The Tale of Adelbold Puddifoot
Great stories happen to those who can tell them
Edit 14 July: The tale is now complete, after having been told over nine Fridays at the Green Dragon. Below is the full version, with some minor nips and tucks and edits done here and there.
Original: Wybert just started reciting his new tale at the Green Dragon last Friday. The tale is so epic, it’ll be told in installments over the next few weeks. Whenever there is a new entry, it will be added to this post. Enjoy!
The Tale of Adelbold Puddifoot
My story begins many years ago in this very inn, the Green Dragon here in Bywater. Now back in those days the inn was much busier than it is today – travellers on the road were much more frequent then and parties of all races often took a detour through Bywater, for the Dragon’s reputation for fine food and ale was second to none.
The innkeeper then was a very famous and distinguished hobbit – so famous, in fact, that I’ve completely forgotten his name and since he isn’t very important to my story, I probably won’t mention him again. Of much more importance are the three young hobbits who worked for him.
The first of these was Orchid Noakes, the barmaid, a saucy and mischievous young lass with a twinkle in her eye and a sharp edge to her tongue who took no nonsense from anyone.
Her friend Ned Cotton worked as the stable hand, tending the horses, ponies and even the donkeys of the travellers who called at the inn. He was a simple lad, honest and down to earth, and truth be told he was head over heels in love with Orchid but was far too bashful to ever tell her.
The last of these, but by no means the least, for he will be the chief character in our story, was Adelbold Puddifoot, the general dogsbody and potboy whose job was serving at and clearing the tables, sweeping up and generally keeping the place looking tidy. I have to say that his performance in carrying out these tasks was less than satisfactory, for not only did he have a strange name for a lowly employee in a tavern, but he also had some very strange ideas about himself.
Young Adelbold lived just outside Bywater with his mother down by The Water. Sadly, he never knew his father and, sadder still, his dear mother had always refused to speak about him however often the lad asked her. When Adelbold was old enough his mother arranged for him to work at the Dragon, and it was just a couple of weeks before he started that one of the most significant events of his life took place.
The lad was walking up the road on his way to collect some eggs for his mother from the Cotton family farm when he came across a stranger, riding a piebald pony, travelling in the opposite direction. He wore a tunic of fine cloth and a cloak of black and gold, patterned with strange symbols. Perched precariously atop his aquiline nose were a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and he bore, in every aspect, all the marks of a distinguished scholar.
On seeing Adelbold he stopped and asked directions to Michel Delving and the lad politely pointed him in the right direction whereupon the rider asked him his name. When Adelbold told him he stared at him closely for so long that the boy began to feel uncomfortable. “Adelbold”, he eventually said, “is a very distinguished name. May I ask how you came by it and the name of your father?”
When Adelbold told him that he never knew his father and his mother never spoke of him the stranger seemed to become even more interested. “You see, I am a student of the past and I study histories of the old families of the Shire. Adelbold is a name associated with Thains – why you may even be related to the mighty Bandobras himself. Many scions of the great families lost touch with their forefathers in the years after the goblin war and my studies lead me to believe that a branch of the Took family settled in these parts. I have urgent business at the Mathom House right now, but I will consult my books and may return to visit you again.” And with that, the scholar rode off.
Now I must tell you straight away that Adelbold never heard from that stranger again but the effect of that short conversation on the lad was profound. Of course, like any hobbit lad, he had grown up with tales of the deeds of Bandobras Took, the ‘Bullroarer’, and of his family, the great Thains of yesteryear. The idea that he might be descended from such noble stock, that their heroic blood might run in his veins, was just too appealing to a lad who had so desperately wanted to know who his father was. This is a good example of how brief moments in our lives may change their course forever.
When he reported to his mother what the stranger had told him the poor woman did her best to discourage him in his belief, but she loved her son, and she knew that if she told him the truth about his father (which she now realised she should have done long before) it would break the lad’s heart. So, he spent his hours filling his head with the old stories and imagining himself performing heroic deeds, visiting the halls of men and elves and dwarfs, and being admired and received with great honour and respect wherever he went.
Unfortunately, he expected others to share this fantasy and it will not surprise you to learn that he lost most of his friends quite quickly. The job at the inn did not start well and things only got worse. He insisted on wearing a fine red coat, which his mother had spent many long nights cutting and sewing for him, with bright yellow hose down to his furry feet.
He refused to perform any of the duties assigned to him which might lead to his clothing becoming soiled – which was most of them, for as I’m sure you know a great deal of ale is spilled in a tavern. At times the floor was swimming in beer, and I believe the beautiful rug in the back room never recovered! He treated the labourers and farm lads who dropped by with complete disdain and rebuked them for their coarse manner of speaking when he refused to serve them.
Some of the richer merchants and other wealthy travellers who passed by were astonished when the potboy seated himself at their tables and tried to join their conversations, introducing himself as Master Adelbold of Bywater, and soliciting their views on the heroic exploits he was planning to undertake.
The truth is, the lad’s head had been completely turned and I’m sure he wouldn’t have kept the job were it not for the fact that the innkeeper (I know, I said I probably wouldn’t mention him again) felt some sympathy for his mother.
Orchid Noakes and Ned Cotton had more reason than most to quickly become unhappy with this state of affairs. He hardly spoke to either of them but when he did so it was in a most condescending manner, treating them as if they were his servants rather than his co-workers and to make matters worse they both ended up having to do the jobs he should have done.
Hardly surprising then that they quickly developed a deep resentment of his airs and graces and on their breaks, they would sit together and dream up ways of getting their own back on Adelbold. Of course, there was a silver lining in it for Ned as he got to spend more time alone with Orchid, though he never came any nearer to expressing his feelings for her.
During quiet times at the tavern, while Ned and Orchid seethed and plotted in the bar, Adelbold, having no one else to talk to, would go out to the stables, as he told Ned, to inspect the war steeds, since he would need a suitable mount for his planned adventures. It is not clear how he expected to be able to purchase any of the horses and ponies stabled there by the inn’s wealthy patrons even had they been for sale.
However, it was during his visits to the stable that he found the only one to show him any affection at that time (except, of course, for his mother because mothers, as we know, love us unconditionally, always). Some time earlier an old pipe-weed merchant had visited the Dragon on his way to the crafters’ market in Michel Delving and, by chance, a horse trader was staying at the inn at the same time, and he had some fine ponies for sale. The pipe-weed seller was most impressed, and he bought one of the fine ponies and, because the trader didn’t want his donkey in exchange, he left a small purse for its upkeep and asked that it should be kept in the stable there until it could be sold.
The donkey was most sad and lonely for not only had his master rejected him, but he had stolen his name as well and given it to his new pony. The donkey’s name, as I think some of you may have guessed, was Rattles. I should also say at this point that Rattles was a very special donkey indeed, for reasons which you will soon learn, and I suppose the pipe-weed merchant did not know what he was giving up. During his time at the inn Adelbold and Rattles developed a very close relationship, as may often happen when two lonely souls are thrown together.
One day in early May a small party arrived at the Green Dragon round about lunchtime. This cheery band comprised several hobbit lads and lasses accompanying a hobbit maid who wore a full length white floral dress with a crown of flowers on her head. This pretty lass was Ruby Goodenough, who had just been crowned as the May Queen for that year and who happened to be a good friend of Orchid’s. She and her friends were returning to Woodhall where they lived and had dropped by for a bite to eat and a glass of ale to fortify them on their journey. Orchid and Ruby greeted each other with warm hugs and soon the two lasses were engaged in deep conversation.
Now Adelbold had been loitering in the back room when the party arrived and seeing that it was only a bunch of common lads and lasses he was thinking he might slink off to the stables but then his eye was drawn to Miss Ruby and, especially, to her crown, and he stood there transfixed. For a full ten minutes he stood there watching as Ruby and Orchid chatted happily and, finally, he stumbled forward and, after confronting her with several deep bows and flourishes, he addressed the astonished Ruby directly: “Oh, my sweet lady, my queen, thy beauty surpasseth the very stars that shine. To thee I plight my troth and I’ll thy servant be, thy champion for ever more” and with that he sank to his knees with his head bowed before her. (I should say that even back then some very dodgy poets visited the Dragon and Adelbold had absorbed many of their turns of phrase!). Well, needless to say, once Ruby got over her surprise, and Orchid was done rolling her eyes, she and Orchid dissolved in fits of laughter and, hugging each other tightly, the lasses collapsed in a far corner of the room, leaving Adelbold a solitary and somewhat ridiculous figure on the rug.
You may think that the lad was set back by this reaction. On the contrary, he reasoned that a Queen of royal birth, for that is what he had convinced himself she most certainly was, would expect any knight to prove himself worthy of her before she entertained any such entreaties. Up to the time that the young hobbits, amply fed and watered, set off for Woodhall his eyes never left her – and he gave little heed to the fact that just as they set off Orchid was seen speaking conspiratorially to Ruby at some length and Ruby, by way of reply, nodded her head several times.
It was a couple of days later that Orchid approached Adelbold in the bar and tapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t touch me, wench, and get about your work,” was his dismissive response. Showing unaccustomed powers of restraint, Orchid bit her lip and spoke again: “Pardon, sir, but I bring a message from your queen – she to whom you spoke the other day.” Immediately, she had his full attention. “What says she? Come, tell me and be quick about it too.”
“Why sir, she sends you many compliments and confesses she has thought only of you since you approached her in such a chivalrous manner the other day. But know that she would be thy queen and so commands your love be tested by performance of such valorous deeds as I, her messenger, will relay to you. Sirrah, will you thus earn her love?”
“I will”, he said.
“Then you must travel to the furthest corners of the earth and earn renown enough to honour her in deeds of great valour. Return to me with tokens of thy prowess and I will lead you then to where your queen resides. She asks that you leave right away, for she cannot bear to wait a moment longer than is needful.” And with that, Orchid gave him a little curtsey and turned away. It is questionable whether even in his most deluded state Adelbold would not have taken a moment to pause for thought had he seen the curl of Orchid’s lip as she turned her face from his.
He did not see it, and in a state of great agitation he rushed to the stable yard where he was greeted by Ned, to whom Orchid had delivered very precise instructions. “Sire,” said the lad, “thy steed and armour are prepared.” There, in the yard stood Rattles, equipped with a scuffed old saddle. “Bring me my armour and my spear, lad,” commanded Adelbold and suppressing a grin Ned placed upon his head an old tin bucket in which he’d punched two holes, strapped an old piece of iron plate he’d begged from the blacksmith to his shoulders and in his hand placed a stout wooden broom handle. Following Orchid’s instructions to the letter he gave a low bow. “Farewell, my liege”.
With no further ado Adelbold mounted Rattles and they set off down the road watched by Orchid and Ned – as they drew out of sight Orchid cried in glee “With luck, that’ll be the last we see of ‘im, the poor deluded fool!” She then gave Ned a little hug, took him by the hand, and, together, they did a little dance right there in the yard. Ned enjoyed this very much and hoped that they might dance together again soon but they didn’t – for now, at any rate.
Out on the road Adelbold looked ahead and spoke out loud. “I have heard that giants roam in the Trollshaws. Defeating giants would surely be a deed worthy of her love! To the Trollshaws it is then.”
“That’ll be interestin’,” observed Rattles. Well, I did say that Rattles was a very special donkey indeed and it is a sad reflection on Adelbold’s mental state that he showed no surprise whatsoever to find himself in conversation with a donkey.
Rattles, it should be said, knew perfectly well where the Trollshaws lay, and of the dangers that lay there, for his old master had been a well-travelled pipe-weed merchant, well-respected in every corner of Middle Earth. He also felt a genuine affection for Adelbold who had been the only one to visit him when his old master had so cruelly abandoned him.
The wise old donkey determined then and there that he would do his best to keep his new master from harm although he realised he could do little to deter him in his pursuit of the fantastic notions which beset him – indeed, the lad’s grip on reality seemed to be slipping away by the minute.
I might add that Adelbold had made mention of acquiring a well-tended carrot field when he reclaimed his ‘birthright’ and Rattles felt that however unlikely that eventuality might be, if it did happen he would feel an ass for missing out on such a prize!
The pair soon joined the Great East Road and as dusk turned to night they journeyed on without rest. Adelbold gripped his broomstick spear tightly and turned this way and that at every nocturnal sound, peering through the holes in his bucket helm as if ready at any moment to go forth into battle. However, the night passed uneventfully, and the first light of dawn was breaking as they came to the outskirts of the village of Stock.
With an urgently whispered ‘Whoa!’ Adelbold brought Rattles to an abrupt halt and gazed ahead intently. There, in line behind a fence, he spied a savage band of red-headed orc warriors lying in ambush. With no thought of his own safety, or that he might be outnumbered he cried ‘Charge’ and, his spear raised, the brave knight urged his steed to rush headlong at the enemy and terrible was the injury that he wreaked as one by one the orcs fell until he stood alone and victorious, his spear raised in salute.
It had been a long time since Rattles had undertaken even such a gentle trot as this and he gave a grateful bray as Adelbold slipped from the saddle and scooped up a handful of blackened orc teeth from the ground, near where the fallen warriors lay. ‘A token,’ cried the knight triumphantly, ‘for my Queen!’ On his return to the saddle, the pair gently wended their way further down the road towards the village.
Gundo Bracegirdle, the Stock stablemaster, was later to report that as he arrived at his post he had been amazed to see a hobbit with a bucket on his head and a broomstick in his hand riding a donkey into the sunflowers which grew at the side of the road and thrashing about wildly until every one was felled. He claimed that the rider then jumped to the ground to pick something up before riding off. Of course, no one really believed him since he had spent a long night at the Golden Perch the previous evening and the ale in those parts is very strong!
By the time Adelbold and Rattles arrived in the village centre the early morning mist, which came up off the Marish in those parts, had cleared and in bright sunshine they were greeted by the happy cries of hobbit children at play. The youngsters were at once fascinated by this oddly dressed figure and his donkey and began to follow until they had quite a crowd in their wake. Adelbold seemed pleased by this development as it seemed right that he should have a retinue such as befitted his noble status. He seemed strangely deaf to some of the cries directed at him such as “What ‘appened to yer cart?” and “Oi, Mister, why ‘ave yer got a bucket on yer ‘ead?”
In a short while they came to a bend and there a stocky hobbit stood, feet firmly planted in the centre of the road, staring directly at Adelbold. The would-be knight brought his steed to a halt and addressed the stranger, adopting what he considered to be a suitably chivalrous tone: “Pray, sirrah, who be ye that so rudely blocks my passage?”. The stranger continued to stare and then retorted “Nay, ye speak first, fer I like to know whose ears I’m goin’ to box.” “Then know I am none other than Sir Adelbold of Bywater, a virtuous and noble knight, and I am presently on courtly quest to earn the love of my fair queen.”
The other paused once more, blinked, then spoke again: “Oh, then pardon me, for I too am a knight, Sir Largo of the Marish and my castle lies just yonder,” and he pointed in the general direction of the Golden Perch. “’l’ll wager I’m a better knight than you and to prove your worth I challenge you to climb higher than I on the tower that lies yonder.” Adelbold didn’t hesitate. “I accept thy challenge, Sir Knight – lead on!”
It should be said that during this chivalrous exchange, as Rattles observed, the stranger, whose feet had been planted firmly at the start, had fallen over at least twice and his speech had become slurred and indistinct, though Adelbard appeared oblivious to this. As the stranger led the way towards the edge of town where the famed Stocktower stood he staggered most precariously, followed by Adelbold and the growing crowd of village children.
On arriving at the Tower ‘Sir Largo’, who was in fact none other than Largo Banks, one of Stock’s notorious drunkards, pointed to the ledge that ran right around the tower about half way up. “May the first of us that climbs to yonder shelf be deemed the braver knight,” he uttered and with that he ran forward and made to jump up but it seemed that his legs were reluctant to assist him in this endeavour and he crashed headlong into the unforgiving stones of the tower, fell to the ground and, I am led to believe, did not rise again until he was nearly sober. Which was quite a long time!
Now I would love to report that Adelbold sprang from his mount and made light of the jumps to the ledge, but you should remember that he was somewhat encumbered by an iron plate strapped to his shoulders not to mention the bucket on his head. He did eventually reach the ledge by means of standing on the donkey’s back, somewhat to Rattles’ indignation, and with the assistance of some of the children who regularly played on the tower, notwithstanding their parents’ edict that it was strictly out of bounds.
When he got there, however, he was exultant and he circumnavigated the tower several times, surveying as he did so the countryside on all sides followed by several of the older children who had made the leap up successfully. I mentioned earlier that it was now a clear morning and as he looked across the river, he caught sight of a bright tent decked in flags and bunting. Surely, he thought to himself, this is the camp of some noble lord in whose service I might perform further deeds of chivalry. He raised his spear high above his head, saluting the youngsters who had joined him on the ledge.
In doing so he dislodged an abandoned pigeon nest from a narrow shelf in the wall above him. It bounced off his makeshift helm and landed at his feet, at the same time showering him with assorted twigs, leaves and other detritus. “An eagle’s nest for sure,” he cried. “A worthy token of my success in this knightly challenge, to have scaled the heights where once an eyrie lay,” and carefully picking up the woven pile of rotting debris he clutched it to his chest while he made a less than dignified descent from the ledge. When he rose from his fall he placed the old nest, still intact, into his saddlebag next to the orcs’ teeth.
He mounted Rattles once more and, urged the donkey to bring them to where they may cross the river.
“Whatever you say, master,” said Rattles, in a tone which conveyed reservation and dutifulness in equal measure.
As they set off the village youngsters followed noisily but small groups soon started to set off about their own games, for even then children had very short attention spans and things have only got worse, as I’m sure you know. By the time they reached the banks of the Brandywine Adelbold and Rattles were alone once more.
Now in those days, of course, the Bucklebury Ferry was open, and they were fortunate when they arrived to discover the raft on the western bank. Adelbold stepped forward readily enough and took hold of the pole, but Rattles was far less willing to step aboard for, although he was a much-travelled donkey with many skills and talents, river rafting was not one of them. Eventually he overcame his apprehension and stepped aboard and Adelbold was able to pole the raft to the opposite bank without incident. You will remember that Adelbold grew up by a river and he was quite at home on the water.
The old Bounder, whose job it was to guard the ferry on the Buckland bank and to look out for any suspicious looking strangers, approached Adelbold as soon as he stepped ashore. “Who be ye and from where hail ye?” he asked. “I am Sir Adelbold of Bywater” was the immediate reply and then, remembering what the scholar on the road had told him at the beginning of our story, and feeling it might carry more weight: “I am an heir of Bandobras Took.” The Bounder, who was affectionately known to his fellows as Uncle Sam, carefully appraised him for a moment and then said “Oh, that’s all right then, you may pass and I ‘opes yer ‘ave a nice day.” You may find it surprising that he saw nothing suspicious in a hobbit with a bucket on his head and carrying a broom handle in the company of an old donkey, but you should remember that Adelbold had said he was a Took and, as you know, there’s no accounting for what those Tooks might get up to!
Soon the pair came within sight of the colourful tent which Adelbold had spotted from the tower. Beneath the awning was erected a large raised wooden platform where a group of hobbits appeared to be busily at work. Adelbold barely hesitated before mounting the platform and, addressing this group of homespun labourers, demanded of them “Who is lord of this place? I needs must speak with him.”
I should tell you at once that this place was the famous Buckland Faire. On any other day it was likely to have been bustling with folk playing and singing and dancing and feasting but, by pure chance, on this day the Faire was closed because it had been discovered that some of the wooden boards in the floor of the stage had rotted and a gang of workmen had been brought in to replace them.
Hob Bracegirdle, the foreman, for all that he was a down-to-earth fellow, was not a little amazed to be so accosted by this outlandish figure but there was work to be done and he was about to inform him that the Faire was closed, and he should leave at once when another voice spoke up. “Why I am the Lord of this place, good sir – how may I be of service to thee?” The owner of the voice stepped forward, a well-favoured figure dressed in a many-hued tunic and breeches, fine leather boots and wearing a rakishly cocked hat atop which sat a single white feather. Adelbold was in little doubt that he was in the presence of some great lord.
This was, in fact, Freddi Mercutio, a well-known minstrel whose songs and playing were well-loved throughout Buckland, and even as far away as Bree. Freddi was a quick-witted fellow, and as well as his music he loved a jest. On this day he was bored, what with the Faire being closed and having no one to perform for, and he had been lounging around idly plucking on his lute strings and hoping that something would come along to amuse him.
He had quickly taken the measure of this would-be knight with his improvised weaponry and armour. Adelbold by now had dropped to one knee before him mumbling “My liege!” and the wily prankster was quick to seize the opportunity to brighten up his afternoon. “Good knight,” said he, “would you swear fealty to me?”. “I would sire, for I am on quest to win my lady’s hand,” cried Adelbold who was most gratified that this lord had immediately recognised his status as a noble knight. “Well then,” said Freddi, who gave a wry smile at hearing this but adopted as sincere a tone as he could muster, “You must first prove to me thy worth. This is what must be done.
“My lands, which stretch as far as eye can see, are sorely plagued by a terrible scourge – a mighty boar, greater in girth than any seen before, with mighty tusks as sharp as any blade. You must seek out and rid us of this fly-ridden tusker that my people may walk without fear once more.”
While this was going on the labourers stood gaping at the pair, and perhaps one or two hid a smile, for they well knew Freddi’s predilection for pranks and jests. Hob, however, had little time for such idleness and he quickly set his crew back to work repairing the planking.
Before Adelbold could reply or ask any questions he might have had Freddi raised a hand to his forehead and peered into the distance at a meadow where a few cows grazed. “Why there,” he cried, pointing. “There he is. At him straight away.”
So eager was the knight to serve his new lord that he scarcely glanced in the direction the minstrel pointed – instead he rushed forward in such haste that he fell from the platform with a clatter of old iron and landed flat on his face. Up on the platform Freddi Mercutio sighed. “Lovers, madmen, fools!” he whispered to himself. “Ah well, another one bites the dust!”
Adelbold, meanwhile, had picked himself up, mounted Rattles and urged him on to the cow meadow. Most of the cows continued to graze quite placidly, completely ignoring the newcomers, but a black and white heifer seemed to take exception to the intrusion and skittishly approached the donkey. “Charge!” cried Adelbold who was convinced that he was confronting a mad splintertusk. Rattles was less sure. He had little experience of cows, and he gingerly rounded the young bovine which mooed loudly at him as he did so. Filled with chivalrous intent and uttering warlike cries Adelbold slipped from the donkey’s back and, wielding his broom handle, charged at the startled heifer on foot. The effect on the beast was immediate – it turned tail at once and rushed blindly the towards the Faire. Such was its panic that on arriving there it continued on its course and caught one of the ropes which held the awning in place in its horn. As it pressed on, another rope became entangled on its hind leg and as the guys were uprooted the gaily decorated tent which sheltered the stage came down, to the consternation of Hob and his workers who scrabbled about blindly beneath the canvas, bumping into one another and loudly complaining as some fell straight through the rotting boards they had come to replace.
The heifer had by now disappeared in the direction of the river and Adelbold, huffing and puffing a little, stood triumphant, convinced that he had fulfilled his mission even though his new lord was nowhere to be seen. As I have indicated, Freddi was sharp and, having avoided the falling canvas, decided that it would be a good time for him to make himself scarce.
Rattles, who was also pretty sharp, reached the same conclusion and, approaching Adelbold, addressed him urgently: “Master, we should leave now.” You may notice that Rattles, although he could talk, said very little – he found the effect it had on most of the two-legged folk he encountered was somewhat disturbing. He preferred to save his utterances for occasions when they really mattered, such as the one they found themselves in now as two of the local Bounders were approaching, having heard the commotion coming from beneath the fallen canvas. I reckon plenty of folk could learn by that donkey’s example.
Adelbold quickly mounted Rattles, pausing only to snatch a scrap of red and yellow bunting which had become detached from the tent when it fell. This he placed beside the orc’s teeth and pigeon nest in his saddlebag as token of his victory over the mighty splintertusk!
Rattles surmised that they would do well to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Buckland shirriffs and they rode without stopping across the Brandywine Bridge, through Stock and Budgeford until night brought them to the edge of a wood close to the village of Scary where their way was lit by a full yellow moon hanging close to the horizon.
Adelbold had become restless and constantly peered into the gloom on either side of the road. As they drew parallel with a break in the trees on the left, he suddenly urged Rattles to stop and swiftly dismounted. The shadowy trees were still, for there was not a breath of wind, and for a moment the night was strangely silent.
The pale disc of the moon hung low in the western sky, and it was on this that Adelbold’s attention appeared to be focussed. Then, as if satisfied that his eyes were not deceiving him, he marched into the trees, broomstick held at the ready. Ever loyal, Rattles followed, albeit somewhat warily.
Then it happened. There, silhouetted against the moon, a flying beast appeared, with broad, powerful wings and two small but distinctive horns atop its head, and it appeared to be heading directly toward the pair until it veered away and disappeared into the night. Adelbold did not hesitate. “Dragon!”, he cried, and rushed into the dark wood, weapon at the ready, in pursuit of his prey.
For a full hour, Rattles stood and waited. As the moon set, he occasionally caught a glimpse of his master in the thin light, rushing hither and thither, his bucket helm and broom spear clearly visible, uttering warlike cries and, more than once, curses as he tripped and fell over a tree root.
I might add that he also heard occasional squeaks, clicks and chirps (he had very good hearing) as well as what sounded like a flutter of wings – once, too, something lightly brushed against his ears, but before he could react it was gone.
It was in dawn’s half-light that a clearly exhausted Adelbold returned to his mount. He was, however, triumphant. In his hand he held an object which he proudly presented for Rattles to inspect. It was a thin piece of leathery, scaly material covered in a diamond pattern of black and bronze. It appeared soft and dry to the touch and was some feet in length. This prize Adelbold added to the contents of his saddlebag. “Dragon skin,” he said, “is surely a token worthy of my queen.”
I think you may have already guessed the identity of the ‘dragon’, but can you guess from my description what that unusual object was?
Adelbold almost fell into his saddle, and it was quickly apparent to Rattles that his master was fast asleep. So, it was the donkey’s decision to avoid Scary, worried perhaps about what Adelbold might get up to in the quarry there, and to press on to Brockenborings. There it was, on a patch of soft grass, that a very weary hobbit slept the whole day long while Rattles, ever watchful, peacefully grazed and enjoyed his new-found freedom from the confines of the stable in Bywater.
As he slept, Adelbold had a dream. He stood alone on a green slope and there before him, standing in a heroic pose upon a rock, stood a giant figure wielding a mighty club. “Adelbold, listen to my words.” The voice was deep and magisterial, and the young hobbit stood as if mesmerised. “I am Bandobras, known as Bullroarer. Do not be afraid. I have been granted a vision of what thy future may be. Let me show you.”
Whereupon there seemed to pass before Adelbold’s eyes a montage of wonderfully vivid scenes. Here were depicted all manner of heroic deeds, journeys to far flung lands, vast armies massed against the forces of evil and feasting and music and dancing in the company of lords and nobles.
And at the centre of these apparitions Adelbold saw himself, richly garbed and, in the final vision, seated alongside his queen with crowns upon both of their heads.
As that most wished for final scene faded, he stood once more before the figure of Bandobras who spoke thus: “All of this I have seen. Some of it may come to pass or none. Thou art my kinsman and may achieve much. You will soon waken. Remember my words and do not fail our kin.”
He woke to find it was late afternoon and the first thing he saw was the wooden statue of the Bullroarer himself, his club raised as if in salute to his young kinsman. You may imagine the effect this had on him given his state of mind at this time, to which we have alluded as delicately as possible.
Having knelt in homage for a few moments at the foot of the statue, he sprang to his feet, summoned Rattles, and looked at once for new opportunities to demonstrate his love for Ruby, who was, of course, quite unaware of the royal role Adelbold had in mind for her. He didn’t have to look far.
Refreshed after his sleep, and buoyed up by his dream, he was impatient to pursue his quest with renewed fervour. When he at last dropped his gaze from his esteemed kinsman he realised that another towering figure stood a little way beyond.”
“I see fortune is guiding us towards our destiny,” he observed to Rattles who stood awaiting his master’s instructions. “The Bullroarer has clearly sent us this, by which I may further prove my worth. See that giant there, how it waves its arms at me as if in challenge!”
“Windmill,” said Rattles softly, but Adelbold appeared not to hear.
Rattles might have said more, such as ‘Only someone with windmills in his own mind could fail to see that it’s a windmill!’ but he did not, for as we have observed he was a donkey of few words and, in any case, he doubted his ability to dissuade Adelbold from his intended course of action and resigned himself to what he feared might follow.
Adelbold mounted Rattles and rode him until he stood directly in front of the mill, his broom handle lance raised in salute.
Inside, Ponto Goodbody, the miller, stacked the last bag of flour ready for collection the next morning and, his work over for the day, started to apply the brake lever which would stop the sails turning. He was looking forward to enjoying a mug or two of ale in the Plough and Stars, for milling is very thirsty work.
Outside, Adelbold murmured a soft entreaty invoking his Lady Ruby’s protection and urged Rattles forward with as much speed as the old donkey could muster. He raised his ‘lance’ as high as he was able, looking to impale the giant’s torso. As one of the sails slowed to a halt at its lowest point it came into contact with the tip of the broom handle and with a loud crack part of the wooden lattice work became detached and fell to the ground. I did say some time ago that it was a very stout old broom handle!
Remarkably, this did not halt their progress and the pair arrived at the ground floor door of the mill just as Ponto opened it to find out what the noise was. Confronted by a donkey at full trot ridden by a bucket-headed figure wielding a pointy stick he recoiled in fear of his life and, crashing into the stacked flour sacks, fell to the floor.
Still, Adelbold urged Rattles on, and as he cast about wildly with his spear, he punctured several of the sacks of flour, one of which duly deposited its contents on top of the unfortunate Ponto, who was completely covered in the white powder.
It was at this point that Rattles decided it was time to leave and they left the way they came in and made their way down the hill towards the road, but not before Adelbold had retrieved the broken piece of sail and placed it in his saddlebag alongside his other trophies. “The wrist bone of a giant,” he exclaimed triumphantly, “is surely a token worthy of her love!”
It was now dusk and although it was nearly summer the temperature had dropped quite suddenly, and a wispy mist hung over the ground. Rattles could hear some distant shouting and thought it best to put some distance between themselves and the scene of their most recent adventure, but the ebullient Adelbold was not done yet.
Peering into the mist he brought the donkey to a stop. “Shh,” he urged Rattles, somewhat unnecessarily, before he slipped from the saddle, still clutching his broomstick which had splintered along half of its length during the encounter with the windmill. The mist was becoming denser by the minute, and it was now almost dark. They could see no more than a few feet in front of them and even Rattles was alarmed for a moment when something loomed up ahead of them.
There, indistinct and shrouded in mist, a pale entity emerged, almost seeming to float towards them. Adelbold gasped. He had heard all of the tales of the Undead, of Wraiths and Oathbreakers and Barrow-wights, and he was quite convinced that one such now stood before him.
Greatly emboldened following his dream, he did not hesitate to address the spectre directly, using words he felt might be appropriate in these circumstances. “Hail, fell spirit, what brings ye to this place? I bid thee be gone, return now to those regions where the undead roam. Go now! I so command thee!”.
Then came a terrible silence and as the mist swirled ever thicker over the land, a chill fell over Adelbold like to freeze his very marrow. After a long pause the spirit spoke.
Taking this as a challenge, Adelbold did not hesitate and rushed forward, looking to impale the creature on his spear tip, but it was too quick for him and vanished into the mist, whereupon a series of terrible cries rose up as the hobbit ran around, blindly seeking his prey.
“Baa!” “Mehh!” “Maa!” “Baehh!” “Maehaeh!” “Beee!” “Meh!” “Baah!” “Meh!”
Not many folk know that the sheep in those parts are multilingual!
The tale of the goings on that night in Brockenborings quickly grew into a local legend in the days and months which followed. Ponto Goodbody had immediately run to raise the alarm. Having been assaulted by what appeared to be a round headed creature holding a pointy stick he quite reasonably assumed it was a goblin raid and as for the creature the goblin was riding he later said, “It were prob’ly one of them wargs!”
Unfortunately, Ponto had forgotten that he was covered from head to toe in flour and the solitary Bounder on duty, approached at speed by a ghostly figure, did not wait to hear his report but instead took to his heels and fled for his life.
The shirriff, as one might expect, was fast asleep in the Watch Office and the rest of the Bounders were happily ensconced in the Plough and Stars enjoying a contest to see who could blow the best smoke rings. Even when Bodo Hornblower, the local shepherd, ran to wake the shirriff with a cry of, “Sheep rustlers!” it took quite some time to organise the defenders and, because it was presumed to be a goblin attack, the brave little band set out into the Greenfields.
The tale of what occurred, as happens with such tales, grew over time, so much so that in some versions it rivalled the Bullroarer’s own defence of the Shire so many years earlier. The fact that no goblins were ever discovered was never allowed to detract from the many brave exploits enshrined in the songs and poems which commemorate that night’s events.
Out on the road Adelbold and Rattles were now headed in the direction of Overhill at a lively trot.
The hobbit had once again exhausted himself in his futile pursuit of what he now took to be a Barrow-wight. Rattles, when he had heard the alarm raised, had once again taken the decision that it was time to leave and had been able to find his master and tell him so, even in the thickening mist. (He ate a lot of carrots!)
Assisted by the confusion back in the village, and by the mist, they had been able to depart unobserved. Rattles did have to persuade Adelbold that it would not be a good idea to look for the creature’s barrow in the hope of finding treasure. Adelbold had had one success, however, for as he groped blindly in the darkness he had been able to snatch a handful of sheep’s wool, which he claimed was a strip of cloth from the wight’s cloak, and this now sat safely in his saddlebag together with his other trophies.
Rattles dared to suggest that his master may now have acquired sufficient tokens of his worth to satisfy his lady and that they might now consider returning to Bywater so that Orchid could take him to his queen. The kindly donkey wasn’t sure that Adelbold’s luck in escaping serious harm could hold out for much longer.
Adelbold, while he was still eager for further heroic action, having been so successful so far, agreed to the suggestion, for he longed to kneel before Ruby and tell her of his exploits as he presented her with each of his prizes.
The pair rode on, across the rushing stream where their ears were filled with the roar of the falls off to the right, hidden in the darkness. Along the tree lined road they rode, through Bindbole Wood, with Rattles keeping his sharp eyes peeled for trouble, for he knew that the wood held far worse dangers than his master had so far encountered. The village of Overhill slept, wreathed in mist, and they heard nothing of the noisy hustle and bustle of the craftsmen and labourers who frequented that place by day.
On the climb up towards The Hill the mist began to lift, and the faintest glimmer of daybreak penetrated the canopy. As they crested the slope, at that moment just before the dawn broke, it seemed that all of Nature, flushed with a rich intensity of colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event. Then, bathed in sunlight, the Shire lay before them in all its green splendour and beauty. A little way off, unseen by our adventurers, a small mole gazed in wonder at something which only he could see. But that is a different story!
Rattles almost broke into a joyful canter as down the hill they rode, past the track leading to the Party Tree and down to Bywater Bridge, past the fountain and the Ivy Bush and then, turning left, all along the lane, surrounded by flower-filled meadows, to Bywater.
Ned Cotton was in the stable yard of the Green Dragon and saw the pair approaching while they were some way off. He knew immediately who they were, for folk with buckets on their heads were not a common sight in those parts, and being Ned and not knowing what to do, he immediately ran inside to inform Orchid of their return.
Orchid Noakes hurried outside just as Adelbold and Rattles were coming to a halt in the inn yard. Just for a moment, a worried expression crossed her face. Orchid was very good at coming up with clever solutions to problems she was faced with and, as we have seen, she often employed some quite deceitful tricks and stratagems, taking advantage of weaknesses she found in others. She did not, however, always look beyond the immediate problem and think through the possible consequences of her schemes.
“Ah, there you are, wench!” declared Adelbold haughtily. “I have returned with tokens of the deeds I have performed to prove that I am indeed worthy of your mistress’ love, as she, herself, bid me do. Please take me to her at once!”
Orchid needed to think quickly. She had never imagined that Adelbold might actually return. Now by this I do not mean that she wished the lad any serious harm, for she was by no means a cruel or malicious person. The truth is that while basking in her success at tricking him into leaving by means of such a hilarious prank, she had given no consideration as to what might result from it. Practical jokers everywhere would do well to think on this!
“Sir,” she said, thinking on her feet, “I must first inform my mistress of your return, that she may prepare herself to receive you. I know that she would wish to greet you in a manner befitting such a chivalrous knight.
“Meet me here at this time tomorrow,” she continued, “and I will take you to her. Meanwhile, you should visit your mother, for she has come to the inn more than once to ask if any had heard news of you.” This last was true.
Rattles, it was agreed, should remain at the stables overnight where, as well as providing him with a good feed, Ned promised, at Adelbold’s insistence, to groom him thoroughly and to have him looking his absolute best for the journey to Woodhall.
Adelbold now discarded his broomstick, which was clearly broken and unserviceable, and, as it was rather warm, he removed the bucket from his head and carried it under his arm. The straps across his shoulders securing the iron plate which constituted his body armour had become worn and he removed this too and handed it to Ned demanding that he should get it repaired.
So it was that Adelbold made the short journey to his mother’s isolated burrow alone, on foot, taking the narrow path which led down to The Water. As he approached his home, he was surprised to see the innkeeper of the Green Dragon, approaching rather hurriedly in the opposite direction. As he passed, Adelbold had expected some rebuke for his sudden abandonment of his duties, together with a demand for an explanation, but instead his boss, looking rather flustered and uncomfortable, wished him a cursory ‘Good day!’ and hurriedly continued on his way back towards the inn.
His mother, of course, was delighted to see him and having smothered him in kisses, shed some tears and issued him with several admonishments for leaving without telling her where he was going, she asked him if he had eaten.
Of course, he hadn’t, for when he set out on his quest in such a rush, he hadn’t a copper piece about his person with which to buy a meal. I suppose I could have devised a clever twist in the plot whereby he might eat but, to be honest, I couldn’t be bothered. Let’s just say that he fed off his passion and desire for glory and to win over his mistress. Yes, let’s say that!
What I can say with complete conviction is that he was, after all, a hobbit, and the food that one’s mother cooks is always the best. So, he spent the rest of the day catching up on the dozen or so meals that he had missed, while his mother washed and repaired his fine red coat and bright yellow hose.
Back at the inn, Orchid Noakes was busily hatching a plan. When she saw the innkeeper returning from one of his ‘little walks down by the river’ as he called them and which he seemed to be taking more and more frequently these days, she approached him directly. “Ned and I needs to ‘ave tomorrer evening off. I’m sorry to ask but we needs to visit someone. It’s personal.”
She had expected to have to press her case more forcefully, but he seemed strangely distracted and just said, “’Tis fine. I’ll manage the bar myself and we’ll get that young Rootknot lad in to collect the mugs.”
I know I said right at the start that this innkeeper wasn’t very important to my tale but as he seems to keep finding his way into my story, I suppose I should tell you a little more about him. His name was Hugo Whitfoot and he was a middle aged hobbit who owned several businesses as well as the Green Dragon. He was highly respected throughout the Shire and the local gossips and rumourmongers had been able to discover nothing to refute the generally held belief that he was a confirmed bachelor. Now I’ve said all that, I don’t suppose we’ll hear any more of him!
As soon as her duties were over for the evening Orchid Noakes hurried into the stable yard where Ned was about to set off for home and his supper. Instead, at Orchid’s direction, he found himself saddling up two ponies and then riding at speed through the night with her to Ruby’s home in Woodhall. The pair were fortunate to escape the attentions of brigands along the road, but by the time the weary pair returned to Bywater it was almost dawn and they were able to snatch but a little sleep before it was time to start their work at the inn.
Adelbold Puddifoot, having eaten heartily the night before and having slept soundly in his own bed, woke refreshed. He ate two hearty cooked breakfasts and donned his freshly washed coat and hose. As the morning was drawing on, he took his bucket under his arm and having received a warm hug and many warnings to ‘be careful, son,’ he said his farewell and set out for the inn to meet Orchid. His mother’s eyes were filled with tears, and she did not notice him pick something up off the ground as he left. It was only later that she realised that her old wooden clothes pole was missing.
So it was that just after noon a little party set out for Woodhall. Ned, who was good with his hands, had fashioned shield straps from some strips of old leather and fitted these to the old iron plate so that Adelbold could use it as a shield. This he now carried over one shoulder and in the other hand he carried his new lance – it was, of course, his mother’s old clothes pole. He rode Rattles who had been freshly groomed by Ned for the occasion and being well fed and rested, was able to keep pace with the ponies ridden by Ned and Orchid. They made good time and the journey passed without incident.
As they arrived outside the home of Ruby Goodenough, Adelbold felt his heart pounding. Orchid managed to persuade him that it would be best to leave his ‘lance’ outside but as they entered, he still carried his new ‘shield’, of which he was quite proud, and did not remove his bucket helm. He brought with him, too, the saddlebag containing his trophies.
Ruby’s parlour was a neat and cosy room such as might be found in many a hobbit burrow throughout the Shire. A table had been placed at its centre and at one end of the room was hung a tapestry, depicting a vast vaulted room, with tall pillars carved from living rock and a great stone throne at its centre. Ruby’s great grandfather is said to have received this as a gift from a wandering elf who he had helped when his horse went lame as he was heading for his camp nearby. It had stayed in the family, who used it as a draught excluder.
Seated in front of this tapestry sat a figure attired from head to foot in a mauve cotton robe, her face covered by a silken veil. This, of course, was Ruby herself who now loyally, but somewhat reluctantly too, carried out the instructions she had received from her friend Orchid in the middle of the night. As Adelbold stood gazing at her expectantly, Orchid and Ned slipped past him and concealed themselves behind the tapestry, not wishing to miss out on what might ensue.
“Stay, Sir Knight,” commanded Ruby, raising her hand. Adelbold at once fell to his knees. “My lady, I bring thee tokens of the deeds I have performed that I may prove myself worthy of thy favour, just as you bade that I should.”
At this he stepped forward to the table and removed, one by one, the contents of his saddle bag. This is what he laid out on the table.
A handful of sunflower seeds; an old pigeon’s nest, by now looking distinctly worse for wear; a scrap of red and yellow bunting; a slough, cast by a grass snake; a broken piece of wooden lattice work; a tuft of sheep’s wool.
“My lady, behind each of these trophies lies the tale of a deed I have performed in thy name. I would tell thee of these deeds.”
Ruby, choking back a giggle, quickly interrupted him. “Sire,” she proclaimed, “there is no need now for you to relate such tales. I am sure that these were most worthy deeds, the telling of which may prove most enthralling to those who listen round many a fireside in times to come.” Adelbold did seem a little disappointed, but I bet you’re not!
She quickly went on. “There is yet one further task I must ask thee to perform before I may remove this veil. Will ye hear it?”
“My lady, I will.”
“Close by this place, to the east, there lies a hill, atop which three tall ogres stand. You must go there now and slay them for they bring terror to our land. Succeed in this and I will be thy queen. May good fortune protect thee in thy quest.”
Ruby, who was a good-hearted soul, meant every one of those last words as she watched Adelbold and Rattles head off into the late afternoon. Orchid, who with Ned had joined her outside, was almost rolling around with laughter, well-pleased that her plan was working so well.
For those of you who haven’t already guessed, the three ogres Ruby had referred to were in fact the three tall stone pillars which sit at the summit of the Yale-height, a steep hill to the east of Woodhall. The idea was, of course, Orchid’s, who had known on Adelbold’s return that she had to find a way of ensuring that he would fail this final mission. She wanted to put him firmly in his place, but she also felt a little guilty for having put her friend in this predicament and had needed to find a way by which she could refuse him without too much embarrassment.
“I doubt he’ll even make it to the top,” she chortled gleefully, “them harvest flies are terrible at this time o’ year.” The area was, in fact, known to suffer from infestations of the creatures which, although unlikely to cause serious harm, could become quite aggressive towards any who ventured there.
Ruby, as a local, knew this quite well, and just for a moment she felt a little sorry for the pair.
“Come on,” cried Orchid, “let’s go and watch the fun. I reckons we’ve earned a good laugh at that fool’s expense.” She urged Ruby to jump up on the pony behind her and, alongside Ned, they galloped off towards the Height.
As they approached the hill Adelbold and Rattles were able to make out quite clearly the three figures at the summit, lit by the sun which, although now sinking in the west, was still high enough to bathe them in its light. “Mighty brutes for sure,” said Adelbold bringing the donkey to a halt. “Let me consider well how best they may be vanquished. To do so will, without doubt, prove me worthy of my lady’s hand!”
The fact that Adelbold was for once actually taking time to think tactically rather than rushing headlong into the fray without any thought heartened Rattles – perhaps his young master was beginning to recover his grip on reality.
The kind donkey was not worried about the ‘ogres’ – he well knew what they were and that, if attacked, the worst they were likely to do was to give you a bad headache if you bumped into them too hard. He was, though, a little more concerned by the persistent buzzing noises which seemed to be coming from about halfway up the slope ahead of them.
Meanwhile, Orchid, Ned and Ruby had arrived a little way off and tethered their ponies to a sturdy silver birch sapling. Continuing on foot, they soon caught sight of Adelbold and led by Orchid, crouched down among the branches of a broad elder bush from where they could watch events unfold unseen.
Adelbold, looking like he had decided on a satisfactory plan for tackling the ogres, raised his lance in salute and urged Rattles forward up the grassy slope. They were less than halfway up the hill when things started to go wrong. The buzzing sounds which Rattles had heard earlier seemed to grow louder and suddenly two large, insects, each with two pairs of huge, diaphanous wings rose from the grass directly in front of them.
The harvest flies of the Shire were a common enough sight and had always been a nuisance to farmers. These creatures, though, seemed larger and, at close range, quite terrifying, each with two huge yellow orbs, each comprising a thousand eyes, staring out of a green body equipped with two menacing, serrated mandibles. Their sudden appearance startled Rattles and he at once wheeled round, ready to beat a quick retreat, but several more of the creatures took to the air and they found themselves surrounded.
At once, the winged pests began to attack the pair, taking it in turns to come at Adelbold from different directions, and one especially large creature momentarily alighted on his shoulders, dislodged his bucket helm, and sank its jaws into his neck.
As he struggled to break free Adelbold slipped from his saddle and fell to the ground with a bump. He had barely felt the bite he had received but the wound on the back of his neck now began to throb. As he rose to his feet the winged attackers renewed their assault and, giving a desperate cry, he began to lunge at them with his lance, which only seemed to anger them further.
Rattles, himself under attack, had been forced to withdraw to a spot a little way off. Further down the slope the three spectators had emerged from the cover of the elder bush to get a better view.
For a short while Adelbold bravely stood his ground with cries of ‘For honour!’ and ‘For my lady!’ but as more and more harvest flies joined the assault, dealing him several sharp blows to his head as they repeatedly buzzed him, he was forced to take to his heels. Pursued by the swarm he ran, desperately changing direction in a futile attempt to evade his attackers. All the time he kept a tight grip on his lance, which he held out in front of him, until, in a blind frenzy, he made a despairing lunge straight into the trunk of a sturdy old oak, and with a loud crack his ma’s old clothes pole split in two. The impact brought Adelbold to his knees and he fell in a heap at the foot of the oak.
A little way off Orchid Noakes hooted with laughter, gleefully clapping her hands at Adelbold’s antics and at seeing him brought down to earth in this way and Ned loyally joined in with her laughter. Ruby, by contrast, was strangely quiet and had one looked closely one might have discerned a modicum of sympathy for her would-be knight, if not for his injuries, then at least for his hurt feelings.
One may have expected the infuriated insects to renew their attacks on their fallen prey but just as the sun dipped below the horizon and as dusk fell, their relentless buzzing ceased and they began to disperse, flying off to settle in the long grass for the night.
Adelbold remained at the foot of the oak tree, his vision blurred and the throbbing in his neck becoming more intense. He made to rise momentarily, but fell back down, and he felt enfeebled, as if all his strength was being drained.
In that eerie half-light there fell upon that hillside one of those moments pregnant with the possibility of impending evil, that sense of some malignant presence, lurking unseen, waiting to strike. Orchid and Ned, suddenly quiet, shivered slightly as they stood with Ruby, seemingly rooted to the spot as they gazed uneasily into the gloom. Even Rattles, desperate to go to his master’s aid, found himself unable to move.
That dreadful silence was broken by a low growl and there loomed into view a terrible beast such as might have walked straight out of one’s worst nightmare. The creature loped forward, turning this way and that sniffing the ground, as if searching, before raising its huge head and heading directly towards where Adelbold lay. It was huge, with a thickset body set on long, stout legs, and with a ridged back and bull neck about which was set a spike-studded collar.
It continued to emit low snarls and growls as it approached the stricken hobbit, who could only stare in horror at the brute’s slavering jaws which hung open revealing two rows of large, yellowing, pointed teeth. The beast was, of course, an enormous warg!
Suddenly it sprang forward and, as Adelbold rolled away to protect his face the warg pinned him to the ground with its huge front paws. Those terrible jaws then bit straight through the leather straps which held his ‘shield’ in place and tore through his coat to leave a gaping wound on his shoulder and upper arm. The smell of his blood seemed to excite the creature which, with hackles raised and ears flattened, prepared to move in again for the kill.
The watching Orchid Noakes had turned a deathly pale and seemed quite incapable of speech or movement. Ruby was reduced to sobs and tears through which she gasped “Oh no!” To his credit, Ned did move a little way up the hillside at first, but the sight and sound of that fell creature got the better of him and, losing his nerve, he retreated once more to Orchid’s side.
Seeing his master in such dire straits, Rattles did not hesitate. He almost galloped towards where Adelbold lay and before the warg could renew its attack he sank his teeth into the warg’s rope-like tail. I should tell you that the bite of a donkey is more severe than that of a horse or pony since they have very powerful jaws.
The warg howled in agony and immediately twisted round to confront its new assailant. However, as the warg turned so too did Rattles and, kicking hard with both back legs, delivered a smart crack across the creature’s ugly snout. The warg staggered for a moment, then ran off whining, into the darkness.
Ruby Goodenough was the first of the hobbits to reach Adelbold and, turning him gently, she tore a strip of cloth from the hem of her own dress and used it to staunch the flow of blood from the wound on his shoulder. As Ned arrived in her wake, she curtly ordered him to “Fetch the ponies!” and he hurried to obey without question.
Little was said on the return to Woodhall. Adelbold was clearly in a bad way for not only was the wound inflicted by the warg quite deep, but he also seemed to be hot with fever, a result, no doubt, of some infection or poison acquired when he was bitten by the harvest fly. He was laid gently across his own saddle and Ruby rode one of the ponies close alongside Rattles. Not once did she release the gentle hold she maintained to steady him and prevent him from falling.
Orchid appeared to be in a state of shock and had not spoken a word since the attack. Indeed, she had not moved until Ned, taking the initiative for once, had ordered her to climb up behind him on the other pony which she had done without demur.
When they arrived in Woodhall Ruby rode straight to the home of her neighbour, old Gammer Hornblower, the local herbalist and healer, and with Ned’s assistance, Adelbold was brought into her living room where Gammer proceeded to examine his wounds. Ruby sent Ned and Orchid back to her own burrow to wait for news in the parlour. It was now dark and there was no question of them making another overnight journey back to Bywater.
Ruby never left Adelbold’s side as the old hobbit cleaned and bandaged his wound. She it was who brought the healing draught prescribed by Gammer to his lips and persuaded him to drink and she it was who mopped his fevered brow as his body fought against the infection.
Back in her parlour Ned and Orchid sat together in silence waiting for news. Orchid had still not spoken and when she started to shake a little Ned slipped his hand into hers and she did not remove it.
It was in the early hours of morning that Ruby returned to let them know that Adelbold’s fever had broken, and that Gammer was confident that his wound would heal with proper treatment, although it would take some time during which he would need to rest.
Orchid sighed deeply as if a great weight had fallen from her shoulders and she at once slumped on the couch and fell into a deep sleep. Beside her, without ever letting go her hand, Ned closed his own eyes and allowed himself to dream.
The next morning Ruby ordered Ned to help her move Adelbold to her own spare bedroom where she could keep a close watch on him and where Gammer could visit to dress his wound when needed. She insisted that they leave one of the ponies so that she could ride back to his mother’s home with Adelbold when he was well enough to make the journey. She also gave Ned strict instructions to let Adelbold’s mother know what had happened and that he was safe.
So it was that Orchid, still silent, and looking pale and wan, climbed up behind Ned and they made their way back to Bywater to make their excuses to their boss for their late return. When Ned jumped down in the inn yard and helped Orchid from the pony she suddenly burst into a flood of tears and Ned instinctively took her into his arms and held her close. To his surprise, she looked him in the eye and, with a murmured “Thank you”, she drew him closer.
It took several weeks before Adelbold was well enough to make the journey home. Once he had fully recovered from the infection, it took a little longer for the wound on his shoulder to heal and throughout all that time Ruby was never far from his side. At first, once he realised where he was and could make some sense of what had happened to him, he felt great shame that he had failed in his quest, and he could barely look her in the eye.
Undaunted, that kind lass persisted in ministering to him, feeding him, tending to his wound, and speaking to him with gentle words, for she was moved by the courage he had shown in the face of the threats he had faced, both real and unreal. So it was that in that time he not only underwent a physical recovery, but he found himself able to start shedding some of the delusions which had so afflicted him since that meeting with the stranger on the road and his mind, as well as his body, was healed. Such, I suppose, is the power of love.
Now I know that some of you will be thinking that, in suggesting that Ruby might have fallen in love with him, given what we know about him and about what had happened, I am stretching your belief too far. Yet I would ask who among you can say with any certainty what it is that ignites the spark of love in a relationship, for love takes many forms and grows in the most unexpected places! So it was that when they eventually returned to Bywater together with Rattles and the second pony, they might have been seen to exchange many a smile and affectionate glance.
I end my tale where I began, here at the Green Dragon Inn. These closing scenes take place some months after the events I have described.
In the opening scene I would ask you to picture the inn’s interior, where a crowd of hobbits are seated at tables laden with a feast of foods and drinks. There is succulent pork and beef and chicken, hot savoury pies with gravy dribbling from beneath the crusty pastry, cold meats and pork pies, eggs, sausages, and bacon. There are tangy cheeses and pickles of all kinds, fish cooked fresh from the river, mushrooms tasting of the woods and the earth, turnips and taters, crispy carrots and all manner of other vegetables and salad grown in good Shire earth. There are pyramids of fruit, where plump berries bursting with flavour sit atop juicy plums, apples, and pears. There are crusty loaves and buttered scones, cakes dripping with honey, pastries, biscuits, fruit pies, muffins, cream, and jam. There are fine beers and ales, wines, brandies, coffee, and tea.
Next, several hours later, we move to the inn yard which we see has been decked in bunting and where that same crowd of hobbits waits expectantly. They are all dressed in their finest outfits, for today is a celebration!
Our final scene opens in that same yard in an explosion of sound and colour as fifty or more of the finest fireworks are set off all at once to greet the three couples who are emerging from the inn. For, as you may have guessed, this is a wedding day.
Suddenly the sky is lit by stars which burst into myriads of coloured flowers which seem to descend like rain upon the assembled company, who gently strew red and white rose petals before the newly-weds in blessing of their union.
First, we see young Ned Cotton, very smart in his best tweed vest and trousers, with Orchid, seeming more demure than we have been used to, wearing a plain green pinafore dress with a lacy cream blouse. She leans in close to Ned who has his arm firmly around her waist as he guides her with newly discovered assurance. She carries a small bouquet of white peonies.
Next comes Adelbold himself, wearing a pale-yellow tunic and brown trousers. More than once he glances nervously towards Ruby, who stands beside him and holds his hand in hers. She is wearing a simple mauve cotton dress bearing a floral pattern of white daisies but, today, she wears no crown upon her head. She returns Adelbold’s glances with a warm, reassuring smile. In her hand she holds a bouquet of purple columbines.
Since you have all been good enough to bear with me in the telling of this tale up to this point, I did not wish to short-change you with an ending involving a multiple marriage involving less than three couples. I wonder how many of you have guessed the identities of the last of these happy couples.
Well, they say you can’t keep a good hobbit down and sure enough, here he is again, taking centre stage at the end of my narrative. Wealthy local businessman and landlord of the Green Dragon, Hugo Whitfoot, had, after many rebuttals, finally reaped his reward from his ‘little walks down by the river’. His bachelor days behind him, he walks confidently into the inn yard, splendidly attired in a bright red waistcoat with gold buttons, green velvet breeches and a stylish feathered cap. Beside him, on his arm, walks Dora Puddifoot, Adelbold’s ‘old ma’, although her face today radiates a distinctly girlish expression of surprise and delight. She wears a modest, primrose dress and jacket together with a broad-brimmed straw hat and bears a large bouquet of yellow orchids.
I can’t tell you that they all lived happily ever after, for that is not how the world works. I do reckon though that here in the Shire, surrounded by friends and family, they would have had as good a chance as any of finding happiness.
By the way, I would just say to any of you who had expected me to somehow include Rattles the donkey as a participant in the wedding ceremonies, that it would have been quite ridiculous to do so at the end of an otherwise entirely believable tale!
I found him watching from the stables, chewing contentedly on a carrot, and I asked him how he felt about his role in my story, as I wanted him to have the last word:
“Oh, no need to bother on my account. Thanks for noticin’ me,” he said.
But that’s in another story!