Brandy Hall tends to be stuffed to the rafters with various Brandybuck relations and hangers-on, as I knew very well, having once been one of the former. However, Ace being the Master's kid, he was able to get us a room to ourselves near the Big Hole. Needless to say, there was no bed on the premises big enough to accommodate Legs, so he wound up measuring his Big Folk length on the floor under one of his own blankets.
Breakfast was as lavish as always at Brandy Hall, and Petals and I went through it like starved wargs, which the short rations on the road had made us resemble. Legs and I discussed our itinerary during the meal, while Petals focused on the food. We both agreed that the ringers would be watching the Brandywine Bridge and the Bucklebury ferry like hawks, and only a complete idiot would try to cut across the Old Forest to the east, so our best bet was to travel south down to Haysend and cross out of Buckland there.
Ace met us after breakfast and led us down the Big Hole to the main door. He proved as good as his word, and we found an extra two ponies waiting for us -- one for me, and another to carry our supplies. There was plenty of food and water, extra clothes, blankets, cookware, and, at Petals' insistance, a coiled length of rope. Despite all this, Ace was still clearly unhappy about staying behind, and I half-expected him to change his mind at the last minute a join us. He didn't, though.
"Keep yourself safe, Deuce," he said, giving me a thump on the shoulder.
"You too, Ace. Try not to get yourself disinherited." I turned and mounted my pony, a mare who was apparently named Malva. The day was clear again, and the sun was glinting off the windows set into Buck Hill when we set out.
It's about fifteen miles from Brandy Hall to Haysend. Neither Petals nor myself were used to going all day on horseback, and we were both still damned sore from our previous day's ride. Legs set an easy pace, and gave us a long meal break at the Waggon Wheel Inn in Standelf.
The hobbits in the Shire proper like to make a big deal about how strange the Bucklanders are, but apart from the boats (which I myself had avoided since my parents' accident), they're pretty much like hobbits everywhere, and the landscape reflected it. There were farmhouses surrounded by fields of grain, gardens, roots, greens, pipe-weed, and what have you, nearly ready for harvesting at this time of year. There were orchards, cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens, barking dogs, stands of trees, and hedgerows. Like the rest of the Shire, Buckland produced a lot of food, and contrary to what others might think, we hobbits don't eat it all ourselves. We sell a lot of it to the dwarves in the Blue Mountains and the elves in the Grey Havens, earning the hard currency that the dwarvish merchants are so fond of.
It was late afternoon, and we could see the Great Hay closing in on our left as we made our way down the narrow path that leads to Haysend. The Great Hay ends on the north bank of the Withywindle thirty feet or so upstream from where it empties into the Brandywine River. We were about a mile from Haysend when we heard a sudden clamor coming from behind us. I grew up in the Buckland, so I knew that sound. It was a distant clangor of horns being blown and pots and pans being banged together at every farmhouse and hole, and it meant trouble. I knew right away what kind of trouble, even before I looked back and saw the distant figures of riders in black coming up on us.
Now the easy pace we had set that day paid off, because our ponies were able to work up a good gallop. I didn't have to look back to tell that the ringers were gaining on us; I could feel the same creepy sensation from the ferry and from my confrontation with Khamûl in my office in Bywater. The land between the Great Hay and the Brandywine narrowed, and we left the last path behind and trampled down the rushes that lined the bank of the Withywindle before splashing across the stream itself. Our ponies struggled up the south bank of the stream and then stopped, exhausted by the sudden burst of speed. We turned and looked across, just in time to see five of the ringers pull up on the other side.
The westering sun was shining directly on them, but you never would have known it by looking at them. They were close enough for me to see the glaring red eyes of their horses, but there was nothing to see of the ringers themselves but their hooded cloaks, the black boots in their stirrups, and the black-bladed swords that they drew in creepy unison. One of them gave out that shriek again, and all of our ponies shied away from the noise. From across the stream I heard that unforgettable croaking whisper as one of them said, "Give us the ring."
I pulled the box from Noakes' jewelry shop out of the pocket of my trenchcoat and held it up. "You want it, buster? Go get it!" And with all the strength I could muster I threw the thing into the swiftly flowing Brandywine.