"Harry was wild and reckless," Nell said as she and Greenjade picked up firewood and put it in their baskets. Radagast followed rather close behind, like a chaperoning parent determined to keep an eye on his daughter. Greenjade smiled to himself at the way she emphasized her H's. Of all Radagast's students, she was picking up proper diction the fastest, and it never failed to delight Greenjade.
"He was everyone's hero, yer might say. Liked to ride a horse, and was good at it. He could 'unt, I mean hunt, use a sword, and do considerable many things--play games, dance, and things others didn't dare. He were six years older than me, more Robin's age. He was dark and comely and dashing, and the lasses, they admired him, but were a bit afeared of him. But I weren't, havin' so many brothers as it were, and likely that's why he chose me. I adored him since I was small, and went about tellin' everyone I was goin' to wed him when I growed up and so they better keep hands off. But yer know what come of that. He had his faults, he did. Drank too much, got into fights betimes, teased the ladies, used bad language betimes, and oft got into scrapes, or got other lads into them. But things was never dull with him around. And he was ever good to me. Mayhap because I'd lost me mum when I was twelve. He'd lost his also. And his dad weren't good to him. Drank too much and had a bad temper, he did, and would hit him when he lost it--though I dare say Harry deserved it betimes, for he had a good bit of cheek. But Harry--well, he had a temper too, but he was ever good to me. Never raised his hand to me no matter what."
She bent down to pick up a piece of wood and it seemed she was slow straightening up again. Greenjade felt a flush of shame. He wondered what she would say if she knew he had never ridden a horse or used a sword in his life. Five weeks he had been staying at her home now, and still she knew naught of him, save but what she saw before her.
And he had still not managed to talk to Nell alone.
He knew he could have done so if he had tried hard enough. But he kept reminding himself that he could not take her with him, and what was the point of making things more difficult than they must be? And what with the school and the work and all, he could manage to keep his mind off her more than he had supposed. Jem's mother was most definitely on the decline now, and would not live much longer, and when she passed...well. What then?
He felt at times that he had never had any other life than this. It was ordinary enough, on the face of it. Mornings, after a big breakfast, he and Radagast did what chores needed doing, while Nell and Miss Carrie worked about the house or went to market, or did the wash. Then after lunch, they had their class at the Quail and Pheasant. The students had dwindled down to about a dozen, having started out with almost three times that many, but that dozen was doing very well. Evenings, after supper, they usually either sat out on the porch and watched the sun go down, and one or more of the brothers would drop by with their families, and sometimes stories were told, the children played games or caught fireflies, and Jem occasionally came by.
Smeagol's leg was coming along nicely, and Radagast said that in a couple of weeks, he should be able to walk on it without the crutches. It didn't hurt him as much as it used to, and he could hobble along pretty well now. He was learning to be patient, for sure. And he was greatly fond of the children. He seemed to favor plain little freckled Maisy over the pretty un-twinlike twins and their girl cousins, although they were quite nice to him always and brought him sweets sometimes, and talked to him as equal. Maisy came over frequently, sometimes bringing more pinecones for Nilde, and sometimes Cal came with her. Radagast would watch them a trifle sadly, likely wondering how Smeagol would fare without his young friends when they had to leave....
Sometimes in the evening they went to the Quail and Pheasant and made merry, knocking back a pint of ale, talking, joking, singing lusty songs, dancing occasionally. The old seaman Greenjade had met on the first day frequently came in, and he had many a tale to tell. He was known as Captain Skinney, although he was scarcely that. And Nell's friends Betony, Lu, and Viola were often there, and they looked at Greenjade from time to time, sometimes quite boldly.
"He talks so pretty," he heard the small dark one, Viola, whisper about him one day. "And 'as such a wicked, gleaming way about 'im. I wonder 'ow 'e kisses. Nice I should think, with them lips."
"And such a lovely nose," Lu, the tall blonde one sighed. "So pointy and elegant. Lucky Nell. She's got him right under 'er roof. I wonder if they...?"
"I should say not," Betony reproached them. "She's still with Jemmy, after all. She's got no eyes for another, I should think. And that 'un 'll be goin' away soon, an' I should like to see 'im take our Nell with 'im. Never!"
"I wouldn't be so sure," Viola said with a little sidelong glance toward Nell, who was serving a nearby table. "I wonder if she's ever seen him...yer know." She winked at Lu. "Mayhap she could tell us if 'e's..." She held her forefingers several inches apart and looked knowingly at the others. Greenjade could not imagine what she meant.
"Vi, you bad thing!" Betony scolded, but it seemed she stifled a giggle. Greenjade caught on then, and found himself grinning, especially when Nell rejoined them and they all suddenly turned to chattering gaily about the reading lessons, looking innocent as daylight.
They were comely girls enough, and there had been a time when he wouldn't have hesitated to pursue them one by one. But they were Nell's friends, and althought it occurred to him that he might try making her jealous by flirting with them, he did not wish to incur her disfavor by doing any sort of damage upon their susceptible hearts. They were all younger than Nell, Lu the eldest at twenty-one, Betony and Viola a year or two younger. Nell had friends her own age, to be sure, but they were all married with families of their own, and she scarcely got to see much of them anymore. She was as an older sister to these three, and they loved her and looked up to her. Despite their bold talk, he could sense that they were all three as virginal as they were born. Once there had been naught so intriguing and alluring to Greenjade as undiscovered territory. But things had changed.
He was coming to see them now not as potential conquests, but as human beings, and it rather puzzled and fascinated him to watch Nell and her friends all together. She seemed to enjoy being with them so greatly. They would go strolling arm in arm down the street, peering into shop windows, sometimes going in, and when one of them made a small purchase, a trinket or bit of lace or some other feminine bauble, all of them got so excited and giggly, and if a woman went by with a baby, they would make a big fuss over it and ask to hold it. Greenjade and Radagast, following behind them, would look at each other with little grins, and the Wizard almost forgot to give him that warning look. Greenjade wanted to please him as much as he wished to please Nell, and so he did his best not to let his eyes rove over those lovely curves too obviously, or respond to their flirtatious glances.
He had been excited about all the learning, to be sure. He knew much about the history of Middle-earth, about the War of the Ring, and all the rest of it. He knew much of animal and plant lore, and he learned some healing skills. And best of all, he could read what was written in books. The more he read, the more he wanted to find out. And he got to tell much of the Sea, and the life therein, and no one asked him how he came to know so much of it...but at times he felt Jem's eyes watching him, and wondering. Wanting to ask of his origins, very likely. It was almost as if he knew something...something of his past. But really, what could he know?
Yet the knowledge lay always on his heart, weighing him down, even when he caught himself feeling almost happy. It seemed happiness was like a bird almost within his grasp, but whenever he would reach out his hand to take it, it fluttered up into the sky, to be lost in the trees out of his sight for a while, then approaching again only to elude him once more.
"Somethin' came for yer today," Mister Partridge said as they returned to the house with the wood. "The postman's lad brung it by. Hit's a layin' on the eatin' table."
Radagast picked up the package and peered at it, then smiled and tore off the brown paper wrapping. There was a rather thick book bound in dark red leather, along with an envelope with a seal made in the shape of a rosebud. Greenjade and Smeagol watched him curiously as he broke the seal and began to read...but not aloud.
So Greenjade had plenty to read all week. Radagast told him to be especially careful of the book, for the sender wanted it back. Smeagol seemed not to wish to look at it,and avoided both Greenjade's eyes and the Wizard's for a good long time to come. But Greenjade could scarcely put it down, although he already knew a good deal that was in it. But it was a whole different matter to read of it in his stepfather's voice.
He was reading in it one afternoon, out in the back yard, where he was sitting in a chair and Smeagol lay napping under a tree with his arms around Nilde. Radagast was talking with Mr. Partridge, and Nell was getting ready to go to work while Miss Carrie was in the house, likely preparing supper.
...He cried that the rope 'burned' him, squirming and writhing. Naturally Sam thought he was trying to trick us, playing on our sympathy. But I could see genuine pain in his face. And I pitied him, and when Sam proposed we tie him up and leave him, I knew I could not leave him to die in agony, even if it meant our lives...
It is disturbing to me, how this Thing is taking me little by little. I begin to wonder if I will be able to let it go. What if I cannot? What must I do? Cast myself into the fire along with It? And I begin to understand Smeagol more and more. How he came to be as he is, and I look at him at times and think: Will I come to that? Will I turn into this poor shriveled beast-like wretch, with my mind fixed upon one single object for all eternity? What could be worse? And what will I do to Sam? Will I end up killing him? Is it possible? But I can imagine only one thing worse: that I will NOT kill him, and he and I will end up as slaves to Sauron, along with everyone else I love, and the entire world. I cannot begin to describe how terrifying that is to me. This thing's to do, even if I must end up throwing myself into the fire along with It....
Greenjade felt himself sweating lightly, and he knew it was not from the summer heat, which was not considerable. He glanced aside at Smeagol, who was still sleeping on his side, his face half hidden on Nilde's neck. Innocent and peaceful he looked in that childlike position, and Greenjade remembered something he had said when they had just begun their journey. How he saw "Master" with such a look, and wanted to be good. Wanted that feeling of peace, most likely. Craved the feeling of being at home in the Light, of being at one with it, the blessedness of release, the blissful oblivion of innocence. And yet he had rejected it until the end, knowing it was not for him.
As I myself would have done, thought Greenjade. He laid the book down on his lap and looked at his surroundings: the houses, the well-tended gardens, the stable, the trees out back, the people passing on the road, the white clouds above, the birds flying beneath them. A butterfly passed over his head, fluttering high as though expecting him to reach his hand up to take it.
Soon I must leave all this behind, he thought. Never to return. All of it, the peace, the wholesome work, the children, the merriment, the growing things, the learning, the sheer blooming ordinariness and innocence of it all...it would soon be no more than a memory. And Nell. She would marry Jem, he knew that, and he would not see her again. Would she think of him? When she lay beside her husband in their bed, and he was sleeping, would she stir restlessly, and go to the window and look out, leaning her elbows on the sill, and think of Greenjade? What might have been? The life they might have had together?
...Why do I dream of the Sea? I have never seen it, and yet...I seem to recall an Elf, Legolas, or was it Haldir, saying that eating the lembas cakes for too long will cause one to give way to this longing. I wonder if Sam feels it? I would ask him, but feel that I should keep these things from him; he worries too much about me as it is. Whatever would I do without him? To think I would have come this way alone....
Greenjade shut the book. He did not think he could read any further. The Sea...Sea longing. He was of the Sea, had been of the Sea-longing once, had helped to make the music of the waves. He had perhaps instilled it into his stepfather unknowingly. And now he was exiled from it, would never know its music again, a landish creature now, yet set apart from all landish beings. And this new power of his, of being able to read and write the language of such beings, rather than drawing him closer to them, was proving only to set him further apart.
And yet, he thought, if he could go back into the Sea somehow, have it granted to him to return to what he had been, he would have refused. There was really no turning back now....
And then he heard a step nearby, and he started. It was Nell. He had thought she'd gone already. She was dressed for work, to be sure, in her green and white striped dress with the ruffled sleeves and very low neckline, and laced bodice of dark red embroidered with little birds--quails and pheasants to be sure--and the little white ruffled cap set back on her head.
"Have yer finished the Book?" she said softly. "I'd like to read it if yer wouldn't mind."
It was then that Greenjade glanced about and noticed that Smeagol had gone, probably to go help Miss Carrie with the dishes, that Nilde had gone to rejoin her master, and that he and Nell were alone together....
"But...you are not working tonight, then?" he heard himself stammer.
"Oh, I didn't mean right now," she laughed a little, and yes, her cheeks grew visibly redder. "Aye, I got to go in a bit. And yes, Radagast read parts of it to us in the school, but I'd like to see the words on the page for meself, and all the rest of it. It's got pictures in it, then?"
He moved over on the bench for her, motioning her to sit, then remembering that it was customary here for a man to rise from his seat when a lady appeared, he stood up. She pinked even more.
"Ah...I've to go," she said. And now that they were at eye level with each other, their eyes met and held for a long moment.
And just then Radagast appeared from out the back door of the house.