Greenjade did not see the owl that night. It was raining hard.
They all sat about the fireplace in the front room, roasting apples on sticks, which they ate with clotted cream and honey, and Mr. Widdicomb told a rather long-winded and sporadically amusing story from his boyhood, while Greenjade resumed his work on Serilinn’s doll and Mrs. Widdicomb worked on a braid rug. Serilinn sang a song, and everyone was thrilled and awed at the beauty of her voice, and Greenjade felt as proud as if he were her father, and he smiled to himself.
And Radagast told of the Quest.
Pepper was the one who seemed most impressed with it. Cammie fell asleep about halfway through. Mr. Widdicomb said it was “a good yarn” but he didn’t take much stock in it, he preferred “real stories about real folks.” Mrs. Widdicomb was a little disappointed; she had expected the Ringbearers to go storming Sauron’s fortress, and as for those Eagles…well. The story had its moments, she said, but Radagast had better change the ending if he expected it to go down with anyone else. And if she had that Gollum here she’d give him a good shaking, she said.
Serilinn laid her head on Sméagol’s shoulder.
The next morning it had stopped raining, and Greenjade felt somewhat better. But Radagast would not allow him to go to News Day with him. He and the others would go on foot; it was not far, and the road was too muddy to take the wagon with everyone riding in it. Dead leaves and pine needles carpeted the ground, sopping wet.
“I’ll work on the wagon then,” Greenjade said. “I do have some carpentry skills, if you recall.”
“I can work on the cover, if you take it off for me,” Serilinn offered. “I can sew fairly well—enough to sew on a patch.”
“Nay, lassie, I misdoubt that yer could stitch such a big patch on such a big cloth,” Mrs. Widdicomb said. “I’ll do it meself when we gets home. I got some canvas left over from the old tarp I made for Widdicomb’s wagon. Hit’s a poor match, but it’ll do.”
“And don’t worry about the wagon, Greenjade,” Radagast said. “I know it’s tiresome for you, my lad, but we need you in good health when we start on our way....Wish we might have a plain white covering, rather than that gaudy one, but there’s no time to make one.”
“I like the colored one,” Serilinn said. Radagast smiled.
“Do come with us, Seri,” Cammie said. “I can borry one o’ Mattie’s dresses agin if yer likes.”
“Oh no thank you, dear,” the elfling said in her gracious way, laying a hand over Greenjade’s arm. “I must keep Greenjade company. He would be lonely without me.”
Greenjade smiled, then sneezed.
“Well, wot say we gets goin’ ‘stead of standin’ around flappin’ our jaws,” Mr. Widdicomb said. “They’ll be startin’ without us, like as not.”
“Aye, and we’ll miss all the blabber about the new front winder bein’ put up in The Rusty Bucket, I s’pose,” Mrs. Widdicomb said with a sidelong glance at her husband.
“How does one put a window in a bucket?” Serilinn asked with lifted brows. All the Widdicombs bellowed with laughter.
“Hit ain’t a bucket, luv, it’s a pub,” Mr. Widdicomb explained. “Hit’s just called The Rusty Bucket ‘cos...well, ‘cos there’s a rusty bucket ’angin’ from the sign.”
“But why’s there a rusty bucket ’angin’ from the sign?” Pepper asked with a wink. Evidently this was some sort of family game.
“’Cos that’s the name o’ the pub,” his father said.
“But why’s it the name o’ the pub?” Cammie asked.
“’Cos it’s got a rusty bucket ’angin’ from the sign,” her brother said.
“But why’s it got a--”
“All right, enough o’ that, let’s get goin’,” their mother said, amid more laughter. Finally all departed, leaving Greenjade and Serilinn behind.
“They’re nice,” Serilinn said as she and Greenjade went back indoors. “But I think I would not want to live with them. I don’t know why exactly.”
“They’re not your kind of folks,” Greenjade said. “Common, they are. Good enough in their clunky way, I suppose, but…common as the mud in that road. You are as a sweet thrush amongst cackling barnyard fowl.”
“Mrs. Widdicomb has been very nice to me,” Serilinn said, “and so has Cammie. I never knew any young girls before.”
“I don’t doubt she’s been nice to you. But she hasn’t your intelligence or strength of character, and if there were other lasses who went up against you because you weren’t of their kind, I dare say Cammie would take their side of it. Common. You can do better.”
He wondered whether there would be any lasses where they were going to befriend Serilinn. Likely it was something she would have to do without.
“Oh—I need to try to find something for Eglenbain to drink from, something not made of wood,” she said after a frowning moment. “Can you help me?”
“Let’s check down cellar. I’m sure there will be something down there that will do. And I’d like to see what all is down here.”
They went down hand in hand, after Greenjade lit a candle. The cellar smelled very nicely of apples and dried herbs. It was cool and damp, with a great many shelves lined with canned goods.
“Looks like they are laying in a good supply,” Greenjade commented, picking up an apple from one of the many baskets and pocketing it. “Ought to last them a full week,” he said with a wink at Serilinn. Then his eye fell on a box of empty jars. “How about one of those for your…entling?”
“That will do,” Serilinn said peering at the jar Greenjade picked up and handed to her. “I don’t like to take it without asking Mrs. Widdicomb…but I’ll put it back when we leave.”
“I’ll buy it for you,” Greenjade said.
“Oh, you needn’t. She gave me some money yesterday for helping her in the kitchen. See?” Serilinn pulled a few coppers from her breeches pocket to show Greenjade.
“Keep them, love,” he said, folding her fingers around them gently. “I’m taking all these jars. I will pay for them also. Do you know where they keep the oil for their lamps?”
“I do not know. In the kitchen, I think.”
“I’ll look. You can make braids?”
“Aye, I can. But why do you want braids? And jars?”
“I’ll explain in good time. Come up with me.”
They went up to his room, where he retrieved the cloth he had been using to catch the chips and shavings from the doll.
“This will be just the thing,” he said. “Just shake off those bits into the chip basket, and tear it into strips—here, I'll show you.” He tore off a strip about four inches wide. “Think you can do that?”
“Aye, but…should we do this without asking Mrs. Widdicomb?”
“It’s only an old cloth she gave me,” he said, wondering to himself how the child had managed to stay so moral. It occurred to him that he should be setting her a better example, but reminded himself that his plan had been conceived for her safety. “And if it’s such a great matter, I’ll pay her for it.”
After Serilinn had made the first braid, he found the jug of lamp oil in a cabinet, and poured some into the jar, jabbed a hole in the lid with his knife, then stuffed the braid into the hole and nodded.
“Is that a lamp?” she asked drawing her eyebrows together.
“Of sorts,” he said nodding. “It’s not for looks, obviously. But I think it will do.”
“Is it for our journey?” she asked.
“I see I shall have to tell you my plan,” he sighed.
As she made more braids and he told her the plan, he whittled on some sticks he had found in the woodpile, making them smooth and round, with a point on one end. Then he asked her if she had any feathers left from her butterflies.
“Not so many, and they’re very small,” she said.
“No matter. I’ll go to the chicken coop later on and get some. Yours are a bit too small, at that.”
“Are those arrows?”
“Aye, they are. I saw a bow in Pepper’s room yesterday when that little tree-babe of yours wandered into it. You need to tie a rope to that thing and tether it to the bedpost. I asked him if he had any arrows, and he said the young’uns broke them all.”
“Do you really think this will work?” she said.
“We can only hope,” he said. “I wish I’d gotten some practice with shooting, back at the Partridges’. It would have been a useful skill to have.”
She was quiet for a while as she made more braids. Finally she looked up at him with sad eyes.
“Must I stay with the King?” she asked him. “I wish to go to Mordor with you.”
“I wish you could also,” Greenjade said, “but Radagast says it’s no place for a child. Perhaps you could come to us when we’ve made a garden of it?”
“But I want to help you make a garden of it,” she said, her eyes moistening a little. “I don’t wish to stay with folk I do not know, even if they are nice.”
“Perhaps Radagast will change his mind,” Greenjade suggested after a moment.
“You need my help,” she said almost with a pout. “I am an Elf. I have some powers to help things grow. You need me, Greenjade.”
“Well, if you can convince Radagast,” he said, “I would be overjoyed to have you.”
“You would?” she looked up at him. “Truly?”
“Very truly,” he said with a little smile.
“I am rendered speechless,” she said softly after a moment. “No one has ever loved me save for Meleth.”
“We all love you, Radagast and Sméagol and I. And I dare say Nilde and…Eglenbain also. I’ve known you less than three days, yet it seems I have always known you.”
“We could be so happy,” Serilinn said just above a whisper. “I think Nilde will have children. I saw one of the Widdicombs’ dogs having an interlude with her yesterday.”
“Umm…you mean…” Greenjade chuckled. “You chased him off, I hope?”
“I stopped him, and I told him, ‘I am sorry but Nilde must not have any babies until we get to Mordor, although I can see why you love her.’ But perhaps it was too late, and she has been hopelessly im--impregnated.”
Greenjade roared with laughter, startling himself with the volume. After a moment she giggled uproariously also. Her eyes nearly closed up and tears came into them.
How would they ever do without that sound?
“Look,” Cammie pointed to a plumpish young woman standing in the crowd arm in arm with a well-dressed young man, “there’s Blossom Benbow. Pepper, look.” She tugged at her brother’s sleeve. “’Oo’s that with ‘er?”
“Hold yer tongue, Chamomile Widdicomb,” her mother shushed her. Pepper’s face got very red, and he fixed his eyes on the platform in the town square, where Radagast was now mounting. “There now. Looks a trifle seedy, don’t ’e? Wish we could a’ got hold o’ some decent clothes for ‘im. Now why’d ‘e ‘ave to go and bring that silly-lookin’ staff with ‘im, I wonder? Yer’d think ‘e’d want a bit o’ dignity, like.”
“’E’s got plenty o’ dignity, silly staff or none,” Pepper said in an undertone, with an effort not to glance in Blossom’s direction.
“Why’s The Rusty Bucket need a new winder?” Cammie asked.
“’Cos Randy Budgeon throwed a tankard through the old ‘un,” Mr. Widdicomb said. “Daffy bugger.”
“Shush!” Mrs. Widdicomb said. “He’s goin’ ter speak.”
Radagast was holding one hand up palm out for silence. The chattering of the crowd began to die down.
“Good folk of the village,” he said, “what I am about to relate to you is of grave importance. I tell it not to frighten anyone, but only to alert all to the menace that is abroad. I have heard reports of this danger from some of the good townsfolk—livestock and wild beasts, and even some human beings, found drained of blood, relatives who have mysteriously vanished, questionable characters seen in disreputable haunts about town. I am here to tell you that this menace is real. That my companions and I had a most terrifying encounter not three nights gone, and lived to tell the tale…”
“When’s ‘e goin’ to get to the good part?” Mr. Widdicomb murmured, and his wife nudged him with her elbow.
“I do not know if any of you have heard tell of the Children of Thuringwethil,” Radagast continued. “But we met with some of them in a wood close by, and rescued one of their unfortunate captives, whom we have taken under our wing. They are monsters, creatures of Sauron the Dark Lord. Now do not become frightened, for their powers are limited. I am here to warn you of their activities and advise you as to how to protect yourselves and your children and beasts…”
“Wot’s ‘e sayin’?” Cammie whispered in the general direction of her parents, looking alarmed. “Wot dark lord?”
“If yer’d been a payin’ attention last night, yer might of learnt somethin’,” Pepper said with a sidelong glance at his sister.
“Shush,” their mother said.
Radagast went on to tell people to construct shelters for their livestock if they hadn’t any already, to keep their children indoors at night and to be wary of strange folk in the village. Better they did not drink any liquors or spirits until the danger was past, which perhaps it would be eventually. The creatures, he said, could change their shapes by means of their black cloaks into birds or bats, but they could not come into the house without being invited.
“So beware of strangers who knock at your doors and tell you sad tales of how they have lost their way or are fleeing danger or have injured themselves, begging for shelter in the night. Do not let them in! Even if they claim to be long lost relations or friends of yours. Do not let them trick you. They are repelled and rendered powerless by silver, so if you have any, make use of it. Do not take this threat lightly! Its implications are more terrible than you could ever imagine. Resist it, however, and it will go away. Unfortunately, I cannot warn everyone in Middle-earth from it, but I do what I can, and suggest you do the same. I urge caution, rather than fear. Hear a crying baby outside your door some moonlit night? Take care. Hear a wolf howling, and fear for your sheep or cattle? Take care. Meet a beautiful woman in a pub some night with seductive eyes and lips? Avert your own eyes and do not listen to her blandishments. Meet a handsome man with a melodious voice and flattering words at some starlit celebration? Turn from him quickly. If your dog or your horse seems terrified, take heed. Resist this evil, and eventually, it will go elsewhere. I can but hope and pray that it will not grow. You may know them by their black cloaks, and a preternatural eerie light, not unlike foxfire, about them, if their hoods should fall away. A sharp stick, thrust through their middle, will kill them; so will fire, or a beheading. I have never before advocated any sort of violence; however these creatures are not human, are not redeemable, not even alive, and naught short of destruction can stop them. Have chains of silver? Wear them at all times. Above all things, take caution. Heed my words. Your lives, and those of your children and animals, depend on it!”
The crowd began to murmur, and as the murmur turned into a buzz, Radagast abruptly stepped down from the small platform, spoke softly to the man who normally delivered the news, who was just staring open-mouthed at the Wizard, then moved with rapid strides to where Sméagol stood with the Widdicombs.
“Well, reckon nobody ain’t likely to be much interested in the new winder in The Rusty Bucket now?” Mallory Widdicomb said to his brother, who appeared to be in a state of shock.
“Do yer think it’ll rain ternight?” Ellory Widdicomb nervously asked Radagast as he helped the miller repair the loose bolt on the stable door. “Like last night?”
“It’s a trifle cloudy, but I do not think it likely to come a downpour,” the Wizard said.
“We’d best put the dogs down cellar,” Pepper said. “Or they’re like to end up like Butch. We found ‘im blooded to death, out in a field,” he explained to Radagast.
“Reckon yer right, even though like they’ll drive us daffy with their racket,” his father said.
“Well, it’s only noon now,” Radagast said, “and I’m hungry. After we’ve had a bite, I can get to work fixing that singletree.”
“They really want Serilinn’s blood?” Pepper asked, taking a nail from his mouth. His mother and sister had already gone indoors to fix lunch.
“Aye, that they do,” Radagast said. “It gives them the sort of power they desire.”
“Jumpin’ kingsnakes,” the lad said with a whistle, shaking his round pale head. “So. What yer think we should do? Go out in the woods with spikes, or bows an’ arrers, and hunt ‘em down?”
“I doubt that would be a good idea,” Radagast said. “I think it’s best we simply take precautions against them until they give up and go elsewhere.”
“So fer how long are yer stayin’?” Pepper asked.
“Until Greenjade is ready to travel. Which will likely be about a day or two more.”
Mr. Widdicomb seemed speechless for once.
“It’s starting to get dark,” Serilinn said glancing out the window. Greenjade had resumed work on her doll. He had both arms finished and was now working on the legs. She came back to inspect his progress. “I shall call her Cinnamon,” she said. “You don’t mind, do you? Mrs. Widdicomb gave her children all spice names, and I think that is a charming idea. She put cinnamon on the bread at breakfast, and it was thoroughly delightful.”
“Of course I don’t mind,” Greenjade grinned fondly, trying to imagine two females less alike than Mrs. Widdicomb and Serilinn. “She’s your doll, you may call her whatever you like. And ‘Cinnamon’ is a very nice name.”
“You will have me quite spoiled to death, Greenjade,” Serilinn said smiling back. Greenjade laughed aloud, then impulsively reached one arm and gave her a little squeeze with it.
Then he happened to glance aside toward the window. And saw the owl outside, perched in the big oak.
Serilinn brought his supper up a little later after a while, and ate it with him, after which he proposed they go back downstairs, saying he didn’t feel half bad now. Perhaps they could be on the road by tomorrow.
Somehow he did not think the Widdicombs were going to want them around much longer. Well, the feeling was mutual.
They were strangely quiet that evening. Mr. Widdicomb spoke of his brother Royal, saying he reckoned he knew what had become of him now, looking rather blearily at Radagast, as though the Wizard were somehow responsible.
“I can only wonder what our mum would a’ had to say about it,” he said. “Almost makes me glad she didn’t live to see it. Pepper, all the dogs down cellar now?”
“Aye, dad, that they be,” his son said. “Me an’ Sméagol put ‘em down, save for that ‘un there.” He indicated Nilde with a nod of his head. Nilde sat between Radagast and Sméagol, her head down on her paws.
Cammie sat close to her mother, looking very pale and tightlipped. Mrs. Widdicomb was working on her rug once more, but her fingers trembled. Serilinn sat next to Greenjade, who had put Cinnamon aside. Cammie was not looking at her. All the curtains were drawn at the windows.
The dogs could be heard yapping and howling down cellar.
“I think they’re sensin’ somethin’,” Pepper said softly. “That’s ‘ow they sounded the night afore we found Butch.”
“I ‘ear somethin’ out there,” Mrs. Widdicomb said after a moment. Radagast jumped up from his chair and went to a window.
After a seemingly endless moment he turned and looked at the others.
“Greenjade,” he said between clenched teeth, “take the girls into the hallway and tell them to stay there. Now.”
Greenjade stood and reached a hand down to Serilinn, who looked in terror first at him, then at Radagast. Greenjade looked at Cammie, who just sat there with round eyes, and jerked his head in the direction of the door leading into the hallway. She did not move, so her mother nudged her saying, “Go, lass.”
“Perhaps you should go with her, Mrs. Widdicomb,” Radagast said. Cammie stood then, on wobbly legs, then Pepper came over and took her by the arm, not too gently, saying, “Come on then, don’t just set there like a sack o’ taters. Come on in the hall, now.”
Cammie followed Greenjade and Serilinn into the hallway. Pepper had to give her a little push through the door.
“Sit on the stairs,” Greenjade said to the girls. “Don’t go out of the hall until someone comes and tells you it’s all clear. Will you promise me?”
Serilinn nodded without speaking. Cammie looked ready to burst into tears.
“Eglenbain!” Serilinn said suddenly, jumping to her feet. Greenjade reached out and caught her arm.
“Do not even think about it,” he said. “Eglenbain will be all right. Just stay put. I’m going up now. Remember our plan?”
She nodded. Greenjade ran up the stairs, then into Serilinn’s room and looked out the window, which was above the front door.
And he saw fire. Torches, illuminating figures in black hoods, carrying bundles of twigs and straw.
They were moving toward the house.
After a frozen moment, he ran toward his own room, found Eglenbain huddled in a corner, obviously frightened, whimpering. He stood staring at the forlorn little thing for a moment, then finally he reached down and forgetting his aversion to it, thought of Serilinn, and touched the entling, which began crying in that rusty way he remembered. He was overcome with pity for it then, and lifted it very gently, hoping it wouldn’t grab him around the neck—likely it was stronger than it looked—and began carrying it down the stairs to Serilinn, who sprang up and ran upward to meet him, and took her charge in her arms.
“Go on back down now,” he said, then noticed Cammie staring up at her, with her eyes and mouth very round.
He swore to himself. Then thought, Well, what does it matter now, we’ll be leaving tomorrow, most likely. He went back upstairs, as the dogs down cellar began barking and howling more and more loudly, and ran back to Serilinn’s room and looked out the window.
The hooded figures were surrounding the house with their torches, and had dropped the bundles of twigs and straw on the ground. And the tallest of them stood at the front door.
“Gaergath,” Greenjade spoke softly, and began to shudder in every muscle and bone and nerve.