Chapter 7. A Little Goes a Long Way
But it was not to be so simple as all that. Short of the door, the patriarch stopped with another frown.
'You're certain you won't stop over?' he said. 'We can send Tad as well as any...'
'Thank you very much for your kindness,' Ferdi said as firmly as he knew how. 'But my little ones will be hoping to see me at breakfast or not long after, and I'd hate to disappoint them by not coming until teatime!'
'Well then,' the old hobbit said, looking round the circle of faces: sons, grandsons, daughters, granddaughters, even one small great-grandchild snuggled in his mother's arms. Raising his voice, he turned back to the tween at the door. 'Tad,' he said, 'I want you to saddle Lannie's spare pony as well, and ride along to the Smials with this fellow. Likely they'll feed you breakfast when you get there, and pack a bag of victuals for your return...'
'Certainly they would!' Ferdi said as the tween turned out of the smial again, slamming the door behind himself. 'But no need...'
'You knocked yourself on the noggin, falling from your pony,' the old hobbit said grimly. 'It'd be most unwise of us to let you ride off on Lannie's pony, into the dark and rain, most unwise! Why, what if the dogs came on you again and you fell off Lannie's pony? Where would you be? And where, I ask, would Lannie be, his pony running loose over the moors?'
'I...' Ferdi began, wanting to assure the family that really, he was an experienced rider and his fall had been a fluke, more or less, but the old hobbit wasn't having any.
'Prudence,' he said, holding up a stern finger. 'I didn't get where I am in the world by taking foolish chances!' He looked around at the comfortable smial, and his family surrounding them. 'No,' he said. 'Sometimes you have to take chances, but even in such circumstances it's best to look before you leap! Better to be safe than sorry, that's what I always say.'
For the first time Ferdi noticed that the old hobbit wore braces as well as a belt. He nodded.
'Well then,' the old hobbit said again, and added, 'All's well that ends better, or so I like to say! Taddy'll ride along with you to the Smials, stop over for breakfast, and lead Lannie's pony home again, saving you the trouble of returning him. I think that's the best solution, all round, don't you?'
Ferdi nodded again. Who was he to argue?
They walked him to the door then, and a couple of the younger ones escorted him to where Tad waited with the two ponies, while the others stood in the doorway and sang.
Ferdi mounted with a little less grace than he usually employed, but then he usually wasn't in the habit of imbibing quantities of wine and brandy.
Perhaps the old hobbit had the right of things.
He swayed a little as they turned off the lane, into the main road, and Tad reached out to steady him. Good lad. Ferdi found himself grateful for the company as the tween lifted up his voice in song, and the ponies picked up their pace as if to keep time. And so, trotting and cantering, they rode to Overhill, and up the great Hill above Hobbiton, and then down the other side, down through Hobbiton, on to Bywater... and Ferdi's home.
Night was nearly spent when Starfire arrived home. He cantered through the darkened streets of Tuckborough, past the shuttered windows where celebrating hobbits had seen in the New Year and then sensibly gone to bed.
The stallion slowed to a trot on reaching the stones of the yard before the Great Smials, and then to a walk, heaving a satisfied sigh. He was home, and safe, and soon he'd be relieved of his malodorous burden. The dogs had chased him for some way before he'd left them behind, and he'd kept running for the sheer joy of it, until he'd tired. But he was heading in the proper direction, and the stables pulled at him as if he were a fish on a line. He'd walked a little, grazing at the verge, and then picked up in a trot, and then a blowing signboard as he passed a public house had startled him and he'd taken off in flight once more. Running and walking, he reached the Great Smials an hour or two before the dawning.
No stable hobbits were yet about. They'd made very merry the night before, and the earliest risers were as of yet barely stirring in their beds.
Starfire stopped before the stables and gave a whinny. He was answered by the ponies within. The stable lad on duty, pillowed in the hay of an empty stall, groaned and covered his ears. 'Go back to sleep!' he called. 'Too early for your breakfast, by half!'
Starfire pricked his ears forward and stepped lightly, entering the stables. He walked down the corridor to his own stall. The door was shut, but this was no barrier. They hadn't shot the special bolt, the one he couldn't work, and it was short business to take the regular bolt between his teeth, lift it and shove it over. The door swung gently, and the stallion gave it a helping nudge and moved into his stall.
It was bothersome to eat with the bit in his mouth, but the oats were welcome, the haynet was full, and the smell of fresh water rose from the bucket. He was home. He buried his nose in the feedbox and began to chew, one ear twitching. Perhaps he was wondering what he'd forgotten. Perhaps not.
A yawning stable hobbit found the stallion an hour later. 'Star!' he exclaimed. 'I didn't know you got back!'
He called to the stable hobbit who'd had the night's duty, still burrowed in his pile of hay. 'Nibs! Nibs, you lazy lie-about, why didn't you untack Ferdi's pony?'
'He never told me to,' Nibs said, stretching and then burrowing under his blanket. 'Leave off, Tim! You relieved me half an hour ago and they won't be serving the festive breakfast for an hour or so... I'm going to catch up on my sleep until then!'
'Likely you were sleeping when Ferdibrand came in,' Tim said. 'He'd tear strips off you with the sharp side of his tongue, he would, were he to come and find you fed Star but never untacked him!'
'Course I fed Star,' Nibs muttered into his blanket. 'Ferdi left orders to have the stall ready when he came, so's he wouldn't have to haul feed and hay and water after riding round the clock...' But Tim did not hear. He was already in Starfire's stall, unburdening the stallion of his load, loosening the girth, removing the saddle, carrying it away to a rack for cleaning, then fetching away the bridle, and then bringing a grooming box to the stall and brushing and polishing the stallion until he gleamed. When Ferdibrand came back from breakfast, he'd find the stallion properly cared for.
'Nibs!' he shouted again. 'Nibs!'
'What is it now?' Nibs groaned.
'You stir your lazy bones and take all this stuff to the kitchens! There's strong cheese in the bags, for one thing, that needs to be put in a cool room right away...'
'Is that what I smell?' Nibs said. 'I just thought you'd forgot to wash your feet...'
'Nibs!' Tim shouted, putting down the brush and going to the door of Starfire's stall. 'Do you want to clean stalls for the next fortnight?'
'I'm coming,' Nibs said, groaning himself to his feet. 'Coming...' His eyes widened as he saw the wrapped bundles. 'You expect me to carry all that?'
'Ferdi and Starfire did,' Tim said smugly. 'Ham for the Thain's breakfast, two of 'em, from the looks of it, and bacon, and smelly cheese for the Mistress. I'd say Ferdi made quite a haul, this oat-buying trip.'
'I'll say,' Nibs grumbled. 'It'll take three trips to get it all.'
'Then you'd best get started,' Tim said, picking up the brush again, and moving to Starfire's other side.