The wind blew bitter cold from the Northeast, snow smoking ahead of it over the moors and sifting into Hobbiton. As the afternoon wore away the fine powdery snow began to drift into curved mounds behind hedges and walls, the whiteness of it held the daylight for a space past sunset. It grew colder, the sky lowered with the night, nothing moved outdoors but the wind.
Indoors all was snug and warm. Supper over, tea was made, and poured steaming into cups, and bread sliced for toast. Sam sat with his feet on the fender turning the toasting fork slowly about. He made the best toast, having the patience to turn it constantly and not let it get too close to the flames. He looked about the cozy room and thought to himself that he was a lucky Hobbit, to be in the best place in the world with those he loved the best. Rose looked up from her sewing and smiled across at him. The children lay sprawled on the rug or curled up in easy chairs, Frodo and Goldilocks were playing checkers and Merry and Hamfast were shuffling cards and digging in the old dresser for the cribbage board. The littler ones pored over picture books, or traced wiggle-lined maps of fairyland. They were already in their nightshirts, and stretching out bedtime by being very quiet.
It was the Eve of Yule. Rose and the girls had hung swags of greenery across the curved door frames, wreaths of red-berried Holly brightened each end of the mantle. Out in the pantry the great Pudding sat wrapped in its boiling cloth, a pair of clean-plucked fat geese hung above the sink, sprigs of Rosemary and Thyme scented the air. On the white-scrubbed kitchen table ranks of Gingerbread men and women lay cooling, their blank faces ready to be enlivened with icing. The light of the kitchen lamp gleamed on copper pans lining the rack above the cupboard and sparkled in the glassware waiting for tomorrow’s wine.
“I wonder what our Elanor is doing tonight,” Rose said. “I wonder if it can be as cold in Gondor as it is here.”
“It’s the coldest winter I’ve ever known,” Sam replied. “The ground has been like iron since the middle of October. But you mustn’t worry about our lass, Rose-love. She’ll be safe and warm with old Strider and Queen Arwen. Eating off gold plates, I shouldn’t wonder!”
Rose laughed at the old joke. She missed Elanor, but was glad to think her daughter was out in the great world, in the great city of Minas Tirith, handmaiden to the Queen. The last letter home was nearly worn out with reading, and it would be a long time until another came.
Pippin leaned against the low window, his face resting on the cold glass. He could see only a white blur outside, nothing else, no lamplit windows across the way, no moon, no stars. He could hear the sifting snow scouring the bricked wall below the window. He shifted, restless. He could hear the wind in the dark. Something in the far, lonesome sound of it called to him. He wondered if anyone was out in the night. The creatures of the wild would be down in their dens, heads tucked under tails, safe, warm, and silent. The hunting owls would curl their talons up, and ride out the long dark in trees that swayed like ships upon the sea.
He was about to turn away from the window when he thought he saw a gleam of light. Pressing his forehead to the glass, he stared hard and there it was again, up behind the byre. His heart beat quicker with excitement. There was no road up there, only hills swelling one upon the other until they grew into the bare, rolling expanse of the Northfarthing. “Dad,” he said. “Dad, come here and take a look.”
Sam leaned against Pippin and stared into the blackness. Yes, there it was, a tiny far-off glimpse of light. “I see it, Pippin lad. Look, there it is again.”
Rose frowned. “A light, up on the moors? What could it be?”
“I dunno, Rose-love,” Sam said. “Hunters, maybe? Caught out in the storm?”
“What hunters, Dad?” Pippin felt his eyes water with the strain of staring into the dark. “No one from here was out today, not in this weather. There’d be no use, nothing would have been stirring in the cold.”
Sam put his hand on Pippin’s shoulder. “Pippin, lad,” he said, “if someone is up there, they’ll see our light.”
“What if they’re hurt, Dad? Or lost? Maybe they can’t see our light, down here in the hollow.”
“We can see theirs, Pip,” Sam answered. Then he sighed. “I know, I know. Well, if we’re going, we’d best shake a leg.”
“Sam!” Rose put her sewing down and put her hand on Sam’s arm. “You’re never going out in that!”
“Rose, there must be someone up there—both Pip and I saw the light. We can’t just pretend we didn’t see it.”
“But listen to the wind, Sam! I’ve never known such cold. You’ll catch your death….”
“Now, now, Rose. You know I’m made of tougher stuff than that. A little cold never hurt anyone. Especially your Sam.” He went into the closed porch and took his old Elven cloak down, and fumbled around in the corner until he found his iron-shod walking stick that had come all the way from far-off Ithilien. Pippin wrapped a scarf around his neck and drew a knitted hat down over his ears, then buttoned up his heavy work jacket.
“I’m coming with you, Dad,” he insisted, when Rose wanted to forbid him. “It’s dangerous for someone to go out alone on a night like this.”
Sam’s eyes met Rose’s over the lad’s head. “He’ll be all right, Rose. And I’m going to take old Bill, too. He’ll see we get home, no matter what.”
“I’ll put the lamp in the window, Sam. Be careful?” She fastened the door behind them, then went into the sitting room and took the brightest lamp and set it on the sill of the window that looked North.
Out in the stable the cows looked up in mild surprise as Sam and Pippin blew in on a gust of snow. Sam hung the lantern on a peg and put Bill’s halter on him and led him out of his box into the aisle. “Come on, old fellow,” he said. The gentle wise old pony snuffled at Pippin’s hat and looked at Sam as if to say, “We’re taking the lad with us?”
The first few steps were not so bad, but once they turned the corner and left the shelter of the belt of trees behind the byre the wind hit them with all its force. Pippin gasped and clutched Sam’s hand. They struggled through the drift that lay behind the wall and onto the open field. “We’ll go up the fence line, Pip,” Sam said, his mouth near Pip’s ear. “When we get to the last gate, then we’ll go onto the moor.”
Pip bent his head and plodded in Sam’s footsteps. Bill was beside him, his shaggy body taking the brunt of the wind. Every now and then Sam would stop and peer ahead into the night and at last he said, “There! See it, Pip? Up there. Not so very far after all.”
But it was far. Tears of pain froze on Pip’s cheeks, his hands were numb in his thick woolen gloves. He stumbled, and staggered against Bill. The pony stopped and seemed to wait for Pip to get his breath. “Dad?” he managed. “Dad? Was it like this, on the Redhorn Pass?”
Sam’s laugh was nearly lost in the wind. “Aye, Pip. Aye, it was.” He took Pip’s hand and said, “All right, my lad? Not far now.” They walked on into the teeth of the wind, half blinded by blowing snow. Their lantern flickered, but had not gone out, yet it had not really served to light their path. Through the last gate and out onto the broad shoulder of the first real hill. Then Pip saw it again, the brief glimmer of light. Definitely closer. He thought for a moment he heard the jingle of bells.
Now the wind was really fierce. If Pippin had not been behind his father and the stubby pony he would have had a hard time walking upright. He saw that for the moment it was not snowing, that there was a clearing overhead and the white stars were flaming in the black bowl of the sky. Cold as he was, the beauty of the night made a catch in his throat. He whispered, “Elbereth….there’s Elbereth, Dad.”
Sam did not hear him, but strode ahead, and now the light was clear and plain, someone walking toward them with a lantern. Again the sound of bells. A dreadful blast of wind picked up snow and flung it into Pip’s face and he shut his eyes and sobbed. “Dad! Dad, where are you?”
“I’m right here, Pip my lad. Here, take my hand. My word, Pip. It’s Trader Albaran!” Sam shouted, “Over here! Here, man!”
“Friend Samwise? Is that you?” A hoarse voice, then the bells again. Pip saw a great horse looming out of the dark, and the gleam of the lantern. “Samwise! How come you here?”
“My lad here saw your light, Albaran. We thought you might be in trouble,” Sam said. “Why are you out on the moor on a night like this? No, no, don’t explain now. Let’s get down to Bag End.”
Dismounting, the tall man held his lantern up. “My young friend Pippin? You saw my light?” He grinned at Pippin, his white teeth gleaming in his dark face. His golden earrings glinted in the light. “Ah, Pippin, you look as cold as I feel.”
“Samwise, I was making for Bag End, but the wind came up so fierce. This little jenny of mine, you can see what case she is in…she has slowed me up,” he gestured at one of the little donkeys that carried his packs. “If it had kept snowing, if you had not seen my light…..see, down there? It is not snowing up here, but down there, I cannot see where your house is.”
“Bill will lead us home, Trader. You all right, Pip my lad? Here, you get up on Bill. Just hold his mane, lad, you won’t fall.”
Teeth chattering, Pip managed to say, “I’m all right, Dad.” He leaned over Bill’s neck, breathing his warm smell, wrapping his hands in the coarse mane.
Sam and the tall Trader followed on foot, and behind the horse came the little string of pack donkeys, the bells on their packs ringing with their steps. Once more the wind rose and came screaming down from the high hills, and the clearing sky vanished. Pippin closed his eyes. The sturdy pony carried him down the moor, to the last gate, and the others followed.
On they went, following the stone fence, down through the last snowdrift, around the corner and into the shelter of the byre. Pippin slid to the ground and got the stable door open and led Bill in. Sam and the man followed, leading the horse and the donkeys.
The tall man of Far Harad bent low to come through the door and hung his lantern beside Sam’s on the hook. He stamped his booted feet and clapped his hands together hard. “Ah,” he sighed gustily. “‘Tis good to be out of that infernal wind.” He gazed around and smiled. “Friend Samwise, I see you have made new room in your stable. My tall Soten will be glad of that.” He pulled the saddle and bridle off the long-legged black horse and shut him in the stall, then turned to the five pack donkeys standing patiently in the aisle.
“Pip my lad,” Sam said. “You run on into the house and get warm. Albaran and I will see to the beasts.”
“No, Dad,” Pip answered, though he shivered so hard he could scarcely speak, “I’ll help you. You always said you had to put their comfort before your own.” Pip put Bill in his box and quickly checked his water bucket. Then he helped Albaran and Sam unpack the donkeys. The little jenny stood with her head down, her front legs apart, and she was breathing quickly.
“Dad,” Pip said. “What’s wrong with her?”
Albaran ran his hands over her belly and flanks and turned to Pip. “She is foaling, Pip. That is why we were so slow. It’s lucky you saw my light, Pip. I was beginning to think I was going to have to leave the packtrain and try to make my way on my own.”
Sam tossed straw onto the aisle floor. “There isn’t room for all of them in stalls, Albaran, but they can have standing here for tonight. We’ll put this jenny in the box by Bill, here. Pip, my lad, get some water into those empty buckets and just put a bit of corn along the wall. They’ll manage. Donkeys are clever creatures, they say.”
Bill leaned his head over the low wall into the box where the jenny stood. He nuzzled her neck and blew his breath out his nostrils. Then he turned to his manger and began to nibble at his corn.
Pip got water from the trough that was fed by the never-ending, never-freezing spring that trickled from the spout in the back wall. He heard his father and the man speaking, their voices low and soft. The cows stood chewing their cuds, the stable smelled of their warm breathing and of horses and straw and dung, familiar and pleasant to Pip. He heard tall Soten moving about in his box, watched the canny donkeys line themselves up to eat the grain he spread for them.
He stood very still. Outside the wind shrieked. He thought of the high bare hills beneath the dark, the snow drifting in the hollows. He saw the tall turbaned man, and he wondered how he came to live the life he did, roaming about the open world, no house, no home, just his horse and his packtrain. Pip knew there was something about a long-ago war, long ago and far away. Sometimes Dad and the Thain and Uncle Merry talked of it, but they told funny tales, they laughed, they made fun of each other and the adventures they had had, off in the days of the Quest.
Pip opened the door of Soten’s box and the great black creature waited, “like a gentleman” while Pip poured water for him. Pip stroked the mighty animal, reaching up to run his hand down the silken neck, feeling that the mane was as soft as a girl’s hair. He wondered what it would be like to be up on the sleek back, he thought of his sister Elanor in the great stone city, with her Pixie mare. “If Elanor can ride a horse,” he thought, “I’m sure I could. Maybe not one this big, though….” He went out into the aisle and saw Dad standing by the jenny’s box, rubbing his hands with some straw.
“Come here, Pip my lad,” Dad said. “Come and see this.”
Pip looked over the low wall and saw the little jenny standing, and at her feet a tiny wet foal struggling to stand. Albaran stood by her, grinning. The little donkey staggered up, fell, staggered up again, and then stood sprawl legged, shaking and staring about with great dark eyes.
“His ears are as long as his legs!” Pip laughed. “Look, Dad! Look! He’s wanting to eat already.”
The jenny whickered and nuzzled at her foal, then licked at his little wet stub of a tail. The foal nudged her belly and her flank and walked all about her, shaking and leaning on her. He tried sucking at her front leg, but she pushed at him, and he made it to her flank again and this time he got his head in the right place. She whickered softly and closed her eyes and gave a long sigh.
“Poor wee lass,” Sam murmured. “But she’s safe and warm now. Come, Pip. Come, Trader. Rose will be wondering what’s become of us.”