~*~The Drop of a Hat~*~ - Part II
I'd hardly given a thought to the matter of payment, nincompoop that I was. I had only a little money on me. Mikala offered to chip in her pocket money, such as it was, but she had far less than I did, and Bergil didn't have much either, and all our money together wouldn't half cover it, anyway.
I thought and thought. I hardly caught a wink, all through the night.
I didn't like how the sky was looking the next day, or the day after. Kind of brown, it was, and a bit foul smelling. I'd never seen it like that before. And this brown, well, I doubt even Mikala could have come up with a name for it.
It was unnamable.
I started watching the sky, keeping my eyes peeled for those Nazgul flying beastie things. I'd spotted one once already, and I can tell you: if you've seen one of those, you do NOT want to see another. I still dream about them sometimes.
Gandalf seemed preoccupied, and didn't seem to hear much of anything I said to him. Finally he told me Lord Faramir was leaving, and there was a very strong chance he wasn't coming back.
I felt like my stomach was tying itself into a slow knot.
I remembered what Lord Faramir had said about Frodo and Sam--and Gollum. How they were taking the Pass of...wherever it was, and the way Gandalf had looked when he said it, and neither of them would speak of it to me.
I had a feeling, that wherever Frodo and Sam were now, they weren't liking it.
And here I was bothering about a hat. Here when the men were discussing about how they were going to defend the City, when orcs and trolls and Nazguls and Eru knew what all else, were advancing across the plains, all the while we three were sitting around naming off colors.
I spoke of it with Gandalf that evening--about the colors, not the hat--as we stood on our balcony overlooking Mount Doom so far away, but burningly visible to us, a hateful coal in the filthy oven of the east. And he laid a hand on my shoulder, and explained that it was all right, it was exactly what he wanted. He said war was the business of men, not children, and that was why good men went to war, so that their children could talk of colors and sweets and games and stories and birthday presents and what not in peace and freedom and sunlight, instead of looking at screaming black shapes in a brown sky above them, and growing up only to see their own sons march off to war.
I looked up at him there in the bleary night, and suddenly I sensed this light within him, radiating from the core until he fairly glowed like the moon, and soon I forgot about the brown sky and the screaming beasts, and I thought only of stars and planets and mountains and white trees and silvery clouds and doves and beacons and fountains of light and horses of wonder. I could hardly speak a word, even to tell him I wasn't a child.
He would have that hat, or my name wasn't Peregrine Took.
The next day I went straight to Lord Faramir and showed him my sword, that I'd got from the Barrow-Downs, and asked him to buy it from me. I could always get a cheaper one from the smithy. And I still had my dagger from Lady Galadriel. I hated to part with that, but I would if I had to. But I hoped hard that the sword would be enough.
Lord Faramir's eyes fairly popped, and he asked me where I got it, and I told him, and I told him the truth, although I could hear Bergil giggling behind me. Then I explained about the hat. Lord Faramir told me this sword was very old and valuable, and I could tell he spoke the truth. And he took it away with him, and brought me a leather bag of gold pieces, and when I got a good look at them, it was my eyes' turn to pop. He also brought me an old dagger of his in place of my sword, so I wouldn't have to go to the smithy after all, except to have it sharpened. I actually thought it was much nicer than the other.
I could buy presents for everybody now.
I guess I got a little teary then, when he told me he was sorry he wouldn't be around to see me present Gandalf with the hat, as he had to leave tomorrow morning. For the hat wouldn't be ready for a couple of days yet. And I wouldn't even have time to buy him a farewell gift. Then I remembered my dagger, which I'd brought with me just in case, and I thought, well, why not give him that, it's of little use to me now, and being Elvish, it might do him a world of good. But I think he knew what it meant to me, because he just smiled gently and told me to keep it for him. And he dropped to one knee before me, placed his hands on either side of my face and kissed my forehead, and I buried my face against his chest for a long moment.
There are some people in this world who just seem to have this inborn knack for making you fall in love with them at first sight, or pretty nearly, and he was one of them. Strider was another, at least when he was all cleaned up and got up fine...and maybe even when he wasn't, which was why we all warmed up to him so fast. Lady Arwen was yet another, and it wasn't just her outward beauty that made her so. So was Frodo. I was never quite sure exactly what it was about him, but it was as if he were a lamp and you were a moth. And yes, Sam was that sort too, even if he wasn't so fine looking as all those others. But he made you like the way he looked, just as he was.
And then there was Gandalf...but, enough said.
The next morning we all saw Lord Faramir off. I wouldn't see him again until his cousin brought him back, half dead, in his arms.
I missed Merry something terrible.
Bergil and Mikala were both pretty solemn when they went with me to fetch the hat two days later. So was I. I found out later on that Mikala had gotten an idea about making up a whole mess of baked goods and selling them in the market place. But that wouldn't be necessary now.
The hat lady was in quite a twittery mood as she presented the finished product to us. We all three gasped in one accord. There it stood, taller than the old hat, just like a miniature mountain in her hands it was, stiff yet soft, covered with purest snow. There was a feather added, which had been Bergil's suggestion, after he spied a man's hat of black velvet with a beautiful big white fluffy feather on it. The hat lady said the feather came from a bird called the "ostridge" (I think). I asked her if there were such birds around here, and she said no, they were native to a land very far away, and she didn't think any had ever been spotted in Middle-earth. I thought they must be wondrous fair and elegant, to have such plumage, even finer than swans or eagles, and asked her if she could show us a picture of one. I think I had a notion of having Mikala draw one for a possible tapestry design, and if we could find somebody who could make such a tapestry--maybe the hat lady would know of someone--it could be presented to Strider, I mean Aragorn, when he should become king, and it would make a splendid showing in the throne room and all. And the hat lady smiled and said actually, they were very ugly birds apart from their tail feathers, and rather mean and stupid besides, and I was greatly disappointed. But on seeing Bergil's look, and Mikala's too, when they saw that plume, looking like a bit of fluffy pure white cloud, I said to go ahead and add a feather. It might be just the right touch, come to think of it, like on old Tom Bombadill's hat, only even finer. It's my guess that Tom Bombadill was of Gandalf's sort, and therefore, there should be no reason why Gandalf shouldn't have a feather in his hat as well! Why should Tom outshine him?
Gandalf needn't know it was from an ostridge.
And much to my astonishment, she charged us half of what she'd originally intended, seeing as it was for the White Wizard. It would be her contribution, she said.
What a woman!
I felt like a prince for real then. Now I could treat everybody in style.
We would present the hat on my birthday. Bergil would keep it for me, so's Gandalf wouldn't see it before then.
I asked Mikala her favorite color, and she said "blue". I'd been feeling sorry for her because of the ugly brown dresses she had to wear for the kitchen--mud brown--which didn't become her at all, and I wanted to have a nice frock made for her, knowing how she liked pretty things. All lasses do, I suppose. I thought red would suit her best, myself, with those rosy-apple cheeks of hers, but if she preferred blue, then blue it would be. "What shade?" I asked her with a wink, and she laughed that rich, sudden laugh of hers and gave me a little shove. I bought her a length of delphinium-blue cloth and we went to a dressmaker who took her measurements, and I asked the dressmaker if she could put a little embroidery on it too. She said she didn't have time, but her mother liked such fancywork and was good at it, and might be willing for a small price.
Mikala was fairly dancing when she had to go back to work.
Bergil was looking a bit unhappy after she had gone. I soon guessed the nature of his discomfort, so I took him by the hand and drew him to a bench near a fountain at the end of the row, and told him that no matter what it looked like, Mikala and I were only friends, and it was him she really liked, I knew it. He was much smarter and braver and better looking than I, not to mention taller! and someday she would see it.
"She's sure paid a lot of attention to you," he said, rubbing at a sore spot on his knee. "I mean...well, you're older and you've been so many places and had such a lot of adventures and, and you can sing and..."
"It's because I'm a stranger here," I explained, "and she knows I'm far from my home, and I get homesick every day of my life, and I'm apart from my friends and worried about them and scared for them and for myself, and she wants to cheer me. That's all. That's the way she is."
"You really think so?" He looked down at me with serious eyes. I nodded.
"Yes. I think she's the sort who doesn't do friendship halfway. I've friends like that myself--no, I don't mean THAT," I hastened to say as he cocked an eyebrow. I don't think he really thought anything amiss, not at his age, but that's what went through my mind at the moment. "I just mean...when such people take a mind to be your friend, then they're your friend and no nonsense about it. No going back. And you've got to take care of such people, just like if you're given a great treasure. You don't leave it sitting out for wicked folks to steal what they like, and you don't try to twist it into something it wasn't meant to be. Neither do you try to pig it all for yourself, and hide it away in a dark closet till it loses its luster. You were trusted with it, even if only for a while, and so you take the best care of it. You see what I mean?"
"Is that why you bought the hat for Gandalf?" he asked. Smart boy! He caught on fast.
"Exactly," I said. "He's that sort of friend too, and I've got to take care of that. See, I'm older than I seem, and I'm not a fool all the time, and I can tell when a lass fancies me and when she only thinks of me in a friendly sort of way."
"So how can I get her to like me?" he asked, at the same time looking away in embarrassment, that he should have to ask such a thing of me. Folks were funny that way here. It took some getting used to.
"You've got to make her like you," I said, "by taking care of what she is. Not by showing off and trying to impress her, or trying to turn her into what you think she should be. What I think you should do is, look at the man you admire most and try to be like him as much as you can, while still being yourself at the same time. I can't promise anything. But it's a start, and I really think you're already on your way."
He brightened considerably, and we rose and went back toward the market-place, where we found him a little model of a horse very like Shadowfax, beautifully carved in wood and painted...moonbeam white. He asked me, shyly, if I thought Gandalf might take him for a ride on Shadowfax sometime. I told him I bet he would, and I would ask him.
He didn't kiss me. Boys don't kiss each other here. I puzzled a bit about that, but every country has its customs, I suppose.
I decided I ought get something for his father, Beregond, who'd been really good to me too, and I'd loved him taking up for Lord Faramir against his father. That was mighty brave of him, I must say. And something for Mikala's mother, who was such a fine cook and had sent all those goodies our way, and was probably about to lose her husband...and why not something for the hat lady too, while we were at it?
But for Lord Steward Denethor? Not a thing, sir. He'd just sent his only living son probably to his death, after all! What did he want, TWO dead sons? One wasn't enough? When would it all end? And just thinking about how he'd made Mikala wait on that little snot of an ambassador's son would have been enough by itself to make my blood boil.
Strider would never have done such a thing!
Oh, but my feelings toward Lord Denethor have softened over the years, after Gandalf and Lord Faramir both explained to me some things about his past life and all. I can look back and pity what happened to him a bit more, even though I know much of it was his own fault. He hadn't taken care of what he'd been given, he just wanted what he shouldn't have had, and that wrecked all he might have been. I can see that now. And he wanted to see too much, and that's never a good thing. There was a time when I myself wanted to see too much, after all. And I saw how the Enemy uses that to His advantage, seizing the opportunity to wedge himself in where he doesn't belong and crowding out what we should be, the way weeds choke out the lovely growing things, and thus I learned to understand, although it took such a long time. But learn I did. I guess we are all stewards, of one sort or another, destined to take care of each other and all we are....
I can see now that maybe Lord Denethor did have some beautiful plumage somewhere about him, even if he wasn't so keen to show it all the time....