It had turned out that crossing the Ford to visit the Rangers required not only purpose but permission. The length of the Brandywine, North to South Farthing, was the folkland of the river-hobbits, but here in the South Farthing, the river was also the Shire's line of demarcation: beyond Sarn Ford lay the King's lands, and the Wide World. The far shore was, then, a foreign country, and the King's Rangers were there to guard the border.
The average hobbit had no business south of the river, of course, and no interest in going there besides, but there were some who made the crossing: the Thain's agent went over now and then to confer with the Rangers on matters of concern to his employer; the village Postmaster went across occasionally on behalf of the Great Houses, with letters and packages for the Outlands; and the heads of those Houses - the old Thain and the Master, and sometimes even the otherwise-prudent Mayor Samwise - had over the years crossed into the King's lands by invitation, sometimes on private journeys and other times on diplomatic missions, though it had been many years now since they had traveled south. But few ordinary folk had any mind to venture beyond their ken, and those who did were almost always young and on a lark, and happy enough in the end to be gently turned back to the Shire. Jamy wondered if the Postmaster would have allowed him to carry the Master's letters over to the Rangers if Mat had not been a King's Hobbit on the Barway and decorated besides.
He heard the rattle of the waggon as it crossed the wooden bridge over the channel that cut through the meadows behind the island, and turned to watch as it appeared at the top of the embankment and rumbled north along the flattish track that followed the ridge. Most of the island was too steep for such a conveyance, but the north end had a natural slope that descended in a gentle curve to the waterline, and the ridge road followed the curve. Mat sat next the Postmaster on the high seat and the Postmaster drove the pony, a placid animal who did not appear the least perturbed by the proximity of the river, flowing nearly a foot and a half feet deep in its rocky bed below. Jamy reckoned the golden-brown water would brim about the pony's knees when they crossed, and as he stood considerably shorter than the pony, he was glad to have a ride; he did not fancy coming wet to the Rangers.
The waggon trundled down the track and around the end of the island, obscured for a moment by a thick growth of willow there, and then came back into view on level ground, drawing up at the water's edge where Mat waved and called for Jamy; he ran across the bank, his hand on the leather satchel with the Master's letters, and hauled himself up over the wheel and into the back where the Thain's elegant, leather-bound trunks rode heavily on the boards. The Postmaster then surprised them both by reaching beneath the seat and extracting a battered trumpet on which he blew a single, sharp blast. "That tells 'em I'm coming," he said with a wink, and thus announced, they started forward.
Jamy had meant to ask how the cart and pony would navigate the uneven bed of the Ford, for he had had time to study the stony course while he waited and it was his opinion that it could be hazardous, being slippery and irregular, but in the end he didn't have to voice his concern, for as the pony stepped into the river he saw for himself the situation had apparently been recognized and addressed long before he had espied it. A path had been cleared along the riverbed so that the pony paced a hard, flat corridor beneath the water, and the wheels of the waggon did not bump or tumble over any stones. They went smoothly across, stirring up a fine sand but nothing else, and came out on the far side of the Ford on another track that led up the bank and on through the curtain of willows.
When they had left the riverbank behind, they came out of the willows and into the sunshine and began to cross a broad, grassy meadow dotted with wildflowers that bobbed and danced on the breeze. It was pleasant and pretty, but Jamy gazed ahead in mingled awe and apprehension, for at the far end of the meadow lay a wide green wood, and the trees there looked strange to his eyes and beyond them the wood seemed filled with shadows. There was the Wide World, he thought, and already he could see that it was nothing like the Shire.
They entered soon upon the wood, so strangely different from the woody Shirelands he was familiar with. Here there were no low and leafy trees like those crowded close along the river, but many old trees grown mighty with age, standing close in endless ranks, their great grey trunks soaring defiantly upward into a lofty green canopy. Close about the trees on the forest floor was a dense and tangled brake; the road had been cut of necessity through many thickets of brush and bramble, and it marched ahead of them now in a hedged and undeviating line. The sun slanted down through the high canopy, pale shafts of gold slicing through tall columns of shadow and the end of the road was nowhere in sight. Jamy wondered how far they had to go.
They had not gone much further at all when a tall figure stepped suddenly from the brake and strode out into the center of the track: a Man, tall and ruddy, with light brown hair and a thin, watchful face. He was dressed in several layers of dark leather clothing and a long, green cloak, and Jamy caught his breath to see on the leather cuirass the faint, now-familiar image of the White Tree of Gondor. The Man wore heavy boots with soft leather wrappings, and there was a pouch on the belt at his waist, and several smaller ones strung like pockets on a cord that crossed over his chest. He carried a finely crafted short bow and a quiver of arrows on his back, and from his belt hung a sword topped with a handsome pommel and a crescent-shaped cross-piece of bronze. Jamy had only ever seen one sword before, and that one on the wall above the Master's chimneypiece, its diminutive length matched to an elegant scabbard of tooled red leather and metalwork, and he had thought it the pinnacle of glory, tempered though it was by forced retirement and the passage of long years. But this sword had an air of being well-oiled, well-sharpened and well-used, and even sheathed he was disquieted by it; he thought he could feel the force of it, bristling with hazard and purpose.
The pony shied a little as the Man came close and reached out to take his halter. "Ho, there!" he said lightly, his cheerful tone belying the severity of his martial appearance. "Hello, Riverwind! Come back to visit, have you?" He stroked the pony's neck, whispering confidentially, then reached into the scrip at his waist to extract a small carrot. "There's a good fellow," he said, offering it in token, and having warmly renewed what seemed a former friendship, he turned to the Postmaster.
"Mr. Pickthorn!" he smiled in greeting, coming around to the driver's side of the waggon. There was a gleam of interest in his eye as he looked at Mat, and he winked at Jamy, who was perched atop one of the trunks, the better to enjoy his first glimpse of a Man. "You come heavily laden today, Postmaster," he observed.
"Good day to you, Ranger Baranor! I do indeed: trunks from the Thain, bound for Gondor, and letters from Brandy Hall."
"You have helpers; the Thain's trunks must be heavy."
"They are that, but Mat and Jamy are here on other business, as it happens. The lad is charged by none other than the Master of Buckland to deliver a packet of letters into your Captain's hands, and I judged you young giants might like to meet his father, who's just come off the Barway. This is Mat Bucket, Baranor - King's Anchor, eh?" The Postmaster beamed. He was fiercely proud of Mat; all the folk at Sarn Ford had been quick to claim his celebrity.
"Is that so?" exclaimed the Ranger, turning to level a glowing gaze at Mat, who flushed but nevertheless inclined his head crisply in the military salute that was accepted on the Barway. The Ranger seemed to recognize it and immediately responded in kind. "This is an honour, Captain! We saw the dispatches but never thought to meet the actual fellow in person! Word is you put the sailors of the Royal Navy to shame, sir!"
Mat laughed carelessly and shook his head, but Jamy nodded proudly. The tall Ranger smiled, catching his eye, and jumped into the back of the waggon, settling his back against the rails and his long frame on the floorboards. Jamy was a little taken-aback at his great size at first, but once the Man was seated, the sense of his intimidating proportions faded away. In any case, size did nothing to devalue him in Jamy's estimation; from the moment he had set eyes on Ranger Baranor he had known him for a character from the Master's stories come to life, and as such he found him nothing less than awe-inspiring. He stared raptly while the Ranger casually rearranged the angle of the sword and scabbard on his hip so that he might sit comfortably and responded with a shy grin when the Ranger nudged the other of the Thain's trunks with his booted foot and grimaced drolly, having discerned the extent of its weight by its refusal to budge in the least.
"Drive on, Mr. Pickthorn," he directed the Postmaster. "You know the way, and I have a mind to ride back here where I can have speech with your companions, who interest me very much." He smiled again at Mat, who had shifted his position on the bench ahead so that he could look politely on the newcomer.
"I have heard that the King was especially delighted to confer his Anchor on a hobbit," the Ranger said conversationally. "He has an enduring fondness for the people of the Shire."
"I am proud to have served him, then," said Mat in his characteristically modest way, but then he added boldly, as if he sensed in the Ranger some depth of understanding: "It seems I am meant now to continue in his service. I am recalled to the Barway at month's end."
"Truly?" said Baranor, frowning a little. He appeared to ponder this and suddenly his face cleared. "Why, I wager you have won a promotion then!" he guessed, and when Mat, with a wry smile, nodded affirmation, he said solemnly, "Then we are met as true comrades, Captain, brothers in service to our King. Perhaps I shall see duty on your station one day; in the meantime, I am glad to welcome you to mine." Mat's face was solemn as he took the big hand that was offered him, but there was a grateful smile in his eyes, and Jamy saw how it must be on the Barway, where the Men and hobbits called themselves friends. Thoughtfully, he touched the cord and shell at his throat.
Baranor's gaze flickered now toward him. "Mr. Pickthorn says you carry letters and directives from the Master of Buckland, youngster - letters that must come straight from your hand to my Captain's. How came a lad to win such a weighty trust as this?"
Jamy hesitated. He had not thought of it that way: that his service marked him a faithful and trusted associate of the Master of the Hall. He felt his face warm as his heart acknowledged their mutual affection. "I - I guess - The Master thought to take me in while my Dad was on the Barway, sir; we were easy with each other from the first."
"Were you, indeed? You are a friend of his, then - of Sir Meriadoc?"
Sir Meriadoc! Jamy felt a thrill; he was indeed walking in one of the Master's tales! "Aye," he nodded, his eyes sparkling. "Is that what they call him in the Wide World - Sir Meriadoc?"
"So he is called by the High King himself - and all who wish to stay in his good graces, I can tell you! But how I envy you, lad! I thought when I came to this post that I might one day meet Sir Meriadoc myself, and Sir Peregrin as well, of course. Indeed, I hoped for it, for I have heard stories of the Halfling Knights all my life and fervently wished to lay eyes on them. They were great friends of my grandfather - Beregond was his name - and also of my father - Ah! Forgive me! I forget we are not properly met! I am Baranor, son of Bergil, in service to the King by the grace of the Prince of Ithilien."
The Ranger put his hand flat upon his breast and bowed slightly as he spoke. Mat and Jamy bowed as well and Mat bespoke their names, and thus feeling they were now properly introduced, the Ranger went on, his expression woeful:
"But alas! I have found the Shire to be a much bigger place than I had imagined, and it seems that the Knights live many miles from here and are not called upon to travel on business anymore, being far gone in years. I cannot seek them out, either, for we Men are forbidden under the King's law to walk in the Shirelands. I am sorry, for I should haved loved to meet them - even so enfeebled as they must be by now."
A slow smile had formed on Jamy's face as he listened to this speech and now he glanced at Mat and the Postmaster with dancing eyes. The Postmaster chuckled. "Well, this is a lucky day for you, then, Ranger," he said, "for I can tell you the Thain's trunks are there are come in advance of his person! Jamy brings news from Brandy Hall that the Master and the Thain are leaving the Shire in two weeks' time and will cross the Bounds on this very spot!"
"Leaving the Shire!" It was the Ranger's turn to stare now. "Leaving?" he said again incredulously. "But surely they are too old now to travel abroad? My father is some twenty years younger than the Thain, I believe, and he could not make such a journey. What has moved them to do such a thing?"
"I'll leave it to Jamy to tell the tale, who knows it better than I," said the Postmaster genially, turning his attention to the road. "But don't you go telling it here on the road, lad. Better to tell a good story over a nice cup of tea and a ginger biscuit, I always say. We're nearly there now."
Jamy could not see how that could be, as the track continued to stretch away into the wood with no perceptible forks or offshoots, but as he peered ahead through the haze of sun and shadow his eye was caught by the mass of a great tree that seemed to intrude somewhat upon the road, and as the Postmaster pulled and flicked the reins so that the pony swerved around it, he saw that another track parted the brake just beyond the tree and swung away at a deep angle into the brushwood beyond. Thither they went, too, into the deep forest, where they lost all sense of their direction, and then the waggon came round a dense thicket and they found themselves on the far edge of a fair and unexpected clearing, and there before them was the yard, and the stables and the rustic dwelling that housed the High King's Rangers at Sarn Ford.
A small group of Rangers were seated companionably on the wide porch, and they gave a welcoming shout and waved as the waggon approached the long circular drive. Jamy's heart leapt to see more of the King's Men and he bounced eagerly on the Thain's luggage. Baranor, catching Mat's eye, explained that these fellows, along with himself, were on home-duty today; altogether they were a cohort of an even dozen here at Sarn Ford, including their Captain, but the other six were currently away on patrol. Jamy listened with rapt attention and marking his enthusiasm, Baranor smiled and went on to explain that the Rangers made their rounds in pairs and on horseback, and were in all responsible for covering a wide triangle of border territory that included the river front fifty miles east and west of the Ford and all the lands between those points and the meeting of the road from the Ford with the Greenway some seventy miles to the southeast. Jamy frowned as he listened, trying hard to see the unknown lands in his mind. "There is a map," Baranor offered. "Perhaps you would like to look at it while you are here."
He told them a little more about the Rangers as the pony went placidly into the yard: how the much larger garrison at Eryn Vorn patrolled the remaining length of the Brandywine to the west as well as looking out for the Barway; and how the posts at Bree and Tharbad saw to the lands east of the Greenway, west of the Misty Mountains and north of the Gap of Rohan. Jamy, who prided himself on knowing something of the Wide World, was somewhat confounded by this recital, for he did not recognize all of the names or know how all these territories lined up, and it came home to him suddenly that while he knew in general where the Master and the Thain meant to go, he knew nothing of the lands the old gentlehobbits would have to pass through to get there. He wondered suddenly if the roads were safe, given that Rangers were needed to patrol them. He would have to ask Baranor when they looked at the map.
The Rangers, whom they could see had been busy at mending their clothing and polishing their weapons, rose to greet them now, carefully sheathing their shining blades as Baranor and the hobbits jumped down out of the waggon. Jamy was surprised to find Mat close beside him when his feet hit the ground; he had not thought his father could move so fast. "Steady now," Mat said quietly, close against his ear. "This can take some getting used to."
Breathless with excitement, Jamy did not immediately understand or wonder what this meant, or why his father should seek to warn him of anything here, but soon enough he realized the source of Mat's concern for him: as the Rangers spilled off the porch to converge on the waggon, and the five tall Men laughed and loomed above the three hobbits, the great disparity in their sizes became suddenly, painfully clear. Jamy had experienced a flash of it in the waggon with Baranor, of course, but only fleetingly, for the Ranger had been quick about settling himself and Jamy had been perched on the trunk. This time, however, there was no mistaking the disproportion, and his reaction was acute: absorbing it in full, he was struck by a sudden, sickening wave of confusion and alarm.
How big they were! And how meager and unaccountably dismayed he felt gazing upwards at this powerful circle of Men! He shrank back against the waggon in something akin to panic - a sensation that was altogether new to him - and feeling like a child turned to his father for reassurance. But there was Mat, settling into the stance he assumed on the deck of the Lyssa, confident and comfortable, trading crisp salutes and easy conversation with the Men as if he had done it every day of his life! The Postmaster, too, was laughing and joshing as if he were meeting old friends at the Trout and Tumbler. And when Baranor came to acquaint the Men with Jamy - all of them giants compared to the little hobbit-lad - they seemed not to notice his diminutive size at all, but bowed and shook his hand gravely, welcoming him as they might any lad come new to their complement. And true to his nature, Jamy took stock, and chided himself to think he could be so early and foolishly undone; and soon enough he found his way, easing eagerly into the friendly company and wishing the Master was there to see him do it.
The Rangers, affable and curious about their guests, were quick to make them welcome: Baranor and one of his fellows lifted the Thain's trunks out of the waggon and took them into the main house, and the four remaining Men dispersed with cheerful intent, two in the direction of the cookhouse to secure refreshments, and two leading the pony Riverwind away to the stables where he might have a drink and a rest free of his harness. Jamy, Mat and the Postmaster followed Baranor and his companion as they shouldered the Thain's trunks through the heavy double doors and into the main hall.
The doors opened on an apportioned great-room, into which the small, square casement windows let a surprising amount of light and air. The flat, beamed ceiling was high by hobbit standards, the walls were overlaid with course wood paneling that gave the place a warm, barn-like feel, and the furnishings spoke to the simple comforts known to all-male households. Toward the back of the hall, a rough wooden stairway could be seen ascending into the shadows of the second floor. Mat, who could still blanche at stairs, even though he had successfully navigated three flights at Brandy Hall (and slept above them for several nights, as well) looked askance at these as Baranor and his companion set the trunks down beside them, and he breathed a silent sigh of relief when the two Rangers answered Jamy's inquisitive look by agreeing laughingly that there was really nothing to see above stairs - only the Rangers' sleeping quarters, and no one wanted to see those except on Inspection Day!
The lower floor was arranged to accommodate the requirements of the command post, a small armory, and a common area for the Men. The stone fireplace that they had glimpsed from the outside marked the commons: it was plain to see by the kettle hanging over the coals, the toasting forks lying on the hearthstones, and the tankards collected on the chimneypiece that the Rangers were used to gather here at the end of the day. There were here as well two rough refectory tables with benches set close by the hearth where the Men must sit at supper; a stack of clean wooden bowls was set in the center of each table, together with a dish of salt, a tall clay pitcher and a cluster of thick candles set into a narrow iron trough. Several good-sized casks of ale were stacked with care to one side of the hearth, and among the tankards on the chimneypiece Jamy saw a few dice cups and wooden game boards. He glanced at Mat and his father nodded slightly, a twinkle in his eye. The King's Men, on quiet nights, did indeed take time to play, just as hobbits did!
The armory was housed on the wall that fronted the place, on either side of the front doors: in iron racks securely fastened between the windows were neat rows of weapons - swords, spears and short-handled battle-axes - their bright steel heads glittering in the slanting sunlight. Despite the strange uneasiness he felt in proximity to them, Jamy went closer to look, his hands tucked carefully behind his back. Baranor came quickly to stand beside him. "I do not think you do not have such weapons as these in the Shire," he said, noting the boy's wide-eyed attention.
"No," said Jamy. "But the Master has a sword, and I have heard a tale or two of battles he saw long ago."
"Oh, aye!" said Baranor, nodding. "Sir Meriadoc fought with the Rohirrim on the Pelennor, so he would have seen these weapons at work; indeed, these designs came originally from the Horse-lords, who know something about waging war on horseback, I can tell you! Look you: from above a soldier can aim and throw a long spear, and come sweeping down, so, with ax and sword." He gave a quick demonstration, balanced on the balls of his feet, his hands and arms moving in arcs of power.
"Save us!" Jamy breathed, dazzled not only by the terrible beauty of the armaments, but by the awe-inspiring vision - so newly enhanced by Baranor and his companions - of them being wielded by large, ferocious Men on equally large, ferocious steeds. "I should like to see that!" And forgetting himself, he spun about enthusiastically, pinning an invisible orc to the ground with a wicked thrust of an equally invisible spear.
Baranor chuckled, clearly enjoying Jamy's pantomime, but then he grew serious and said solemnly that the King's Outposts existed so that regular folk - farmers and shopkeepers and river-hobbits - need not take up arms or go to war, save in dire emergency. Every Ranger carried a sword and a bow of his own, and these were sufficient to the average day; but every Outpost must have an armory as well, should it be necessary to lay heavy steel behind the promise of the King's protection. Jamy nodded wistfully, his eyes on the swords and spears. Behind him Mat stood watching, and a thin line creased the space between his dark, level brows.
"Let us not forget, my friends, that we live in times of peace," came a voice behind them, cool and deep from the back of the hall where the as yet undiscovered command post lay somewhat in the shadow of the stairs. "Trouble is highly unlikely here along the Brandywine, but as a guardian Outpost of his Reunited Kingdom, the King obliges us to be prepared."
The three hobbits turned to behold a great bear of a Man in the act of rising from a chair behind a massive desk in the back corner of the room. The man was very tall and broad and dressed in the same dark leathers as the other Rangers, but there was about him a powerful aura of authority. Baranor snapped instantly to attention with a smart salute and Jamy realized this Man must be his Captain - and the Man he himself had come to see. He realized also with a sudden, swooping flutter of dismay that the Man had surely been sitting there all along, observing the guests who had followed Baranor into the hall, and newly alert to his perceived rank and responsibility with regard to Brandy Hall, he thought to hope that his behavior in those few minutes had been circumspect: his every word and gesture reflected now on the Master as well as on himself.
The Ranger Captain was older than his Men; his dark hair was giving over to a bright silver-grey that bespoke his years of experience, and his military bearing was stern and proud. He had a pleasant countenance for all that, though, tanned and weathered by the long years in the open that were demanded of his profession, and warmed by a pair of shrewdly humorous grey eyes. Jamy found those eyes upon him almost immediately, and while he felt for an instant like a fish scooped up in a net, he was startled and not a little relieved when the Man flashed him a tiny wink and followed it with a surprisingly playful smile. Like the Master! he thought, picturing with a warm rush of affection that other commanding visage with its silver mane and bright blue eyes, and disarmingly boyish smile. How I shall miss him! he thought then despairingly. Sure there won't never be anyone like him again.
"Good day to you, Mr. Pickthorn," the Captain was saying, nodding in a friendly fashion at the Postmaster; and turning with interest then to Jamy and Mat, he continued amiably: "And a good day to you, sirs! Who have we here, Ranger Baranor?"
"Please you, Captain," said Baranor in official tones. "This is River Captain Mat Bucket, just off the Barway - King's Anchor, if it please you, sir. The lad there is his son Jamy, acting for the Master of Buckland, carrying post for the Outlands and personal directives that have bearing on the trunks there - and several more to come, as I hear it."
The Captain's eyebrows rose. "The King's Anchor, do you say - and a personal envoy from Brandy Hall? With directives?" There was a gleam of astonishment in his searching gaze. "Well, this is an unusual day! Captain Bucket - and Jamy, is it? - you are most welcome! Rarely does this outpost entertain folk, let along any who carry so much honour as you do between you - " He laughed suddenly, a rueful rumble. "I do beg your pardon, Mr. Pickthorn, I'm sure I don't mean to diminish your presence!"
The Postmaster, standing by the hearth, waved his pipe, which he was in the act of packing with leaf. "Think nothing of it," he said cheerfully, smirking at Jamy as he plied his tamp. "I knew you'd be interested to know Mat there; and Jamy - well, he has Brandy Hall's confidence in some very important business as is afoot just now, so I took it as my duty to bring him across."
Jamy came to stand beside Mat in the commons, mindful that he must make a good impression now, both for his father's sake and for the Master's. He held himself rather more carefully than he might and even attempted to school his face like Baranor's, but as he looked up, the Ranger Captain smiled at him again in the same friendly manner as before and lowered himself to one of the rough benches, bending forward eagerly to continue the conversation. Jamy caught his breath at this, recalling with staggered delight the tales he had heard at Brandy Hall of travel in the world of Men:
Why, he's set down so's we can see eye to eye! he thought, marveling yet again to find himself reliving some aspect of those memorable adventures. Just like Master Theo and the Prince of Rohan! And Master Samwise and the High King hisself! And us no fine lords either, but only river-folk - though it's true enough that Dad's come famous, now I think of it.
The Ranger Captain tendered Mat a large, friendly hand. "I am Haluin, son of Duin," he said easily, "commanding here at Sarn Ford. I am glad to know you, sir; for all we Rangers look out for the Shire, we do not often have the pleasure of meeting any Shirefolk, especially those few who are so widely celebrated. Your daring on the Barway was sung far abroad this season, Captain!"
Mat flushed a dusky red beneath his tan, but nonetheless took the great hand with grave simplicity and bent his head in the swift nod of the Barway salute. Baranor, acting now as adjutant, interjected efficiently: "You should know Captain Bucket has won a promotion, sir. He returns to the Barway in one month's time."
The Captain's eyes widened in surprise, and he looked hard at Mat for a long moment, as if trying to connect some random thoughts. Then he nodded shrewdly. "Ah, so that's it! I heard from the last patrol to come up from the south that the Shire was to send a commander in his own right to the Barway; that would be you, then, Captain Bucket! Congratulations are in order, I see - though I must confess I feel some regret to see the Shirefolk being drawn into the business of soldiering for the Crown. Our charge has ever been to let your people be."
"It is but sailing to us," Mat said mildly, though it was obvious he understood the Captain's meaning and intent. "Mind we don't bear the King's arms. But as the Thain says, it is our River. We would be poor folk indeed if we did not help to set what protections we could upon it." He smiled then, though something like a faint shadow of uncertainty dimmed his quiet dignity for an instant.
"Well spoken, sir!" said the Captain, looking hard at him again. "And bravely spoken, too. Were I a Shireman, I think I might have accepted such an honour as they seek to give you with a heavy heart, since in all probability I might be forced to leave behind another life in which I had been well content."
The Postmaster cocked his head at that, frowning at Mat and Jamy as if actually seeing their situation for the first time. "Now, there's something to be said for that," he murmured thoughtfully, and he set a tiny, flaming twig from the hearth to the bowl of his pipe, eyeing his celebrated friend, and puffing fiercely until a cloud of heady white smoke sprang up from the leaf.
"I can't say as I took that thought to mind before, Mat," he said ruefully. "I'm sorry."
But Mat shook his head. "Don't be," he said, clapping a hand on Jamy's shoulder. "It's come round all right. Jamy will bide better than I could hope while I'm away, and the fact that he's safe will make it all the easier for me. They know his worth at Brandy Hall, and I believe they mean to secure it; he'll come back to the river with something to show for the time he's been away."
The Ranger Captain looked at Jamy. "So that's your story, eh? I deemed you were too young yet to see duty on the Barway, lad; is this, then, how you have come to serve as a personal envoy for the Master of the Hall? You have been his ward in the absence of your father?"
Jamy considered this and thought it might be somewhat lacking in the details, but he nodded all the same. "Something like, sir," he answered. "But I never heard the Master say ‘envoy' before. What is it? A messenger like me?"
"Something like," the Captain smiled, "but something special, too. In Gondor, an envoy is a kind of deputy - a highly trusted fellow who serves an honoured House and Master, and who may one day rise to his own place within it, just as a squire might work his way to knighthood. You have the bearing of such a deputy, Jamy Bucket, and sure enough Sir Meriadoc is a hobbit of honour, eh?"
"Oh, yes, sir," said Jamy, delighted to think he served the story in such a way. "He is that, and no mistake!"
The Ranger Captain smiled again and stood up, indicating with a sweeping gesture the command post behind him. "Step into my office, lad," he said, "and let us see what messages you carry."
Jamy took a deep breath and looked over at Mat. "Go on, then," his father said, his eyes shining softly with pride. "You came on business, so get to it!" And so Jamy followed the big Ranger Captain, groping as his walked for the satchel from the Hall that lay on his hip. And when they came to the great desk, and Captain Haluin had settled himself behind it in his great chair, and said formally, "You may present your messages, Master Bucket," he drew the leather pouch off over his head, and bowing, held it forth.
Along with the Captain's great desk and chair, a long wooden trestle table filled the small command space. A sturdy, flat-topped map chest was set atop the long board and several very large wooden chairs were positioned at intervals alongside. Three glass lanterns hung above the table, suspended from the beams on lengths of chain and ready to light what work must be done there after the sun went down, and flanking all of this was the wall upon which Jamy now trained all his attention.
The wall was splendid; in addition to the sizeable and carefully rendered map he was studying, there were several stirring campaign banners fixed there as well. These it was that had first captured his attention: most of them, worked in sable and silver, depicted in some measure the White Tree and the Crown of Gondor, but also among them Jamy saw two rather more colourful standards that he knew must come of Rohan: a banner with a white horse flying through a field of velvet green, its casings thick with red and gold embroidery, and a narrow green flag with horse and sun sigils worked in gold. Jamy's heart moved strangely to look upon the ensigns of the Kings of Rohan and Gondor, the Men and lands that would gladly and all too soon welcome back the Master and the Thain; but the great leap of pride he had felt to know of these exotic places in the Wide World was cruelly diminished by the harsh ache of loss he had borne since the day the Master had told the household of his plans. I wish he would not go! he thought now for the hundredth time, and it was while he stood wrestling with this sorrow that the River caught his eye.
He had no real experience of maps, for the river-folk had no practical use for them, but he had scrutinized a crude drawing in the Master's study that showed the journey to Tuckborough by way of the river and the Stock Road, and he had looked on with interest when Rory had been called upon in lessons to show the tutor how the four Farthings of the Shire lay, so he had some sense of what they were all about, and this he applied now to the map on the wall, for he had seen the notation ‘River Brandywine' far up toward the top, carefully inked in black. In addition to the sinuous shape of the river, which he had never seen from such a vantage point before, there were a number of marks and symbols close about it, but these notations were too small to read from where he stood. He went up on tiptoe, and cocked his head and squinted and sighed, but in the end he could make nothing of them.
Captain Haluin's pen paused above his letter. "Can you read, Jamy Bucket?" he asked.
"Aye, sir," said Jamy, making a polite half-turn but ultimately unable to refrain from keeping at least one eye on the map; indeed, he stepped back to see if distance might help his perspective. "My Dad taught me."
"Good fellow" observed the Captain and when Jamy had turned away again, he caught the eye of his adjutant - who, even at dicing, was ever alert to his needs - tipped his head toward the boy and made a quick gesture with his hands.
"Your pardon, Master Jamy," said Ranger Baranor, appearing shortly thereafter at Jamy's shoulder. "Perhaps I can be of assistance." He set down the mug of ale he had carried from the hearth, drew one of the big chairs up close to the wall, and taking up the map chest from the table, set it squarely down atop the solid wooden seat. "If you will climb up," he said with a grin, "I think you will be able to see."
Jamy beamed delightedly and advanced upon the chair at once, and the Ranger stood by in case the boy's balance should falter; but his clever hobbit feet, used to the rolling deck of the Lyssa, ascended the pile of furnishings with ease and in a twinkling he stood perched atop the chest, gazing at the map as on a new world.
There were the words - ‘River Brandywine' - and apparently the River itself, that pale blue wash of changing thicknesses that wended its way in graceful curves across the upper portions of the map; but such was the shape and breadth of the land surrounding that he did not immediately recognize the place that had ever been the center of his life. He frowned, shook his head and drew back to look again.
"Baranor! Where - where am I?"
"You're looking at your River, lad."
"Aye, but I don't know it! I can't see - oh, wait! There! ‘Marshes' it says, where the blue line curves around. I reckon that's the bend at the Old Forest - yes! Oh, I know where I am now! And here's the Ford, and the lagoon, and the village back behind! Save us, but the World is big, isn't it?"
"Bigger even than you think, lad. This is but a little corner of the World."
Jamy's eyes were wide as he took in the broad expanse of the South Farthing above the River and the wide swath of open lands that lay below; he saw the words ‘to Bree' on the upper reaches of a road sweeping down from the east and goggled to think that somewhere at the end of that road was the legendary place where the Master had first met the Ranger called Strider who was now the High King. But even now that he was perched high enough to see the lands spread out before his eyes, he still had the feeling that he looked on some world other than his own. Nothing looked the way it did to him everyday and he peered at it anxiously, trying to find his way.
Suddenly he saw how it was. "Oh!" he murmured. "It's as if I'm an eagle looking down!" And almost unconsciously he lifted his arms, as if they might be wings. Then he caught his breath, abandoning lift as he leaned forward abruptly to touch and then to trace with one small finger the westward-leading line of the Brandywine.
"It's never the whole length of the River, Baranor?" he whispered incredulously, staring at the line. "Mapped all the way from the marshes to the Sea?"
"That it is," said Baranor, but even before he said it Jamy's trembling fingers, flying over a Brandywine heretofore unknown, had come abruptly to land's end and stumbled out into a vast sweep of cerulean, marked with the words ‘Belegaer: The Great Sea.'
"Is this it?" he whispered excitedly. "Is this it - the Barway?"
"Aye," said Mat, appearing suddenly at Baranor's side, a pewter mug in his hand and a warm glow of affection in his eyes for the boy who stood now transported atop the map chest. "That's the Barway. And there," he said, stretching up and waving his hand imprecisely, " - that little finger of land that pokes out into the Sea, the one with the trees - that's the garrison at Eryn Vorn that Baranor told you of this morning. You can't see it on the map, but there are high stone cliffs the length of the inlet on either side - the Sea pounding in one way and the River flowing down the other."
"Ahhh! I wish I could see it for real! Where's your place, Dad?"
"Wait!" Baranor stooped and retrieved from beneath the table a thin wooden shaft, straight as an arrow and nearly as long as his arm; it was tipped at one end with a blunted metal cap. "Here, use this," he said, giving it into Mat's hand, and the small river-Captain reached up and set the far tip to a spot on the cliffs opposite the forested garrison and further east on the inlet. "Here lies the Barway," he said, and as Jamy leaned closer to see, he touched in succession the locations of the various working sites: the command post on the summit and the long path coming down the slope; the wooden quay, and the landing; the gate on the river and the roll of the treacherous bar that marked the meeting of the river and the Sea. Baranor watched and listened as closely as Jamy did, absorbing every detail.
Jamy followed the river back toward the Shire, frowning a little as his fingers came to rest again at ‘Sarn Ford.' "It's a long way, Dad," he murmured.
"It is indeed," Baranor agreed, standing back. "I wager it must be the better part of three hundred miles."
"Three hundred miles!" Jamy whispered, his eyes widening. He looked to Mat for confirmation. "It's so far as that?"
"Aye, so it is," said Mat, squinting upward at the map; being taller than Jamy, he could see somewhat better from the floor. "I wonder, Ranger Baranor - now that I see how it all lays out there - why isn't there another outpost between here and Eryn Vorn? That's a lot of territory for one outpost to protect, and they being charged with looking out for the Barway as well."
"It is a long stretch," said Baranor, nodding, "but they've a large garrison, and good many men to spare. They patrol round-robin, and come every two days to shelter - there are way-stations set back there along the river. When they arrive, the patrol passes then to a rested, waiting team and the first rests until the next arrives - you ought to be able to see the stations there, Jamy; each one is marked by a pair of traversed spears."
"I see them!" said Jamy, understanding the criss-crossed symbols for the first time and marking off five of them with his fingers; but Mat said frowning, "Sure there aren't enough Men in those few way-stations to hold the River - and the Shire beyond - against invaders from the lands below?"
Captain Haluin, who had for some time been listening with half an ear, set his pen down next to his letter and rose from his chair, taking up the tankard that had been set at his elbow. "A bit of history may be helpful in answering your very legitimate concerns, Captain Bucket," he said, coming to join them. "Allow me to explain. The simple answer is that the land south of the lower Brandywine offers no path for invaders so there is no need to post an army on the border."
He leaned over to lay his hand to the map, touching the lands to the south. "Once upon a time a great forest covered this land, which, as you see, is called Minhiriath. But the coastal woodland of Eryn Vorn is almost all that's left of it now - that and the Old Forest there on the borders of Buckland, and the few scattered woods you see marked in green here and there. The forest was largely destroyed in the Second Age by felling and burning and war, and later the land was drowned in floods, and Plague came, so that the folk who lived there forsook it in the end and fled, and never went back. It is wild and inhospitable now, and much of it is yet rough and littered with stone and debris. There is no easy going there, and no commander in his right mind would plan an incursion over a field that could so easily cripple his horses, or mire his troops. No, Captain: should trouble come in sight of the Shire, it will not come from Minhiriath; it will come from the Sea, in which case the Garrison and you folk at the Barway will be called upon to defend the River; or it will come up The Greenway, and I will go out to meet it, together with Bree and whatever might be left of the garrison at Tharbad."
Mat sighed, frowning. "And which do you reckon it will be then?" he asked, and Jamy heard and wondered that his father could sound so sorry and resigned, until he recalled with a start the story of the red-sailed slave ships that even yet haunted his father's dreams. So much had changed for the two of them, he thought, since Mat had gone to the Barway; it felt odd to know his father could be afraid, and odder still to be included among those to whom he would admit it.
The big Man smiled and reached down to clasp Mat's small strong shoulder. "Do not be uneasy, my friend," he said. "So long as King Elessar holds the Reunited Kingdoms, I think we may be sure that the Shire will remain untroubled."
Mat held his eye for a moment, then gave a grudging smile and nod. "Cheers to the King, then," he said, raising his tankard, and Haluin and Baranor took up their own and lifted them in response. "To the King!" they answered, and the pewter mugs sang as they came together, enough to alert the table by the hearth where the other Rangers and the Postmaster heard and reached with alacrity to lift their tankards, too. "To the King!" they cried, and Jamy's heart fluttered with pride. The Master was friend to the High King, and Counsellor and confidante, too.
He turned his gaze now away from the familiarity of the lands fronting the Brandywine, and bent a little to peer at the unknown lands to the south. These consumed a wide portion of the parchment, but it was pale and empty save for a few scattered splashes of green, obviously denoting surviving woodlands, and a half-dozen small coloured squares that appeared to be isolated farms or tiny settlements, most of which hugged the eastern side of the road that sliced down the middle of the map. Jamy realized suddenly that this was the lower portion of the westward sweeping road from Bree - identified now as ‘The Greenway' - and he saw too, as Baranor had told them earlier, that it did indeed meet and merge somewhat to the southeast with the road from the Ford they had trod this morning. This is the road the Master means to travel, then! he thought, and eagerly he looked further south for Édoras.
There was no sign of it. There was, however, sign of another river: a long blue streak marked ‘River Greyflood' that cut across the lower reaches of the map, intersecting The Greenway on its journey to the Sea. Jamy stared to see it, for he had only ever known one Great River and had never given any serious thought to there being others in the World that were as important, though now that the World had enlarged before his eyes, he had to acknowledge there might be others. He noted with surprise that the Greyflood appeared to be even wider than the Brandywine in places, and saw that it was born of the convergence of two other rivers flowing out of the east. The Glanduin and the Bruinen combined on the flanks of a marshy basin called ‘Swanfleet', and there they became one and went forth as the River Greyflood, flowing vigorously westward to the Sea.
The Greenway crossed the river at the village of Tharbad, and went on so far as the map continued south - what looked to be another fifty miles - but there was no other town or village to be seen. He looked also for the Gap of Rohan, for he knew it to be a sort of gateway to the southern lands, but neither the Gap nor Édoras was in evidence and he concluded that they must be beyond the map's perimeter.
He straightened and looked around, turning to find the Ranger Captain watching him closely. "Sir," he said, "Where is the land of the Horse-lords?"
The Captain gave him a sharp look, smiling a little. "You're wanting to see where your Master is off to, eh, lad? Well, Édoras lies far beyond the reach of this map. But I have another that will show you the way to Rohan - Gondor, too. Would you like to see it?"
"Well, hop down and let me at the map chest, then," said the Captain, and Jamy jumped lightly to the floor. The Captain retrieved the map chest, set it on the table and throwing back the lid, rummaged through and drew out a piece of folded parchment that he spread out upon the table. Jamy stood on tiptoe until Baranor tapped him on the shoulder and indicated the chair, now brought back to the tableside, and he jumped up eagerly. After a moment's hesitation, Mat set his foot to a chair as well and came up beside him.
The new map, nearly as wide as the table and half again as long, lay before them. It was more elaborately wrought than the other, with richly coloured borders and large, fanciful sigils, and the names writ large and easy to read. The thinly waxed parchment had the appearance of being darkened somewhat with use and age, but the long folds were yet supple and there were no splits in the fabric and only a few traces of wax flaking in the creases.
"What's all this, then?" asked the Postmaster, newly arrived at the table with the rest of the Rangers and boosted without ceremony onto a chair across the table. He cocked his head as he surveyed the iconography, and Jamy said, "It's the way to Édoras, sir! I had it in mind to see where the Master and the Thain are going."
"Good lad!" nodded the Postmaster. "I was wondering about that myself. We've precious few maps on the Shire side, Captain Haluin, and even Toby, as works for the Thain, hasn't got one of the Outlands. So, then: where are we?"
"Let's backtrack a little." The Captain nodded at Baranor, who turned again to the map on the wall and, starting at the Ford, retraced for the assembled company the road to the Outpost where they were gathered, the intersection of the road with the Greenway, and the village of Tharbad on the Greyflood. "All told, then, this map shows a journey of nearly two hundred miles," he said, bringing his lecture to a close. "I should think it would take Sir Meriadoc and Sir Peregrin ten days, at the very least, to come to Tharbad."
Jamy caught his breath and the Postmaster whistled in surprise. "Ten days?"
Mat put his hand on Jamy's shoulder and glancing thoughtfully at the Captain, he said: "I'm guessing that means a steady pace, too - eight hours a day and meals in the saddle?"
"Just so," said the Captain, nodding gravely. "And twice again as many days beyond Tharbad to travel before they come to Édoras."
"Save us!" exclaimed the Postmaster, startled now indeed, as Jamy turned to look at Mat in dismay. "Thirty days astride a pony! Why, Master Meriadoc is a hundred if he's a day, and the Old Thain, bless him, must be in his nineties! My bones hurt just to think of it and I'm a youngster of seventy-five compared to them!"
He shook his head incredulously, then caught sight of Jamy's distress and behind him, Mat's look of silent warning. "Well," he said, sidestepping quickly, "Still in all, they're not known as The Travellers for nothing; they were ever fond of taking the road, and they've done so many times over these long years. I reckon they'll take the journey in stride; it's not as if they've never been before."
"How long for the whole journey, then?" Jamy asked, looking to the Captain.
"They will be a month or more on the road," said the Captain gently, tracing the road with the pointer Mat had used before. "And they'll be safe enough, I think, even though the Master declines an escort, for there are none to trouble them. The territory is mostly empty yet, save for King's Men, who are always on patrol. And the land itself is quite hospitable in the south, warmer and greener, as you can see."
The lands to the south of the marshlands of Tharbad were very different from the blasted lands above, and the cartographer who had made this map had obviously wished to illustrate the point. A golden-green wash filled the space between the River Greyflood and the Fords of Isen, and the lands to each side of the highway - now called the Old South Road - looked to be fair, fertile places.
But Jamy took no comfort from the thought of hospitable lands, for he knew a day's work in sunlight was just as hard as a day's work in rain. And he was thinking of the Master, who was so fierce in the face of all his years and all those folk who might seek to ease them, and so determined to go on as if they made no difference.
He's too old, he thought. He's too old, but he'll go, no matter what.
He sat down suddenly on the edge of the table.
"Jamy?" said Mat, bending quickly.
He looked at the long, long road to Édoras. Beyond the Gap of Rohan there were mountains. And they had not even shown him the road to Gondor yet.
"It's so far," he whispered, blinking hard against the tears that brimmed up out of nowhere. "Save us, Dad, I never thought it would be so far!"