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29
The Widdicombs


“When Sauron destroyed the Entwives’ gardens in the Brown Lands, most of the Entwives were killed also,” Radagast explained a little farther up the road. “Some of the others called upon Yavanna to save them. She took them up into another realm apart from this one, and they were safe. But there were a few who rebelled and refused to go, not because they were wicked, but because they wished to return to their mates. And so they wandered about Middle-earth…and obviously, at least one of them found her mate. After all this time! It does not explain, however, why they came so far this way, or why they abandoned their child. If we do not find its parents, we may never know. The little one does not seem able to tell us. I dare say it is many years before they learn to talk.”

“How do Ents reproduce?” Serilinn asked as she held one of Eglenbain’s tiny hands curled in hers. The entling was apparently asleep now. “As trees? Or humans?” She looked at Radagast sideways. “I know how humans reproduce. Meleth told me.”

Greenjade and Sméagol looked at each other with small tightlipped grins, trying to imagine a pregnant tree-woman.

“A bit of both,” Radagast said with a smile. “It is hard to explain. When fertilized, the female produces seeds, nuts or cones, which drop into the earth, and the entlings spring from those. Although I think very few actually come up.”

“Then Eglenbain has brothers and sisters!” Serilinn said. “But I did not see them.”

“Perhaps Eglenbain strayed from the ‘nursery’,” Radagast said. “Or perhaps was weak and sickly, and so was left behind…as beasts have been known to do, although I would not like to think it of Ents. But we cannot turn back now. To think some of the Entwives have returned at last! The Ents long believed they would. But I can only wonder why they have come in this direction, instead of into their own Forest. I do remember Merry saying that Treebeard said that Entwives would like the Shire. Perhaps they were headed that way, wishing to settle in less wild country.”

“Look, he has toes,” Serilinn said dreamily as she examined her nursling’s feet. “Seven of them! On each foot, I mean.”

“Looks like we’re almost here,” Greenjade said. He could hear the mill-wheel turning. And he was feeling hungry again. Then suddenly his nose was filled with a strange tickling sensation...and he sneezed.

Sméagol looked not at all happy at the prospect of being among people once more.

~*~*~

“Ellory Widdicomb is me name, and this is me own Verda,” the miller said after taking in the motley company that presented itself before his home, standing across from the millhouse where the wheel spilled over and over into the stream. “And these be our chillern: Sage, Basil, Pepper, Rosemary, and Chamomile. As yer can see, me wife is right partial to yerbs and spices, and ’as a very nice garden out back. And these is Sage and Basil’s wives Winnie and May, and Rosemary’s man Ferman. Her and him got hitched just a couple months ago. Everyone calls ’er Rodey, that bein’ what she called herself when she ’as yet a babe. Even her bridegroom calls ’er so. And these be our grand-young ‘uns….”

He named off Sage’s two little sons and two daughters, and Basil’s two lads and infant lass, while fourteen-year-old Chamomile and nineteen-year-old Pepper stared at Serilinn in undisguised wonder. They were all plain stout folk, round-faced and red-cheeked. Greenjade had to grin to himself imagining Serilinn wearing Chamomile’s clothes.

“Hark!” Mr. Widdicomb exclaimed as a man hove into sight, along with a woman and six younger adults, and about a dozen more children and an elderly woman. The man looked just like Mr. Widdicomb, even to his clothing, save that it was dark blue where Mr. Widdicomb’s was dark red. “'Ere comes more! Aye, it’s me birthday, and me brother’s, so we’s got us a big dinner goin'. Got us a houseful, but there’ll still be plenty a’ room. Yer right on time, me good fellers. This ‘yere is me twin brother Mallory and his wife Min, and their sons and their daughter an’ their families, along with Min's mum…”

Radagast seemed a trifle dismayed; clearly he had not expected the entire clan to turn up. Mrs. Widdicomb suggested they all come inside the house, bidding Pepper take their things up after he had taken Baran to the stable.

“What is it yer got there, me lass?” Mrs. Widdicomb said glancing at Eglenbain, which at Radagast’s suggestion Serilinn had wrapped in a small cloth.

“Just a plaything,” she said with a sweet innocent smile in Greenjade’s direction. “An ent-doll someone made for me.”

Greenjade turned away abruptly. Radagast looked the way a parent does when his child says a particularly clever thing.

“Is it now?” Mrs. Widdicomb said as others stared curiously. “I’ve ‘eared tell o’ some queer things, but I never ‘eared nothin’ like that.”

“Me eyes must be playin’ tricks on me,” Mr. Widdicomb said peering down at the bundle, “’cos I know I ain’t ‘ad nuthin’ but tea to drink today, but I can swear on all that’s right and good that I seen that thing blink. Didn’t you, Mallory?”

“Hark at that!” Mrs. Widdicomb scoffed. “Cammie, come show this lovely lass to her room. Yer can take that up with yer if yer likes, so long as it ain’t alive. My but yer a pretty one, ain’t yer--in a outlandish sort ‘a way. I weren’t expectin’ it. And yer one of the elvish folk, then? I’ve heared tell of ‘em but yer the first I’ve met with. Look at this hair of yers, ’tis dark, ain’t it, but mighty pretty, and shiny, almost like a crow’s wing. Aye, and that dress, well, it’s got to go, don’t it. As yer can plainly see, our Cammie’s clo’es is goin’ to fair hang on yer, but still they’ll be a sight better ‘n what yer got on now. An’ I can take ‘em in some. Well, a good bit, bein’s there ain’t much flesh to yer. Dinner ‘ll be ready in a bit, so yer can go up and get washed up now. Cammie, show this pretty lass to the upstairs room nigh the back, and fetch her some water for washin’, then yer can show her the clo’es, that’s in the garret trunk. We’ve laid ‘em away for the granddaughters, but seein’ as how the eldest one ain’t six year old yet, it’s goin’ to be a time afore they’ll be nigh big enough to wear aught.”

Then Min spoke up: “Pardon me, Verda, but Cammie’s clo’es ain’t goin’ to fit that little lass, and yer’d be a week takin’ in that dress. I’ve a better idea. Our stableman lost ‘is little lad a year ago, and he’s kept the clo’es ‘e ‘ad. And if y’uns is goin’ to be ridin’ out in the wild, then it makes sense yer’ll need ridin’ clo’es, is it? Well then. I believe the young ‘un’s clo’es ‘ll just fit this lass. And they’re in good shape. I’ll send me granddaughter Mattie after ‘em now. It’s all right, it ain’t fur. Just acrosst the stream, it is. Mattie, shake a leg, and run on out to the stable and get them clo’es out o’ that box that’s in the upstairs, will yer, me lass?”

She spoke to a very plain little girl who appeared about twelve and much thinner than the other children, and Mattie turned and broke into a swift run in the opposite direction.

“Aye, that’s a good idea,” Radagast said, “to dress her as a lad. You won’t mind, will you, Serilinn?”

“Nay, I think I would like it,” she said.

“I seen that thing move,” Cammie said in some consternation as she looked at Eglenbain.

“I made it move,” Serilinn said without batting an eye.

“How’d yer do that?” Cammie asked with her little light eyes wide and round.

“Like so,” Serilinn said waving one hand over the entling’s hands. It groped the air for her hand and she lowered a forefinger to it, whereupon it twined its fingers about it just as a human baby will do. Cammie’s mouth fell wide open.

“Now ain’t that somethin’,” Mrs. Widdicomb said. “I’ve ‘eared of elf-magic, but this is the first I ever seen of it. But dinner’s near ready, so y’uns needs to go and wash up. Cammie, show our guest up to ‘er room…an’ nuthin’ agin your plaything there, li’l missy, but I think yer needs to leave it there. It might prove a distraction to the young ‘uns.”

“Aye, my lady, I will,” Serilinn said. Greenjade felt proud of her graciousness, although the thought of addressing the miller’s wife as “my lady” made him want to snicker.

Mattie burst in just then, with a burlap bag. Apparently she had changed her dress. She had been wearing one of a pretty light yellow; the one she wore now was of dark green, and very plain. It was not all the way buttoned in back.

“’Ere’s the stable boy’s clo’es,” she said, out of breath, handing it to Serilinn. “There’s two suits in it in case one gets dirty, and a cloak, and a nice dress also. Hope they fits right, miss. Kin yer get me buttons in back, mum?”

“Why, Mattie Widdicomb,” her mother said as she buttoned the dress, “yer didn’t go an’ give ‘er yer nice dress, now did yer? It’s the only one yer got, after all.”

“Aye, I did,” Mattie said. “’Cos 'er don’t have no nice dress of ‘er own, and 'er’s so pretty, 'er’d ort to ‘ave un.”

“Why Mattie, that’s very sweet of you,” Radagast said, smiling in surprise, “but there is no need, for she’ll never have occasion to wear it until we take her to where we’re going. I dare say she can have all the nice dresses she wants then.”

“That’s our Mattie,” her mother said, in some exasperation, it seemed. “Her goes about givin’ ‘er things to poor childern, and pettin’ stray critters, an’ if 'er comes by some money or food, 'er’ll give it to any as looks pitiful at ‘er. Don’t know where 'er gets that. Sure didn’t git it from me or her dad. An’ I put a world o’ work into that dress, just so 'er could ‘ave somethin’ decent to wear.”

“From her fool granddad, most likely,” Min said with a sidelong glance in her husband’s direction. “Mallory’s the easiest touch in town. We’ll end up in the poor’ouse one a’ these days, see if we don’t.”

“Thank you very much, Mattie,” Serilinn said as she took the yellow dress out of the bag. “Maybe I could just borrow this lovely gown to wear to dinner, and then give it back to you? For Radagast is right, I would only spoil it if I were to wear it in the wild.”

“That’d be all right I reckon,” Mattie said, looking a trifle relieved. “Wot’s that tree thing?”

“Never yer mind,” her mother said. “Come on and ‘elp us set the table, dinner’s nigh ready.”

As Serilinn happily began following the chubby lass, who carried the bag of clothes, upstairs, Radagast turned to his host saying, “Greenjade and Sméagol and I would be happy to sleep in the stable or even the millhouse tonight. We’ve had far rougher quarters.”

“Nay, I wouldn’t ’ear of it,” Mr. Widdicomb said, as his wife repaired with Rodey and Min to the kitchen to check on dinner. “We’ve plenty a’ room in the house. And the three eldest won’t be bidin’ ‘ere, they’ve homes a’ their own to go to. Come to think on it, yer might as well bide here as long as yer intend to stay in town, rather than go to a inn where yer’d ‘ave to pay out good money. Must tell yer though, there’s been some talk abroad, not that I take much stock in it. Some farmers as told how they found some a’ their sheeps bled to death, or their mule, or their dog. I’m guessin’ there’s wolves about, although I should think a wolf ‘ud do more’n take the blood an’ leave the meat. Wot yer make of all that, eh?”

They all had gathered in the sitting-room, the oldest children having been bidden by their mothers to go play outdoors until they were called in to wash, and May suckled her baby in plain sight, to Greenjade’s embarrassment. Then he sneezed again. He fumbled for his handkerchief, but remembered it was tied around his throat to conceal the wounds. So he sat there sniffling until Radagast slipped him his own handkerchief.

“Seems you are coming down with a cold,” the Wizard said in an undertone, shaking his head. “Playing in the water, after I told you to rest. There IS a reason why I tell you such things, you know.”

“I wasn't playing,” Greenjade said like a guilty child. “I was fishing. Didn't mean to get my clothes wet, but my foot slipped, and my other clothes were pissed on, so I couldn't change.”

“I’ll tell yer somethin’ else,” Mr. Widdicomb continued as he lit a pipe, and Mallory lit one also...as did his mother-in-law. “I got two other brothers, ‘sides Mallory ‘ere—well, I did have, our eldest brother havin’ died about twelve year ago. But we got a younger brother as well, night twenty year younger than Mallory and me, Royal his name was. Well, Royal yer might say was the black sheep of the family, use ter get in fights, gamble, drink too much, flirt with the lasses somethin’ scandalious, got throwed in lock-up from time to time, all that sort o’ thing. Not but what me and Mallory didn’t sow a wild oat or two in our young days, but we growed out of it. Not but what we don’t cut loose once’t in a great while—mostly on special days, mind yer, and the price we pay ain’t worth it, fur as I’m concerned. Then there’s our families to consider. But Royal, he ne’er did grow out of it. Reckon that was our mum’s fault, she fair doted on ‘im and spoilt ‘im rotten, him bein’ the youngest and the best lookin’ of us lads—the only good lookin’ ‘un, fur as that goes, and a mite sickly when he’s a little ‘un. Royal was ‘is name and royal’s what she thought of ‘im. ‘E was ‘er prince. Never took a wife, nor held down a steady job, an’ ‘e’d come and go, showin’ up ‘ere ever’ once’t in a while. ‘E’d have many a story to tell, and I’ll admit they was interestin’, an’ envied ‘im betimes. Well, ‘e took off about four year ago, and ain’t been ‘eared from since’t. Verda says ‘e’ll turn up sooner or later, but let me tell yer somethin’…”

He lowered his voice, looked down at his pipe, then at Mallory, then glanced toward the kitchen door, behind which the voices of some of the women and girls could be heard. The others in the room were hushed and listening.

“Mallory ‘ere,” Mr. Widdicomb gestured toward his twin brother with his pipe stem, “swears on ever’thing that he seen Royal one night…now I don’t know how reliable that be, seein’ as how Mallory likes ‘is likker…not but what I don’t, but I don’t drink as much as ‘im, and—“

“Ha!” Mallory guffawed. “Not much yer don’t.”

“I likes me ale and dark beer as much as the next man,” Ellory retorted, “but I don’t drink it so often, ‘cos it makes me to make a fool o’ meself and I hears about it for weeks on end, and I don’t like the sickness i’ the morning from it. ‘Tain’t worth it, so I don’t take so much of it. But…where was I? Ah, Royal. Aye, Mallory claims ‘e seen Royal one night, snoggin’ up with a wench in a dark alley-way when ‘e went out there to…erm, get rid of some o’ the effects of a wee bit too much ale. Or, ‘e thought they was snoggin, but…” --he lowered his voice still more—“accordin’ to Mallory ‘ere, Royal appeared to be feedin’ off of her…same’s that babe is a feedin’ off a’ May there. Only in a different way, if yer takes me meanin’. An' 'er body was found later in that same alley, drained of 'er blood.”

Before Radagast could say anything, the kitchen door burst open.

“Dinner’s a ready!” Verda Widdicomb said. “Anybody wot's hungry, come and git it afore we eats it all oursel's!”

~*~*~

The dining-room was surely the largest room in the house. Another table was brought in to accommodate everyone, and the younger children were placed at it. Serilinn came down smiling wearing the yellow dress, her hair combed and braided in the front, with the little feather butterfly holding the braids together in back, Cammie and Mattie shyly trailing in her wake. Greenjade drew in his breath sharply at her beauty, and he could hear some of the others doing so as well. He had to wonder when was the last time she had ever worn a pretty dress. That one did not really suit her, he thought; it was well enough for a peasant-child, but Serilinn should have been clad in silks and velvets befitting the little princess she was. Even so, it was a vast improvement over that thing she had been wearing before.

“Look what 'er give me,” Cammie whispered to her mum, pointing to one of the feather butterflies Serilinn had made, which she too had placed in her hair. “Ain’t it a pretty thing?”

“Her give me un too,” Mattie said, inclining her head to show hers.

“Well, that’s nice, but don’t be a wavin’ ‘em ‘fore all the others, or they’ll be wantin’ ‘em also,” Mrs. Widdicomb said. “Now let’s put on the lights and call the others in an’ take our places at the table, shall we?”

There was ham, goose, sausage, and quail to choose from. The meat was a trifle greasy for Greenjade’s liking, but the vegetable dishes were delicious, and there were no less than six loaves of bread, each a different kind. And fresh butter and cheese and honey and jelly. And ale and dark beer. There was more talk of the menace that had been abroad, mixed in with chatter of commonplace doings, and Radagast held back from telling of the events of the previous night, having confided to Greenjade and Sméagol that it would perhaps be better to wait until after dinner to speak of it. Greenjade wondered if Royal had been among the beings he had encountered last night…and if he had been one of those he had impaled on his staff.

He glanced from time to time at Serilinn to see how she was taking it all, wishing hard that the others would shut up about the Vampires when she was in the room, and wondering at Radagast for not setting them straight…although to his credit, he was trying to divert the conversation, but was not having much luck at it. However, Serilinn seemed to be doing well, all things considered. She was not stuffing herself as the other children were, but she was eating, although she was renewing her resolve to take no meat. Cammie had insisted on her sitting at the head of the table, while the stout little girl sat at her right side, Mattie on her left. How strange it was to see her in such a normal and ordinary position, and Greenjade wished he could understand all the little girls were saying to her, but the way the big folk were gabbing away, he couldn’t catch a word. Never before had he been around such talkative people, even at the Partridges’. And the Partridges had been far different folk, more refined and intelligent, despite their humble origins. They knew when enough was enough. The Widdicombs were another matter. They had several dogs, and some of the better-behaved ones sat under the table, getting slipped tidbits from time to time. Nildë kept close to Sméagol, who fed her also. Two of the little boys got into a food-fight, and their mother screamed at them so loudly, it made Greenjade jump. He felt acutely embarrassed for Serilinn, and evidently so did Cammie and Mattie, for they stared at the boys with reproving eyes, then glanced back at her apologetically and spoke, probably deploring their cousins' lack of manners.

There was plum pudding, cake and pie for afters. The women cleared the dining room when everyone was done, shooing the children outdoors, where it was growing dusky, admonishing them not to go too far out, lest “Uncle Royal” get them. Serilinn went upstairs to check on her nursling, for which Cammie had brought down her old doll's cradle, and the men went to sit out on the front-porch, smoking their pipes and belching openly. Sméagol sat near Radagast, petting Nildë. Greenjade had resumed carving Serilinn's doll. He supposed she would not care about it now that she had something living to tend, but it gave him something to do for a while. By and by he felt himself getting sleepy, nodding off until suddenly he was startled by a silvery voice asking How do I look? He opened his eyes to see a very pretty lad standing before him, dressed in rust-colored jacket and breeches, white shirt, knitted red cap, and brown cloak…and a pair of high leather boots. Mattie stood smiling nearby, in the yellow dress once more.

Neither of them noticed the large owl in the tall pine tree by the mill-house, in the bloody light of the setting sun….



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