This heralded a long afternoon’s respite for the Master of the Hall. He was of two minds about this; he wished to sit down with his letter from Rohan, but he was loath to see Jamy away so soon. The boy interested him, beyond his seeming likeness to Pippin-of-long-ago, for reasons he could not entirely work out. He fit in a way very few outsiders did at Brandy Hall, and there was no accounting for it, given his origins and the manner of their meeting. But the Master had seen it around the table: the guileless waif had charmed every last one of them without even trying, and there had been honest pleasure in their responses when it was determined Jamy would stay on for a few days. And the boy had taken the letter for the Gate from his hand with shining eyes: it was clear he wanted to stay, notwithstanding an ardent desire—obviously denied from some quarter—to be back on the river.
Well, there would be time to get to know him better; for now he was neatly tucked up in Bo’s keeping and destined no doubt for both the ferry dock and some serious discussion of matters pertaining to the Brandywine. The Master knew that Bo’s interest in Jamy’s status as a boatman was real, and laced with both scholarly curiosity and abject longing. He sighed to think of this, for it wrung his conscience just a bit. He had kept his sons off the Brandywine in consequence of tragic loss, for the last Brandybucks to work on the river had died there: his uncle Merimac and Berilac, his cousin, swept away and drowned in a raging flood despite two lifetimes of experience as rivermen. Merry Brandybuck was not a hobbit to discourage adventure, and no one would ever imagine he could be, but he knew the cost of misadventure more intimately than any hobbit in the Shire besides the Thain, and he loved his sons too much to risk them.
He had given them free reign in forest, farm and meadow, the perils of which he understood and accepted, but he forbade them a life on the river beyond the ferry and the usual boys’ delights, and if they had felt his edict was unjust (and he knew with a pang that they had) they had nonetheless surrendered all their youthful hopes with despondent grace. Bo in particular had felt the loss. Theo’s duty was in the end to Buckland, but Bo’s was, of his own choosing, to the land entire, and to his mind that included the river. He had long ago grown old enough to defy or disregard his father’s decree, but he had never done so. The Master wondered at it sometimes; he was sure he would have challenged his own father’s seeming unwarranted restrictions had destiny not so forcefully intervened to send him far beyond the rustic limitations of the Shire. But his own lads had never defied him, and Jamy had suddenly made him wonder why.
For now, though, silence descended, such as it was, and he was drawn back to the time at hand. The voices faded away down the corridors, and the only sounds were those of bird and insect that came in through the open casements, along with a sunny breeze and the distant, rushing murmur of the river. He repaired to his chair by the grate, banked cool for the day, set a cup of ale at his right hand, took up the letter from Rohan and settled in.
He held it in his hands for a long moment, admiring the handsome package, and wondering at the hand that had addressed it, for it was not Éomer’s immoderate script but another given over to considerable precision. He slipped the cords and gently broke the seals. From out the soft leather envelope he drew several sheets of fawn-coloured parchment. This was covered, he was pleased to see, in Éomer’s hand, smooth against his fingers and scented suddenly and faintly with leather, sweet grass and woodsmoke. He drew a deep, wistful breath and began to read.
Images of Éomer flashed through his mind, summoning years as they came: the fierce young chieftain of the Mark, armoured and mounted, his eyes blazing with vested authority and the rage of battle; the new-crowned King, young and uncertain, obliged to hold steady as he rose from grief to statesmanship in the service of a wounded people and yet another beloved King; the splendid, white-haired monarch whose laughing eyes belied the gruesome threat with which he confronted a shrieking tribe of errant children….So he had been when Merry had seen him last, thirty years before, when the Golden Hall of Meduseld had served as the last haven for the Counselors of the North Kingdom before the long road home to the Shire. They had not met in all the years since, though they wrote often; how could only thirty years bring them now to dying?
He bent to retrieve the scattered letter. Gently, he put the sheets back in order and looked to find his place again.
For a long while he stood blank and still, braced on one hand against the chimney shelf, staring into the dwindling grate, and then he stirred and went to his desk, where he wrote out a short note to the Thain. This he wrapped and sealed and carefully addressed. He propped it on the chimney shelf; he would send it across on the ferry tomorrow morning and they should have it at Great Smials in the evening or early the next day, reasonable warning of his impending arrival the day after.
He sank back in his chair and took Éomer’s letter up again, but shortly he let the pages fall gently on his knees and lost himself in memory. Beside him, the grate burned out and began to cool.
But the mood of the room had dimmed and they felt it; all was not as it had been on their leaving. The laughter stopped abruptly. “Sir!” Jamy pulled up short in startled concern and behind him Bo frowned and shut the door. “What’s happened?” he asked quietly.
The Master hove to his feet, and caught up the letter before the pages went spinning once again to the floor. “Nothing,” he said too lightly, setting it aside. So fresh and young, the sound of that laughter; he wanted to hear it again. “Has our letter gone to the Gate, then? What have you been up to all this time?”
Bo hesitated uncertainly, but Jamy said: “Was it bad news, sir? The letter from Rohan?”
The Master took a breath to speak and suddenly the shock of the long afternoon took purchase. He faltered and swayed a little, fumbling for the arms of the chair as the two of them came swiftly to his side, Bo easing him down with a wordless murmur and Jamy dropping silently to the floor at his knee, his green eyes narrowed with alarm. Reassuringly, he patted the boy’s tangled curls—warm still from the sunshine—and then he frowned into the grate, as if for the first time he realized it was cold and black.
“I let the fire go out.”
“Father, are you ill?” Bo put a mug into his trembling hand and helped guide his other hand to steady it. The ale was over-warm but the taste at least was rich and comforting. “No,” he said, as if from far away. “I’m not ill.”
Bo turned to the hearth, speaking over his shoulder as he rekindled the grate: “What’s happened, then? What’s wrong?”
He felt suddenly very old—dimmed and bewildered—and for once he could not summon any anger to strengthen his ongoing dispute with age. With difficulty he said aloud: “Éomer is…dying.”
Bo’s head, bent to his task at the hearth, came up sharply.
“I…I can’t quite take it in.” The Master’s voice, barely a whisper, thickened at the last; he tried to clear his throat and Jamy went still at his knee.
A bright flame sprang up in the grate and Bo lowered himself into the chair opposite, leaning forward to take his hand. Bo’s hands were strong, if smaller than his own, and rougher and warmer, too. His dark eyes were soft and grave, surprisingly like Estella’s.
“I am sorry, Father,” he said gently, “I can’t wonder you’re a bit undone; it’s too much for anyone, isn’t it, two old friends in one day?”
There was a silence. With a visible effort the Master seemed to wrest himself from his heavy coil of sorrow and weariness; he looked at his son with real and startled affection. Bo squeezed his hand quietly and then released it with a smile like a little boy’s, fond but suddenly shy.
The Master said quietly, “How good you are, Bo…how like to your mother….” He turned his gaze to the grate where the flames were leaping up and the wood was crackling softly. A faint flush of colour seeped back into his face and the old light flickered and caught in his eyes. Quirking a rueful smile, he pressed the small hand that Jamy had laid sorrowfully on his knee.
“Well, that’s what I get for living so long, eh?”
“Oh, sir…!” the boy looked up in shocked protest.
“No, no—it’s alright.” He sighed, meeting again Bo’s steady gaze. “I’m…sorry about this morning. I…I made that very difficult for you.”
“It’s no matter, Father. We all understood.”
“Did you?” he said wonderingly. “I didn’t.”
“It’s a shock to lose a friend so suddenly.”
“More so in that I have not been…attentive…to the years,” said the Master, mustering his strength to sit up and frowning into the distance. “It caught me by surprise—and Éomer did, too. I can’t think that so much time has gone….”
“What’s happened to the king, sir?” Jamy asked, gazing up at the banner of Rohan and the sword and shield above the fire. “Was there a battle? Was he wounded?”
“Nay, lad. Éomer never took a wound that slowed him long, and in any case those lands are at peace now. He has simply lived out his years. He’s an old fellow, and he’s facing the end of his times.” He made a wry mouth. “Our times.”
Jamy wrinkled his brow, but Bo said, a little sadly, “He is easy enough, then, Éomer King? He is not yet brought to his bed?”
“Nay, he’s easy yet, though none too happy about the time it’s taking, it seems. You know how he can growl! Says he could wish now he’d taken a mortal wound in battle long ago and died as a good king ought.”
“Oh, surely not!” exclaimed Bo, quite honestly taken aback.
“Oh, yes, indeed,” said the Master solemnly, “He tells me there are drawbacks to this triumph of age we have so long celebrated, and—do you know?—he may be right, Bo; he may be right.”
For an instant a shadow passed his face. “Well, I am pondering the problem he puts forward; I shall tell you about it if I decide to agree with him.”
“I will hope you do, Father,” said Bo wonderingly, “though I cannot hope to hear you say you could wish to have died on the point of a sword before ever you saw your home and your folk again!”
“Faith!” returned the Master, leaning forward to clasp his arm, his eyes flashing with deep blue fire. “Nor shall you, lad—never! No, ’tis something other…. But Jamy, what is this?” he asked, for the boy’s expression had deepened from anxious to something bordering tragic. “Do you so mourn a man you never knew?”
“A king, sir,” Jamy reproved. “I never knew of this King of Rohan before today and now he is dying and I never shall. I liked the look of his letter. Will you tell me about him? Please, what is he like?”
“What is he like?” The Master repeated the words, the fire in his eyes softening with memory. “Oh!” He seemed suddenly to remember something pleasing. “Would you like to see him?”
“See him, sir?” Jamy sat back, bewildered. “See the King of Rohan?”
“Yes, the King himself: his likeness. There is a drawing hereabout.” He twisted in his chair, frowning at the shelves of books along the hearth wall. “Yes, there it is! Bo, let’s have your mother’s book: I recall she made pictures in Edoras. We have not looked at them in a long while, but I mind there was a very fine one of Éomer.”
Bo’s eyes kindled. With a warm smile, he got up and stepped past Jamy to the bookshelves.
“E-dor-as, sir?” The boy spoke the word carefully, working the strange syllables over his tongue.
“Yes, in the speech of Rohan the word actually means ‘the courts.’ Edoras is where the King of Rohan lives and rules—from the Golden Hall of Meduseld.”
“A golden hall, sir?”
From a carved wooden stand on the uppermost shelf, Bo lifted a large folio of soft suede stained blue with woad, the jacket folded around a thick sheaf of parchments and fastened at five points along the open edges with dark blue ribbons. He gave it into his father’s hands with a smile and moved to stand behind the chair, peering over the old hobbit’s shoulder.
“Sit up here, lad,” said the Master, and Jamy scooted up to perch beside him on the arm of the chair. The Master untied the ribbons and drew back the covering. A stack of smooth sheets lay within, and as the Master gently ran the pages through his fingers, Jamy saw with a little thrill that they were filled with pictures. They flashed past his startled eyes before he could fix on them, tantalizing glimpses lost to the motion of the Master’s hands. He saw enough, though, to be sensible of the fact that some were washed with deep, sparkling colours, while others seemed pale and shimmering, and yet a few were touched by no colour at all. He was left with a strong impression, however, that all of them were rinsed in the same incandescent light. He had seen it before: the astonishing radiance that filtered down through the trees to the river in the vanguard of a storm, compressed, ethereal and—for just the briefest moment—misting the world with golden opalescence. On the river, it roused his senses to a strange and tangible presence; here it endowed the world with a glowing sanctity of design.
As the pages moved beneath the Master’s fingers, Bo said suddenly, softly, “There!” and the book was laid open to an astonishing vista: a wild, untamed landscape, exquisitely tinted, bemisted, and drenched in the light of a westering sun.
“There indeed!” said the Master with satisfaction. “Now, what do you think of that?”
For the first time in his life, Jamy found himself looking upon mountains, and almost he could feel the cold power of those rocky peaks that thrust upward from a wide, windy grassland into a snowy wilderness of stone and sky. He shivered and drew in his breath with a small, startled sound.
“So did I feel as well,” said the Master, “when first I looked on mountains. I had never even imagined such a world as exists beyond the Shire. Nor wished to, yet there it was, and one had no choice, save to go on. It is strange to our Shire eyes, to be sure, but isn’t it beautiful?”
In the foreground of the painting there rose a solitary hill of rock and rugged turf, with a winding thread of silver-blue curling at its base. A wall and dike encircled the hill, and on its rising flank a village of small dark houses and cotes climbed upward toward a wide green crown where stood an awe-inspiring structure seemingly rendered of light.
“The Golden Hall!” Jamy breathed, looking to the Master for confirmation.
“Edoras!” affirmed the Master, studying the picture with a fond, reflective smile. “Eomer dwells there and it is the jewel of his lands. The Horse-lords come to Edoras from every corner of Rohan to sit in the King’s councils.”
Jamy gazed at the Hall in silence with eyes that shone like stars, and after a little while the Master sighed gently and turned the page over. “Look now,” said Bo behind him. “Here is the Great Hall itself.”
And so it was. With another sharp intake of breath, Jamy found himself on the threshold of the Golden Hall of Meduseld, where shafts of sunlight slanted down across a great shadowy interior of rich wood and stone and tapestry, light glancing off the gold accents of a myriad of painted columns and playing on the intricately engraved and coloured paving stones of the floor. Faint wisps of smoke from several hearths sparkled silver as they rose into the vault and were seemingly drawn out upon a windy day through windows under the high eaves, and at the far end hung banners of many hues and insignia. Here and there stood figures, too: tall men and stern, with long fair hair, and armor worn above the now-familiar colours he himself had borne to Brandy Hall, and armed with swords and spears.
So beautiful and true were the colours and textures of this scene—even the dust motes dancing in the sunlight seemed existent before his eyes—that Jamy could not forbear himself to extend very carefully one small finger to touch the brightest spot. It seemed odd, when he did so, that he could not feel the warmth reflected there, or the metal surface that so certainly caught the light. He leaned closer.
“They are only tinctures,” smiled the Master, anticipating his question. “I don’t know how she managed these things—it was always astonishing to me.”
“The Mistress made this, sir? Your lady-wife?”
“Aye, she did—all of these.” He smiled, caressing the pages with fingertips gentle with memory.
The boy hesitated. “Begging your pardon, where is she now, sir?”
“Gone now, lad; dead these five years.”
“Oh…” the boy sighed with genuine regret.
Bo said softly, with gentle pride, “But you can see we have much to remember her by.”
The Master turned the page. “Here is the King,” he said, and he held up the parchment so that they could all look on it.
Here was a striking portrait of a fiercely handsome man, obviously a warrior and undeniably a King. Jamy straightened to rapt attention at the sight of the stern, compelling face stamped so conclusively with authority and resolve. The King of Rohan had long, fair hair and his uncompromising grey eyes flashed passionately beneath dark level brows that marked him both shrewd and masterful. He was dressed in a corselet of steel and the well-worn leathers of a man forever in the thick of things; one hand gripped the hilt of a mighty sword. A narrow circlet of gold gleamed on his forehead. The barest hint of a smile, perhaps in response to the artist, tugged at one corner of his otherwise solemn mouth. Jamy drew back a little to study the effect this had and concluded that the King of Rohan might well be much like the Master of Buckland: terrifying at a remove, but a regular fellow if he were your friend.
“So tell me, Jamy,” said the Master, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Do you think you might have mistaken him for a groundsman?”
The boy hesitated only a moment. “No sir,” he returned with an impish grin, “but he’s got his crown now, hasn’t he? That’s a King, sir, seeing to it that nobody could make such a fool’s mistake!”
“Wretch!” laughed the Master as Jamy chuckled wickedly in triumph, and Bo said, ruffling the boy’s curls, “I should be careful, Father, if I were you, about trying to get the best of this young hobbit—he’s a rogue of the first order and won’t be taken easily, unless I miss my guess. I think you’ve met your match in this fellow. My compliments, Jamy!”
“You think so?” smiled the Master. “Why, I cut my teeth on rascals such as this; he cannot be worse than the Thain!"
“I could be,” the boy said, gravely considering this challenge while behind his lowered lashes his green eyes danced. “You will have to tell me about him next.”
He looked yet again, doubtfully this time, at the fine painting of the King. “He does not look so very old to me,” he said at last, a little sadly. “Leastways, not so old that he should die.”
“Nor was he then,” the Master replied by way of explanation, “when Estella made this picture. This was the King forty-some years ago. He was close on fifty then. He is well past ninety now.” He sighed deeply. “I cannot fathom it, somehow, Éomer passing from the world… and the Tree as well! Ah, I don’t like it at all….”
Bo and Jamy exchanged glances, but just then a sharp rap sounded at the door and Berry thrust her head in. “There you are!” she said, fixing them with a look that suggested she had been searching for them and was relieved to find them all together. “Father, what do you think? Cammy and the children are back a day early from the Marish! I thought to tell you, but—oh! Eirien!”
And upon this exclamation the door burst fully open to admit a small whirlwind who, having paused for the merest instant to get her bearings, spun toward the Master, curls and ribbons flying, with a glad cry of “Grandfather!” Jamy scrambled up in time to avoid a collision and suddenly shy, backed away into the shadows that were gathering beneath the windows, beyond which an early twilight was faintly purpling the sky. Bo lifted the folio from out his father’s hands and turned to put it away.