"…It seems like a dream now."

erry Brandybuck woke gently to his last day in Buckland. His cozy bedchamber at the top of the Hall was wrapped in quiet darkness, and through the window above his bed a latticework of silver stars shimmered on the deep indigo field of very early morning. He gazed at it vaguely, trying to come awake, and for a moment it seemed to him that he saw a map of Middle-earth.

"Not to worry, Frodo; we know the way," he murmured sleepily, obliquely conscious of a sense of tender attentiveness at some great remove: a mind not unlike his own but starkly clear and quiet, and laced at this moment with watchful consideration. "There's not a thing to worry about," he promised, eager to convey his confidence on this most momentous day, and with that he came fully awake, and sighed a little as his dreams slipped back into the darkness.

He lay still for a moment, taking stock of himself and the day and all its promise, and then he rolled briskly out of his blankets, purposefully disregarding the sly indignities of age that might conspire to hinder him on a less auspicious day—for he had planned a private errand this morning and meant to set out in the dark before the Hall began to stir. Thus he quickly washed and dressed and went out to descend the staircase, creeping down on his hard, sturdy feet, one hand running lightly on the banister and the other hooked into the collar of the cloak slung hastily over his shoulder. Once he gained the ground floor, he passed quietly along the hushed corridors to the doorway and slipped out into the courtyard. There he paused for a moment to breathe deeply of the air—the darkling scents of early morning, rich with earth and river and leaf—and to mark the yielding coolness of the grass beneath his feet. Long ago he had taken just such a moment in Rohan, on the hill outside the Golden Hall, and ever after he had been able to conjur the place at will, though he had never till now been back again. He hoped to be able to do the same with the Shire once he had gone, and so now he paused to make a memory.

Turning to his purpose then, he made his way down the shadowed lane to the gardens behind Buck Hill. Silently he passed through the leafy gate and down the smooth flagstone pathway that led through the park to the barrow-field. And there, beneath the morning star, he sat down to take his leave of Estella.

"Good morning, love," he whispered, laying his hand on the barrow. "Sweetheart, it's time. I've come to make my goodbyes. Save us, can you credit it? My goodbyes! Oh, Stella, how that sounds! I've every intention of carrying you next to my heart wherever I go, but you know as well as I that I can't ever come back to rest beside you here in the ground in Buckland, and I'm sorry for that, if you are: truly, dearest, I never stopped to think, in all of this, what it would mean to leave you so."

Softly, in the deep blue darkness, he stroked the grass that covered the little grave. "You know, thinking it over," he said, considering, "I don't expect you will be sorry, will you? You always understood heartache better than I, and I expect you knew very well that the bonds of love don't pass away just because people do. I know I've been slow to see any reason or comfort in death, but I think I'm catching up: I'm beginning to feel something I never did before, and I know—I know, Stell—that I can hold the memory of you as close from here on out as I held you before you left us. In any case, I mean to, for I need to know you're with me. I've tried to let go these five years, but it didn't take, and in the end I think I was wrong to try. Berry said yesterday that trying had wounded me. She's a clever girl, and I think she's right; I know I've felt wounded—and not only by your going, but by every death I've ever been forced to accept."

He frowned thoughtfully. "I ought to have thought the whole business through long ago, of course—by the time Frodo went, you know—but it wasn't possible to be rational then. I wanted him back, just as I wanted you back later when I lost you, just as I wanted Boromir and Théoden and Berilac and Freddy—all of them, everyone I'd ever lost too soon—back with me as if nothing had ever happened to sunder us!"

He was surprised to find himself saying these things; he had not intended to, but the thoughts had sprung to his lips unbidden, and he could feel now that there were more, rising up in haste and need, pouring from his heart, as if it could hold no more, now that he was leaving everything behind. He took a breath and let them come; it was, after all, the last time he would say anything here, and he wanted no lingering regret that he had not said enough.

"The thing is this, Estella," he said. "I was not prepared, when I was young, to see people that mattered to me snuffed out like candles in the wind, and when first it happened—when Boromir and Théoden were killed and then when Frodo proved wounded unto death and had to leave us, and so many Elvish friends passed into the West—it was a brutal shock! To this day I don't think I ever found a way to quell the pain; I wonder if it hasn't got something to do with the wound I took in the War and the weight of the Black Breath. It hasn't escaped my notice that every time death has touched anyone since, even in the natural order of things, I've gone down into darkness. But no more, dearest; there's too little time now. Aye, I'll admit it to you, if to no one else: my time is waning, and I know what Pip and I face at the end of this journey."

He gasped a little; never had he spoken like this, not to anyone. Never had he come so close to admitting his own end: never since the day he had waked in the Houses of Healing to the scent of athelas and the touch of the King's hand. He felt a flash of fear and looked down to see that his hands were trembling. His throat tried to close in protest, but the words kept pushing through:

"I rather expect Pippin will go first," he heard himself say, incredulous that he could ever find voice for such a terrifying thought. "You cannot think how fragile he was when I found him on the highland these two weeks past; I don't suppose he will ever recover fully, poor lad, though he's game to press on and will until he can't anymore. I'll stay, of course, to see him out—but after—well, I can't think how I could go on without Pippin—I barely went on without you, Estella, and Pippin—well, Pippin is the last of us all—"

He stopped abruptly to clear his throat and was caught off guard suddenly by a warm brimming of tears. Afterwards he sat with his head bowed for a long while, marshalling his broken defenses. It seemed to him then that Estella was very close; he could almost feel her gently stroking his hair, and he sighed a little and rested his head on his knees while slowly the tears and the trembling subsided.

After a time he roused himself to speak of other things, and mostly he spoke of the Wedding—the tender gaiety that had spontaneously sprung up last evening around Berry and Tom's sitting for their gifts; the strange and beautiful shell Jamy had given them, filled with the sound of some far away shore; the sweetness of the young folks' love and the great throng of friends and relations who were expected in Tuckborough at the end of the week.

"I rather suppose two generations of Gamgees will require the better part of a wing at the Great Smials, don't you?" he teased, his sense of humour returning. "And what do you think! There is a delegation coming from the Tower Hills! I am pleased to think I shall be able to look one more time on Sam's Elanor. She was the first of all our children, and the torch passes now to her, in a way, though Frodo Gardner holds the Hill, and Theo and Faramir will carry on for the Brandybucks and the Tooks. I wish you could have seen Elanor at Rose's burying, Estella; save us, what a majesty she acquired with age!"

Then, as the stars began to dim, he told her of the final Farewell he and Pippin must yet endure in Tuckborough—the Long Goodbye, as he thought of it, with people crowding in from everywhere—and the plans the two of them had made beyond it. "We mean to steal away in the dark when we go," he confided now. "We've neither of us the heart to pass down the lane like the legions of Gondor, with flowers being strewn at our feet, and well you know the Tooks would do such a thing, if given half a chance! We shall have a stubborn shadow to the Ford in Galen, of course—and welcome, for Pippin's sake!—but for the rest of Buckland and Tuckborough—and all our dear ones—we'll have already said our last goodbyes. I know I couldn't do it as I rode away; what a fool I was to think this would be easy!"

And now it was time: the night was already in flight and the pale advance of dawn was glowing at the eastern edge of the sky. He glanced upward, his hand tangled in the grass on Estella's barrow, and the sun shot forth a shimmering froth of silver and gold: the last day he would ever see in the land of his Fathers dawned before his eyes.

He gazed at the sky—paling at a rush into lavender, pearl and smoky grey—and thought yet again to make a memory; it seemed important that he remember this last dawn. And then, turning his attention yet again to Estella, he discerned in the new light an extravagance of daisies scattered over her grave, opening their faces to the day. Years of studying herblore stirred his knowledge of the little flower: day's eye, he thought idly, and chuckled softly as an old Shire motto sprang unbidden from memory:

Spring hasn't really arrived until you can cover a dozen daisies with your foot.*

Slowly he extended that hard-worn appendage—still longer and broader than any in the Shire save Pippin's, and covered now with silvery curls—and leaned to one side to peer beneath it. "Well, look there!" he grinned. "My last official act, Estella: I am the harbinger of Spring! That's a dozen blossoms and more, or I'm not The Magnificent!"

He bent forward to pluck a few—tokens as they were of her resting place in the earth—and idly set about fashioning them into a chain, as he and Beri and Freddy and Estella had done when they were children. Pippin had been only a faunt in those days, of course, running about with tiny, tinkling bells sewn into his rompers,** but even then insistent on joining their 'grown-up' circle of play, and crowing triumphantly as they decked him with crowns and collars of flowers. Merry smiled for a moment to remember that, and when he had finished the chain, he drew from his breast pocket a small folding leather case and laid it inside together with a few fragrant stems of grass from the field. He closed the case and returned it to his pocket, then pressed a fervent kiss to his fingers and laid them in benediction upon the barrow.

"I've got to be off, lass," he murmured. "Mind, not a day will pass that I won't hold you close; you'll be there if I call, won't you? I love you, Estella—always!" And he hove himself up, stiff and cold from sitting in the grass but sweetly comforted by what had passed there, and went down the line to stand for a silent moment before his parents' barrows, and then he went resolutely out of the garden and, without looking back, took the winding pathway to the Hall.

Bo stood at the gate, watching for him, and when he came close enough, father and son looked into each other's eyes and each marked the fullness of the other's heart and read the thoughts that would, at least for now, remain unspoken by general consent—for all the Brandybucks were in a turmoil these days and all feared now to say too much before The Day—coming closer all the time—when they should need all the right words they could think of. But Merry could see that Bo was stirred to see him and anxious to gather him in.

"You're late, sir!" Bo said lightly, reaching out to clasp his shoulder. "We are all up and about, and breakfast is on the table! Further, folk are anxious about you—I came out to stay their concerns and, I must confess, my own. I can guess what you've been about, and I'm glad of it, but you must come in now and eat and get ready to go." And Merry looked about, at the yard, and the blooming apple trees, and the ivy-covered walls and the narrow lane wandering through the verge down past the wood to the lush banks of the river, and he took a deep breath, making another memory, and smiled and nodded, and they went in together.

Two hours later a train of folk from Brandy Hall that included the Bride-to-be, the new Master and Mistress and their two young daughters, a number of near Brandybuck relatives and a handful of elderly folk who had lived all their lives in companionship with Meriadoc the Magnificent was seen on the road to the Bridge of Stonebows in the best and swiftest carriages the Hall could provide, accompanied by several loaded waggons that had been prudently covered over with waxed tarpaulins to protect the bags and boxes and casks and wedding finery carefully packed therein. Once over the Bridge, the caravan would follow the Great East Road, for the journey to Tuckborough would take the better part of two long days and there were no inns to accommodate so many folk on the shorter way round by the Stock Road. There were several inns, however, between Frogmorton and the Northfarthing Road some ten miles east of Bywater, and these had been engaged to shelter the Buckland travellers overnight and to see them off after breakfast in the morning.

The Magnificent stood stolidly in the lane with Bo and Rory and Tom Gamgee to see the party away, waving until the carriages were out of sight beyond the bend. Behind him stood a cluster of loyal staff and neighbours from the Hall. When the carriages had gone, he turned and surveyed these faithful folk who lingered quietly and respectfully about the gate.

"Thank you," he said softly. "Thank you. You have stood my side here for many years, and you do me great honour today, in coming out to see me away. I must be going now, but know that the memory of Buckland and all of you will stay with me for as long as I go on. Indeed, it will be your strength and the strength of this House that will steady me, I think, on the road I have chosen now. Farewell to you—farewell, and may Buckland know only fine weather and good harvests and good times so long as you and your descendents abide here!"

He bowed quickly and a little stiffly, with a warm gleam in his eye, and before anyone could respond, he turned and strode away, and Bo and Tom and Rory, murmuring thanks as well, followed quickly after. The four of them went abreast down the path to the river where a somber Brody Smallburrow, arrayed for the occasion in what was obviously his very best coat and trousers, presided over the waiting Bucklebury Ferry. The Lyssa rocked in the shallows nearby, Mat Bucket standing knee deep in the river beside her, engaged in tossing up and over the side to Jamy a great number of bags and boxes stacked neatly on a floating platform beside him.

It had been decided that Mat would carry Tom and the wedding gifts across the Brandywine to the landing five miles north at Stock, where Robin Gamgee was to meet them with a waggon. Robin would then take Tom and his bridal goods to Woodhall before the two of them moved on to Tuckborough on the following day, and Mat would head north to the docks alongside the Brandywine Bridge to begin his planned refurbishing of the Lyssa.

Jamy was to make the Brandywine crossing with Bo and Rory and The Master (for so he continued to think of the old hobbit, despite the fact that Theo was now the Master of Buckland). Their journey would take them down the Stock Road by way of the shortcut at the Stockbrook, and they would stay the night at the fabled Hut. The small, stout trunk the Mistress had packed for Jamy was on the landing with the rest of the bags, and torn though he undeniably was to be parting yet again from his father, the river-lad was glittering with excitement.

Tom peeled off the path to help Mat and Jamy with the gifts, and the others went on to the landing. Brody Smallburrow watched them approach with an almost noble solemnity; as the old Master came aboard he bowed with great dignity and respect. "Mr. Brandybuck," he said gravely. "It's an honour to take you across, sir, but such a sorrow as I never felt to think I won't never be bringin' you back again."

"I could not ask for more skill or better company on my last crossing, Master Smallburrow," the Master replied, offering his hand, which the ferryhobbit wrung with fervor. "Save us, what a pile of bags we've brought for you! Here, let us help to carry them aboard—"

But Master Smallburrow would not hear of this, and in the end he and Bo and Rory wrestled the pile of packs and cases and bags aboard the ferry while the Magnificent was sent away to ramble along the grassy shore; he went amiably in the direction of the Lyssa, thinking to collect Jamy and tender a last word or two to the worthy Captain Bucket.

The Captain spied him coming, threw the last box up over the side and waded out of the river to greet him. "Well, sir," he said, carefully wiping his hands on his jacket before taking the hand extended him, "I don't rightly know what to say; for certain I was a fool, and perhaps I'd of known you longer and better if I hadn't been. But I'm glad I did come to know you, and proud, too, and it's the truth when I say I'm as sorry to see you go as Jamy is." He paused, a tiny frown between his brows. "May you fare well, sir," he said. "Take care of yourselves, you and the Thain, and may that long road to south lead you to safe haven in the end."

The Magnificent grinned. "I heard about the maps at the Ranger station," he said wryly. "And if I understand his frowns and mutterings, Master Jamy is not at all pleased with my well-laid plans for this long journey."

"No, indeed not," Mat agreed, smiling a little and shaking his head. "It came as a shock to him, the size of the world. Though I can't say I had any notion of it either, until I went to the Barway and spent an evening or two listening to the captains of the King's ships speak to the places they've seen."

"Ah," said the Magnificent. "So far as the reach of ships, that is more than I have seen as well."

On the Lyssa, Jamy shrugged into his small traveling pack, exchanged a high-spirited fare-you-well with a laughing Tom, and scrambled over the side, splashing through the water to join his father and the Master on the shore. "All stowed, sir," he reported, dancing a little in anticipation.

"Very good," Mat nodded, looking him over. "Now, mind your manners, and take care not to go rolling in the grass in that fine suit of clothes Mistress Brandybuck set up for you, speak when you're spoken to and go to bed when you're told, and listen to Bo, for he's to have charge of you—understood?"

"Understood—and I promise, Dad: I'll be back before you miss me!"

"I know it—be off with you now and I'll see you back here on Monday next!" And the boy threw his arms about his father and for a moment they held tight to one another, and then Jamy drew back and laughed, and kissed his father soundly, and scampered away to the ferry, calling out a greeting to Rory as he ran.

"I think you must be missing him already," the Master said quietly, watching him go.

"Aye, but don't tell him so," said Mat with a sigh. "This trip means the world to him—seeing your lass wed and you away, and I don't mean to burden him with my feelings. We live in unexpected times, he and I."

"May they come right for you soon, Captain Bucket."

"Aye," murmured Mat, gazing distractedly after the small, flying form. "I wish with all my heart they may, sir, though there's something makes me uneasy about it all, truth to tell. Well, we'd best be off if we're all to be on time. Again, a safe journey to you, sir, and may you and the Thain have clear skies and friendly currents the length of it!"

The Master's eyes flashed a deeper understanding than might have been expected, and he reached quickly to take the Captain's hand yet again in a warm and sympathetic grip. "Never you fret for your boy," he said. "That lad is marked for destiny and a long and busy life or I'm not a Brandybuck!" Then he smiled and waved and called to the boat: "Best you hurry, Tom! Berry will fret every minute she's in Tuckborough without you!"

"Not to worry, sir!" Tom called back. "I've waited for that saucy lass far too long already. I'll be there with bells on!"

"Mercy!" exclaimed Merry, his eyes lighting with laughter. "Think of your father's dignity, lad!"

When all were aboard their respective vessels and Brody had unhitched the ferry, the Lyssa swung away, and Bo and the boys crowded to the north side of the deck to watch as the Captain turned his trim craft into the wind and began the arduous business of tacking upriver. Master Smallburrow noted, squinting after her, that Tom Gamgee looked to be lending a hand—leastways he was not sitting primly in the bow like most landlubbers—to which observation Bo replied that Tom, like he and Theo, had found a good friend in Captain Bucket, and that the crossing was sure to be an amiable one in every way for both of them.

"Is that the way of it, then?" marvelled Master Smallburrow, flushing with pride and pleasure for his friend. "Well, he's a good fellow, is Mat. And about time the tide turned for him!"

When at last the Lyssa waved goodbye with a snap of sail, Bo and the youngsters turned to see The Magnificent standing stark and upright on the eastern rail and Brody eyeing him covertly, his plain, stolid face lined with regret. The old hobbit's back was turned to them, but they could see what passed with him nonetheless, through the set of his shoulders and the tilt of his head, and immediately they swallowed the playful banter they had been inclined to share on the crossing and instead sat down on the luggage to make quiet talk amongst themselves. Every once in a while one of them would steal a quiet glance at The Magnificent, whose gaze remained fixed on the receding shoreline; and even as the river—at his own command—bore the old hobbit inexorably away, he did not once turn from those last, sweet glimpses of Brandy Hall and the verdant shores of Buckland. Jamy watched and tried to take comfort in the fact that his elderly friend did not seem to weep, but simply looked, long and reverently. And when at last the ferry came in reach of the far shore and the Magnificent left his lookout on the rail to join them, the boy wondered that his face could be so bright with anticipation when he had left so much behind.

he family breakfast room was all but empty when Pippin looked in, even though it was time for Second Breakfast. He was not surprised, for most of the family had been engaged since dawn in the hectic flurry of activity that now attended the approaching Wedding and Farewell festivities that were but two days hence. Today was especially busy: the parties from Buckland and Hobbiton were expected, and the folk from the Westmarch would likely be turning up as well. The guest apartments were being fluffed and aired and set to rights, the very young children were abroad in the meadows helping to pick what flowers could be had for the sitting rooms and the guest cottages, and out in the party-barn the teens and tweens had been working excitedly since dawn, setting up the long trestle tables that would hold the Feast and hanging swags of greenery and paper lanterns from the low beams. The Great Smials was in a happy uproar, and everyone was looking forward to the events of the next few days.

Thain Peregrin counted himself as keen in this regard as everyone else, but the present found him otherwise engaged: all his attention was concentrated this morning on seeking out his sister and making her talk to him. Pervinca had been incandescent with fury on the day she had learned that he and Merry were leaving the Shire, and though he had made every effort to explain himself and make peace, she had cut him dead every time he tried to speak to her. They had not spoken in a fortnight, and Pippin was determined now to have it out before it was too late.

As he had hoped, the only inhabitants of the small breakfast room were Goldilocks and Pervinca, who had their gold and silver heads together over several very long lists of Things To Be Done. Judging from the state of the table—a jumble of plates and cups and cutlery all pushed haphazardly into a pile at the center—they had made very short work of Second Breakfast this morning.

He rapped smartly on the doorframe as he stepped into the parlour and Goldilocks looked up. "Oh! Good morning, Father!" she said warmly, favouring him with the soft, sweet smile that forever reminded him of Sam—how he missed the old fellow! A very sensible chap had Sam been; the Thain had more than once availed himself of the Mayor's practicality and good sense.

"Good morning, dearie," he said, turning to latch the door firmly behind him. "'Morning, Pink! What's to eat?" In quick succession he flashed a furtive wink at Goldilocks and a winning smile at Pervinca and got exactly the responses he expected: Goldilocks returned a gaze bright with sympathy; Pervinca sniffed and frowned fiercely at her list.

"I don't know what we shall do if that dratted costermonger doesn't arrive soon from Pincup," she said irritably. "Really, Golden. He oughtn't to spread word about his bursting apple cellars if he can't make deliveries on time! We've any number of pies and cakes and sauces to make and not nearly enough apples left here after such a hard winter to make do. I shall hold him personally responsible if we are scanty by way of desserts!"

"Don't you worry, Auntie," Goldilocks said soothingly. "I'm sure he'll come today. You know he sent to tell us he was waiting on a wheelwright. Shall I ask Gardner and Geron to go up to the road and keep a eye out for you?"

"Certainly not!" snapped Pervinca. "This is not child's play! I shall go myself, and don't think I won't give him a piece of my mind when he comes plodding along at last! Wheelwright, indeed! Rather a surfeit of hard cider, if you ask me! If those apples have worms, I shall thrash him for his trouble!"

Pippin had not come for Second Breakfast, but one could always do with a little something, and in any case he didn't want his ploy to be as obvious as Pervinca's state of mind. Save us! he thought in alarm. She could be stubborn and devious, but it was most unlike her to be so patently bad-tempered!

He scooped up a plate of toast and a little dish of preserves, spearing a sausage or three for effect as the ladies went over the last of their concerns—the additional stores coming in the wedding waggons from Buckland. Pippin smacked his lips in happy anticipation of the six large barrels of Buckland Beer that were even now bearing down on the Tooklands and sighed a little as he poured a cup of the special medicinal tea Galen left for him on the sideboard every morning.

Pervinca and Goldilocks rose to go.

"What?! Leaving so soon?" Hurriedly, he propped his stick against the sideboard, plunked his plate and cup down on the table and pulled up his favourite chair so as to partially block their exit. He sighed heavily as he sat down, mostly for show, though he was more than a little stiff from his morning ride. "Everyone is so very busy today," he observed wistfully, grasping at conversational straws. "I've not been asked, but perhaps I might be of some help? I'm rather at loose ends these days, you know."

"Father! You are a Guest of Honour at the Party! And Galen vows that you have quite enough to do just getting ready for your journey!" Goldilocks' pretty mouth curled up into a secret smile as she bent to gather her things together. "If it's any consolation to you, though, I'm quite sure you will be as busy as you could hope for once the Buckland folk arrive!" She laughed, patting his shoulder as she squeezed past him on her way to the door. "Rest while you may, sir; I've no doubt Uncle Merry will lead you quite a dance these next few days!"

"Not to mention ever afterwards!" Pervinca hissed. Her bitter pronouncement was punctuated by a sharp clash of crockery. She had removed the jumble of cups and plates from the table to the low shelf where the dirty dishes were stacked beneath the sideboard and tumbled them angrily onto the waiting trays; now she followed Goldilocks, her stolid old frame rigid with displeasure. She twitched her skirts away with considerable violence as she passed beside his chair.

"Pink," said Pippin mildly, liberally buttering a triangle of toast. "Stay a moment?"

She did not answer or even turn to look at him, but Goldilocks looked round and he quite appreciated the feeling glance she gave him. He smiled gently as she slipped out through the door, Pervinca marching grim and determined at her heels.

"Pervinca," he said, in the Thain's voice. "A word, if you please."

The Thain's voice had been as much a surprise to him as it had been to everyone else the first time it had ever been heard, slicing deftly through the din of some fifty Tooks and Hill Country folk noisily engaged in deciding how best to address a catastrophic landslide in the uplands of Tuckborough. Time being of the essence and lives hanging literally in the balance, so many desperate ideas had been advanced that the rescue parties were faltering now in confusion, and the muster was beginning to panic. The young Thain—only a few years into a daunting birthright that had actually proved relatively comfortable and uncomplicated compared to some of his Outland adventures in the War—suddenly found himself back on the wall and realized with a start that this time it was he who must take command.

"To me!" he bellowed in a powerful timbre that rang in contrast to his own high voice, leaping up onto a barrel so that he might be seen by his clamouring tenants and relatives, and every head had snapped around to gape at him in astonishment, for Thain Peregrin had from the start been light-hearted and easy in his dealings with all the Took-folk, and not given to hardening his voice and rapping out orders as Thain Paladin had done in times of crisis. This thundering battle cry was new to them; and so, too, was the undisputed voice of authority that followed hard upon it:

"This is no way to bring help to folk who are in trouble!" he rebuked them, blinking to hear himself, hard and fierce and strange in the sudden, startled hush. "Are we not Tooks, and the first and finest Muster in the Shire? Find your ranks! Ten hobbits to a line; Captains forward: you know who you are. Listen now: here's what we shall do, and never fear I won't be there beside you—"

And of course he had been there, hard at work on the ruined hillside, calling out encouragement as he had seen Aragorn and Faramir and the other Captains of Men and Elves do with their folk in desperate times—though in truth, he felt somewhat abashed at the pride and respect he marked in the eyes of his people afterwards. He wondered if every chieftain felt himself so unequal to the confidence he inspired in his troops.

Among the younger hobbits he observed something even more distressing: a look of hero worship that truly alarmed him, for it was not in his nature to court such serious admiration, let alone seek to secure it. He could not think what to do about it! Still, he felt sure it was the voice that had inspired the younglings and that probably it was not wise to try to change their good opinions, for in the scheme of things, it could only help the Tooklands if they followed on with such eagerness and pride. It occurred to him then that leadership could be a very lonely proposition, and so it was that he turned to Will and others about the place and organized the system of delegation that was to be not only his style but his legacy—and all because he had no heart to lead in isolation. And if over the years he had marveled that the voice continued to ring out whenever it was needed, he was the only one, for his captains had known from the first that it was a gift, and one that served their people well.

It certainly served now. Pervinca froze at the sound of it, her fingers trembling on the latch. He supposed she was shaking with rage, rather than fear or respect, but he meant to press his advantage all the same.

"Pink," he said deliberately, still in voice and just loud enough to penetrate the partial deafness that afflicted her old age. "Drop the latch. We need to talk."

"I've nothing to say to you!" she cried, her eyes welling with tears, but she dropped the latch all the same, and then she fled from him to the hearth at the far end of the room where even at a distance he could feel her bristling with fury. He shook his head and sighed.

I rather think you must have something to say to me, my lass, he thought, frowning after her. Certainly you've indicated your displeasure often enough this past fortnight! Well, there's no time left; you'll say it now or regret not saying it ever after. In any case, we're going to have this out!

He reached for his stick, hauled himself to his feet and went after her, schooling himself to patience, mindful of the deep affection he had always felt for her—the only one of his sisters even remotely near enough to his age to be an occasional playfellow and confidante—and determined to make peace before they were separated forever.

A very fine portrait of Thain Paladin and Eglantine Took hung above the chimney shelf in the breakfast room. The picture was quite true to life—Estella Brandybuck had captured the Thain and his Lady in a very handsome old age, and their likenesses never failed to stir in Pippin the fanciful feeling that his parents were there somehow, watching over the family still. He thought they must be observing with considerable interest and no little concern this morning, to see what would come of the bitter falling out that divided their youngest, and now only living, children.

And children we must seem, too, quarreling like this when we're each of us close on a hundred! Pippin said to himself. What IS the matter with her, anyway?

He caught up with Pervinca at the hearth where she had drawn herself up in stony defiance and knew immediately that whatever patience he could muster would not serve for long. She was going to be obstinate and that always had him squirming with exasperation in very short order. Not that he wasn't a reasonable fellow, and willing to listen when it was necessary, but he liked a person to meet him halfway; it showed good faith.

It appeared that Pervinca had cast aside whatever faith she had ever had in him. Well, if she wouldn't talk, he certainly would!

"All right, then, madam, let's have it!" he snapped, and almost immediately he regretted the harsh authority of the Thain's voice, for she caught her breath in tremulous distress. He opened his mouth to speak again in a gentler fashion, but before he could say anything she had begun to cry, and in no time she was sobbing into the hem of her embroidered apron as if her heart would break. Pippin pressed his lips together while his own heart twisted painfully in response; there was nothing so desolate as the rough, broken sound of an elderly person weeping, no single cry more openly disconsolate or despairing. Merry had wept so when Estella died, and Pippin's heart would never forget.

The voice yielded to pity and withdrew. "Pink!" Pippin cried, casting aside all his pretenses and reaching out to catch her arm. "Why are you so angry?"

"Don't you dare!" she cried, shaking him off. "Go away! You're selfish and uncaring—I never thought to see you so, my dearest brother, and the last but me of all our kin!"

"What?" He stared in confusion. "The last of our kin? Pink, what are you talking about? We've kin stacked to the rafters in nearly every smial for twenty miles around!"

"Don't be a fool!" She stamped her foot. "I don't mean every Took that ever lived! I mean us—Paladin Took's family! Surely you've noticed we're all that's left?"

"No, we're not. There's any number of children and grandchildren to follow after us—between us we've—"

He took an involuntary step backwards from the fierceness of her stare, hesitating in apprehension as she scrubbed at the tears on her cheeks with the twisted edges of her apron. "I-I guess I don't understand—" he said hesitantly.

"How could you?" she cried, blazing up. "How could you and Merry be so selfish as to go away and leave me here to die alone?"

"How could—? What?" Whatever he had suspected was fueling his sister's fury—and in truth, he hadn't been very clear about it and neither had anybody else he'd importuned—it certainly wasn't this. He clutched at the chimney-piece and gaped at her in astonishment. "What?"

"Oh, stop! You are no such fool as you pretend to be, and you haven't been for years! You're at adventuring again—at your age!—and everyone knows this time you won't come back! Fine for you and Merry, I suppose, running off yet again to please yourselves, but what about me? What am I to do, then?"

He might have been a child again, so reduced and confused and wholly inadequate did he feel, the same as he had done all those long years ago when he had been obliged to defer to a domestic logic of females that made no sense to him but nonetheless stood intractably in the way of all his boyhood impulses. He shook his head. "I don't understand, Pink," he said softly. "Help me, please?"

Pervinca rolled her eyes. "Pippin, Filibert and Diamond are gone. So are Mama and Papa and Nell and Pearl and most of the folk we grew up with here. We're alone—we very old folk—and there are none here who have known us so long and so well as we have done each other. Did it never occur to you that once you were gone I should be left to die alone?"

It hadn't. But it was absurd on the face of it, given the breadth of relations crowded into the Smials. Still, he could hear the fear in her voice. "Pink," he said firmly. "You are not alone here."

"Nevertheless, I shall die among strangers."

"Strangers!" he repeated, beginning to lose his patience. "Strangers here, at Great Smials? There is not a soul in Tuckborough that does not love and reverence you! Do you dismiss them so easily as that?"

"No, but—!"

"But what?" he demanded, his voice rising in frustration. "And what do you mean, anyway, talking about dying? You haven't been sick a day in the last ten years. I'm the one who's dying at the moment—!"

"Fishtails! Don't suppose I've swallowed that ridiculous lie hook and line the way everyone else has! You made it up, Pippin, just to get away! Haven't I seen you slip out to go riding every morning this week? How sick can you be? And haven't I seen you going up the hill every afternoon with the children—not to mention the fact that you went every day for a month before they all arrived? A very convenient story, to be sure, brother, but I don't believe it. You don't look as if you're dying to me!"

"Well, I am!" he declared hotly, "and so I should have told you—with Merry as my witness—if you hadn't chucked us out of your morning room before we'd even had our tea on the day we came to tell you! And if you hadn't avoided me every minute since and glared at me with thunder and lightning on your brow when we did meet so I never had a chance to explain myself! I swear to you, Pervinca, I'm—"

"Stuff! Galen is the best healer in the Shire, Pippin, and he says you will be well enough; I heard it with my own ears!"

"Your own ears are not what they used to be, sister! I think you did not hear everything Galen had to say, and I expect you were eavesdropping when you heard what you thought you heard in the first place, and that you jumped to conclusions without bothering to ask what was going on! I'll wager you haven't listened to anyone since then, either. I shall be well enough, once I am quit of the Shire, but if I don't go soon, I promise it will be you who sits watch at my deathbed, and rather sooner than later. Galen will confirm this, and Fair and Laury and Merry, as well. Hold me back and see what happens!"

Pervinca said nothing, lifting her chin in a way that made him lose all that was left of his sympathy for her. And so it was in the Thain's voice that he told her what had come upon him and what would come about if he did not soon go out again into the Wide World and stay there until destiny was through with him. He was brutally forthright, and he spared neither the details nor her feelings.

"Oh!" Pervinca's eyes widened as she scanned his face and measured it against the passion of his words. She sat down slowly, and all the anger and accusation that had fired her face in the past few weeks drained away, and shame and sorrow crept in. Her eyes brimmed with tears again, and with a guilty glance at his mother and father—because he had been hard—Pippin sat next to her on the arm of the chair and put his arms about her, patting her awkwardly while she wept into his shirt-front. It reminded him somehow of the days when they had been small children together, and as innocent and open of their feelings as this—though back then it had been she who looked after him and soothed his hurts away. He smiled encouragingly, and bent to kiss her cheek before he rose. "There now," he said. "Better?"

"Oh, Pippin, can you ever forgive me?" she said mournfully, taking his hand. "I'm so sorry. I have been very selfish."

"Of course I forgive you!" he declared, surprised to find that the fierce rush of relief that washed through him now also sent the hot sting of tears to his eyes. "Thank you for hearing me out—though I suppose you hadn't much choice."

"I ought to have listened before," she murmured and frowned anxiously, scanning his face. "Pippin, I'm trying to take this in—what it is that's happened to you and how it happened. You didn't precisely say, but I can't help but wonder—would you be dying now if Diamond was still here?"

Inwardly, he winced. This was one of the things he must carry very gently in the deepness of his heart for as long as he walked in Middle-earth. "No," he said softly. "Likely not. But it's all right, Pink. I've no doubt it was meant to be. Destiny, remember."

She shook her head. "You're never to be free of it, then? I thought it must release you, sooner or later. I thought you'd met it squarely on and put it behind you long ago. I guess I should have known better. What an astonishing life you have led, Pippin, and the rest of us in consequence! I think we must be the first family of Tooks since the Bullroarer's to have been so shaken by the business of destiny."

He felt a surge of guilt, long absent from the conscious emotions he brought to the daily task of living. He had long ago paid off the familial debts incurred in his youth, but perhaps now was the time to fully acknowledge them. "Pink," he whispered. "I'm so sorry for all the hurts I brought upon you all——I know I've been a shocking imposition at times, even for a Took. Was it awfully hard for the rest of you, my being who and what I was?"

"Oh, no, dear!" she said, stroking his hand. "You couldn't help having a destiny, and now that I think of it, the family really has been quite the better for it. Such a Thain you have been, brother, formed as you were in trials no other Thain ever had before, and in these long years of service to the King, which have made you so wise and far-thinking! And such a kind husband and father and brother you have been as well—though I must say I think you would have been so regardless of whether you had gone into the World or no. You were ever the sweetest little lad…."

"I'm sorry—"

"No, don't say that. It's me who needs to beg forgiveness—to think I have been so wretched about this, and now we've so little time to be together, and then to say goodbye! I am so sorry, Pippin; I can see you have no choice in this. It's the same with Merry, isn't it? And the same for Sam as well?"

"Aye," he murmured, struck suddenly by an image of Sam hurrying toward his own shore of destiny. "I've a feeling that once we take these paths, we're meant to walk them to the very end."

"I expect so." She sighed and turned her face to the fire.

"Pink, what is this trouble you have, this fear of dying alone?"

She gave a little snort of annoyance. "Foolishness, I expect. It's just that I never thought I should be the Last, Pippin. It is so hard to think of—one must be so very brave to stand the Last of all their folk!"

"Do you think so?" he asked, taking up the poker to stir up the fire. "I guess I never gave it much thought. I always knew that I should be Last; I've ever been the youngest, no matter what company I was in, so it seemed a reasonable outcome. And I suppose I've just become so used to the idea it doesn't seem all that frightening. I'm sorry you're so troubled; it never occurred to me this could mean so much to you. You just need to remember that so long as you have friends and folk who love you close by, you won't be alone."

"Truly?" she said faintly. "Is that what you believe?"

"Aye, and here's something else: never doubt I shall be with you in spirit. Don't suppose I have cunningly escaped being Last by leaving, for here's the truth of it: I'm fairly certain I shall live to see Merry out, and then I shall most definitely be Last—for it's certain there will no other hobbits in the White City to sit with me when my time comes."

"No!" she cried, starting up. "Oh, my dear, how dreadful! I never thought—! Save us, can you not send for Galen or Faramir—?"

"No, I don't want them wandering about the world once I've gone—the Shire needs them at home, and in any case they should never come in time if they were summoned. No—I shall meet my end with the dearest friends a wandering hobbit could ever hope for, and I shall be all right, just as you will. You don't really believe your children and mine will not come to you when you need them?"

"No-o-o. It's just that I'm—oh, Pippin! I'm frightened about dying, and they are all too young to understand!"

"Pink," he said firmly, settling into the chair beside her and taking her hand. "There's not a hobbit come of age who hasn't flinched at the thought of dying when first it came whispering along in the dark: the thought that one day he or she would be no more. We don't speak of it, of course, and we've a long tradition of packing up our little burial pouches and going dutifully into the earth, but that doesn't mean we don't fear to think of it. All living things want to go on living."

"But you're not afraid, Pippin."

"I have been. Not so much now, though—I've had far too much practice!" He laughed softly at her look of frank dismay; there was much he had downplayed over the years. "Aye, lovie, I've come closer than you might imagine. It's not so bad." He paused as memory crowded his mind's eye, and a sudden wistful shadow flitted across his face.

"What is it you're not telling me?" she asked softly.

He smiled at her, the rare, sweet smile that he kept in reserve for those singular moments when he shared the deepest secrets of his heart. "Nothing so awful as that. It's just something Gandalf said to me once —"

"Oh! The wizard!" Pervinca's brows rose expectantly. She had heard enough of his stories to know that when Gandalf came into the narrative, wisdom, enchantment or both would follow hard upon. Pippin knew his lively sister had always envied him Gandalf.

"It was just a fancy, Pink, meant to help me through. Gandalf could be very kind, you know, under his stern countenance. This particular comfort he conjured for me on the day Minas Tirith came under siege. We were trapped, he and I, in a blind alley with a company of castle guardsmen at our backs, and the enemy bearing down upon us and no way to stop them or get out. We all knew we were going to die in a matter of minutes. Gandalf and the soldiers were very brave, but I was only a tween, you know, and what small courage I had just dried up in the face of the slaughter at hand. Save us, I could hardly breathe, Pervinca! Gandalf saw how it was, of course, and how hard I was trying to keep steady, and he came to sit beside me. What he said—well, as I said, it was fancy, but it gave me something to hold on to."

"What did he say?"

Pippin hesitated. He had never told another living soul—not even Merry—what Gandalf had said to him that day, and he knew he could not tell Pervinca the whole of it, for it was decidedly Outlandish and would undoubtedly raise far too much confusion in her mind at a moment far too late in life. This he knew better than anyone, for he had been puzzling over some of it for the better part of sixty-five years, and even now he wasn't sure what to think of it. All he knew was that he had taken a strange sort of comfort from it more than once, in times when there was very little comfort to be had.

He dug his pipe out of his pocket—Pervinca would know this meant he was thinking, and that would buy him a little time—and went through the ritual of filling and tamping and firing the bowl while he worked out what to say. When the leaf was drawing nicely, he leaned back and sighed, raising his eyes to hers.

"Gandalf said that death was just another path, Pink, one that we all must take."

"You mean like your destiny, somehow?"

"Aye. And he said the way of it was to lift our hearts and set us free of pain and sorrow, and that when all was said and done, there was nothing to fear. He seemed pretty sure about it and I took him at his word. It helped me then, and it's come back to help me many times over since. I think he spoke the truth, too. I have seen that path open out before me more than once now, and a fortnight ago I walked further along it than I ever have before. It was lovely. I might have gone on, and happily, if Merry hadn't called me back."

"Save us, weren't you frightened?" she whispered.

"No, I was curious!"

She stared, incredulous, and then she laughed. "I gather death doesn't change everything then," she teased wryly.

"No," he admitted with a smile of chagrin, glancing up at the portrait above the chimney-piece. "Apparently not."

"It is a kind of destiny, then," she mused softly, and he watched with interest as her face cleared and a wondering smile came to her lips. "It seems that both of us have a path we must walk to the end, then, brother!"

"Aye" he agreed, squeezing her hand. "I think we do, lass."

"Well," she said, considering. "Then I think should do well to follow your example, and try to be as brave as you has always been."

f Jamy Bucket had entertained any private doubts about leaving the familiar shores of the Brandywine to follow the erstwhile Master of the Hall overland to the Great Smials in the Green Hills Country, they were far behind him by the time he woke on the second day of the journey, tucked warmly into a tidy little bunk in the Hut, with a pale purple dawn peeping in at the windows and the little rindle in the meadow outside plinking softly over its thin, pebbly bed.

To be sure, the shores of the River were also far behind him, and the great song of the water that was so dear to his heart had gone, fading away into the gentle folds of the hills and dales through which they had passed in the long hours of travel the day before. The only water sounds in this land were the tinkle of the little rills coming down out of the hills, and the quiet rustle of the wider streams they became as they met and ran south together to join the little rivers—the Stockbrook, Thistlebrook and Shirebourne—in whose company they would flow east to the Brandywine. Before now he had never given any thought to these tiny, far-flung and seemingly insignificant tributaries, for the Brandywine was All to him; but now that he was a traveller of sorts and had learned to read a map, he looked for and met each one with a little cry of welcome, beaming on them fondly as though they were distant relations he was meeting for the first time, and carefully repeating such fanciful names as the Master obligingly plucked out of the air to give them.

The road proved full of unexpected pleasures. He liked the way the long green grass beside the road shimmered in the early light of day, and the way the earth smelled in the late afternoon, full of the day, sweet and rich and warm. He was delighted with the Hut, which seemed to him very like his father's boat, with everything neatly stowed away in cabinets with latches, and bunks built in along the walls; and when he and Rory went out to explore the meadow and the little wood beyond, Rory had led him to the spring from which the rindle came and he had marveled to think of how the water that bubbled up here would tomorrow or the next day be far beyond the Green Hills Country on the way to the Eastmarch and the Brandywine. Now, upon waking, he lay thinking of all the little streams that must eventually come home to the River, and he began to think that places and people he had heretofore dismissed as nothing to him because they were unimagined and far away were, on balance, a part of his life on account of these things; and so he felt a little easier when he thought of his father going back to the Barway at the far end of the River, and the Master going to live in Gondor, which was, after all, at the end of a road that he himself had trod at Sarn Ford only last week. The River and the road were ties that could not be broken.

The savory smell of onions, fried up with potatoes and bacon, wafted past his nose and nudged his senses fully awake finally, and he peeked around the side of his bunk to see the Master sitting in one of the soft old chairs in front of the grate, sipping a cup of tea and plying a long-handled spoon to a pan on the fire. He slipped quietly out of his blankets, careful not to wake Rory, whose soft, steady breathing in the bunk behind him said he was still deep asleep, and pulling up his braces padded quietly to the hearth.

"'Morning, sir," he said softly as he slipped into the circle of the firelight. "That smells good!"

The Master, who looked to have been thinking deeply, blinked and looked up. "Good morning, lad!" he said with the sudden mercurial smile that Jamy liked so much. "I always think it's better to pull a body out of his blankets with the smell of breakfast on the road."

"Aye, sir, and thanks! I'm sorry I wasn't up to help you, though. I can't think when I was ever such a slugabed." This was true; normally he was up on deck watching when the night sky brightened into such soft lilac dawns as he had waked to see today.

"Well, you had an full day yesterday." The Master took up the kettle and poured him out a little mug of tea. "There was a great deal that was new to you, and thus much to dream about after." Jamy nodded; the Master would know. The old hobbit added a dollup of honey to the cup, stirred it with a little wooden spoon and passed it across. "Careful there, it's hot!"

Jamy took the cup into his hands and blew gently on the steaming surface. "You're right," he reflected. "I wasn't sure I'd take to the road, being as I was born to the River, and it's true I haven't never been so far from the banks before, but it wasn't so strange as I thought it would be—though maybe it will be today, when we come to the Tooklands."

The Master nodded gravely. "I daresay we imagine more differences between one place and another than there really are," he said. "I know I was surprised when I went out into the World to find there were many trees and flowers I already knew, not to mention people who were the same as me in many more ways than I could have imagined." He laughed suddenly, his eyes twinkling. "Of course, Tooks in large numbers are another matter altogether!"

Jamy smiled, settling himself in the other chair and stretching out his toes to the fire. By now he knew the rules of the Master's games with regard to Tooks. "Well," he said frankly, "Thain Peregrin Took is your friend, so he must be all right; and you say Mistress Goldilocks is Mayor Sam's daughter, so she can't be too au—au—how do say it?"

"Audacious," supplied the Master with a grin.

"Right! So I expect I'll like them just fine. But sir, listen: what you said about the folk out in the World—those Men and all—being the same as you? I'm thinking I know what you mean, for the Rangers are good fellows, especially Baranor. And I'm wondering now, is that why you and the Thain aren't afraid to go away and live outside the Shire? Because you won't be lonely for folk like yourselves?"

The Master cocked his head, frowning thoughtfully. "Well, yes, I suppose that's a good bit of it, lad. We are made to feel quite at home in Rohan and Gondor, and we've many good friends we look forward to seeing again—Man, Elf and Dwarf alike! That's something I hope you'll remember this year at Brandy Hall while your father is away: you're never alone when you've got friends to stand by you."

He leaned forward to peer at the pan on the fire. "Good—the potatoes are done! I'll just set them over here to the side and stir up some mushrooms. Have a scone while you're waiting?" He picked up a large tin that had been pressed upon the travellers by the fond kitchen folk at the Hall and passed it over.

Jamy helped himself with alacrity to one of the plump golden pastries, a particularly succulent-looking one studded with bright red currents. The Master took one, too, deftly frizzling butter and mushrooms with his other hand, and for a moment they were silent, chewing and sipping companionably in the firelight. Jamy, however, was turning things over in his mind as he had been for weeks now, and at length he ventured ingenuously: "I like to start a day this way, sitting by the fire with a bit of breakfast. Won't you miss tea and scones something awful on the road to Édoras, sir?"

The Master laughed, his eyes lighting with affection. "You're fretting over me again, aren't you, lad? You've got to give it up, you know, for I shan't change my mind: I must take the road to Édoras, despite all these horrifying prospects for deprivation you so helpfully keep offering me. I'm sorry lad, but the die is cast. Now, to answer your question—I most certainly will not miss tea and scones, because the Thain and I fully intend to take a good supply of both along with us!"

He reached out with a wry smile to ruffle Jamy's curls and the boy ducked his head, colouring a little at being caught out. "You've good instincts, Jamy," the Master said gently. "You're quite right to suppose that some things are necessary for the barest survival of hobbits. But you must take comfort from the fact that over the years the Thain and I have learned to travel in style, and truly, we lack for very little; you mustn't worry overmuch. Further, I shall let you in on a secret: there is a thriving little settlement on the road called Tharbad-on-the-Greyflood where we will most certainly stop and be able to replenish most of our stores."

Jamy looked up. "The Greyflood? I remember that one! It's the next big river after the Brandywine as the land goes south."

"That's the one! I am impressed! I confess I was testing you just then, and you've proved yourself a scholar of the first order! Bravo! You learned a great deal from your visit with the Rangers, didn't you?"

"Well," said Jamy, suppressing a sigh—for his dwindling hopes for holding the Master back had dwindled yet a little further now—"They do have a pile of maps, sir. And I was staggered to see how far away the land of the Horse-lords is; that fair took my breath away, if you want to know. I didn't think there was so much land in the world!"

"It's astonishing, isn't it? That's partly why I'm so glad you decided to come along with us to Tuckborough; you've a chance to see more of your own little country—and the Thain has a fair pile of Shire maps in his library so you can see how the rest of it lays out as well. A hobbit is always better for knowing the lay of his land—as well as his River!"

"Why, that's true, sir! I was just thinking this morning that I've seen for the first time where the water comes from—well, some of it, at least—and now I know somewhat of where the Stock Road goes, too. I never thought to wonder, when the Lyssa put in at Stock, what might be beyond the bend in the road there, but now I'll always know! What will we see today, sir?"

"More farms than we've seen so far, more hobbits as we come closer to Tuckborough, then the outskirts of the village itself, (for it sits a way off the road) and then the Great Smials. I wish your father could see it, lad; he would think twice about calling Brandy Hall a 'confusion' after that!"

"Well, I like the Hall just fine, sir, but I can't imagine these Great Smials, somehow. They can't be so big as you say."

The Master smiled broadly. "I shall leave it to you to decide if I speak the truth, Jamy Bucket! Now, it's time to cook the eggs, but it seems that the smell of breakfast here is not going to rouse Bo and Rory. Pour some tea for these lazy fellows while I see to rousting them out of bed!"

But it seemed that Bo had already been awake and listening, for he tumbled out ahead of the Master, his dark eyes warm and thoughtful; and Rory had waked at some point, too, for he kicked off his blankets and rolled out of his bunk when Bo did. It did not take so long for all of them to wash and eat and tidy up the Hut, and before long they were off again, journeying with all deliberate speed, so that the miles to Tuckborough passed swiftly beneath the wheels of the waggon as the sun arced across the sky.

They came in sight of the drive at Great Smials at about three in the afternoon and were met with a whoop and a whistle from two young hobbits who sat perched on the fence that ran alongside the road. The youngsters stood up on the rails and cheered lustily as the waggon came round the last bend and down the long straightaway to the gate. They waved what looked to be long, wooden swords.

"Look sharp," said the Master with a smile in his voice. "Sentries up yonder, or I miss my guess."

From their seats atop the bags and boxes in the back, Rory and Jamy stretched up to look. "How do you mean, sir?" Jamy asked, squinting at the lads capering on the fence ahead. They looked to be ordinary boys, and only a little younger than himself. "Who are they?"

"It's Gardner and Geron!" Rory declared after peering forward for a moment. The two small guardhobbits now had their heads together —one light and one dark—in what looked to be a merry consultation. "Gardner, the fatter one, is Fair To—sorry, Thain Faramir's second son, and Geron Proudfoot is his father's sister's son—Mistress Amethyst—from Whitwell. They're some bit younger than you—steady for Tooks, and smart. Do you mean they're at play, Grandfather? I've never heard of Great Smials posting a sentry."

"They are indeed at play, which means we are in peril, lads! Those two are too clever by half. They are astonishingly steady, given their antecedents, and most times will find Geron in the library and Gardner puttering about his grandmother's glasshouse, but Tookishness will out—never think otherwise!—and when they come together, there's no telling what may ensue! I'd advise you to dig deep for any fruits or sweetmeats you may have left in your pockets, for they often play at pirates and are sure to demand a token at the gate—I had to pay dearly to get out when last I was here!"

The lads were laughing over this when the honey-haired Gardner Took jumped down from the rail, cupped his hands round his mouth, and bellowed cheerfully down the road:

"Ho, Uncle Merry! You're first from Buckland!"

"Ho, yourself, Image-of-Sam! I'm sorry to hear it—all the beer is in the other waggons!"

"What!" came the reply, at once scandalized and droll. "No beer! You can't come in here without Buckland Beer!" The sentries were laughing and Jamy saw that they were also squinting the distance to see who else was riding in the waggon. Realizing himself to be an object of interest, he sat up a little higher. Bo shook his head, smiling, and the Master chuckled softly.

The dark-headed Geron now also descended the fence and strode out into the center of the road, bending on his way to scoop up a long pole that lay in the verge, a soldier's pike in the world of play.

"Best not let Thain Peregrin know you've come empty-handed to his board, Bucklander!" he called sternly, setting his pike in the road with one hand and brandishing his sword with the other, "—lest you find yourself turned back where you came from! Who is it goes there with you, anyway?"

"Two sons of Buckland and one of the River Brandywine!" rumbled the Old Master, joining the game with a wink at the others.

"The sons of Buckland are known to us and welcome to these lands," called Geron in the language of legends well known to lads at the Smials and the Hall, "—but whence comes this Brandywine, and what is his business?"

"Insolent pup!" growled the Master, taking up his cue in the play. He pulled the pony to a stop as they came close to the small guardhobbits, Jamy and Rory exchanging covert looks of delight behind his back. "How comes a lowly sentry to question a Knight of the Realm?" he demanded. "This lad is a prince of the river-folk, and stands my squire when such is needed, along with my grandson there."

"Squires, is it?" Geron retorted, his eyes sparkling as he lowered his spear. "Why, then, you are in good company, river-prince! For here stand two squires to the Thains of Tookland! You and Rory Brandybuck may share our board tonight!"

"Well, move aside then, until dinner-time!" said the Master, waving his hand impatiently. "I've business with the Thain and your dinner could be forfeit if I don't see him soon!"

Gardner joined his cousin in the road and once again they consulted, their urgent whispers and stifled giggles audible enough to cause their detainees to smile at each other behind their hands. When they came apart, Gardner spoke for both.

"See here, Uncle Merry," he said ingenuously. "We deem you may pass the gate, but a token of your good intentions might hasten an announcement of your coming to GrandPer—who most certainly will want to meet you with a pint of beer!"

"A pint?" whispered Jamy, his eyes widening.

"Aye!" whispered Rory. "It comes in pints at the Smials!"

"Done!" cried the Master, whose price was known in Tuckborough. "You are extortionists of the highest order, but I approve your terms! What token will it be, then, lads? Sweets or silver pennies to give wings to your feet?"

"Sweets!" declared Gardner, who was, as Rory said, the rounder of the two.

"No—pennies!" Geron hissed, elbowing his cousin in the ribs; undoubtedly, he saw the larger benefit of coin.

"Thieves!" laughed the Master. "But I own you know your prey well enough! Let us see what my lads here can cobble together for your ransom, eh?" And while Jamy and Rory laughingly emptied their pockets of soft toffees wrapped in little squares of waxed paper and dried fruits mixed with lint, and Bo pulled a jingling pouch from his pocket to apportion the pennies, the Master braced a foot and sat back on the bench, eyeing the young Tooks thoughtfully:

"What are you impudent whelps doing out here, anyway? Gate-keeping, is it? Surely this is not the job the Thain assigned you for the day?"

"Aye, it is, for now," said Geron honestly, tossing his pike back into the verge so he might gather sweetmeats and pennies into his pockets. "'Twasn't Uncle Fair, though. Mum sent us out to make sure the costermonger found his way so's Auntie Pervinca wouldn't come herself and shout at him. We'd just seen him through when we heard another waggon, so we stayed on to see who was coming next."

"The costermonger had half a dozen jars of cider wrapped up in the straw beneath the bench," Gardner confided. "Good clay jars they were, too. I wager there'll be cold cider for tea today! Hooray! Well, we'd best be off, Uncle Merry, if we're to announce you properly. Give us a minute before you come on?"

"As you wish, lads. Run like the wind!"

With a cry of thanks and a merry wave of their wooden swords, the lads were off, racing down the long, tree-shaded lane to the Smials. The Bucklanders watched them till they disappeared among the trees.

"So Auntie Pervinca's shouting at merchants, is she?" mused the Master. "Ah—poor Pippin! I can imagine what that's about."

"He should count himself lucky," said Bo, "if Auntie Pervinca is the only one. Theo expected the whole lot of them to rise up in protest!"

"They were astonishingly quick to understand his situation," the Master admitted. "I almost think they anticipated something of the sort. And of course Goldilocks' experience must have given them some perspective, as well."

Bo nodded. "I spoke with Tom a few days back," he said. "He told me how it was with his father, how important it was to Sam to complete the journey begun so long ago. When he went, the Gamgee-Gardners looked to each other for comfort, and certain there were enough of them to go around! They will help the rest of us now..."

The Master said nothing, but looked approvingly on his son and patted the hand that lay on his knee.

"Sir," said Jamy curiously as they started up again, the promised time being spent, by the Master's reckoning. "You said 'Image-of-Sam'?"

"Ah—you caught that, did you? Well, it's true: that lad is as close a copy of Samwise Gamgee as you are ever likely to meet in person. I mind you noticed Tom was very like the picture, but with Gardner it goes deeper. Of course, our Sam was never so giddy as Gardner—very proper fellow, Sam was, and at that age his Gaffer kept him far too busy to play— but in all other respects the lad is as sweet and caring a model of his granddad as anyone who remembers Sam could hope for! You keep an eye on him, Jamy, and you'll get a fair sense of my old friend—may he be happy, wherever he may be."

Jamy opened his mouth to reply, but the words never issued forth. What came instead was a strangled gasp as the waggon rounded the outward curve of the drive beyond the trees and the better part of the Great Smials hove abruptly into view. The boy's eyes widened even as his throat closed; Brandy Hall being the peak of his otherwise negligible experience with Great Houses, he found himself in no way prepared for the sight of the House of Took—which displayed not only a considerably wider and far more impressive façade than the Hall, but also appeared to involve a staggering degree of penetration into the rolling hills beyond. To be sure, there were everywhere the homely touches one could expect of hobbit dwellings—countless window boxes overflowing with spring blooms, and a curious tangle of neat little paths winding through the turf-covered terraces to a multitude of brightly coloured doorways—an effect that was naturally charming in the extreme; but there was no getting round the fact that the simple mass of the Great Smials was nothing short of mind-boggling.

"Save us!" Jamy choked out, almost indignantly, when he finally recovered his voice. "Save us! How did that ever come to be? Whoever thought of such a thing? It goes forever—it's so big it gives me the shivers!" And shiver he did, just for a moment, even as his green eyes warmed with excitement.

"Never underestimate the audacity of Tooks!" said the Master complacently, as Jamy stared, open-mouthed, and Rory laughed and indicated some of the finer examples of Tookish idiosyncrasy. "I told you, they're a truly shocking lot! I think you'll like them exceedingly. Ah! And here they are!"

Indeed, quite a tribe of Tooks appeared to be descending upon the waggon as it drew up at the side of the front elevation, right next to the first and most elegant of the claret-red front doors. The Master said over his shoulder that this was called The Great Door and that it was the private entrance to the Thain's apartments and the living spaces occupied by members of his immediate family.

The immediate family was much in evidence. In addition to the three or four grooms from the stables who materialized to take care of the horse and waggon, a handsome group of hobbits, identified by the Master as the Thain's sons and daughters, stood waiting in the entry garden, together with several small children who called and waved. A number of teens led by efficient Geron and Gardner, who had apparently alerted the entire household, appeared on the run from across the park where they had been working in the Party Barn. Folk waved from up, down and all around. Cries of welcome echoed everywhere.

The Master called out many greetings, and Bo and Rory did as well as they jumped down from the waggon. A serious, auburn-haired hobbit who wore a strange green stone at his throat darted to the side of the waggon to hand the Master down, and another, darker-haired and so finely dressed that Jamy guessed he must be the new Thain, met the Master on his descent with a warm, familial embrace and an extraordinarily large tankard of beer. The two of them laughed and then spoke quietly together. Jamy hesitated, not sure what to do with himself in such a press of strangers, but Bo turned and beckoned him to come, and so in a small flutter of agitation, he clambered down to meet the Tooks.

Sensitive to his lack of acquaintance and comfort with families of the gentry, the Master had thought to present Jamy on the journey with a recent genealogy of the House of Took and had spent some time pointing out the folk they were likely to meet. Bo and Rory had supplied first-hand knowledge of some of these persons, and now as one hand after another slipped in and out of his in open, friendly greeting, Jamy found the names and faces sliding into place in his mind just as the Brandybucks had done on his first day at the Hall—though the Thain's family was considerably larger. One and all, they greeted him warmly, and such was their collective charm that he found the lot of them more than a little dazzling, though he could not put his finger on what it was about them that made them so. The children were a sparkling, gregarious lot who seemed bred to joy and hospitality, and when he was formally introduced to Geron and Gardner, they greeted him as an old and established acquaintance, knowledgeably explaining to their siblings and cousins that he was "a prince of the river" and altogether a very good fellow.! Jamy was quick to explain that the Master had been joking and that he was not really a prince, but only a river-hobbit's son, but Bo, standing with one hand on his shoulder, made sure to put in that the river-hobbit in question was King's Anchor on the Barway, which surely made Jamy something very special indeed.

There was a stir now on the porch as the Great Door was flung open and an elderly couple hurried out: an old lady in a blue-flowered gown and a fine lace cap woven with blue ribbons, and a tall, white-haired gentlehobbit with a genial air of authority and a bright, eager face threaded, like the Master's, Jamy saw, with memories of shadow. He wore a soft brown coat and trousers over a snowy linen shirt, and a dark green scarf woven in a pattern of vines and leaves was wrapped carelessly round his neck. There was an sense of valiant dignity about the old fellow as he stood leaning casually on his stick—an intricately carved wooden cane set with strips of silver and small red stones—looking searchingly through the gathering, his clear, curious gaze alight with anticipation.

It's him!! thought Jamy with a thrill of excitement. It's the Thain! Isn't he fine! He's got the same look now as he did in the picture—sad and glad all at the same time— and save us, but he must be every bit as tall as the Master! I hope so—I wouldn't want to choose between them—!

The Master took leave of the young Thain to make his way toward the porch and Jamy watched him go, oblivious for the moment to all the voices and activity swirling around him. "Pip?" he heard the Master call, and the already bright face of the old gentlehobbit on the porch opened like a flower to the sun. "Merry!" he exclaimed delightedly. "I thought you'd never come!"

The elderly Thain then bent to speak to the lady beside him and after a moment's conversation, kissed her cheek and saw her down the steps to mingle with the guests. The Master was coming up the steps as she was going down, and when they met he stopped his progress, bowed and spoke to her, a bright, affectionate and somehow repentant exchange that ended with his gallantly kissing her hand. The old lady laughed and shook her finger in his face, as if he were a naughty tween. "Go on with you, Merry Brandybuck!" she said. "You're forgiven for now—just you don't forget you owe me a dance—no, two, for all the trouble you've caused me!"

The old gentlehobbits greeted one another as old friends do, sharing a quick embrace and a burst of animated conversation. But soon enough the Master set his tankard aside and taking the Thain's shoulders held him at arm's length, anxiously looking him up and down as if to assure himself that all was well. I knew he was worried, thought Jamy, whose sharp ears had several times over the past weeks caught the sound of uncertainty in the Master's comments with regard to his cousin. The Thain must have sensed it, too, for he acquiesced with grace to this inspection of his person and to the questions that accompanied it, and when the Master's frown at last gave way to a smile of relief, he turned their talk to other matters.

Jamy's heart ached a little to watch them, for it was as if the two of them were lads together rather than the old hobbits they were, as if they had forgotten that a hundred years lay hard upon them, pressing harder still. As gleeful and light-hearted as Geron and Gardner, they seemed every bit as young, too. He watched them standing side by side, toasting (he supposed) their future with foaming mugs of beer, and he wondered how it was possible that two such glorious knights-errant could ever get old and die. For the first time, he understood the Master's aversion to discussing his age.

"Now, which one are you?" came a voice at his elbow, and he came back to his surroundings with a guilty start. Bo was there with the elderly lady in the lace cap, who had made her way round from the porch to the newcomers and stood now observing him with quick interest. Her face was small and bright like the Thain's and the look in her eye, like his, was curious.

Bo said, "May I present Mistress Pervinca Goodbody, Thain Peregrin's sister," and Jamy quickly bowed his head respectfully, his left hand at his back, as his father had recently taught him to do when presented to rank or nobility. It seemed to him the right thing to do with such a gentlelady as this.

Mistress Pervinca acknowledged his gesture with a little blink of pleasure and surprise. "How charming!" she murmured, and the smile she gave him was genuine. "Now, I recognized Rory right away, even though he's grown so much since I saw him last," she went on, "but I can't quite place you, sir! The odd thing is, you seem very familiar to me. Bo, who is this?"

"Don't answer that! Let me guess!" came a sunlit voice, light and bubbling with laughter, and down the steps and into the circle like a spring breeze swept the elderly Peregrin Took. Such was the force of presence that Jamy caught his breath, and when the Master slipped quietly into the circle as well, he felt rocked for an instant, as if something had shifted suddenly and settled into place, as if a circle had been completed, or a bolt shot home.

The Thain stood smiling down at Jamy from his great height, his eyes sparkling with fun, and Jamy looked up boldly to met his gaze, and match it. He thought he ought to feel a little shy, but oddly, he didn't; he felt now that he saw him, that he had known the Thain for a very long time. The Thain, apparently, felt he same. He bent down and, smiling broadly, extended a fine old hand. "Hullo!" he said in the rolling lilt of the Tooklands. "I think you must be young Jamy Bucket, Prince-of-the-River and Protector of the Master of the Hall. Am I right?"

For some reason Jamy did not feel he had to explain anything to the Thain. "Yes, sir," he said stoutly, extending his own hand while beside him the Master chuckled softly. "That would be me!"

"I knew it! I honour your hand, sir! I am Peregrin Took, lately known as the Thain, and also—in the southern regions round Gondor—as the Ernil y Periannath, which translated into our language, means Prince of Halflings. What do you make of that?"

"I make the Master outnumbered two to one by princes!" murmured Bo, with a sly smile at his father, and the Thain laughed delightedly.

"Indeed he is!" he declared, and grinning at his friend he said, "I thought I ought to make that clear, Meriadoc. Now then, Jamy Bucket, I must tell you how pleased I am to meet you. Besides myself, you are the only hobbit I have ever known who proved a match for the Magnificent here—well, excepting Estella, who doesn't count, because she was a lass. I am quite in awe of how you managed to prevail upon the old fellow to account for his whereabouts whilst he was here—you've no idea how impossible that would have been for a lesser mortal than you or I!"

"Sauce!" muttered the Master, biting back a smile.

"Or, for goodness' sake!" the old lady said suddenly. "I see it now! Why, Pippin, he could be you at fifteen! No, it's not precisely your face, child—you don't look a Took, entirely—though of course you might be a relation—anyone might be!—but it's the sense of you somehow—so very like! Do you see it, Pippin?"

"Of course!" said the Thain serenely, winking at Jamy. "It's the look in his eye. Hard, bold and just the smallest bit wicked—!"

Jamy smiled broadly.

"Peregrin," said the Master with feeling, "I will thank you not to give that lad any ideas—!"

"Merry! You love my ideas—you always have!"

"Your pardon, sirs." Thain Faramir, with Geron and Gardner close behind him, slid into the circle, putting one hand on his father's shoulder and the other on the Master's. "The ladies would like us to go into tea. We thought we'd take it in the library this afternoon, as there's plenty of room for everyone and the children enjoy looking at the books. Why don't we all go in?"

"Splendid idea!" declared the Thain, smoothly turning his attention to the niceties. "Merry, you will of course sit by me, and Jamy, you must sit to my other side. You shall have a glass of cider, lad and as many cakes as you like, and tell me all about yourself, for I've never learned the particulars of life on the Brandywine and I think I'd like to, before I cross it for the last time. I think we should like to hear about your father, too—I wish I might have met him! They tell me he is single-handedly upholding the honour of the Shire down there on the Barway!"

"Us too, Grand-Per?" queried Geron hopefully, and behind him Gardner and Per and the rest of the cousins crowded close, all bright with enthusiasm. "Please? We don't know the first thing about boats! Jamy, will you tell us about the Barway, and the King's Anchor? And Sarn Ford! We've none of us been, and we want to know what it's like, where the Shire and the Wide World meet! We've maps, of course, but we've never seen the real thing."

"That's right! There are maps in the library!" Jamy said, smiling up at the Master and then at the Thain. "Is it all right?" he asked.

"Surely, lad," replied the Master, and winking at the Thain he said, "You might want to regale them as well with that ghastly tale of the Haunted Withywindle and the River Woman. I think the Thain would like that one!" And the Thain nodded vigorously, his eyes shining.

"What did I tell you?" he laughed. "Hard, bold and wicked! I knew this lad would be a treat!"

"Well, what do you think of the Tooks?" the Master asked Jamy as they passed over the threshold of the Great Door and followed the Thain's party down the hall to the library.

"I like them, sir! Especially Him! Is 'hard, bold and wicked' the same as au-au—"

The Master laughed. "Audacious? Yes, I rather think it is! He's left you a legacy, I fear. I knew the two of you would hit if off!"

* http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/blooming-early-the-pick-of-the-spring-flowers-788458.html

** Several tales by Grey Wonderer (Stories of Arda) feature a wee Pippin with silver bells sewn into his clothing—the better to find him as he is frequently scampering out of sight of his minders! I think GW's Pippin of the Bells is a charming creation and included Merry's remembrance of small Pippin here in honor of her pretty idea.

*** Pippin is recalling here a scene from movie-verse:

PIPPIN: I didn't think it would end this way.

GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take... The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass... and then you see it...

PIPPIN: What, Gandalf? See what?

GANDALF: White shores... And beyond... A far green country under a swift sunrise.

PIPPIN: Well, that isn't so bad.

GANDALF: No... No, it isn't.

This scene originates in the book as stunningly beautiful and emotional narrative:

"And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise." (The Grey Havens)