Where the Merlin Cries


1. Sheep May Safely Graze

Reginard Took warily showed the proud young hunter into the Thain's study. At a look from the steward, Ferdibrand sat straighter at his desk, a hound come to the point, ready. Thain Peregrin, on the other hand, rose from his chair behind the ornately carven desk with a smile.

'How may I help you?' he said politely.

Without the usual preliminaries, the young hobbit got right to business. 'We're having a bit of trouble with ruffians,' he said.

The Thain cocked his head slightly to one side. 'I beg your pardon,' he said mildly, 'but I did not catch your name.'

The young hunter seethed with irritation; he knew very well that his name and his business had been announced to the Thain before he had been allowed to enter the study. Through gritted teeth, he said, 'Fastred of Greenholm.' The Thain raised an eyebrow, and waited. Belatedly, the hunter added, '...at your service.' Reginard Took cleared his throat behind him, and Fastred said at last, 'Sir.'

The Thain nodded, and with a slight smile, said, 'And at your family's. Have a seat, Fastred.' He looked to the steward. 'Regi, would you order us some tea, or...' looking back to his guest, 'perhaps you would prefer ale?'

'Tea's fine,' the young hunter said. Every fibre of his body signalled his impatience and disdain for the protocol he'd been forced to endure.

Reginard bowed with elaborate courtesy and left the study. Ferdi maintained his watchful mien. The Thain turned his attention to his chancellor. 'Ferdi, how are those crop reports coming?'

Fastred held tight to the remaining shreds of his temper whilst the Thain calmly discussed mundane matters with his chancellor, but meeting the latter's eyes, he recognised, with a shock, the look of a fellow hunter. He might be sitting quietly, behind a desk, dressed in fancy togs for the harvest holiday, but his eyes were alert, his body relaxed but ready, like a bowstring that needs only to be pulled back and released in one swift motion to send the arrow speeding on its deadly path.

There was a knock at the door, and a deferential servant poked his head in. 'Sorry to disturb, Sir,' he said apologetically to the Thain, 'but something's come up...'

Thain Peregrin rose smoothly from his chair with an apology to his guest. 'I won't be long,' he said. Fastred managed to jerk his chin in a nod.

After the door closed behind the Thain, he met the watching eyes of the chancellor once more. He could just see the faint white rope scars on the other's neck. 'You're the one they call the Fox,' he said shortly.

The other smiled. 'They used to call me that, a long time ago,' he answered.

'They still call you that, out past the Far Downs,' Fastred said, his tone one of grudging admiration. 'We could use spirit like yours about now.'

The other nodded, then turned his attention back to his scribing. Fastred looked about the study. One whole wall was bookshelves, more books than he'd ever seen in his life. It made him want to jump up from his chair, to see so many books in one place. Ah, well, at least nobody was making him read one of them. Windows took up much of another wall, offering a panoramic view of Tuckborough and the Green Hill country beyond. Covering a great deal of another wall was a large map of the Shire, the Thain's realm. Fastred snorted softly to himself. He would never have imagined such a mild-spoken fellow to command the entire Shire. Still, the Tooks must have something... they had kept the ruffians completely out of Tookland during the Troubles.

When his eyes returned to the chancellor, he found the other watching him again. 'I'm not about to steal anything,' he said in irritation.

Ferdi smiled briefly. The fellow was touchy enough to be a Took himself. 'Of course you're not,' he said. 'That would hardly be good manners, now would it?' Fastred frowned at the implication that his manners had been wanting up until now, but he took the point. When the Thain returned, he rose from the chair as a gesture of respect, and remained standing until he was invited to be seated again.

The tea tray arrived with the steward, and tea was poured with appropriate solemnity and attention to niceties.

Once the Thain had seen his guest served, and sipped his tea, and nodded dismissal to the servant bearing the tea tray, he sat back in his chair.

'So, Fastred of Greenholm,' he said, and though the tone was one of polite indifference, the glance was shrewd. 'You are having trouble with ruffians, are you?'

'Yes... Sir,' he said. 'I'm sure you don't see any trouble, with all those great oafs of King's Men guarding your borders. Anyhow, the ruffians have decided the Shire is too much work to pillage, so they've turned their attention to the Westmarch instead.'

It was true, the King's edict had been bloodily enforced by his guardsmen, who'd lost some of their own to treacherous ruffians, and of late there had been no report of rogue Men entering the Shire.

'If the wolves cannot have the sheep in the pasture, they'll look for the wild sheep outside the bounds,' the Thain said. 'And we're to blame for your troubles, I take it?'

Fastred was startled by the other's perceptiveness. He did resent the hobbits of the Shire, sitting fat and happy behind their walls, guarded by sheepdogs, letting themselves be protected like helpless children, subjects and servants of a faraway King. Servants. The thought made him grit his teeth. How could they bear to live without freedom?

These hobbits were serene enough, but they neither looked fat, nor soft. Though mild-looking, even bored, as if he were too lazy to pay much heed to matters of importance, the one who sat before him, the most powerful hobbit in the Shire, had a core of fine steel, the young hunter suspected. He'd seen the same look in his own father's eyes, in the half-remembered days before the ruffians came, before he'd been struck down.

'I didn't say that,' he answered at last.

The Thain smiled. 'Then you came here to look for aid?' he asked.

The other bristled, but as the Thain said nothing more, letting the question hang between them, Fastred finally mastered himself, nodding once, hating to admit that the free and independent hobbits west of the Far Downs needed anything at all, much less help from a bunch of molly-coddled sheep.

'What was that?' the Thain said quietly.

'Aye,' Fastred forced himself to say.

Another knock at the door, another deferential servant. 'Sorry to disturb, Sir, but they're ready for you now.'

The Thain nodded, drained his tea cup, set it down precisely on the saucer. 'If you'll excuse me,' he said, 'you've caught me at rather an awkward time. You see, the Mayor is waiting to open the harvest celebration, and I must be there.'

Fastred nodded. He was surprised the hobbit had agreed to see him at all. Now he was to be sent away with a pat on the head, a condolence perhaps, Hope you have better luck against the ruffians, we'll be thinking of you as we sit by our cheery hearths and eat of the fruit of our labours. What? You all are starving? Whyever did you let those ruffians steal all your crops, anyhow?

But no, the Thain was gesturing to him. 'Why don't you come along? We'll talk further after I've fulfilled my responsibilities. Of course you'll be staying the night... Ferdi, find him a room? ...and then bring him down to the celebration. He might like to meet the Mayor.'