19. Mid-year's Eve, Noontide
Ruby met her father's eye. 'Well?' she said again, as she had when she met him coming from the barn earlier.
'Oh, the weather is fair enough. There might be a cloudburst this afternoon, but I think your plans will be fine for noontide.'
She laughed at Taddy's excited chatter. 'What is it, Ruby? What?'
She stood, and all eyes went to her. 'I have a birthday present for you all!' she announced gaily. 'I am taking you all on a picnic on the Hill!'
A chorus of cheers answered her, and she looked to the Master and Mistress of Brandy Hall. 'Brandybucks included, of course.'
'What about Tooks?' Thom shouted.
She pretended to give the matter serious consideration. 'Well, now...' she said. 'We've just enough room for north-Tooks. I don't know if any just-plain-Tooks can come along...' a mutinous shout arose from the younger hobbits and she made a great show of changing her mind. 'Oh, well, then, I suppose we can all squeeze together a bit more to make room,' she said.
'He can sit on Diamond's lap!' Emmy shouted. The table erupted in laughter.
'Diamond can sit on his lap, that'd be cosier!' Ammy added her shout to the confusion.
'Girls!' their mother corrected, while Diamond ducked her head and--her gaze sharpened--Peregrin actually blushed.
'Pack up the food, lasses, and we will get the wagons ready,' the farmer said, rising from the table.
Merry and Pippin chose to leave their ponies in the stable and ride in the wagons with the rest. Ammy was right, it was much cosier. Young Jotham and Tim had elected to use the harnesses with bells sewn to the straps, and Emmy and Ammy had braided bright ribbons into the four ponies' manes and tales. It was a merry group that turned onto the road, jingling, laughing, singing.
They forded the Branch and turned off the road to follow a track that wound ever upwards, around the Hill. When they got near the top, the drivers set the brakes on the wagons. Merry and Pippin helped to unharness the ponies and set them out on long lines so that they could feast on the hillside grasses as the hobbits feasted on their picnic. Everyone piled out of the wagons to carry something to the top.
When Farmer Took, Jotham, Merry and Pippin reached the top of the hill, blankets had been spread and the feast was nearly laid out. From the top of the Hill they could see for miles around, farms, villages, field, wood, and stream. To the east they could see all the way to the distant gleam of the Brandywine.
'What a view!' Merry exclaimed.
'Oh, aye,' Ruby answered, amusement in her tone, and when he looked over she was staring straight at him. They laughed together, and she fixed him another sandwich just to his liking. After eating he took her hand and they wandered to where wildflowers rioted over the hillside. He picked a great bunch and presented them to her with a flourish and a bow.
Laughing, they returned to the picnic and she proceeded to braid the flowers into a long chain. 'There!' she said, holding them up. He took the chain from her, winding it into a crown which he gently placed on her head.
'Queen of the Hill,' he said smiling.
'You keep sweet talking me that way, I just might marry you,' she returned.
Her father broke in. 'I'm sorry to spoil the fun, my lass, but those clouds there look to be coming up fast. I think we should take your birthday back to the house now.'
Ruby grinned at Merry mischievously. 'My father is always right, you know,' she stated.
'Aye,' the farmer agreed, 'At least until you're married. Then your husband is always right!'
'Oh, aye,' Ruby giggled. She rose and all began to pack up the picnic, harness the ponies, hitch them up to the wagons that were being loaded as quickly as they had been unloaded.
Young Jotham drove the first wagon, Tim at his side, and riding "cosily" in the back were the Master and Mistress of Buckland, Pippin, Diamond, and Pearl. Farmer Took drove the second wagon, with Tad holding the ends of the reins. Ruby and Merry sat with Thom between them, and a twin nestled against each side. Picnic baskets and blankets took up the rest of the wagon beds.
They wound down the side of the Hill. Merry looked down at Ruby and sighed. 'Oh, I hate to see it end.'
She looked up with a bright smile, 'Oh, no, my love, this is just the beginning.'
'Beginning of what?' Thom demanded.
'Her birthday, silly!' Emmy put in.
'There's still a great cake at home, and--' Ammy added, but was stopped suddenly by Thom's hand.
'Shush!' he said. 'It's supposed to be a surprise!'
'What was that?' Ruby asked smilingly. 'I didn't quite hear...'
'Nothing!' all three small hobbits chorused.
Ruby looked back up at Merry. 'Aren't they sweet? Let's have just as big a family as we can manage!'
'Oh, aye,' Merry grinned.
'Who are you calling "sweet"?' Thom demanded.
'Your sisters, who else would I mean?' Ruby teased.
'Oh. Well, that's all right then,' Thom subsided, dignity soothed.
The first wagon crossed the Branch at the ford with no problem, but the second wagon bogged down in the middle with a sharp crack. Farmer Took spoke to the ponies, and they pulled their best, but the wagon did not move. He jumped down with a splash into the shallow water to take a look.
He bent down, ran his hands down the wheel under the water, and straightened up again, cupping his hands to call to Young Jotham, waiting with the other wagon. 'Wheel's dropped into a hole and jammed against a rock! Get the rope out!' Jotham nodded and set his brake, then got down from the driver's seat. Farmer Took looked over at his passengers. 'You lot sit tight,' he said. 'We'll be out of here in no time.' He looked up at Taddy, still on the driver's seat. 'You hold those ponies, Taddy! Don't let them run away with the wagon.'
'Yes, Sir!' the tiny lad called back proudly. Farmer Took splashed to the shore and hoisted himself into the back of the wagon to help Jotham dig out the rope from under the seat.
'Looks as if we headed back at just the right time,' Esmeralda remarked to Pearl. 'Just listen to that thunder.'
Pippin cocked an ear, puzzled. 'That doesn't sound like thunder...' he said, but the dawning realization choked off his words as a wall of water appeared in the shallow bed of the Branch and thundered down upon the stalled wagon and its occupants. Pippin had the nightmare feeling that he was back at the Bruinen as the flood came down to overwhelm the Black Riders. There was barely time for a shout before the water was upon them. Those in the first wagon watched in frozen horror as the flood lifted the second wagon, spilling the hobbits and dragging the screaming ponies downstream.
Pippin was up in a flash and running down the riverbank. Saradoc started to rise, to follow, only to be stopped by a warning pain in his chest. 'Rope!' he gasped to Farmer Took, grabbing at his sleeve. The other looked at him, dumbfounded, and he gestured to Pippin's downstream flight. The other nodded, he dug out ropes for Young Jotham and Tim and another for himself, and they pelted after Pippin.
Diamond gasped as she saw Pippin pause and dive into the maelstrom.
Pippin had spotted a bit of bright fabric, a closer look showed the twins clinging together to a branch. He had no idea how they had managed to end up together, but he blessed the fact; it meant he could try to rescue two instead of one. He struggled to reach them, grabbed at the end of the branch. The current pulled his head under and he struggled up again. 'Hang on,' he gasped to the twins. He caught a sight of their terrified faces before he was pulled under again, and something struck his side with a heavy blow. He nearly swallowed water, but fought his way upward again and with a mighty kick he was above the water, and a great lunge brought his hand to the branch.
He heard a shout over the confusion of the water and a rope landed just ahead of him. He grabbed it as the current swept them past, held tight, felt the rope tighten, and then he was being hauled against the current towards the bank. 'Hold tight!' he shouted to the twins. As soon as Tim and Jotham grasped the branch Pippin hauled himself from the water and ran downstream again. He saw a gleam of bright yellow--Tad!--and dove again, swimming as strongly as he could towards the yellow gleam. He caught the shirt as the tiny lad floated by, and struck out for shore, but one arm did not seem to be working properly; each stroke brought a gasp of pain. He felt rather than saw the rope brush past him, and with his last strength seized the line and held tight as he and Taddy were pulled in.
When he reached the bank, Taddy was taken from him and then he felt strong hands hauling him out of the water. He gasped and coughed. The hands left him there and he looked up to see the farmer and his older sons running along the bank, searching desperately for more bodies in the water. Taddy lay unmoving beside him. Wincing, he sat up and pulled himself over to the lad. What was it they did at Brandy Hall when a young hobbit swallowed too much of the River? Oh, yes. He bent the tiny body over his arm and began to smack hard on the lad's back. He was rewarded after a few hard smacks with a cough, and then the lad vomited water, followed by more coughs. A sobbing Mistress Took reached him then and took Taddy from his arms, holding the lad close. He looked up to see Diamond with her arms about blanket-wrapped twins. He craned downstream to see the searching figures. Where was Merry? Where were Ruby and Thom?
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.