Greenjade looked at the revolting mess he had made. And retched and held to his head and belly.
âGreat Lord Ulmo,â he gasped. And then heard steps. Radagast, of course.
âAre you all right?â he said, running over to the man who was doubled over on his knees, groaning. âOh dear me. You are sick, I see. Here, come with me, let me get you toâŠâ
âNo no no no,â Greenjade stammered, shaking off the Wizardâs hand from his shoulder. âIâŠitâs all right. Just leave me for a bit. IâllâŠIâll be fineâŠI justâŠâ
âSome of the meat may have been tainted,â Radagast said. âHereâŠ.â
NildĂ« came up sniffing, SmĂ©agol close behind her, Nell and a few others peering anxiously around the tent corner.
âLeave me be,â Greenjade said, and was shocked at how feeble it sounded. Radagast pulled him forcibly to his feet, taking one of his arms and putting it over his shoulders, and holding Greenjade by his side.
âCome along now,â he said gently. âIâm taking you to that shady spot over there. This hot sun wonât do you any favors in your present state. Nell, could you bring us some cool water, if you please?â
âAye, indeed!â she said flurrying off. Radagast told Smeagol to look after NildĂ« for a bit, then helped the sick man over to a small grove of trees a reasonable distance from the festivities.
âNow tell me you didnât stage all that and stick your fingers down your throat to make yourself sick, just to get the attention of that girl,â the Wizard said in an undertone as he helped Greenjade sink to the ground. âNo, I suppose not. How do you feel now?â
âIâmâŠbetter,â Greenjade said as the old man looked about for something to use as a pillow. He sat with his knees drawn up and his arms leaning on them, resting his head on his forearms. âItâs all right, you neednât put yourself to so much trouble. So thatâs being sick, is it? I shouldnât care to try it again.â
âPerhaps youâve had too much aleâŠalthough with so much in your stomach, it should not have had that effect. Do you feel as if you could go back to the inn?â
âI donât wish to yet. Iâll be all right in a bit. I just need toâŠsit here for a few moments in the shade. I justâŠâ
âYour natural color is coming back,â Radagast noted. âYou even look a bit red now. I dare say you picked up a touch of sunburn on the way out here. We should see about getting you a wide-brimmed hat.â
Greenjade touched his face. It did feel a bit tight and sore.
âWell, I suppose I am officially human now,â he said trying to speak lightly. Radagast laughed a little.
âSo you are,â he said. âWelcome to the world of mortals. And I must warn you: it gets harder.â
âThank you for the warning,â Greenjade said dryly, wishing he could feel so amused. He felt as though he had swallowed a boulder, and there was a tightness in his throat. Even the sight of Nell coming their way with a pitcher and a cup did naught to help matters.
Now why did he have to go and speak his name? Everything would have been fine if he had just left well enough aloneâŠ.
âHow dâye feel now?â Nell asked him as she dropped to her knees and poured some of the clear water from the pitcher into the cup and handed it to him. His hands shook a little as he took the cup. The water was cool and a bit spicy. âThereâs a pinch oâ ginger in it,â she explained at his expression. âIt might settle yer stomach.â
âWhere did you come by ginger so quickly, my lass?â Radagast said. âThat was good thinking.â
âGranny give it to me,â she explained. âShe keeps a goodly supply on hand at affairs such as this âun. I told her what happened, and she just give it to me.â
âAh, Granny,â Radagast said in delight, âI remember her well. I must go and speak to her soon. I might wish to buy some herbs of her.â
âGranny ainât me granny, for practically speakinâ,â she explained to Greenjade. âEveryone just calls her that. Sheâs an old woman what has a most splendid herb garden, and is the best healer and midwife of the village.â
âWhy didnât she come out here?â Radagast asked.
âCos sheâs a sellinâ her remedies at her booth now,â Nell said, âand couldnât be spared. She does so every spring. But I could bring ye over to âer.â
âDo you feel up to it?â the Wizard asked Greenjade.
âI feel better now,â Greenjade said. âA bitâŠshaky, but I think I can manage. I think Iâd like to go back to the table now, if itâs all the same to you.â
He felt numb inside at the moment, and he hoped it would last, but he had a strong feeling it wouldnât.
And then he looked up at Nell once more.
âMore water?â she said. He held the cup to her and she poured water into it. He thought of the way her waist-length hair had bounced while she danced. And gleamed so flamingly in the sunlight. âSo how long are ye stayinâ for, love?â she asked Radagast.
âOnly for a few days,â the Wizard answered. âWe are headed for Mordor, actually. To clean up the filth of Sauron and turn it into a habitable land once moreâŠas it hasnât been for over a thousand years.â
âGo on with ye!â she exclaimed with wide eyes. âTruly?â
âTruly,â Radagast laughed a little. âWeâve a long ways to go, I know. But going we are. I decided to stop here in order to partake of the Springfest, seeing as how it will probably be our last chance to have any such enjoyment. Weâre staying at the Golden Ram.â
âFor sure now?â she said. âNow why stay there when ye can stay at the Quail and Pheasant? Thatâs where Iâm workinâ now, and a much better place it is.â
âIâm told that at the Golden Ram they water their wine,â Greenjade put in, noting at the same time that Nell had rather large hands, that were well shaped and strong, and the light speckling of her forearms was like to a sprinkling of sand on a conchâs rosy-white shell.
She laughed a little. âIâve heard that âun, but wonât swear to it. So you are goinâ to heal Mordor then? Thatâs wonderful, that is! âalthough many here wouldnât think so. I know not of many whoâd take such a task upon theirselves. I wouldnât wish to go to such a place meself. Well, maybe Iâd go, if it wasnât so far, and I understood the language anâ all. I wanted to go as a nurse durinâ the War, but I had me dad to care for, him beinâ sick anâ all. But--â
âYou would go?â Greenjade raised his eyebrows. âTruly?â
âWell, I think not,â she said. âI still have me dad to look after. Heâs got a serious heart complaint, and may not live long. I got four brothers, but theyâre all married with families oâ their own. Now that mumâs gone, Iâve all heâs got to look after him. And thenâŠâ
âThat fellow you were dancing with,â Greenjade said, âheâs not your sweetheart, I take it?â
âAh, no,â she said with a little laugh, âheâs me cousin Jem. But Iâll wed him one aâ these days, like as not. I had a lover once, but he fell in battle, and Iâve not cared to have anyone else. But I might just as well marry Jemmy, for Iâm fond of him, and he was me Harryâs best friend, and like as not, no one else âll have him. He saved many lives and was wounded in such a way thatâŠheâll not be able to have young âuns. And likely heâll not live long neither. And his mum is bad sick also, or weâd of been wed long afore this, had we not both had our elders to see to.â
âIâm sorry to hear that,â Greenjade, and to his amazement, he did feel truly sorry to know she had suffered. âButâŠyou would want children, wouldnât you?â
âAye, I would,â she said a little sadly. âIâd take in a few, ifân it was possible. But what with things as they are, I reckon it wonât be. Iâve four older brothers, and they all have families. I come anâ help their wives out betimes when dad can spare me, and I get to see their young âuns, and I fair dote on âem. Iâll have to settle for that.â
Greenjade glanced aside at Jem. The fellow was nice to look at and appeared reasonably intelligent, but little more than that. She could do much better. And obviously there was good stock in her, that should be passed along to future generations.
Yesterday he would have felt scorn. This morning he would have, for that matter. But now he found himself filled with what he recognized as admiration, although he had never felt it toward anyone beforeâŠwith the possible exception of Garland, and that was mostly for how she looked.
âWhat say we go on back,â Radagast said. âI dare say Nellâs employer will be missing her ere long, and we donât want to get her into any trouble with him.â
âAh, I kin get around âim,â Nell laughed. âBut aye, we should be gittinâ back. Kin you stand now?â
âOf course I can,â Greenjade said, rising to his feet. His legs felt a trifle wobbly, but he managed to stay upright. He wondered why he wasnât happier, with the object of his desire right here by his side, looking to himâŠand not seeming at all unhappy with what she saw. Possibly she wouldnât have looked twice at him if he hadnât gone and gotten sick on her. Obviously the girl liked caring for folks.
But he wasnât worthy of her. And even if he did go to Mordor and make himself so, he could scarcely expect her to wait for him, or go with him into a strange and ruined land and work with him by his sideâŠeven though she was obviously a young woman strong in both body and soul.
And there would be no taking her for just the one night now. He knew that. It was out of the question. Even if she would go for it, which of course she would not.
They were in sight of the festivities now, and a rather fat man wearing an apron was waving at her. Betony was not far behind, clutching her pitcher and looking a trifle sad.
âThere ye are, Nellie-lass,â the fat man said as they approached. Greenjade saw SmĂ©agol still near the soldiers, and three children were talking to him, one of them petting Nilde. âWhat gives? Am I payinâ ye to go runninâ off and flirtinâ with strangers, hey?â
âOh, go on with ye, Tam Goodfellow,â she laughed flipping a hand at him. âHe took a bad turn, ask Radagast here if he didnât, and I couldnât go off and leave him to be sick all by hisself, could I now? A fine reflection on yer establishment that âud be, what?â
âRight ye are, missy,â Tam Goodfellow said with a little jerk of his jowly head, âthis time. But donât go makinâ a habit of it, ye hear me?â
âRight ye are,â she imitated him, with a little salute that she must have learned from her soldiers. Radagast laughed. âWell, here we are,â she said to him and Greenjade. âNow I must be gettingâ back to work. And if youâd care to stay at the Quail and Pheasant, itâs up that roadââ She extended an arm with a pointed finger in the distance. âStay on it, and yeâll come to it directly.â
âThank you, my dear,â he said. âPerhaps we shall avail ourselves of their services after tonight.â
âTell âem Nell sent you,â she said with a little wink, âand then mayhap Tam Goodfellow will be so thankful for drumminâ him up some business, heâll let me do as I like for the rest of the year. But now I must be gettingâ back to work, much as âtwould pleasure me to sit and chat and hear more about your plans.â
âAre you sure you are all right?â Radagast asked Greenjade as they took their places at their original table.
âOf course Iâm sure,â Greenjade said, wondering how his voice sounded so hollow even to himself. It seemed to come from the other end of an endless tunnel.
âCan we pet yer dog?â a childâs voice asked as SmĂ©agol carefully broke off the points of the wooden flower that was too spiny for NildĂ« to chew on. He looked up to see a very freckle-faced girl of about ten, together with a boy two or three years younger, that looked a good bit like her. He hesitated, being a little afraid of children. NildĂ« thumped her tail, however, and he nodded yes.
The little girl leaned over and patted NildĂ«âs head. She had short brown pigtails that curved in at her neck so that the ends pointed outward, and her front teeth were rather large, and something bulged from the pocket of her apron. The boy stood with his hands in his pockets, staring at SmĂ©agolâs boots.
âWhyâs your feets so big?â he asked. He had freckles and large teeth also.
âShut yer âead, Cal,â the girl said. âDonât mind âim,â she said to SmĂ©agol. ââEâs me brother, and everâ time âe opens his mouth, out comes a new kind oâ sass. Thatâs wot me mum says, and sheâs right. Wotâs yer dogâs name then?â
âNildĂ«,â SmĂ©agol said shyly. It didnât occur to him to tell her that she was Radagastâs dog and not his own.
âWot sort oâ nameâs that?â the girl said.
âErmmâŠElf name,â SmĂ©agol said feeling glad of his boots now as he thought of the old seafarer, and what he had said about folks threatening their young âuns with Gollum if they didnât behave.
âIs it now!â the girl exclaimed. âItâs a Elf-dog then?â
âAye,â SmĂ©agol said. The boy stood with his mouth wide open. âYou know of elveses?â
âNay,â the girl said stroking NildĂ« with more reverence. âNever seen none. Did you?â
âAye,â SmĂ©agol said, seeing his chance to impress them. âLots of elveses, long time ago. They all go West, sailing in big, big boatses. Gone, gone, all to the west.â
âYou talk funny,â Cal said. The girl hit him with the back of her hand. âOw!â he said, and tried to hit her back, but she dodged him.
âPay âim no mind,â she said to SmĂ©agol. âWotâs yer name?â
âSmĂ©agol,â he said, then felt a twinge of fear. Should he have given his name? Would they know who he was? Brown Master said very few knew that Gollum had once been named SmĂ©agol, and even those few who did know would not think him the same person. Just someone who happened to have the same name.
âMineâs Maisy,â the girl said. âAnd thatâs me brother Cal. I got me another brother too, but âeâs big. âEâs over there someâeres. You got any brothers?â
âNo no no no no,â SmĂ©agol felt a twinge of terror, thinking of Deagol. âNo brotherses, no oneâŠâ
âWotâs the matter?â Maisy frowned. âYe seem affrighted.â
âNo brotherses,â SmĂ©agol repeated, digging a shaking hand into NildĂ«âs brown fur.
âCount yerself lucky,â Maisy said with a toss of her head. âYouâre with that old chap wotâs got the bird, ainât yer?â
âAye,â SmĂ©agol said, thinking of a time when he had first been banished. Young ones laughing at him, singing songs about him, throwing stones, in all the villages. Everywhere he went. Hundreds of years passing by, all the same.
âDad bought me some sweets,â Maisy said pulling a little bag out of her apron pocket. âWant one?â
âI want one,â Cal said, reaching a grubby hand for the sack. âGimme!â
âNay,â she snatched it from his reach, âyou âad your own, and you et âem all at oncet, ye little pig! Do yer fancy red or green or yeller âuns best?â she asked SmĂ©agol.
âRed,â he said, although he really didnât know. He could not remember the last time he had tasted sweets. She dug in the sack and handed him a little red ball. Cal once more tried to grab at it. She pushed him away roughly.
âI told yer no!â she said.
âPlease!â he whined. âGimme just one, Maisy, pleeeeeeease?â
âOh, all right,â she said rolling up her eyes and digging in her bag. âBut jist one, yâhear? And donât arsk me fer no more, âcos yer wonât get none.â
SmĂ©agol hesitantly put the red ball to his tongue, then put it in his mouth when the taste proved agreeable, both sweet and sour.
âGood, eh?â Maisy said, putting a green one into her own mouth. SmĂ©agol nodded.
âLook wot I can do,â Cal said and he pushed his sweet into his left cheek so it made a very round bulge, then quickly transferred it into the right cheek, then back to the left.
âWell, ainât you somethinâ,â his sister said rolling her eyes once more, and Cal snickered.
SmĂ©agol grinned then, ever so slightly. Then he tried the same trick himself. Cal giggled, then reached for the wooden flower. SmĂ©agol snatched it away from him.
âWotâs that fer?â Cal said.
âFor her,â SmĂ©agol said indicating NildĂ«. âShe likes to chews them.â
âOh,â Cal said.
âWe got us a dog too,â Maisy said. âBut âeâs a boy dog. âEâs named Tater, âcos he likes to eat âem. âE ainât so pretty as your dog.â
âTater,â SmĂ©agol said almost to himself.
âBe ye a hobbit?â Maisy asked. âYer shorterân big folks, but ye donât look like a young âun. I never seen a hobbit afore.â
âNo no no no no,â SmĂ©agol felt that spasm of fear once more. âNot hobbitses. No no no.â
âWotâs a hobbit?â Cal asked.
âYou know wot it is,â Maisy said. âItâs a little folk wotâs got hairy feets. You know the tale of the Ring, and all them hobbits wot throwed it in the fire-mountain, and the bad chap's tower fell down anâ all that. Remember? Anâ Gollum anâ all? Bilbo Baggins, âmember him? He got the ring from Gollum and it made âim invisible anâ all. My mum says she donât think thereâs nuthinâ in it anâ itâs all just a tall tale, but them soldiers there says itâs really so, and they should know, âcos they was there. You was just a babe then. IâŠwotâs the matter, Mister SmĂ©agol? You look like yer takinâ sick or somethinâ. Yer all in a sweat! Should I call me mum?â
âNo no no no no no,â SmĂ©agol murmured. âWeâs all right. Not call nobody.â
âLooky,â Cal said pointing, âthereâs Floria.â
Maisy and SmĂ©agol looked in the direction he indicated. A few feet off stood a pretty little lass about Maisyâs age, with long yellow curls, wearing a dainty light blue dress and holding a doll that also had yellow curls. She gave them all a look of supercilious amusement, then giggled. Maisy stuck out her tongue at her, then Floriaâs pink mouth dropped wide open, and she turned away with a little ladylike shudder.
âShe lives down the road a piece from us,â Maisy explained to SmĂ©agol. ââEr dadâs the mayor, and she never lets nobody forget it. Me mum makes me play with âer sometimes, but I wonât do it, âcos she always âas to be the princess. She says I carnât be, âcos Iâm too ugly. Do you think Iâm ugly, then?â
âAye,â Cal said, and she shoved him with her foot.
âShut up,â she told him. âI didnât arsk you, I arsked âim.â
âMaisy not ugly,â SmĂ©agol said in some surprise, looking keenly at her. âDoâŠdo you think SmĂ©agol is ugly?â
âNay,â Maisy said with a bit of a smile. âI likes âow you look.â
SmĂ©agol smiled back.
âI hate Floria,â Cal said scowling. âShe told mum on me when I sung that song as Nic learnt me. I didnât know âtwas a rude song, anâ I got a lickinâ.â
âNicâs our big brother,â Maisy explained. âYou should of seen âer. She goes all cryinâ to our mum, âOh boo hoo hoooo, Calâs singinâ a rude song in front oâ me, thatâs so wrong, wot would me mum say, boo hoooooâ, anâ then when she thought as nobody was lookinâ, she larfed.â
âBad girl.â SmĂ©agol giggled at her imitation of Floriaâs offended sensibilities.
âAye,â Maisy said, âanâ when I told mum as she larfed, she smacked me anâ told me not to be tellinâ wicked lies of a sweet liâl thing like âer. Ha!â
âSmĂ©agol has idea,â he said, glancing back in Floriaâs direction. The children pricked up their ears. And he told them, while NildĂ« chewed the wooden flower to pieces unnoticed before them and Greenjade gazed wistfully at a flame-haired maiden bearing a silver pitcher, who would never be his....