1. Wander

Southfarthing, near the Bounds, late Wedmath, 1388

Ned Deeptunnel sang a nonsense song to himself as he hung up the mended harness on its hooks in his tack room. It was going to be a good harvest this year. He could feel it under his feet as he walked through his fields. Even the kitchen garden was pleased with itself. There had been more of the grey folk wandering about the last week or so, but they never bothered anyone. He collected a shovel and set out to fetch a barrow to collect manure for the garden.

He was still singing to himself as he left the barn, but came to an abrupt halt just past the doors. There in the farmyard was a very tall, very scrawny Big Person, a woman, he thought because the rags that barely covered it looked more dress than tunic, but there was little else to give the sickly thing shape. No, a girl. No beard. Her hair was white like an old gammer’s, but her face was not lined from age. When he looked at her feet, he stared. They were pitiful, skinny and weak, with no fur to protect them, and what looked like blood. When she took a small step, there was clearly blood on the dirt.

Next to her was a big, dark grey shaggy dog. The beast’s neck was almost hairless and he showed signs of having been chained. The dog eyed him warily and pressed up against the women’s legs, almost tipping her over.

‘Hallo, mistress,’ Ned said, studying her and the dog. She was no trouble, but the dog looked strong, if lean, and clearly had his teeth. Ned gripped a shovel tightly. If need be, he could club the animal with it. ‘Who you be?’ he asked politely.

‘I… I don’t know.’ She sat heavily, head bowed. ‘I don’t know!’ The dog nosed at her, whining, and licked her cheek. Beyond he saw Mabel open the smial door. They looked at each other for a moment, then nodded their heads.

Ned walked a few paces closer. The dog looked at him, but did not bristle or growl. His ears were pricked and his expression made Ned think the beast wanted help. ‘Now, now, miss, I’m not tryin’ t’pry. Just being polite. You from over the Bounds?’

‘I walked from the river. Someone said you are kind folk here.’

‘Yes, we are,’ Mable said strongly. The white woman looked at his wife and the dog wagged his tail. Ned relaxed his grip on the shovel. ‘What y’need, miss?’ Mabel asked.

‘Water. A bite to eat. I’m lost.’

Mabel glanced at Ned, who nodded again, and smiled. ‘You come in and set. I have some bread.’ Mabel gestured for her to follow.

The poor thing tried to stand, but could not rise from her knees. Ned edged closer, eye on the dog, who whined and ducked his head. All right, lad, you know your mistress needs help. He came to her side and pulled her arm over his shoulder, then put his own around her waist and let her lean on him as she staggered to her feet. She was all bone. Mabel came over and braced her from the other side. One slow step at a time, they made their way to the small round door. It was too low for her to walk in, so she simply crawled into the dugout home. She was soon sitting on the floor, back against a wall, her dog lying next to her.

‘Mabel, you fetch some food while I get a little table set up for our guest,’ Ned said. He looked about and figured the low bench would suffice, so put it before her. The wan woman was trembling slightly, though he thought more from exhaustion and hunger than from fear.  A few minutes later, Mabel returned with fresh bread, butter, and sour cherry preserves, as well as a cup of cider. The woman gulped the cider before gobbling a slice of bread. She tossed a hunk of bread to the dog, who snapped it up as quickly as his mistress. Ned fetched more bread and cider. He thought of bringing beer, but figured that would wait until the scrawny thing needed to sleep.

‘Here y’go. Don’t eat too fast or you’ll bring it all back up.’ He pulled up a chair. ‘I’m Ned Deeptunnel, and that’s my missus, Mabel.’

‘Thank you, Mister Deeptunnel. I would tell you my name, but I’m such a goose I can’t remember it.’

Or you won’t say it? He looked at her emaciated frame, noted the bruises on her arms and legs, forbade himself to wince at her damaged, bloody feet. Ned sighed and said, ‘Well, Miss Goosie, you look a fright. You and your boy here.’

‘We’ve walked three days. Just a few apples and blackberries. Someone left us on the riverbank. I don’t know why.’

Just… left her? He tried not to let his revulsion show. That’s Big People for you. Cruel and greedy. ‘Don’t matter now. You eat a bit, and I’ll get a bed made for you. ‘Fraid we don’t have a tick your size, so it’ll be a floor.’

‘Better than dirt.’

‘No more dirt.’ Ned said this firmly and a look of relief came to Miss Goosie’s face. You thought I’d turn you out in your state? He did not know what angered him more, that she might think he would do such a thing, or that she had such a thing done to her before. You’re in the Shire now. A civilized place. ‘You rest up, and I’ll send someone to fetch the Thain. He’ll know what to do.’