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21
Tall Men with Stars on their Cloaks

Tall Men with Stars on their Cloaks


Nine-year-old Pippin Took walked between his cousins Meriadoc and Berilac Brandybuck as they walked toward the Bridge Market, doing all he could to distance himself from his sisters, who walked some distance behind with Melilot Brandybuck and Cousin Frodo Baggins. Pippin looked over his shoulder with a feeling of impatience and regret, for he wished they would go more quickly and that Frodo walked up front with the lads instead of back with the lasses. But his oldest sister Pearl had her arm linked with Frodo’s and was looking at him adoringly as she always had for as long as Pippin could remember, and Pervinca and Pimpernel were both simpering and competing for Frodo’s attention, as was Melilot. Really, how lasses could make right idiots of themselves over older lads!

Frodo used to be somewhat embarrassed by the attentions given him by lasses, but in the last two years he’d begun truly responding to Pearl. Well, Frodo was going to be an adult soon enough--his father kept repeating that, as did his mother, and during this visit to Brandy Hall so had his Aunt Esmeralda and Uncle Saradoc as well as the Master and Mistress. And since Frodo had begun returning her attentions Pearl had gone completely daft, or at least in the estimation of her little brother. She wrote Frodo’s name constantly, and Pippin had recently found her writing "Mistress Frodo Baggins" and "Pearl Baggins" and "Pearl Took-Baggins" all over one of their mum’s sheets of special note paper. Really, if she didn’t get a grip soon it was likely he would have to hit her over the head to make her act like a person rather than a foolish mooncalf.

He glanced again over his shoulder at his favorite oldest cousin, saw the laughter in Frodo’s eyes as he answered some question put to him by Pearl, and how his laughter spread to the other lasses. Would Frodo never pay attention to him and Merry and Beri again? he wondered--and then----

"Umph!" Merry said as Pippin walked right into him as he turned to ask his little cousin something. "Watch it, Pipsqueak!" Merry said as he rubbed his stomach, once he could speak again. "You’ve left quite a bruise on me, you know, and if you’d been much bigger you’d have knocked me flat! Why are you walking with your head turned about sideways?" He glanced behind him at the sight of Frodo with Pearl hanging on him and his face soured. "He’s not himself at all any more, not once he’s with Pearl," Merry grumbled under his breath. Frodo’s preoccupation with Pearl Took bothered Merry more than it did Pippin, or so it appeared to Pearl’s younger brother. The two of them turned around, looking decidedly away from the spectacle of the gentle expression of wonder on Frodo’s face as he looked down on Pearl in a brief moment when she was speaking with Melilot rather than gazing up at her escort’s face. Why that look should cause the stomachs of Merry and Pippin both to clench and twist as they did neither could say--perhaps, Merry was to hazard years later, solely because it was hard to think that Frodo was indeed growing up and away from them, and that if he married Pearl he’d have little time left for lad-things any more, for his first priority would be to her and not to them.

"I was going to ask," Merry said after a moment, "which stall you’d want to visit first once we get to the Bridge Market. I know Frodo’s going to want to go to the bookseller’s first to see if there are any new books to be had--if Pearl and the other lass cousins don’t drag him off to the dressmaker’s again first, of course." Once again his expression soured.

"Sweetwater’s, of course," Pippin said. Albus Sweetwater lived in Buckleberry, and he and his wife made some of the most wonderful sweets possible, selling them at the biweekly markets held by the Brandywine Bridge and later the following day near the ferry landing. "He told Mum when they saw each other at the inn in Buckleberry the other day that he’d been making up some mints, what with all the mint that’s been harvested this year."

"No horehound drops this time?" Merry asked, pretending amazement.

Pippin looked up into his cousin’s eyes, failing to note the indulgent laughter that lurked there. "Well, Frodo always says we should prior-prioritize," he said with such an air of seriousness that Beri was having to stifle his own laughter. "Sweetwater’s mints are very good, of course...."

The seven Men riding their tall horses down the West Road were very quiet and intent as they followed their Chieftain. They’d be to the Brandywine Bridge soon, and there they’d be forced to slow up, as it was likely the small village that had sprung up on the Shire side of the Bridge would be active, and that there’d be a number of Hobbits headed for the Bridge Inn. Faradir found himself wishing they could stop for a drink, for he’d been the one to find Aragorn just outside Bree and tell him of the report brought in by those who patrolled the southern borders of the Shire that a group of dark Men had been seen heading for the Sarn Ford. Aragorn had five others with him, two obviously making their own reports. At Faradir’s words he’d glanced wordlessly at each, and without further discussion they mounted their horses and headed west into the Shire. It would be best to meet such a group head on, which meant riding the West Road to the turnoff to Stock, then turning south to the road heading out of the Shire again to the ford. There had been no chance for Faradir or the others reporting to Aragorn to get a drink or meal or even a chance to stretch their legs.

As they clattered across the Bridge Hobbits scattered in all directions. Stars above! Faradir thought. Market day! Aragorn, he knew, would hate the need to slow down, but there would be the need, of course.

And then out of the road toward Brandy Hall came a group of youngsters--four lads and four lasses, Faradir realized. The oldest lad walked at the back, a very pretty young Hobbitess hanging on his arm. Suddenly that one shook his arm free of hers, hurrying forward with a quick stride that belied his size--barely half the height of Aragorn were he on his feet instead of on Beryl’s back, and placed himself between the seven mounted Men and the group of children he was escorting.

Faradir found himself smiling. A most responsible Hobbit, this one, in spite of his apparent youth.

Aragorn pulled Beryl to a halt, the blue-grey horse blowing in its frustration. Beryl hated to slow down or stop once he was running full out until the enemy--or the site of an expected stable--was sighted.

Hobbit and Man stared at one another, the young, responsible-looking halfling glaring up at the Ranger.

"I beg pardon, sir," Aragorn said. "We were called to meet a possible threat to the south."

"That may be," the Hobbit answered in a voice that managed to be authoritative in spite of his obvious youth, "but there’s no need to endanger folks yourself in your haste. Watch the road you take, sir, or stay out of the Shire."

Faradir wanted to laugh at the same time he found himself wanting to shake the young Hobbit and explain that this was the Heir of Isildur, and they were trying to head off perhaps worse threats than someone possibly being frightened in the roadway. Faradir knew that their horses would leap over any Hobbit who managed not to avoid them, but that fright could be as bad as injury for many.

Aragorn and the young Hobbit continued to stare at one another for several moments. Faradir wondered if this one could be related to the Thain or the Master, to have come so by the aura of authority and responsibility he radiated. At last Aragorn bowed his head in respect. "This is your land and not ours," he said quietly, "and I apologize for not remembering that. Again, I beg your pardon. However, we’ve been apprised of a threat nearing the Sarn Ford and would arrive there before those who head that way reach it first. If you will please forgive us."

"Go ahead then," the Hobbit said, "but again, watch the road. Many of our children do not know how to react when a horse comes at them, and few will expect you to be headed down the road through Stock."

"Thank you, young Master," Aragorn said with another respectful inclination of his head. "I regret any alarm we might have sparked in your people and your kinsmen here." With one more respectful bow of his head to the children the older lad protected, Aragorn signaled his folk to follow him, and at a far more sedate rate they made their way through the village toward the road to Stock.

"Now," said Berevrion once they were out of earshot, "there was a young lord amongst Hobbits if there ever was one."

Halbarad looked behind them. "Indeed. And he has a distinct Light of Being about him, in case you didn’t notice." He looked ahead of them at where Aragorn still led the way and shook his head. "Almost a twin for Aragorn’s own Light, you know."

"The day Hobbits of the Shire have lords among them...." Faradir said, then shrugged.

Then they were through the village and the road ahead of them was once again clear. At a signal from Aragorn they broke into a canter as they headed for the turnoff toward Stock.

Back in the village the eight young Hobbits looked after them, and Pippin found himself watching after the longest. Something had passed between the tall Man who rode at the head of the troupe of Men and Frodo--some unconscious look of recognition, or so it seemed to the small child.

Beri put one hand on the smaller lad’s shoulder. "Wonder why that one, the one in front, doesn’t have a star on his cloak the way the rest do?" he asked.

"Dunno," Pippin said, shrugging. "But he shone like one, you know, just as Frodo himself does sometimes."

He turned away and spotted Sweetwater’s stall, and forgot all about the Men and their horses for the moment as he found himself thinking of just how good Sweetwater’s mints were. Could his da, he wondered, talk to Cousin Fermubras about encouraging Sweetwater to move closer to the markets in the Tooklands?

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