Chapter 3: Autumn 1343

The fine, late days of Halimath came around with all hobbits intent on the harvest. Our group of friends, accompanied by Primula, Poppy, Marigold and Bella, set off to assist the reaping of barley at High Hay Hall and then enjoy the famous Harvest Feast thrown by the Arkwrights afterwards. They had such a fine time ambling down the Northway road, chatting away and exchanging news, that they were already descending the hill towards Stowply before they noticed that they had overshot the path to High Hay Hall entirely. They unanimously opted to continue into the village and have lunch at the ‘Crossed Staves’ pub where Edgar was, of course, greeted as a regular. After leisurely refreshments the party set off back northwards through a gap in the rear hedge, with Gorboduc and Tobold steering a wobbling Edgar between them. After about an hour they came into sight of the Arkwright’s main barley field where his family and friends were already hard at work. “I’ve brought some help!” Edgar cheerily greeted his dad. Master Pepin pointedly thanked Tobold instead and set them all to work sheaving and stooking at one end of the line.

The work continued long into the evening and all the next day with helpers refreshed by abundant food and plentiful drink brought out to them in the field. It became apparent that Arkwrights were prone to bursting into song, and if possible dancing, at any opportunity. Everyone joined in on the Reaping Song chorus and Belladonna Noakes participated with much gusto despite being tone deaf. Edgar’s sisters eyed her with mild alarm. Eventually the last rick was completed and the workforce retired for a good wash and rest. The kitchen hobbits redoubled their output. The famous ‘barn’ and its sprung floor was swept out and hung with lanterns as the full moon rose. Everyone gathered for a night of excessive feasting and lively music to celebrate this harvest home. Gorboduc and Primula danced away in a world of their own. Isenbold and Poppy, Edgar and Bella whirled around with the noisy throng, but Halfred embarrassingly tripped over and crashed to the floor leaving Marigold to be caught up and whisked away by Tobold. No-one noticed Marroc slip away into the smial to have a nose around the private Arkwright library. It was mostly sheet music, but one very old scroll did tell the tale of the goblin head hanging up in their barn.

By late evening the musicians paused to quench their thirst and this was the signal for various Arkwrights and others to grab the stage for their solo party pieces. Much to everyone’s trepidation Belladonna Noakes fetched up on the stage with bagpipes conspicuously under her arm. Edgar’s sisters; Matty, Tiffany and Aubretia, all cringed in anticipated embarrassment. However her solo turned out to be a stand up comedy act, throughout which she repeatedly threatened to play the bagpipes. It was a resounding success with her audience and no eardrums were damaged at any point. Edgar took advantage of the occasion to introduce her to his mother while Tobold introduced Mungo and Marroc to his female cousins (Edgar’s sisters). Meanwhile Halfred had downed an unknown amount of beer and worked up enough hope to engage Marigold in witty conversation. Alas halfway through he suavely attempted to lean against a non-existent table and pratfalled to the floor. Isenbold kindly rolled him away to sleep things off under the trestles. Edgar took to the stage to sing a ballad to an ‘unknown’ lady. Marroc concluded the interlude by leading the crowd in The Silly Bee Song. For those with stamina, dancing resumed until the early hours of the morning.

Very late the following day the hiking group reconvened and set off for Pitterfield. They briefly paused at the ‘Axe & Gate’ in Toft Bridge for refreshment and Marroc was pleased to recognise the honey flavour of their local beer. A subdued Halfred took them accurately cross-country through the orchards of Greenfields. This was a low-lying, fertile area which looked to have been reclaimed from the Brandywine marshes at some point long ago; smials were often built up or into artificial mounds which stood a little above the old flood plain, and the oldest trees were clustered around them. Pitterfields was one such traditional farming smial and had an extremely ancient walnut tree set by its well. Halfred’s mum greeted everyone and was pleased to accept the foraged blackberries they’d picked earlier. Marigold was introduced only as “a friend” but Mistress Beryl seemed to be enlightened anyway. The barns and cider presses were very busy as the apple harvest had only just started to get underway, but Master Wiseman took pity and allowed everyone a quiet evening to meet Maple, Emmon and Violet in the parlour. The party took an early night.

The following day the group were set to work on the crushing troughs which broke apples up before more experienced hands loaded that pulp into an enormous press. The pressed and filtered juice ran off into barrel after barrel to be sealed and stacked, and Mungo recognised the Noakes mark on most of them. Edgar was finding this all a bit too physical and was pleased to discover a need for a musician out in the orchards — many local hobbit farms had a tradition of singing to the trees to keep them happy. It was also customary to leave a tithe of good apples on the tree “for the fairies”. After a couple of days Marroc decided to take a silent midnight stroll near to Hackenbottom’s private library which he ‘discovered had been accidentally left unlocked’. He was bemused to find a large number of sea charts, but opted instead to ‘borrow’ some local maps with promising Xs marked on them. He retreated to consult with his cousin Mungo whom he intercepted at the privy, much to Mungo’s distress. Having listened to both Halfred and Isenbold describe their early ventures for Grandad Otto’s treasure, Mungo had no trouble identifying the scrolls as training maps for tweens. The maps were returned undetected.

After breakfast the two Noakes were still whispering about the properties of old parchment. Halfred noticed that they were ‘up to something’ and decided to move the party onward again. After they replenished their food and drink and decided against taking the truffling pig with them, the group headed over to take luncheon at ‘The Wheatsheaf’ in Clapperby. The afternoon was pleasantly spent negotiating the uneven footpath down to Sandy Bottom, its many lumps and bumps providing the perfect excuse to lend helpful, steadying arms to the ladies. They trotted into the village at teatime, pausing only to sample some bitter, caramel beer at the ‘Purple Pixie’ tavern. They enquired after the name and were told that a mischievous pixie lived nearby. Opting to push on while daylight remained they hurried down the main road only to be delayed by an unexpected fork which was not on their map. After a delay scouting ahead, Halfred led them safely into the town of Oatbarton at sunset.

At the marketplace in the middle there were four inns to choose from! The party immediately split up to sample the beers, although Tobold and Halfred spent so long arguing over who Marigold was going to accompany that she gave up and went with Isenbold and Poppy. ‘The Drunken Dragon’ and the ‘Bag O Nails’ won the taste test, although both were busy and the party would have to split for the night. The ‘Green Harpy’ had acceptable mild beer, but the ‘Old Maid’s’ offerings were vile. They turned in after a pleasant evening meal in the company of a great many grain merchants, some of whom were Bigfeet men! The gossip from the travellers was of a disreputable ranger type hanging around the Stonebow bridge; he’d been chased off but there was much speculation on what he might have been after. Elsewhere Odo Topher was passing on a bit of rumour that goblins had been seen digging around the Three Farthing Stone, as this was right in the middle of the Shire everyone sensible agreed that it was not to be credited.

The following morning Edgar slipped away to find a good whitesmith and buy a very special ring. He couldn’t afford anything really expensive but he did find an unusual amber ring with a tiny insect preserved inside it. Isenbold escorted Poppy to a hat shop which she assured him was much superior to the one in Kings Worthy. Stepping inside they found a party of ladies already in noisy debate over millinery merits — one of whom was Miss Lily Baxter. He sent an enterprising urchin to inform Mungo. Mungo arrived at speed, feigning surprise but radiating genuine pleasure. Halfred and Marroc called in on the local bounders and Town Sherriff to learn a bit more about Bindbale Woods; an untamed place of wild things and an especially terrible beast, they learned. The bounders were quite clear that civilians were not to enter under any circumstances, and that travellers who strayed under its dark boughs did not return. Gorboduc and Primula strolled about making plans for their winter wedding and bought ribbons and lace at a haberdashery. The more cautious hobbits invested in a sturdy boar spear at the saddlers. Meanwhile, back at the milliner shop, Mungo persuaded all the ladies to join him for dinner at the ‘Bag O Nuts’. There they met up with Bella and Edgar who were involved in a cut throat chess match; Mungo was pleased to introduce everyone. The party spent a very pleasant meal ascertaining just how everybody at the table was related and North Farthing genealogy in general. Mungo heard the unwelcome news that Miss Lily had been invited to spend Yule at Brandy Hall so promptly invited her to come to Gorboduc and Primula’s wedding instead, an invite heartily endorsed by the besotted couple.

Bidding a fond farewell, the next morning the party hiked west along the road towards Needlehole. By elevenses the ominous wood was visible in the distance. Halfred heard the sound of fresh water bubbling nearby and led them off the road towards a freshwater pool of trout. Despite a lack of fishing gear Isenbold very successfully guddled half a dozen fish from the pool which, griddled with fresh herbs, made a very tasty snack. Pleased and refuelled the party pushed on and soon came to the village of Shaw Rigg and a quaint little inn called the’ Wandering Knigh’t. They decided to partake of some luncheon despite their recent substantial snack, and were soon pleased that they had. The little inn set the finest table they had yet come across in their wanderings, and could give even the ‘Old Harp Tavern’ back home a run for its reputation. It immediately became their base of operation and they wasted no time in securing rooms to stay in. Mungo optimistically sent a note post haste back to Oatbarton to tell Miss Lily where they were staying. Local enquiries about Bindbale Wood produced no more sensible information than before, and indeed the group soon became regaled with ever more terrifying stories from the locals on what might lurk within.

Straight after first breakfast the next morning the party set off, soon stepping off the road and circling around the wood at a safe distance. Halfred led them very accurately to the place on their combined maps: it turned out to be an abandoned smial. Although overgrown and half collapsed, someone had kept the inner courtyard tidy and had cleaned the pool in the middle. At its centre stood a classical column from some older time, with a statue atop of a hobbit goose girl and her basket. The place was not entirely uninhabited — a flock of geese foraged around the plants, and nests were partly visible inside. They observed their formidable foes for some time. Clearly the geese were someone’s livestock, and quite valuable, so outright slaughter was inappropriate. All agreed that the statue, and the basket especially, needed to be investigated. They debated some more while the ladies retreated to a safe distance.

Eventually they mustered courage and started to sneak in, but Mungo tripped and alerted the outer line of ganders which ran over honking an alarm. Isenbold bellowed a challenge which briefly awed the nearest birds and allowed Gorbaduc to rally the hobbits and get into some sort of formation. Marroc flung some corn which distracted a few others, and a flurry of blows and arrows from the other temporarily drove the first row back and cleared the way for Isenbold and Marroc to get to the column. With speed and coordination honed from years of tween scrumping together, Marroc yeeted Isenbold up to the statue. Egdar took a nasty looking wound from one goose, Mungo speared another, while the rest traded ineffective blows. However a second wave of enraged geese were approaching at a run. Garboduc enheartened the hobbits again as Isenbold rummaged around. Halfred and Mungo were knocked back and Gorboduc just parried a vicious wing bash. Isenbold slid back down cradling a stone egg from the basket and all the hobbits attempted to defend his retreat but took a battering nonetheless, including another bite on Mungo and a vicious laceration on Tobold. The group retreated under a flurry of blows but beyond a certain point the geese decided not to pursue, but instead mocked them from the ruins with a distinctive honking laugh of victory.

The group sat down to catch their breath as the ladies ran up; everyone was very scared and impressed. Halfred tended to the wounds and managed to prevent any further bleeding or infection. Edgar took advantage of the moment to propose to Bella and she enthusiastically agreed to marry him — she even loved her peculiar engagement ring. Mungo thoughtfully trussed up the one goose carcass to remove and hoped that was the only evidence of their battle. Everybody gathered round to inspect Isenbold’s stone egg which turned out to be made of weathered plaster. He broke it open to reveal a strangely wrought but very golden key. The group returned to the ‘Wandering Knight’ attempting to look like any other hiking travellers. Discreet enquiries revealed that the local goose herder was one Farmer Wyrm, the local magistrate. They returned home early the following morning in the hope of leaving behind any local difficulties.