Notes to Readers:
Thanks for the reviews! Very helpful, quite motivating.
Admin Notes: This story begins the winter before Fastred is appointed Warden of Westmarch, he and Elanor move out to the new territory, and Mayor Samwise comes up for re-election.
O, and by the way, I am now posting new chapters simultaneously to ffnet and www.storiesofarda.com. So if ffnet has a bad day, hopefully you can still get your update of the continuing saga...
Look for the next chapter to "FirstBorn", in case you are following that story, and if ffnet agrees, on the morrow.
Comments are always welcome. Have some tea and a cream scone fresh from the oven...
1. A Visit to an Ailing Friend
S.R. 1454, late in the year
Rose opened the door to a streaming Thain and his escort. 'Come in,' she said, 'O Pippin, you shouldn't have ridden out in this, you'll catch your death!' She nodded to Hildibold, who nodded back. He was an escort, a shadow, not someone to talk to, especially on the days when the Thain chose to ignore his escort. Pippin would have preferred to ride out of the Smials without one, but by tradition, an escort for the Thain was required.
'How is he?' Pippin said, stepping in and shedding his sopping cloak. His escort stepped in behind him, apologetically dripping on the stones of the entryway. The twain took the towels Rose tended with thanks, applied them to hair, and wrapped the offered blankets around themselves.
With a nod to Pippin, Rose led Hilly to the parlour, settling him by the fire, calling Goldilocks to bring him a pot of tea and then take the children down to the stables to polish harness. She returned to the entryway to find Pippin looking more like a hobbit and less like a mop fresh from the bucket.
'I could find you a change of clothes...' she said uncertainly, thinking that whatever she managed would be too short in the leg and arm at the very least, though they'd fit otherwise. The Thain never had put weight on, not even as he passed middle age. His unnatural height, for a hobbit, was accentuated by his unusual slightness. Just looking at him made her itch to fill a platter with good, hearty food and feed it to him.
As if reading her thought, Pippin smiled and said, 'I'll be fine, just poke me by a fire with a cup of tea. I shall be all dry and toasty by the time I'm ready to go out in the deluge again.'
Rose chuckled, and answered his first words. 'He is well. I think we've managed to avoid the Old Gaffer's Friend*.'
'I heard he lay in the rain for an hour before he was found,' Pippin said soberly.
She looked at him sharply. 'How'd you hear that?'
He laughed. 'I'm the Thain. I'm supposed to hear everything that goes on in the Shire.'
She nodded. 'They brought him home about an hour after he'd left,' she confirmed.
'Handy, to have the pony slip and fall so close to home,' Pippin said. 'Well, let me sit by the fire and chew on him a bit, that'll be nice and warming.' Rose laughed and led him to their bedroom, where a bright fire was on the hearth and the Mayor was propped up in the big bed, sipping tea.
'Hullo, Pippin, what brings you out in this weather?' he said.
'Somebody said the Mayor had "broke 'is head" this morning,' the Thain said, settling in a chair by the fire and stretching out his long legs. 'News travels fast now that there's a road between Bywater and Tuckborough. Thought I'd take the air and see.'
'You came up the Hill?' Sam said.
The Thain grinned. 'We made it up the Hill just fine, it's going down that looks to be a problem.'
'I can attest to that,' the Mayor answered. 'Was just going down to take a look at the Mill, thought the Water might be coming up fast.'
'It is, but Sandyman has the situation well in hand,' Pippin said. 'Whatever you may say about his manners, he knows his business when it comes to the Mill.'
Rose brought him a mug of tea, strong and black as he liked it, and freshened Samwise's cup. They thanked her, and she said, 'I have some scones about to come out of the oven, with some butter fresh-churned. D'you think I can find anyone hereabout to eat them?'
Pippin laughed. 'If those lads of yours don't eat them as they come out of the oven, I'd welcome a few.'
Rose smirked. 'They're all down at the stables, polishing harness.'
The Thain laughed again. 'I hear the Mayor has the best-looking pony team in the Shire. Now I know why.'
'They'll be awhile,' the Mayor said, sipping his tea. 'Now's the time to talk business, no ears to listen in but Rose, and she doesn't tell what she hears.'
'Well, first off, I think you need to arrange to lay quite a bit of gravel on the road up the Hill,' Pippin said. 'Treacherous enough going up, I'll say. I don't relish the trip down again.'
'I suspect you're right,' Sam said. 'I'll get right on't in the morning.'
'Your Elanor was fit to be tied when the news came, you know. Wanted to ride out with me. Diamond practically had to tie her to a chair. I managed to sneak out whilst she was nursing that grandson of yours.'
Sam laughed. 'Are you sure she won't follow?'
'No. So we'd better finish talking about business before she turns up at the door.' The Thain sipped his cooling tea. 'The Tooks are starting to talk, you know,' he said quietly. No more words were needed; Sam knew exactly what he was talking about. Though hobbits gossiped about everyone and everything, there was only one topic near and dear to Mayor and Mistress Gamgee's hearts at the moment, and they'd begun to hear gossip of their own amongst their neighbors.
'What's to be done?' the Mayor asked soberly.
Pippin fixed him with a sharp eye. 'What's the harm?' he asked. He put up a palm to forestall Sam. 'O I know what the old Thain would have said, but he's not Thain anymore. And your old gaffer is hardly about to object from the grave.'
Sam shook his head. 'You cannot change centuries of tradition in a twinkling.'
'I've seen the feeling between the two of them,' Pippin said softly. 'I know how it feels, to love someone out of reach.'
Sam snorted. 'Love? They're much too young to call it that.'
Pippin sat quite still, then said, 'I found I loved Diamond when she was about Goldilocks' age, and I was not that much older than Faramir.'
'We'll have to keep them apart,' Sam said, 'yank that weed before it can take root. The Tooks will make her miserable, you know that.'
'I married a farmer's daughter,' Pippin said softly.
'She was a Took,' Sam countered. 'My Goldi's a nobody in the Tooks' eyes.'
'Her father's the Mayor,' Pippin argued.
'An elected position. The day I step down, I become a lowly gardener again.'
Pippin smiled wryly, 'Still not a nobody. Ring-bearer.'
'And what do the ruling families of the Shire, save yourself and Merry, know about any of that, or even care?' Though the Story was being told in the great houses now, at least in the Great Smials and in Brandy Hall, it was still little more than a story to many. Sam shook his head. 'No, I'm not bitter. Well, perhaps a little, so far as they never appreciated what Mr Frodo did.' He met Pippin's eyes. 'I won't see her hurt or sneered at for daring to marry above her station. And you know it'll hurt you as Thain, and Faramir as well, in the eyes of the Tooks.'
'No,' Sam interrupted. 'You don't understand, Pippin. It's easy enough for one who's high-born to go slumming about, graciously extending friendship to the lower classes, but for one of us to presume... it just doesn't work the other way. I've seen what happens to those who try. It is better for us to remember our place and keep it.' He sighed. 'I'm sorry, Pippin. I know your friendship has always been sincere, but you know as well as I do the talk that goes on, from both sides.'
'I cannot move you in this?' Pippin asked.
'It's for the best,' Sam said firmly. 'Enough said.'
They sipped their tea in silence. Rose brought a tray of scones, smoking hot from the oven, homemade strawberry preserves, fresh butter and clotted cream.
'Mmmm,' Pippin said. 'Don't be in a big hurry to lay that gravel, Sam. I think I might settle in here awhile. No hurry to go back down the Hill.'
Rose laughed. 'So how's that grandson of ours?' she asked.
'Big and bonny,' Pippin said. 'He has the whole Smials competing for his grins.' He finished his first scone and dusted his fingers. Rose nodded and smiled, well pleased, and hurried out of the study, to be sure to take the next batch of scones from the oven when they were baked to perfection.
'That son-in-love of yours has been quite helpful in surveying the Westmarch. What a treasure the King has given to the Shire,' Pippin continued.
'How's he managing at the Great Smials?' Sam asked.
'He's hemmed in. Too many hobbits, not enough air to breathe, he says.'
Sam sighed. 'I had hoped he might settle hereabouts, but the country's too tame. He's used to open spaces. They'd probably move out to the new country, if Rose would ever consent to letting Ellie go.' He was silent.
Pippin stirred. 'There's something on your mind, Sam, speak up.'
'That lad has so much ability, he'd be wasted as a homesteader, opening up new territory, managing just his own little farm.'
'That's the truth,' the Thain agreed. 'He has so much energy I don't know what to do with him. Now that the survey's finished and the maps drawn, I can hardly keep sending him out to explore.'
'Could you find a position for him?'
'At the Smials? He'd be invaluable, already has been. But I fear Tuckborough can hardly contain him...'
'Are you thinking about... the new territory?'
The Thain steepled his fingers, deep in thought. 'I had been thinking about that. Hesitated to bring it up, sending Elanor so far from you and Rose. What do you think of my making him Warden of the Westmarch?'
'Warden of Westmarch?' Samwise asked. 'You mean, like Master of Buckland?'
'Something like that.' Pippin grinned. 'Seems as if your family is coming up in the world, Samwise.'
Samwise shook his head. 'I just don't know,' he said. 'The Westmarch is so far away, it would break Rose's heart. Rosie-lass has already moved away to Greenholm with Leotred.'
'I know,' Pippin said. 'His healer's skills were more needed there, than here. Of course, with more and more hobbits moving out to the Westmarch, I suppose he will not be so hard pressed, one of these days. More people means more healers. He and Rosie-lass ought to be able to take a holiday, come back for a visit upon occasion.'
Just then Mistress Rose came in with another plateful of scones. 'These are the last,' she said. 'I hear the children coming.'
'What do you think of Elanor and Fastred going out to the Westmarch?' the Thain asked conversationally.
'For a visit, that's fine,' she answered. She narrowed her gaze at Pippin. 'What are you up to, now? You're not thinking of sending them out there, to live?'
'I had thought about it,' Pippin admitted.
'You just put that thought away,' Rose said sternly. 'You're not sending our grandson off West...' she turned to her husband, 'Sam, he's not...'
'It's all right, Rose,' Sam soothed. 'The Thain's offered Fastred a position in the Smials. Fas might continue to travel back and forth between Tuckborough and the Westmarch, but Elanor will stay at the Great Smials, as she has done.'
'Good,' Rose sighed. 'That's a worry off my mind, let me tell you.' She put the plate down, wiped her hand across her forehead. 'It is hot in that kitchen! Now you folk, eat these up whilst they're still warm.'
'Yes'm,' the Thain said obediently, and hastened to comply.
*Shire term for pneumonia, which took the elderly relatively quickly and painlessly