Notes to Readers:

The last chapter! For a long time I thought it wouldn't happen. Thanks, Jodancingtree, for your generous contribution of ideas, writing, and re-writing to help shape this story into workable form.

Thank you for the comments! Reviews are very motivating and give me insights into the stories that make me dig deeper in writing, which I probably wouldn't do were I the only one reading these stories... Even though this is the last chapter, comments will be read and appreciated. Do you know, even if you read a story months after it is posted, ffnet will send your review to the author? Your words are never wasted.

Xena, I can't believe this story is ending, either. For too too long it was "the story that wouldn't die" ... and wouldn't write itself, and wouldn't end. But hurrah. It ended.

The next story in the sequence, for anyone interested, is "At the End of His Rope". Don't worry about the length of that story. You can stop after five chapters (that was the original length), or after twenty if you like; those are natural breaks. The readers asked for more, and I just kept writing more... sometimes I just cannot seem to help myself.

If you cannot access ff.net, try www.storiesofarda.com. You can leave reviews there, as well (thanks SoA reviewers! See replies at SoA as well), and there is a "reply" feature where an author can reply to a review right there rather than within the text of the story. I have also discovered the "author alert" feature. Amazing place, that SoA.

The next chapter of "Shire" goes up today as well. Look for more of "A Small and Passing Thing" tomorrow or the next day.

Enough admin notes. Let's get to the story.

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Chapter 35. Whispers

Two heavily-cloaked figures stepped lightly into the Spotted Duck, seeking a table in the darkest, least popular corner — the one farthest from the cheerful fire on the large central hearth, well away from the game of darts in progress.

 'Two mugs and a pitcher of your finest,' one whispered from the depths of his hood. 'There's a good lass.' A coin worth considerably more than a pitcher of the Duck's finest appeared on the table. 'And then leave us quite alone, if you please.'

 'Yes, sir,' she said with a quick bob. Looking back with a puzzled expression, she saw that neither removed hood nor cloak though they sat deep in shadow. With a feeling of disquiet, she wondered if she ought to tell someone about the mysterious guests who looked to be up to no good.

As she placed well-filled pitcher and mugs on a tray, together with a few bowls and plates of nibbles — deep-fried sausage-wrapped eggs, pickled vegetables, slices of cold meats enfolding chunks of cheese, roasted nuts — for the mugs looked lonely there by themselves and the mysterious patron had paid generously, the innkeeper jerked his head towards the far corner. 'Who've we got there?' he asked.

 'Haven't the faintest,' she admitted with a shrug. 'Someone as wants a private chat, it seems. They said bring them their order and leave them alone.'

 'Hmmm,' the innkeeper said doubtfully. 'I don't like the sound of that. Perhaps someone ought to get word to the Thain…' He glanced back at the shadowy figures that sat as if carven from stone. 'Take their order to them, and then go and fetch young Grim. We'll have him keep an eye on these fellows and follow them when they leave so as he can take a report to the Great Smials of their whereabouts.'

 'Good thinking,' the serving lass said with a decisive nod. Grim was her younger brother, the most inquisitive hobbit of her acquaintance. What he couldn't find out, when he set his mind to a problem, well... let's just say that no secret could evade his determined investigation. The two shadows remained silent as she served them, only a nod from the one who'd whispered the order showing that they were alive and not turned to stone.

When she returned to the innkeeper to fill her tray for another order, he was staring openly. 'They haven't even touched their mugs yet,' he said incredulously. As if aware of being under scrutiny, one picked up his mug, raising it in a toast to the other, and quaffed some of the brew, still wearing the muffling hood. The other followed the gesture, then took a handful of nuts from a bowl. The innkeeper relaxed subtly. 'Well,' he said. 'I was beginning to think we were hosting a pair of wraiths, but they seem solid enough.' He nodded to a table near the darts tournament. 'They've been waving for a refill for some moments now.'

To all appearances the two in the corner were forgotten. The serving lass went out for a moment, and a little later a half-grown lad wandered in, sausage-roll in hand, and sat down by the door to watch the darts players. From where he sat he had an excellent view of the entire common room, and didn't seem to mind the draught when the door opened to admit more guests.

 'How's your head, Ferdi?' said one of the shadows to the other.

 'It's been worse,' Ferdi said with a sip of his beer. 'How about you? You're not taking a chill sitting this far from the fire, are you, Pip?'

 'I don't dare take a chill,' Pippin answered. 'Diamond would have my hide. I'm wrapped in enough layers to clothe an army of Tooks.' He picked up his mug and put it down again, making a pattern of wet circles on the tabletop. 'I believe if we'd sat close to the hearth I'd melt away completely.'

Ferdi shoved a bowl at him. 'Here,' he said. 'As long as the food's here you might as well eat.' He took another handful of nuts from the bowl nearest him and nodded. 'Perfectly roasted, lightly salted. Just the thing to complement the brew.'

Pippin ignored the food. 'Are you leaving?' he said abruptly.

 'I told you I wouldn't,' Ferdi answered.

 'Nell said —' Pippin argued.

 'I may reverence the ground she walks on, but I'm not face-down in the dirt waiting for her to lead me around by the nose,' Ferdi said. 'I swore an oath you know, even if my wife didn't.'

 'Tolly —' Pippin began, only to be interrupted once more.

 'Tolly will stay,' Ferdi said. 'O, Sweetie will make his life miserable for a time, but he'd be miserable anyhow; he always is in the winter months. Come Spring he'll cheer up again.' The angle of the hood changed and Pippin imagined Ferdi's stare. 'Now eat,' Ferdi added implacably.

 'I'm eating,' Pippin said, picking up his own handful of nuts. 'You're right,' he said in surprise. 'They do complement the beer nicely.' He heard a soft snort from his special assistant.

 'I'm always right,' Ferdi said.

 'Except when you're wrong,' Pippin said equably. The hood opposite him nodded, and he envisioned Ferdi's smile. He gave a snort of his own.

 'What is it?' Ferdi asked.

 'Here we are, two of the most powerful hobbits in Tookland, hiding away,' he said.

 'Where are you supposed to be?' Ferdi reminded him.

 'I'm supposed to be in bed,' Pippin said wryly. 'That silly coughing fit at the bonfire—so a little smoke blew my way; that'll set even a hobbit with good lungs to coughing, wouldn't you say?' Ferdi nodded silently as the Thain took a long swallow of his beer. Pippin added, 'Not to mention Woodruff heard that we slept out in the open air the other night, mild as it is—it's Winter, you know.' 

 'I'd heard something to that effect,' Ferdi admitted. Lowering his voice, he said, 'Nell popped me into bed, said she wouldn't let me up until I lost the lines about my eyes.' He sipped again, and putting his mug down added, 'Do I have lines about my eyes?'

Pippin peered at Ferdi's shadowy face, barely distinguishable under its hood in the darkened corner. 'Not that I can see,' he said honestly.

 'She says I have lines about my eyes when my head pain gets bad,' Ferdi grumbled. 'Who wouldn't, I ask you? With a wife nagging at me all the day to put my feet up and put my head back and close my eyes, it's a wonder my head isn't worse than it is!'

 'I know,' Pippin said. 'My wife does the same.' He took another handful of nuts. Ferdi picked up the pitcher to refill both mugs. 'So you're staying then,' the Thain added.

Ferdi put the pitcher down to place a reassuring hand on his cousin's arm. 'If you want to get rid of me you'll have to discharge me,' he said.

 'That means you're staying,' Pippin said, wanting confirmation.

 'You can be so thick sometimes,' Ferdi grumbled. 'It means I'm staying,' he added.

 'Good,' Pippin said. 'Now drink up and let's get back to the Smials before our wives finish their late suppers and come back to check our beds.' Both drained their mugs and rose.

As they left the Duck the lad by the doorway ate the last of his sausage roll and threw on his cloak. 'I'm going for a walk,' he announced.

 'Be back in time to wash the mugs,' the innkeeper snapped. The tween shrugged irritatingly and let himself out the door. Unnoticed by the two, he sauntered along behind them. They were heading in the direction of the Great Smials...

Some time later Grim returned to the Spotted Duck. 'About time you got back here,' the innkeeper grumbled. 'You could have walked to the Great Smials and back in the time you were gone.'

 'I did,' the tween said with another shrug.

 'And?' the innkeeper whispered. No one was paying them any mind.

 'I don't think we have to worry the Thain about those two,' the lad said.