Chapter 8. Oasis in a Thirsty Land
The rain was pouring down so heavily that they might as well be ducks swimming their way home. Ferdi's head sank lower; his whole body felt as if it were weighed down by the burden of water, until he was nearly lying on his pony's neck, and the lad's steadying hand was a constant presence.
He didn't even notice that they'd stopped. For a moment he feared he was falling from the pony, and put out his hands to catch himself, but the hard impact of the ground never came; instead he was suspended in the air, a strangely heavy floating sensation.
'Steady!' he heard above the pounding of the rain, and then they were moving, and then the rain was gone.
Next Ferdi knew, he was sitting down and a mug of water was being held to his lips. He turned his face away; riding in the rain had already half-drowned him. He didn't need any additional water. He heard... Tad, was it? ...explaining that he'd been thrown from his pony earlier in the evening, and hit his head.
'What's he travelling for?' someone said. 'Oughter be in bed!'
'No,' Ferdi said, pushing at the hands that restrained him. 'No, promised the little ones...'
'He made a promise to his family that he'd be home to celebrate the New Year with them,' Tad said apologetically. 'My old gaffer, he didn't like it much, but he feared the hobbit would walk out into the storm to keep his promise, and so he charged me to ride alongside.'
'Drink up now,' a familiar voice said. 'Why, it's Ferdibrand Took!'
'Ferdibrand?' someone else said.
'Special assistant to Thain Peregrin!'
Ferdi blinked. Surely he knew the voice.
Tad spoke at his shoulder, sounding awestruck. 'Special assistant to the Thain? My goodness, we never knew who he was... he was too far gone to answer many of our questions. Just kept insisting that he needed to get home. He revived enough after some brandy to get up and climb on a pony, but...'
'Belongs in a bed, of a certainty,' the familiar voice said, 'but knowing how stubborn a Took can be...'
'Perhaps we ought to fetch a healer.'
A face hung in front of Ferdi, and the familiar voice took on a demanding tone. 'Master Ferdibrand? Do you hear me?'
'You don't have to shout,' Ferdi said thickly.
'Hit his head, you say? He almost sounds as if he's had too much to drink,' the familiar voice said. 'Revived after taking brandy, you say?'
'That was two hours ago,' Tad said. 'I'm sure it's wearing off by now.'
'We've got brandy, here now, Poppy! A glass of brandy for the Thain's special assistant!'
'What's he been doing, I'd like to know?'
'First-footing, from the look of it... five mufflers! He's had better luck than any of the First-footers who've come in to cap the evening.'
'Well then, he takes the prize, doesn't he? I don't think you need to wait for any more to come in. You can award the prize now, rather than at breakfast.'
'Let him lie down, take a little rest, and he can breakfast with us!'
Ferdi tried to rise. 'Got to get home to my little ones,' he muttered.
'Steady now,' said the familiar voice as hands pushed him back down, and then it added, 'Thanks, Poppy,' and then a glass touched his mouth and he smelled the heady aroma and opened his lips and allowed them to pour the brandy in. Ah, but that was good. He'd never truly appreciated the restorative qualities of brandy before...
Opening his eyes, he recognised the proprietor of the Green Dragon. 'Bywater?' he said.
'You know where you are,' a hobbit said.
Ferdi couldn't help feeling annoyed. Of course he knew where he was. What sort of fool did they take him for?
'Drink up,' the proprietor said.
Ferdi, in his muddled state, couldn't quite remember the hobbit's name. Tim... Tom... Tam... something. Ah well, if he just kept his mouth occupied with sipping the brandy, he wouldn't have to reveal his woeful lack of manners, forgetting a name!
'That's it,' the proprietor said, and as Ferdi lifted his hand to cradle the glass he stood upright with a sigh of relief. 'I don't think we need a healer. A little brandy, that's the ticket.'
'And a bed?' someone said.
The proprietor shook his head. He knew Tooks too well. 'He'd likely lie down to rest and then take himself off when nobody was looking. You heard him! "Got to get home to the little ones!" When a Took makes a promise, nothing will stop him but death, perhaps, or a flood.'
'It's raining enough for a flood,' an old gaffer said.
Ferdi drained the brandy, and then they gave him a mug of steaming strong spirits, hot buttered something-or-other--as he confined his drinking to the occasional ale or glass of wine, and on rare occasions, brandy, he had no idea what it was, but it went down warm and smooth--and he got that down too, and then Tad and the proprietor were helping him from the chair.
'How's your head?' Tad said.
'Much better,' Ferdi managed, though he'd have been hard put to it to stand without the helping hands.
'You'll be all right?' the proprietor said.
'O' course!' Ferdi insisted, and Tad answered in the same breath.
'We made it all the way here without mishap, two hours riding, and it's only another three or four hours to Tuckborough across the fields.'
'And the rain is letting up some,' the serving lass--Poppy?--said.
'Well then,' Tad said. 'There's no time like the present. He won't rest until I get him home to his little ones.'
'Fine, upright hobbit,' the proprietor said approvingly. 'Too bad there aren't more like him.'
Ferdi stood straighter, suppressing a belch. He was a fine, upright hobbit, after all.
'But you must have your prize!' Poppy said, and to the other hobbits crowded around, she said, 'He's the luckiest First-footer we've had tonight! We cannot let him leave without the prize! And I doubt any more will be coming in at this late hour... it's two hours or so past midnight!'
It seemed that the Green Dragon stayed open past its usual closing time on this night of nights, with hobbits from Bywater and Hobbiton and the surrounding area celebrating the passing of the old year and the arrival of the new. First-footers would come to show off their gains, and a fine breakfast would be served to anyone who stayed through the night or arrived at first light, before the Green Dragon would be closed down for the rest of First Day and all of the following night, not opening again until breakfast the following day.
'A capital idea!' the proprietor said, and there was a shower of acclamation from the onlookers.
Poppy went away and returned to throw another muffler over Ferdi's neck, this one a bright red with gold stars embroidered overall, and she handed the proprietor a bulky package wrapped in brown paper, which he in turn pushed into Ferdi's hands.
'Currant wine,' he said. 'My wife's own, and very rare!'
'I... I...' Ferdi stammered. 'I couldn't...!'
'Nonsense!' the gaffer said, whacking him on the back. (It was a good thing Tad was holding him steady.) 'You won, fair and square!'
'I...' Ferdi said.
'Take it, and drink it in good health, and toast the Green Dragon with wishes of prosperity if you'd be so kind,' the proprietor said genially.
'I... I'd be happy to,' Ferdi said, giving in to the inevitable. He fumbled the package into a secure place under his jacket; the sack of his "First-footings" was with the ponies in the stables.
As Tad escorted him to the door he heard the proprietor boasting about his wife's special currant wine, so special that they didn't even put it in bottles, but in wineskins.
They were just ready to mount their ponies when a hobbit came hurrying out of the inn. 'Glad I caught you,' he said breathlessly.
'Is there something we've forgotten?' Tad said, checking to make sure Ferdi's sack of wine bottles and bread and pennies and brandy was securely tied to the saddle. Ferdi had meant to add the newest bounty, but seeing the hard knots he decided just to carry the stuff under his jacket. If he got light-headed in this last stretch to Tuckborough, he supposed he could steady himself with the currant liqueur, though from recollection of drinking his grandmother's, the stuff would be sickly sweet and syrupy.
'Hullo, Jolly,' Ferdi said, recognising one of the Cottons.
'You don't want to drink that,' Jolly Cotton said.
'Drink what?' Tad asked.
'He doesn't want to drink that stuff he won,' Jolly said. 'Wonderful weed-killer it is, but you don't want to drink it! It'll lay you low, and the head pain the next day... don't drink it! Pour it out, and not on any plants that you value, neither!'
'It'll make a wonderful birthday mathom, then,' Ferdi said. 'I'll give it to Pippin, or better yet, Merry, on my next birthday.'
'Just warn them it's weed-killer,' Jolly said, helping Tad lift Ferdi up into the saddle, for it seemed the hobbit's knock on the noggin had affected his balance; he needed help just finding the stirrup.
'I'll do that,' Ferdi said. 'Keed-willer,' he added, and laughed.
'He really ought to be in bed,' Jolly said to Tad in a worried tone.
'He will be, soon enough,' Tad said. 'I'm sure he'll rest comfortably indeed, once I've got him home.'
'I'm sure I will,' Ferdi said with a smile, and hiccoughed.
'Here,' Tad said, tendering a water-bottle. 'The innkeeper sent this along in case you needed it.'
Ferdi took the water-bottle and tilted his head back. To his surprise and gratification, it was filled, not with water, but with brandy.