Pepper informed the others that the whole town was hailing Greenjade and Sméagol and himself as heroes now. Folks were coming over with bundles of flowers and gifts of food and wine and money, and when told that the “heroes” were ill and could not come down, they left the things with Mrs. Widdicomb and left. Some stood before the house and sang songs, and the Mayor of the town wished to give a celebration before they departed.
Greenjade found it irritating in the extreme.
“If not for that she-Ent,” he said to Radagast when the Wizard chided him for his attitude, “we wouldn’t have been able to do a bloody thing. And they don’t even seem to believe in her existence, and would likely hurl stones at her if they were ever to come upon her, or let their dogs piddle on her. I simply cannot get away from here soon enough.”
“Perhaps someday you will learn a little more tolerance for human weakness,” Radagast said with a bit of a smile.
“I’m plenty tolerant of it, so long as it is my own,” Greenjade retorted, and the Wizard laughed. “I’m a hero in Serilinn’s eyes, and that’s good enough for me. All the others can go chase themselves.”
Sméagol enjoyed the adulation, to Greenjade’s annoyance. He would go to the window, when he heard the singing, and wave and smile hugely. When one of the young women threw a rose to him, he nearly fell out of the window trying to catch it. Serilinn ran down to retrieve it for him. He kept it in a jar of water by his bedside, and would take it out to look at it and try to sniff it from time to time, and when it withered, he saved all the petals in his money-pouch.
Greenjade managed to finish Cinnamon, and Serilinn made a little dress for the doll. Everyone exclaimed over its resemblance to Serilinn, and made much over Greenjade’s skill, which annoyed him further still. He had been afraid she would not care about the doll after losing Eglenbain, yet as he presented the completed product to her, she smiled at him with an unmistakable love and gratitude as she took it in her arms, and a feeling filled him that he recognized as joy.
He felt fully human, for the first time in his life. Had the people still been outside the window singing, he might have gone and smiled and waved to them also.
Mrs. Widdicomb made a dress for Serilinn, saying that if she were going to visit the King, she shouldn’t have to do it in lad’s clothes. The dress was of white linen, trimmed with ribbon at the neck and sleeves. Serilinn was thrilled beyond measure, especially since Mrs. Widdicomb had made her some underthings to go with it.
As for the locket, Radagast told her she had better keep it until they could get her one of her own. Better to be safe than sorry, he said. She did not forget the grey curl, and she put it back into the locket, saying she wished she’d had a lock of Meleth’s hair to keep.
“She had wavy golden hair,” Serilinn sighed. “It was the goldenest hair one could ever wish to see. Like honey pouring out of a hive made of amber and—and…”
“Wheat,” suggested Radagast.
“Topaz,” Greenjade said. Sméagol looked ready to add something, then seemed to think better of it, looking troubled.
“Aye,” Serilinn nodded. “I wish mine were like it.”
“I’m sure her hair was very lovely,” Radagast said caressing her raven locks, “but so is yours. I would not have it other than it is, and neither would Greenjade or Sméagol, I know.”
Greenjade nodded his agreement, and he could actually hear Sméagol doing the same.
“And you have her songs,” Greenjade said. “Songs are far better than hair, particularly when sung by a voice such as yours. There is healing in them, and protection against the darkness.”
Serilinn smiled as if she truly understood.
“Mattie’s comin’ over today with that cousin o’ hers on her dad’s side,” Mr. Widdicomb said later that morning, as Serilinn was in her room trying on her new dress, with help from Cammie. “Wait’ll yer see ‘er, she’s even prettier ’n Seri, an’ that’s a sayin’ plenty.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Greenjade said turning away so Mr. Widdicomb would not see his eyes roll up.
When he got a look at the cousin, he restrained a guffaw with an effort. She might have been nice to look at by common standards, but she was not even in the same neighborhood with Serilinn. Greenjade had to wonder where Mr. Widdicomb’s taste was. Cammie proposed a tea-party in the garden, and Greenjade watched the four girls from his window, smiling to himself like a doting parent, hearing their chatter and wishing he could understand all they were saying. Serilinn was as an exquisite lotus blossom next to three slightly scraggly daisies. Not that daisies didn’t have their charms, but next to a lotus…. He could only pity them, with their commonness and ordinariness cast up into such plain relief. Then again, perhaps he should not. After all, they had never known what Serilinn had endured, and never would. Her strength and beauty of character had been born much out of what she had been through, which would have destroyed those other lasses, more than likely. Who would wish their daughters to go through such an ordeal? Could they not have that strength and beauty without it?
And obviously there were folks who actually did prefer daisies. Greenjade shook his head. Thanks be to Eru that he would not have to live amongst them….
Yet he had to admit he was greatly pleased to watch Serilinn enjoying the delights of ordinariness for a time. If she did end up going to Mordor with them, those delights were apt to be far and few between for her.
Cammie and Mattie took her to visit with the cousin, and when they returned, Serilinn ran to the others saying, “Look at this!”
She waved a beaded purse, a gift from one of the townsfolk, and opened it to show some very colorful feathers, gleaming and iridescent in the sunlight.
“Ella’s grandmother has birds,” she said, “of which I have never seen the like. They came from the South, she said. She keeps them in a cage almost as big as her house, in the yard, all full of little trees and flowers in painted pots. They are very noisy, but most splendid. One has a tail he can spread out like a huge fan. Think of the lovely things I can make with these!”
“Perhaps there is more to ‘common’ folk than meets the eye, what?” Radagast said with a sidelong glance at Greenjade, as she ran to her room to put away the feathers and change back into her boys’ clothes, saying she didn’t wish to muss her new dress.
The Widdicombs gave quite a big dinner on the night before the Travelers’ departure. Greenjade’s newfound love for the common folk dimmed somewhat on being relentlessly surrounded by Widdicombs as he had been on the day of his arrival there, but seeing as how Serilinn attached herself to his side for much of the evening, he managed to endure the boredom with sufficient graciousness, and reminded himself that they would be leaving in the morning, never to come back.
It seemed they had been at the Widdicombs’ forever, although it was actually only a week and a half.
He guessed he would have to do without ever visiting The Rusty Bucket, although Pepper invited him and Sméagol that evening to slip away and go celebrate. Greenjade was momentarily tempted, but the thought of being clapped on the back and fussed over as a “hero” by a pack of drunks lacked appeal for him, and the memory of his last bout with drunkenness was all the more a deterrent. And he did not want to incur any more displeasure from Radagast, so he smiled and politely declined. Pepper looked greatly disappointed. It seemed The Rusty Bucket was all the pleasure he had in life….
The wagon was loaded. Greenjade devoutly hoped Brego was strong enough to bear it all.
There were six boxes of canned goods, a new blanket and pillow for Serilinn, and four bags of money, of which the Mayor had taken up a collection, along with the bags of oats for Brego and another bag of jerked venison for Nilde. And yes, a bag of pine cones that the girls had collected upon hearing from Sméagol that she liked to chew them. Cammie and Mattie stood with Serilinn, weeping (Ella having gone home the previous evening) and embracing her from time to time. Already she had made them butterflies from the gorgeous feathers she had collected, and they wore them in their hair now.
Pepper sidled up to Greenjade saying, “Remember what I said last week? Dad said I could go with yer if I must…though he said if I did, don’t bother comin’ back. Will it be all right?”
“Pepper,” Radagast said, startling the lad by coming behind him, Rusco perched on his shoulder, “are you sure you truly want to come?”
“Aye, I’m sure,” Pepper said. “There’s naught for me ‘ere. I want ter get out an’ see some o’ the world afore I die. This place can go hang, and ever’thing in it.”
But it seemed to Greenjade he didn’t sound as sure as he had the other day.
“Very well then,” Radagast said at last, to Greenjade’s dismay, although Sméagol looked quite happy. He and Pepper had become quite chummy in the course of the week. “Come along, if you must. Have you your things ready?”
“All ready to go,” Pepper said. “They’re on the back stoop. I didn’t take much, just me blanket and piller and one change of clothes. An’ all me money, such as ‘tis. And me bow and arrers.”
Just then Mrs. Widdicomb called out, “Pepper lad, looks like yer got a visitor. But since’t yer leavin’ us, reckon I better just send ‘er on ‘er way, wot?”
“Visitor?” Pepper blinked, and Greenjade grinned to himself. “Yer don’t mean…”
And then a buxom lass stepped forward, arrayed in an embroidered blouse that did naught to disguise her obvious charms, a full brown skirt that displayed shapely ankles, and a wide-brimmed straw hat trimmed with huge yellow silk roses, from which her abundant curls spilled down her back in chestnut profusion. Her plump face, while not beautiful in the usual sense, was certainly vivid, with its sparkling brown eyes and wide ruddy lips.
“Blossom?” Pepper gasped. “Wot yer doin’ ‘ere?”
“Rodey told me yer was leavin’,” Blossom Benbow said matching the tips of her plump fingers, which she held just below her chin. She wore little lace gloves that had no fingers to them. “An’ I come to tell yer I’m sorry fer them things I said to yer when…well…” Her red lips trembled a little and tears sprang into her eyes.
“So wot ‘appened to yer feller?” Pepper said. “That ‘un yer been goin’ round the town makin’ a show of yerself with fer the past three weeks?”
“Oh, ‘im,” Blossom waved him away with one dimpled hand. “’E’s me cousin Ferrell. ‘E was right stuck on me fer a while ‘ere, but ‘e cut out when ‘e ‘eard about them…wot yer call ‘em. Said ‘e ‘ad no business ‘ere no more, an ‘e asked me to come with ‘im, but I said I weren’t goin’ away to live amongst folks I don’t know, and leave me mum an’ dad behind. I’m all they got. An’ I don’t like ‘im so much anyways, I was jus’ tryin’ to make yer jealous. Yer the one fer me, Pepper. Yer strong an’ brave, like Ferrell ain’t, and I’m sorry fer wot I said, truly. Are yer really goin’?”
Pepper looked at Greenjade, then at Radagast, then at Sméagol, as if to ask them all what he should do. Radagast nodded.
“We’re ready to go, my lad,” he said. “So, you’d better say your farewells, and come along. The road awaits us.”
“Erm…” Pepper hedged, looking at Blossom once more. She was fumbling in her purse for her handkerchief, and fetched up a rather large one, drenched liberally with scent. “I…well…”
“Let’s go,” Radagast insisted, as he climbed into the driver’s seat. The wagon had been painted a more pleasing shade of brown, and the cover had been nicely fixed by Mrs. Widdicomb--who had patched it from the inside, so it would not look so glaring. Serilinn and Sméagol had pinned feather-flies all around the front, to make it look nicer still, and some of the cousins had made a garland of flowers to drape over it, as well as a wreath to put around Brego's neck. He was wearing it with remarkable dignity. “Come, my lad. Your horse is saddled up now, I see. So, let’s be off, shall we?”
Greenjade grinned to himself. Sméagol watched Pepper anxiously. Serilinn kissed Cammie and Mattie on the cheek, embraced them one last time, then skipped over to the wagon, where Greenjade helped her climb up into the seat, then swung himself up after her.
“Would it be…all right if I…change me mind?” Pepper said, without taking his eyes from Blossom.
“Are you sure of that?” Radagast said.
“Aye, I’m sure,” Pepper said, and Blossom smiled hugely, showing a little gap between her two front teeth. “I’m surer ’n sure,” he added softly.
“Well then, farewell, and blessings to you both,” the Wizard said as he slapped the reins on Brego, and set out down the road, which was lined with townsfolk that had come bright and early to see them off. And all waved hugely save for Pepper and Blossom, who did not take their eyes from each other in the dazzling autumn sunlight.