Pippin’s situation. He thought suddenly that perhaps they had sent her out to him, to make sure he didn’t come back too soon and interfere with whatever plans they might be hatching to circumvent Pippin’s retirement into the Wide World. But the minute he considered this he flushed for shame: whatever they might be thinking, the young Tooks loved Pippin; they really only interfered to make things easier for him.
Goldilocks came into the circle of light beneath the lamppost and threw back her hood, breathless and glowing. A year older than Theo, she wore her age remarkably well. Four of Sam’s children had come by that miraculous flaxen hair and they were all aging in what he thought might be called an Elvish way: the years were there, but the effect was deepening rather than destructive. They looked handsome and wise and as they got older began to acquire a bearing that was as much elegantly restrained as genuinely imposing. Merry recalled seeing Elanor four years before at Sam’s hundredth birthday party; no one who laid eyes on her had failed to be deeply impressed, or to note, if they looked about, that Goldilocks, Primrose and Bilbo seemed to be cast in the same mold. Sam had nodded thoughtfully when Merry mentioned this. “Aye,” he said. “I can’t say Rose and I ever noticed it when they were little folk, but I’ll admit I get a shiver sometimes when I look at my Elanorelle now, for it’s almost as if I can see the Lady, shining in her eyes.”
Goldilocks’ bright blue eyes were at this moment shining with quiet determination. “Do you mind if I walk to the box with you, Uncle?” she asked, and when he arched a skeptical eyebrow, she blushed charmingly. “Oh, I really do have letters to post!” she assured him with a smile, bringing up a cloth bag from under her cloak. “I’ve any number of brothers and sisters, as you know. But you’re right: I wanted to talk to you privately, Uncle Merry, and this seemed a good chance to do it.”
“I see,” he said lightly, as she fell into step with him. A moment’s frantic sorting of ideas by which he might get control of this situation proved too much for him; he was appalled at himself, but it had been a punishing day and he was all but spent. He threw his pretenses to the wind: perhaps it was best to get it all out in the open now, when there was so much to be done and so little time. “Well, I suppose you mean to scold me for luring Pippin into this shocking plan,” he said, by way of beginning.
“Scold! Good heavens, no, Uncle!” Goldilocks looked up at him in swift surprise, a frown of uncertainty gathering between her brows. “You don’t mean it, surely? Oh! You do! You think I could believe that of you? Luring?”
“Well, I supposed—“
“Oh, that’s hard, Uncle Merry!” she said feelingly. “That’s hard, to suspect me of thinking so badly of you when I’ve known you since I was just a wee thing, and you one of my dad’s dearest friends in life! Well, I never thought any such thing of you, in any case, not ever once!”
Merry bit back a smile; she sounded exactly like Sam on his dignity, but it appeared she had not come to reproach him. What was she doing here, then? Truth to tell, he had come to Tuckborough with every intention of luring Pippin away, and the fact that things had come round rather differently in the end didn’t keep his conscience from pricking him rather smartly now as Goldilocks leveled that searching gaze upon him. He frowned to think how carelessly he had assigned her a purpose based on his own perfidy, not to mention his ruffled dignity; she had only meant to be kind and he had been most unfair. He said contritely, hoping to make amends: “I didn’t know Pippin was ill when I came, Golden. Whatever I may have hoped for, I didn’t know it would come to this.”
They took several steps in silence, the lanterns throwing thin shafts of light on the lane ahead. “Uncle,” she said quietly. “I think you’ve got an idea that I might mean to stop you and Father from leaving the Shire.”
He shrugged apologetically, his expression rueful. “I—well, it had crossed my mind.”
“I thought so,” she said, making a face. “But that’s why I came after you—to tell you you’ve no need to worry on my account. I know what’s happened, you see: it’s just as Dad explained it.”
“Dad? You mean—Sam? What this, my dear?”
She flashed him a fond smile, her eyes kindling. “Well, it was right before he went away,” she said, “the last time I ever saw him. We had said all we could, and I walked out alone with him to see him off. He kissed me goodbye and was getting up into the trap when suddenly he turned back, with that look on his face, Uncle—you know the one, like he wasn’t sure if he should, but he just had to say what was on his mind. And he said: ‘Listen, Golden. It may come about that Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin will want to go away too someday, and if that happens, don’t you stand in their way. It’s no good meddling with destiny, and that’s what it will be, if they’ve heard the call, as I have. Promise me you’ll do whatever you can for them, just as you’ve done for me.’’ And I promised, of course, and he kissed me again and gave me such a hug, and then he was gone, Uncle, and that was two years ago.”
“Sam said that?” Merry murmured, reeling slightly at this unanticipated disclosure. He and Pippin had been away, traveling with Diamond to the wedding of a cousin in Long Cleeve, when Sam had picked up so precipitously and gone into the West. They had been grieved on their return to find him gone, though not surprised, for he had spoken more than once in his later years of the whispering call of the Sea and of his growing belief that Frodo lingered yet beyond it, waiting. He had left letters for them, but though he wrote of his great weariness and his unquenchable hope that he might find Frodo again, and of his gratitude for the long and happy friendship he and Merry and Pippin had shared over the years, he had said nothing of destiny. Perhaps he had feared to say too much.
Still, Merry thought now, in the end he had done, and he had told the one person who could stand a peerless advocate for them with the Tooks! Merry thought of what he must write to Berry and Bo tomorrow and wished Sam had been prescient enough to take Tom into his confidence, too. Bo would understand, he was sure, but Berry—!
“So you see I made a promise to my dad against this day,” Goldilocks said, smiling up at him again and tucking her hand through his arm in a friendly way as they passed another lamppost, “but I confess I forgot about it, more or less, until tonight at the supper table when I happened to see the look that passed between you and Father—and oh, Uncle! It gave me such a start! But, I knew then what was happening, and what I must do.”
“Golden, does Faramir—do the others know about this?”“I told Fair before I came. And he’ll explain to the others if need be, but I don’t think there will be any need. Father will die if he doesn’t leave the Shire, won’t he?”
“Yes,” Merry said with a sigh.
She sighed, too, a sad murmur of regret. “Well,” she said with decision, “I feel quite sure that it was never his destiny to die like this.” She stopped suddenly. “Oh, but someday—! Uncle, you’ll make sure Father is attended, won’t you, when it comes time? It would break Fair’s heart—what am I saying? It would break all our hearts!—if he were to die alone, there in the Wide World.”
He winced to think of that, hopeful that she could not see him in the splintered darkness, and patted her hand on his arm, drawing her on. “Don’t you worry,” he said gruffly. “The King himself would attend Pippin, if it came to that, but I shall be with him, Golden, and I’ll look out for him.” Goldilocks nodded gratefully and if she wondered further who would attend Uncle Merry’s death there in the Wide World, she prudently did not say so, and he was grateful for it, for he did not mean to visit that subject for a good, long while. She stayed silent after that, but hugged his arm close with affection until they rounded a shallow bend and came to the end of the lane at the Stock Road, where they found the postbox nestled snugly in a circle of boxwood and lamplight.
They were putting their letters into the box when his thoughts stirred softly, like a bird ruffling its feathers against a fine mist of rain: the sensation that had ever preceded the strange precognition that he and Pippin had shared over the years. The last time he had felt this had been Pippin’s broken-hearted summons in the fall. His head came up sharply and he stood still as if he were listening, holding his breath. Goldilocks stilled as well, watching him keenly. When he drew an audible breath again she said softly: “Uncle? Is something amiss?”
“Pippin,” he said grimly, looking down the darkened lane in the direction of The Smials. “We’d better get back.”
He followed her movements with wondering eyes. He had been astonished initially to learn that it was Laury who had found him out this morning, she who had directed Galen to the inner battleground he had worked so carefully to conceal. It had also been Laury who had realized this evening—even as he himself became aware of it—that he was once again under siege, and she who had ordered him to bed while Galen went hastily for his bag.
It occurred to him now he should not have been surprised at this: he and Diamond had ever agreed that of all their children the light of faerie burned brightest in Laury; indeed, they had named her for the tree of Elvish legend that had once shed light upon the world: Laurelin, song of gold. And so she was, this child, fair and bright, and grown to command Talents worthy of her name. She bore the face of faerie, too: an arresting blend of wide green eyes and fine, elegant features in a complexion kissed with gold; the warm, sweet mouth was Diamond’s and the stubborn little chin was his, and all of it was set off by a rapturous halo of strawberry blonde curls, kindled now in the candlelight to a shining copper blaze. Her clothing was commonplace for the northern Shire—a high-collared blouse of tea-dyed linen trimmed with the small, carved wooden buttons Hugh so lovingly made for her, and a skirt and bodice of fine green wool that had obviously come from Bryony’s looms—but even so, the picture she presented was the one they had ever seen: Laury of the Fairies.
All at once he marked that there were tears in her eyes, sparkling like drops of amber in the golden light. He touched one of her hands and frowned inquiringly. “Oh, Papa,” she whispered, her lips trembling. “I’m just so sorry this must be.”
“Don’t worry more than need be,” he said, smiling valiantly, if a bit falsely. “I’ll make it through.”
He meant it, buoyed as he was by the events of the day: by Merry’s coming, and Eomer’s letter, by the hope he had triumphantly reclaimed and by the circle of family that was gathered round him now, miraculously reunited on this day of all days. He was tired, though, and anxious; he could feel the summons of the Wide World singing softly in his veins, and he feared the moment when it would overwhelm him yet again and wondered if he could raise the strength to meet it. He wished Merry would hurry back from his errand to the post box; he felt calmer somehow when Merry was there, though Laury and Galen had taken charge tonight with reassuring competence.
Galen had thrown off his dinner jacket as he rushed in and had set to work in his shirt-sleeves, the Healer’s Stone gleaming softly green against the band of leather at his throat as he gathered herbs and powders from his satchel and hurriedly consulted his books. Occasionally he had looked up and asked some seemingly ambiguous question; then he had turned, silent and absorbed, to frown at the fire as he thought through the answers. He was standing now over a small table beside Pippin’s bed, carefully pouring a steaming brew from a small kettle into a cup of curious design, the deep bowl and oddly formed handle carved all of a single piece of gnarled birchwood and burnished with time and use to a finish rich and smooth as cream. At its lower edge the haft had been pierced and threaded with a leather thong, so that the vessel might be hung from a wall, perhaps, or a belt when traveling. Pippin knew it for an artifact of Rivendell, an Elvish Healer’s Bowl. Elrond had dosed Frodo from such a one when he lay ill in sanctuary there with the wound from Weathertop; one of Elrond’s sons had gifted Galen with this one—an unimaginable honour for a young hobbit Healer, Pippin thought proudly, to say nothing of a son of Tooks! He had been watching Galen’s grave young face this night as he bent to the tasks he did so well, and Laury’s as she worked beside him, and not for the first time was he amazed to think that he had had a part in making them.
There was no doubt in his mind that he was in for it again: his body was thrumming already and the pressure on his heart was rising, slowly but inexorably. At this point it made him feel a little light-headed. He tried to breathe evenly, in response to Laury’s gentle direction, and relaxed enough to let his head fall back on the pillows. The room was dim and cozy, veiled in the soft half-light of candleshine and the glow of the tiny fire in the grate, and for a little while he actually dozed. When Merry came in he jerked awake, though, and for an instant he found himself disoriented: he had had a sudden dream of Gandalf looming up out of the shadows, coming to the rescue through fire and smoke. Gandalf! he thought affectionately; well, they had had to make do without him for a long time now. But Merry was as good as Gandalf. Pippin looked up and smiled gallantly. He wasn’t fooling Merry, of course. The fierce blue eyes blazed with concern and the same hard glitter of misgiving he knew must be hiding somewhere in his own.
When Merry’s footsteps sounded in the hall, Laury swept both hands on the parallel down the length of Pippin’s body in a gesture he could see was meant to clear and smooth the space about him; and indeed he felt it happen, felt himself in some way renewed. His eyebrows rose in astonishment and Laury bent to kiss his cheek. “It is well to have hope,” she whispered, “in such a battle as this. I did but remind you of what has ever been your own Talent, Papa; it is all I can do.” A single tear brimmed now and fell, sparkling on her cheek, and he reached with a murmur to touch it away. “I am so sorry to have distressed you all,” he said wistfully, and she answered on a sob, even as Merry’s tall frame filled the doorway: “No, it is for us to be sorry, Papa. We would every one of us have saved you if we could.”
“Pippin?” Merry said hoarsely into the semi-darkness, and Laury called softly to him, stepping away and melting into the shadows round the little fire. Merry strode forward, pulling off his cloak as he came; he settled on the edge of the bed and reached for Pippin’s shoulder with telling urgency. Pippin breathed in happily, for it seemed that Merry had brought all the outdoors in with him: the air that clung to him was steeped in the spicy cool clarity of the night, the hand he gripped Pippin’s shoulder was yet fresh and cold from his walk in the lane, and his hair and clothing loosed a quiet fragrance of grass and trees and night-folded flowers. “All right?” he asked quietly, leaning close as a conspirator. “For now,” Pippin whispered, and seeing Laury watching from the settle, he smiled and winked to let her know she was not to worry.
Galen looked up, his eyes lighting with satisfaction. “Ah, here you are, Uncle!” he said. “I’m glad you’ve come at last! We’ve some things to discuss here.” He set down the kettle and took up the steaming cup. “Father, here is a tea of lemon balm I want you to drink—no fussing, now. It is brewed in the Elvish way—which is to say strongly and precisely and with a secret or two tucked in for balance and in accordance with my own expectations. There’s enough for two cups; drink this one down at once, if you please.”
Pippin looked askance at the proffered cup but took it obediently in both hands and after a few experimental sniffs, sipped cautiously. He blinked in surprise. “It’s good!” he announced, and the others laughed light-heartedly, as if they needed their own relief.
“I thought it would be best to make it tasty,” Galen said wryly. “You have been known to dither over bitter potions, Father.” Pippin grinned in response to this, cheerfully unabashed; he had ever been suspicious of medicines, and every healer who had ever attended him could remember having to coax and bully him into taking his doses. Well, he certainly had no regrets on that score; they had mostly tasted awful, hadn’t they?
“What a splendid lad!” he said now, twinkling over the rim of his cup. “Very thoughtful. That’s a Healer for you, Merry!”
“Yes, well, this potion is meant to calm you and to steady your heart against the tide that is rising now. As I see it, we have to buy you some time, Father. It will be some weeks before you will have your affairs in order, and we must see to it that between now and then your heart is not so badly used as it has been up to now. I mean to observe you very closely, sir; the more I understand, the better able I will be to help you. You do present some interesting problems.”
“I suspect you are closer to solving them than you admit, Galen,” Merry said, smiling shrewdly. “You are looking exceptionally thoughtful.”
“I have been following one particular idea, to be perfectly truthful,” Galen said pensively, as if he were following it yet. “It has taken a while to put the pieces together, but I think I have it in hand now. I must put some questions to the two of you before I can be sure of my hunch, though. Are you agreeable?”
“Certainly,” Merry said readily. “Pip, are you able?”
“Of course!” Secretly, he hoped it wouldn’t take too long. There was no doubt about it: he was flagging, though he reminded himself that this time would be different, for he had his hopes intact. And the tea was nice: sweet and soothing and gently restorative. Altogether, he was not so bad off as he might have been, but that could change, he knew, and would.
“All right then,” said Galen, pulling up a stool and sitting down opposite Merry. “I should like you to think back if you don’t mind, Father. When you left us to go up the hill this afternoon, you were ill, were you not?” His periwinkle eyes, darkling in the candlelight, were warm with liking, but there was no getting around the fact that there was a hint of gentle reproach in his tone. “Aye,” he went on, as Pippin darted a look of chagrin at Merry, “and by the time you got up there, you were very ill. Now, you do not remember falling, but you have said you lay sleeping for a long while in the grass. Are you very sure you were sleeping all that while? Could you have been unconscious instead?”
“I—I may have been,” Pippin said, summoning a muddled impression of his lonely first collapse in the high meadow together with a rather clearer memory of the second fall, when he had struggled up in Merry’s arms. “But I’m quite sure I was dreaming when Merry came calling for me.”
“Dreaming?” Galen looked at him with sudden close attention. “What did you dream?”
Pippin smiled wistfully. “I was walking in the out-of-doors, following a stream I hadn’t ever seen before, and I heard your mother laughing and talking. And straightaway I thought—because it was a dream, you understand— ‘Diamond is come back to me! I’ve found her again!’ and I followed the sound of her voice. After awhile I came into a wood, and then to a place deep in shade, where the water ran dark and slow, as it does sometimes in sunless places, and there, on the other side of the stream, was a high hedge and in it something like a garden door, and I remember thinking that it must open on a field of bright sunshine, for there was light coming through the little wicket. Your mother’s voice was coming from beyond the gate, and Uncle Merry’s too—I suppose he must have been calling by that time—and I tried to cross the stream to come to them, but I couldn’t—” He frowned, remembering his despair. “Odd. I—I kept getting turned round in the middle.”
He thought about that, how real Diamond’s intangible presence had seemed to him there in that strange place of water and shadow, and he marveled that he could yet hear the sweetness of her voice as she had spoken to him, and its anxious edge of tender if implacable regret. He wished he might have seen her, just one more time. Even in the fullness of years she had been beautiful, with her winter crown of snow-white hair and eyes as fresh and deep as violets….
“Father?” Galen prompted softly.
“Eh?” He came round with a start. “Bless me, I was wandering! You know, I think it must be that tea, Galen. It is altogether too calming and—and encouraging, if you know what I mean! Oh, yes, I’m still drinking it—see? bottoms up! Now then, what was I saying? Ah! Then I woke up, but not really; it was one of those dreams where you wake but you know you’re still dreaming, and you’re not really sure where you are, and there’s a long, drowsy moment when you just drift along—but then Merry came shouting Pippin! (and such a shout, Merry, as if there was an army of orcs coming over the hill!) and of course I roused right enough then.”
Galen’s eyes flickered “And can you guess how long were you were there, from the time you fell until Uncle Merry called you awake?”
Pippin remembered falling and dreaming, the emptiness of the one and the odd sense of authenticity that had infused the other; he recalled Merry’s strident bellow and his startled waking, the bewildering sensation of shifting from one journey to another. A good deal of time had passed beneath that bridge of dreams, he thought. He had gone up the hill after luncheon, and Merry had arrived in time for tea. “Hours,” he allowed after giving it some thought. “Two, maybe three hours.” He hesitated as an odd thought struck him. “I wonder—if—if Merry had not come after me—” He shook his head, baffled and not a little distressed; he had no idea what he had meant to say.
Galen received this information with a solemn nod. “Now, later in the day, when Uncle Merry was with you: another spell came upon you all unlooked for and took you fairly quickly, I should say. You slept again then?”
“No.” Merry came in for him in a voice that brooked no argument, nor any further delay: the Magnificent suddenly from head to toes. Galen acknowledged this abrupt ascendancy with a respectful eyebrow and Merry continued firmly: “He lost consciousness straight away.”
Pippin added nothing, seeing as Merry was taking things in hand, and instead turned quietly inward to recall how quickly he had been swept up and overborne, his heart captured before he knew it, his mind blotted out in thunder and darkness. The storm gathering within was promising something like, though he felt somehow removed from it, as if he was sitting calmly by, watching it happen to someone else. He swallowed the dregs of his tea, cold now, but sweet and thick at the bottom of the cup where a rewarding dollop of honey had settled against all the odds.
Galen took the cup from him and passed it to Laury who was tending the kettle on the hearth; she poured out another dose and handed it back. “You’ll want to drink this one rather more slowly than the other, Father,” Galen said. “Take stock of how you are feeling as well: if your sight blurs or you start to feel lightheaded, you’re to tell me at once.” Pippin took the bowl without comment—though he looked at it rather more censoriously now—and Galen turned again to Merry. “How long would you say Father was unconscious then?”
“Not more than ten or fifteen minutes, I should think,” Merry replied, “though it seemed an age to me. I was afraid, Galen; he looked mortally stricken at the outset.”
Pippin winced and shifted uncomfortably atop the coverlet. Hearing this related in such objective terms made it sound much worse than he had imagined it to be. Galen seemed to think so as well; he grimaced and loosed a muttered sigh, and behind him Laury jumped up from the settle with her heart in her eyes. Pippin bent his white head uneasily and pretended to sip his tea.
“He lay still, then, unmoving, during all that time?” Galen asked, his face paling as if in dread of what he was to hear.
“No.” Merry shook his head, squeezing Pippin’s shoulder. “And that was a surprise of sorts to me, for I thought he might, given what he had told me about sleeping before. But his breathing quickened almost immediately; it seemed to me he was struggling, first to find himself, and then to wake. I—I tried to help: I held his hand, called his name—still, it was a good ten minutes before he managed to come around.”
Galen blinked. “Minutes,” he murmured. “Hours for the first and minutes for the second. How is that poss—?” But a slow smile had already begun to tug at the corners of his mouth and the colour leapt back into his face in the space of a breath. He turned to his sister, drawing her eagerly into the circle round the bed. “Did you hear? Tell me you see how it must be, Laury! The first time alone, the second in company—hours to minutes—Oh! I think—!”
Pippin sat up so quickly that his tea crested and sloshed out of the cup and over his cuffs. “You’re thinking Merry made the difference!” he blurted before Laury, who was brightening like a new-minted penny at his side, could say a word in response to Galen’s exclamation.
Merry, helping to steady the cup with one hand whilst dragging a handkerchief out of his pocket with the other, looked up in startled confusion. “What?” he said. “What’s that?”
Galen said eagerly: “Here is what I think has happened. Early on, Father, you decided to take this burden on yourself—in all honour, I agree, and with every intention of accepting with infinite grace whatever fate in its ruthless way had devised for you—but cruelly alone, sir! Cruelly alone, and there was no need! I know you meant to spare us, but I weep to think what you have suffered when any one of us might have eased your path in ways you had not considered.
“You were right to think that none of us could save you outright, the way Mama was able to, but wrong to suppose there could be no other outcome than an inevitable death. Uncle Merry proved that today: his presence with you there on the hill changed every expectation you—or I—might have had. He gave you a reason to fight, Father: a reason to live.”
Pippin glanced at Merry, who raised an eloquent eyebrow. “But you said yourself, Galen,” he said frowning, “he cannot deliver me.”
“No, he cannot lay claim you as Mother did, and banish this petitioner altogether. But there is such love between you, Father, and such history—I have marked before that you are able to draw strength from one another when need be. Uncle Merry meant to hold you back from peril, and you drew upon his strength and his intent to fight for yourself.”
Galen ran a hand through his glossy curls. “I have been fretting these past few hours,” he said, “about how to sustain your life over the course of the next few weeks, so that you may be strong and well when it comes time for you to go. I knew I could make you medicines to steady and support your heart, but I have been afraid that there would be no way to strengthen the ties to the Shire you would need as well. But I see now how it can be done—how it has been done! There are yet a few things I must work to understand, but whatever comes, I think we can prevail. We can keep you safe so that you can make your journey, Father.”
Pippin fell back on the pillows and closed his eyes. We can prevail. We can keep you safe— Even with all his hope restored, a part of him had never entirely believed this could be possible; further, he had not realized how much it would mean to him to be granted a future when he had accepted as best he could the impending end of his life. The emotion that welled up in him now was so great that it bore him away beyond his knowing, and not until he felt Galen gently loose the Healer’s Bowl from out his hands did he apprehend that he had been so overcome. He opened his eyes to find the three of them bending over him fearfully. “Oh!” he sighed, looking up into their anxious faces. “Oh, no, don’t be alarmed—I’m all right. It’s just that, well, I’m going to live for a while, aren’t I? I hadn’t been counting on it, you see, and I think the news just took me by surprise. Thank you, Merry. However you did this for me, I’m very grateful.”
“So am I,” said Merry, looking visibly relieved. “But Galen, you don’t mean I’m the only one who can root Pippin to the Shire, do you? I am more than willing, of course, but I’ve business at the Hall yet, lad—packing, and saying goodbye and all that. There’s the transfer of titles to see to, and Berry’s wedding contract, and there are sure to be parties, and no end of things I shall be required to do—!”
Galen chuckled. “Not to worry, Uncle,” he said. “I don’t mean to deprive you of your festivals and farewells—nor Father of his, if I can help it. We’ll be doing some trials tonight and tomorrow, to see who else can hold him. Certainly we all love him as you do; I’m confident at least one of us can learn to do what you do.”
“Papa.” Laury settled on the bed close beside Pippin and smoothed the coverlet with one small hand. “Papa,” she said softly, “This may sound strange to you, but I think it might help also if you would tell the World you are coming. It clamours for you more and more each day now—indeed, today it has been exceedingly demanding! Perhaps if you speak your intent, it will subside, or at least be more considerate of you.”
“What?!” Pippin laughed, looking at his faerie child with bemused affection. “But no! Are you serious? But how can I speak to the World, my own? Who is there to hear?”
“The World has a voice, Papa; you can hear it speaking even now.” Laury’s eyes were wide and clear. “Who is to say it cannot listen to you as well? Say to it ‘I am coming!’ and in your mind’s eye show it the road you will take and the places you mean to see when you are free to go traveling again. Perhaps it will understand.”
He glanced at her uncertainly and then at Galen, who smiled and shrugged. “The Elves say,” he said pensively, “that we give power to our intentions when we speak them to the stars.”
“Truly?” said Pippin, marveling at how much there was to learn, even at his age.
“Well, they might have told us,” Merry said dryly. “I think we could have made good use of that trick a few times.”
“I think perhaps we did, without realizing it,” Pippin said thoughtfully. “In any case, I have never been a hobbit to question the wisdom of Elves—well, not after that first time with Elrond, when he wanted to send me home—so I shall do as you say, my children, and thank you for sharing this wisdom!”
Galen stood up. “I should like to go down to the kitchens and gather a few more things from my apothecary stores. You seem to be holding up well, Father, and I shan’t be long. Can you spare me?”
“Go on,” said Pippin, “I’m fine.”
“You’ll want to take a moment to reassure Fair and Amy and the rest of your young folk,” Merry said. “The whole lot were gathered in the library when I came in earlier with Goldilocks. She took them in charge, but I expect they’re waiting still, hoping to hear something.”
“Oh, save us! I’ll see to them, Galen,” Laury said. “They’ll be so anxious by now!”
Galen picked up his bag. “Father, try to finish off your tea, but take slowly.” He looked at Merry. “If anything changes, or you need me urgently, do not hesitate to ring that astonishing bell.” He nodded toward the bell pull that Pippin had installed some years before, an innovation based on a similar system in the King’s apartments in Minas Tirith. A pull on the tassel would ring a bell marked “Thain’s Rooms” in the kitchen and Galen would know to hurry back.
“Not to worry,” smiled Merry. “We’ll be fine.” He sighed. “Of course, if we are to sit here all night, I think we shall need something to eat before long; it’s a hungry business, you know, passing the time.”
“You shall have a generous tray, Uncle Merry,” said Laury, laughing softly, and she went with Galen from the room.
Pippin sat silently after they had gone, a far-away look on his face. Merry got up and poked at the little fire, adding a log so that a few bright flames leapt up from the glowing embers. “Now then,” he said, turning back.
“Merry,” said Pippin abruptly, “I’ve been thinking. It’s thirty years, but if I remember, it is a journey of some hundred and fifty leagues to Edoras—two weeks at least on the road from Sarn Ford, and camping without shelter every night before we come to the Greenway.”
Merry frowned. “Pippin, are you not the least bit worried about how you will fare tonight?” he asked.
“Of course I am,” said Pippin with a sigh. “But I don’t want to think about that; I would rather make plans for the interesting future we are to have, and to tell you the truth, I’m a little concerned, right here at the beginning, about the trip, Merry.”
“And why is that?” Merry asked lightly, turning to poke at the fire again. Pippin knew he must have gone over the journey in his head more than a few times as he rode to Tuckborough, but he also knew the sort of deliberations Merry was not likely to have made.
“Well, do you—do you think it might be hard to manage, just the two of us?”
“What?!” It was the Magnificent again who turned from the fire at his most commanding and indignant. “Hard to manage! Whyever should it be?”
“Meriadoc, be serious! We’re not so young as we were; you are over a hundred now, and I—”
“What has that do with anything?” Merry growled. “Think a fellow has to stop moving about just because he’s got a few silver hairs? We’ll be fine, Pippin!”
“Well, of course; I’m sure we will,” said Pippin soothingly, “but as I said, it’s been thirty years since we last made this trip. I think it would be foolish to undertake it now without considering our limitations. I’m sure I shall have some, Merry, quite beyond my current trouble, not the least of them being that I can’t remember the last time I spent an entire day in the saddle. I think I shall have to go carefully at first, cousin. I am sometimes very stiff in the joints.”
Merry’s eyes narrowed. “Why, Pip,” he said, laughing suddenly. “You have become a diplomat!”
Pippin laughed softly. “I should hope so; after all, I’ve known you for nearly a hundred years!”
“Gah!” said Merry, waving his hand dismissively. “But you’re in earnest?” he pressed. “You are honestly concerned about the difficulties of this journey?”
Pippin nodded emphatically. “Yes! I’ve no wish to leap from the pan to the fire now, Merry. I’ve been ill for as long as I care to be. I won’t do it again.”
Merry frowned absently, as if he were weighing something in his mind. After a moment he hung up the poker and ran his hand over the hip pocket of his jacket. He looked uncertain. Pippin watched with interest. “Oho!” he said softly. “What have you got there?”
“Nothing,” said Merry. “Well—no, nothing.”
“Stuff! What’s it got in its pocketses, eh?”
They smiled together fondly at the old jest, ever bittersweet because in the end it had cost Frodo his life. “Caught me out, have you?” Merry challenged. “All right, then.” He reached into his pocket and brought forth an object that sparkled and glowed in the warm light. He went forward and gave it gently into Pippin’s hands: a crystal vial, lucent as water, cunningly shaped and sheathed in a wondrous spiral twist of oak, smooth and glossy, a charm-like object that had an air of being something more than it looked to be. “Be careful,” Merry cautioned as he handed it over.
“What is this—? No, wait, I know it!” Pippin exclaimed, looking down at the object in surprise as he turned it over on his palm. “It’s that little bit of Elvish glass you keep on your chimney piece! I’ve often seen it there, haven’t I? But what have you got it in your pocket for, Merry?”
Merry smiled crookedly. “I thought to share it with you,” he said. “It’s a present from Treebeard.”
“From Treebeard!” Pippin’s eyes widened. “You never told me you’d had a present from Treebeard! And you’ve had this a good long while, too!” he said accusingly.
“Twenty years or more,” Merry admitted, blushing. “Legolas packed it and sent it on for Treebeard some while after the last time we visited Fangorn.”
“That’s thirty years!” objected Pippin.
“Well, Treebeard is not a hasty fellow, as you know,” Merry said, sitting down again on the bed. “The thing is, it was meant for both of us, Pip.”
“For both of us?” said Pippin, holding up the vial to the light. He tipped it back and forth, holding it between his hands, looking closely at the joining of wood and crystal. “I don’t think I ever really looked at this; it’s almost as if it grew all of a piece, isn’t it? How extraordinary! What did Treebeard mean us to do with it?”
“Well, the letter said that when he saw us that last time Treebeard noticed that we were getting older—“ Merry plucked at his curls—“silver leaves and all that!— and he thought perhaps he would send along a little something to help us get on over the years. He asked some help of Legolas—the vial is Elvish crystal from the House of Thranduil, I’ll have you know—but that miraculous coil of wood is an Entish conjuration, and what’s inside is, well, it’s Treebeard’s little present.“
“There’s something in it?” Pippin held the vial up in the candlelight and shook it slightly; a tiny, iridescent bubble rose upward through the glass, a floating jewel. “That’s funny—I thought it was empty all this time,” he murmured. “What is it, then?”
Merry laughed. “Tree tonic! Legolas wrote that Treebeard brews it for the eldest of the trees in Fangorn. It keeps them from giving up, I gather, a—a little boost now and again when they fall into decline.”
“Tree tonic! Save us! What next? But why didn’t you tell me about it, Merry?”
“I forgot—truly! They were busy years, Pip, and happy ones for us all; we had no need of it in those days. I set it on the chimney shelf because I admired the look of it very much and it reminded me of Fangorn, and then over the years its real meaning just seemed to slip away. I only remembered after—well—after Estella—” He sighed and Pippin, understanding, took his hand to comfort him.
“You know how it was for me then, Pip,” Merry said. “Even after you came to stay and sat for all those weeks with me, I was still not entirely—myself.” For a brief moment Merry closed his eyes. “What an awful time that was!” he murmured. “And then one day I was sitting in my study, there before the fire—for I’d developed a habit of brooding, by then—and I looked up and there it was, shining mysteriously in the firelight, just like now—Treebeard’s present! And I remembered in a flash the letter Legolas had sent wrapped round it, with instructions for how to use it. They’re very simple: you see this little twist of cork here, how it plunges down into the vial and stops the top. Up underneath, set into the cork, there is something like a tiny silver thimble. It’s all the dose a hobbit needs for a week, Pip, and quite a bracing current it sends through you, too.”
“You drank this?” Pippin sat up suspiciously. “Merry Brandybuck! Is this how you’ve managed to carry on as if your hundred years were eighty? Have you been nipping at this tree tonic all along?”
Merry’s eyes widened. “No! No! I only drank a very little bit of it, Pippin, and then I felt quite myself again. It just got me over the worst of it. I don’t take it now. But I was thinking—as you were—that the journey to Edoras was sure to be a long one, and that this could help. I brought it along to show you, but I forgot about it in the merry chase you led me.”
Pippin held the vial in its smooth wooden sheath and gazed on it, troubled suddenly in a way he could not account for. He was charmed to think that the eldest Ent had thought enough of them to send this precious potion, and grateful that Merry had benefited from its obvious healing powers, but somewhere deep within he had to acknowledge it made him uneasy to think of taking it. He did not understand at first, and then as he considered that long, first journey in Middle-earth, he remembered other vials like this that had promised and delivered healing: the Elf-cordial that had brightened their hearts and spirits, the Ent-draught that had helped them rest and grow, and the hateful liquor the Orcs had used to burn away such pain and weariness as there was no time for—
“Pip?” Merry said sharply. “Is something the matter?”
He felt very odd. His pulse was not banging—that must be on account of Galen’s tea, he thought—but the song of the World was buzzing like a swarm of hornets his veins; his ears rang and he writhed; he began to feel slightly sick. A sudden wave of heat took him from the inside out; he put a shaking hand to his forehead and found it damp with sweat. Merry prised the vial from his trembling fingers and put it in his pocket; then he reached for Pippin’s hand.
“You’d best send for Galen,” Pippin whispered, falling back on the pillows. “But don’t let go of me, Merry. Please, don’t let go.” Merry got up and sat beside him, one arm thrown around his shoulders; thus protected, he closed his eyes against the noise and the sickness, seeking for the first time in all the weeks he had endured this madness the entity that had brought it upon him. I’m coming! he said to the World. Somewhere he heard a bell ringing urgently but his attention was elsewhere: his mind was filled with images, all his memories of Middle-earth. I’m coming! he promised, and somehow he knew he was holding Merry’s hand very tightly. I’m coming soon; it won’t be long now.
Bo and Berry and Tom observed Theo surreptitiously. They were agreed among themselves that he had appeared oddly distracted the past few days (one might almost say preoccupied if it hadn’t been Theo they were discussing), and they were on the way to becoming concerned. Cammy was too, but she was not unduly worried about Theo since she had an idea it had something to do with Father. Of course he had slipped out of their hands entirely, gone off at the crack of dawn to Tuckborough with barely a word to anyone; he had gone supposedly to consult with Uncle Peregrin about Éomer King’s unhappy news, and Bo bore witness to the fact that he had received that news with alarming distress, but Theo said little or nothing; he appeared to be in a state of watchful expectation.There had been considerable expectation round the breakfast table when, two days past, a horn had sounded over the river announcing that the morning ferry carried post for the Hall. Theo had startled to attention (the only word for it) and Jamy and Rory had run to take delivery, but they had every one of them been taken aback when the lads rushed in to declare that the letter in question, which had indeed come from Merry Brandybuck, was addressed not to Theo, but to Jamy! It had been a charming letter—Jamy had generously shared the contents—but there had been an annoyingly oblique reference to some mysterious business between Father and Theo, and the assurance of a letter soon to follow on that score. Once again, Theo had said little, but it was telling that he had very deftly turned the conversation to a discussion of whether or not Uncle Peregrin really was the Tallest of the Two, and subsequently he had drunk two extra cups of tea while everyone chatted aimlessly and he sat lost in thought.
This morning, though, he seemed determined to carry on as he had always done. He nodded pleasantly all around and tucked into his bacon and mushrooms with an air of tolerant interest while all around the family carried on as if nothing had ever been amiss: Bo and Tom ostensibly making plans for The Tree, Berry and Cammy considering the market order, and the children, innocent of deceit, arguing over the best place to play at escaping from Black Riders without actually going in to the Old Forest. But when the horn sounded again over the river and Theo raised his head sharply, they all knew he had been listening for it.
Jamy had been listening with half an ear as well. “Shall I go, sir?” he asked eagerly. Having come to the Hall as a post messenger, he had a sense of the job as his own now; they knew also that he enjoyed exchanging news with Master Smallburrow, who had put in every day to see him since ferrying the Master over the river.
“I’m going, too!” Rory said, throwing down his napkin.
A gleam of anticipation—or dread, perhaps, it was hard to tell— came into Theo’s eyes. “Oh, very well! Off with you!” he said, trying and failing to sound exasperated; he was plainly anxious. The lads leapt up and Cammy, sensing the sudden intensity of Theo’s feelings, gently covered his hand with hers. He smiled at her and caught it up, bringing it to his lips to brush it with a kiss.
“Hoping to hear from Father?” Bo said casually, helping himself to a second helping of porridge and cream and greedily dipping his spoon into the honey pot. It was very unlike Theo to keep things from him, but he had been, and far from feeling petulant about it, Bo was troubled for Theo.
“I am, yes,” said Theo, meeting Bo’s searching gaze with a gentle smile. “He left a number of things undone when he went and he promised to write and tell me how to get on with them.”
“Father? Tell you how to get on?” Bo Brandybuck was, like his father, not the least bit gullible. “Theo, Father knows perfectly well you can handle everything here. What’s going on?”
Theo hesitated and paled suddenly with apprehension, and an uneasy silence extended the length of the table. Too late Bo realized that he had breached some larger confidence than he had supposed, and he looked at Theo with dismay. The silence grew oppressively, but just as it became impossible to bear any longer, Tom spoke into the breach:
“Well, if I know those lads—and I should say I’m getting to by now—they’ll have that letter back here in a trice. I say we pass the toast and preserves around again and give Theo a chance to see what your Dad has to say to him before we ask him to explain it all to us.”
Berry laid her cheek on his rough-woven sleeve. “Isn’t he lovely?” she said fondly.
“Sounds an apple-polisher to me!” said Bo, biting back a smile for Tom while darting a look of contrition at Theo. “When are you going to give over, Berry? You can’t keep a fellow on courting behavior forever. It’s not natural.”
“You could take a few lessons! And pardon me, shouldn’t you be on your way to Rushey?”
“That’s tomorrow. I sent a letter across to say I was coming then.” Bo sat back, colouring slightly.
“And a very proper letter it was, too,” said Cammy encouragingly. “Perhaps you’ll have a letter in return this morning, Bo.”
Bo set down his spoon, looking thoroughly alarmed. “I hadn’t thought of that. Save us, what if she doesn’t answer?”
“No matter; she might not have had time. You go along just as you planned and it will all work out; you’ll see.”
There was the sound of flying footsteps and then the dining room door burst open and Rory and Jamy spilled excitedly into the room. “Letters!” Rory announced breathlessly. “A great lot of letters!” And indeed there were a number of letters in the pouch Jamy brought forth and which he and Rory carefully sorted and passed around.
To Theo went the thickest, a two-shilling packet from Tuckborough, addressed in his father’s confident hand, with a look of Serious Business about it. He sat looking down at it, biting his lip as the other letters were delivered round the table; he looked up in startled surprise when Berry, Bo and Tom exclaimed that they also had letters from Father.
Cammy was surprised and pleased to have a letter from Goldilocks. “Surely she’ll tell us what Father’s got up to!” she said, smiling at Tom, but Tom was staring at his letter from Berry’s father with quiet consternation and Cammy was diverted by the fact that the last envelope proved to be from Rushy and had been addressed to Bo in a small, delicate hand; at her exclamation of delight he tucked it, blushing fiercely, into the inner breast pocket of his jacket and turned with deliberate attention to the letter from his father that must come first.
Theo came suddenly to his feet. “Hold!” he said sharply, striving to ignore the startled expressions that greeted this astonishing behavior. He looked down along the table at the children: “Have you chores yet to do this morning?” he asked kindly. “Lessons?”
They nodded unhappily, measuring him against the abundance of letters. “We want to hear what Grandfather has to say!” Rory said and the others nodded vigorously.
“Later,” Theo said firmly. “You shall hear all that Grandfather has to say at supper. Now mind you see to your responsibilities before you go about escaping Black Riders, eh?”
They knew better than to argue; they left the table in a clatter of plates and a great shuffling of chairs, their hands full of apples and blueberry muffins, provisions for the great adventure they meant to play out later. Theo stood waiting while the others stared up at him, listening until the rumble of small running feet was lost in the far reaches of the Hall. Then:
“Cammy” he said quietly, “Fetch another pot of tea, won’t you, and a bit more toast and jam. I expect we’re going to be here for a good long while.”