A Gentle Soul - 1

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A Gentle Soul

This story started to write itself after the second of my three eye surgeries. I filled it out a bit today, and feel the need to post it and get some feedback. It has not gone to my editor, so blame all the errors on my shoddy proofreading. Of course, let me know if it is something you want to see more of. It will not be worked on weekly, but I might be able to get a chapter up every month or two: Dawn.

“Jeremiah! Have you finished practicing your archery?”

“Yes father,” a thin voice replied from inside the house.

“Sword practice? Spear work?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How long did you practice?”

“Ummm, urr. None?” The voice almost dropped to a whisper as the big man strode into the hut.

“WHAT? Why did you say you are finished then?”

“Because I wasn’t planning to do any practice today. So technically I am finished.”

“Don’t you play your little word games with me, boy,” the big man raised his hand to strike the boy as he sat at the spit, rotating the meat.

“STOP! Don’t you dare hit the boy,” his mother screeched from the pot she was stirring. He is a gentle soul.”

The big man stopped in mid swing. Had he connected with full force, he could have knocked the boy clear across the room. The 10-year-old was less than half the size of the man, barely much taller than his seven-year-old brother. He was thin like his two older sisters, while all five of the other brothers were big men like their father or promised to be, like Michael, the seven-year-old.

“How am I to make the boy into a man,” the man whined at his wife, who stood holding her big spoon like a weapon. “He won’t be a farmer. Aron will get the land. He can’t be a priest, although that is what he seems best suited for, as he cannot read and write, or do his cyphers. If he can’t be a soldier for the King or Duke, what is to become of him?”

“He helps me,” he mother retorted. “He turns the spit for his meals, and he tends baby Mary better than his sisters do.” Miriam, the mother, wouldn’t admit it but Jeremiah was her favorite. All the others in the family had the brown hair that most people in the valley had, but Miriam and Jeremiah had jet black hair, though there were some streaks of gray in her hair. Her son wore his hair long: not as long as a girl, but just touching his shoulders, or a bit past. The prince wore his hair that way, apparently (not that any in the family had ever been within miles of the prince) so Moses, the father, was unable to complain about Jeremiah’s hair. Well, until it had edged a bit past the shoulders, as it had recently. Miriam just hated cutting the beautiful black locks, so much prettier than his sisters. His pale white complexion just magnified the pretty look: his brothers and sisters spent most of their hours outside in the hot sun, while Jeremiah was usually indoors with his mother and the baby.

Moses finally stalked out of the house, muttering about ‘the boy.’ As he reached the path at the edge of his holding, he saw mounted men approaching. There were five men, or more correctly, four men and a boy of about 16 years. The boy was clearly in charge, and Moses recognized him with a groan. It was the Squire to the Knight, and an Earl in his own right, and son of the Duke. He was spending his apprenticeship years with Sir John, one of the Duke’s best war knights, learning the art of warfare from the best in the kingdom, and learning leadership and estate management at the same time.

“My lord,” Moses said, bowing deeply.

“Rise Goodman,” the boy said. His voice was still high, and occasionally cracked, but he clearly showed his leadership skills. “You may not have heard, but the King is planning a war in the south again this year, and he has called on his nobles for support. The Duke, my father, has sent word out to the knights of the shires for support as well, and I am here to gather what I can from this valley.”

“We have no coin, sire,” Moses replied.

“We were not expecting coin from places such as this,” the young squire said. “You have a barn? Hay? Can you spare 10 bales?”

“Ten sire?” Moses calculated. “That will leave us with six. That should last us until first hay comes in.” He was actually relieved. In past years the assessor took everything, and left the people to starve. This young lord seems to know that his people have to live too.

“Grain? Five sack of oats and three of barley?” the boy asked.

“Yes,” Moses said, surprised at how light a hit was being made. “We could even do four of barley, if it will help.”

“It will. Meat? I suspect not?”

“We could spare our older ram, if it will be of use. The younger ram is old enough to service the flock.”

The young squire wrinkled his mouth. “Ugh, old mutton. Well, it will be good enough for the men, I suppose. Mark down one old ram,” he spoke to one of his men who was writing things down on a parchment.

“What about men, I would take that one,” he pointed out Aron.

“He is my heir,” Moses protested. He knew that the levies did not call landowners or heirs for foreign wars, although all must serve if the kingdom was attacked.

“Pity,” the squire said. “And those two look to be a year or two from being ready, he pointed at Joseph and Abram, the twins. What age?”

“Fourteen, sire,” Abram answered as elder by less than an hour.

“Work hard with your sword work, and archery,” the squire said, as though he were years older than them, and not just a few years. “There will be other wars. Our King has sights on the southern kingdom, and will continue to harass them. This year’s muster will not be strong enough to do more than a raid. There will be more battles for you to fight. Although I am not sure of you, he said to Michael. How many years have you?”

“Seven sire, but I can still fight,” the boy squeaked out in his young voice. “I beat my brother all the time.”

The squire and his men chuckled at the bravado of the pint-sized soldier. “What? You can best these lads?” the squire gestured at the older boys.

“Not them. Not yet, anyway,” Michael said. “But I can beat Jeremiah and make him cry. He is 10.”

“Another son,” the squire asked with a raised eyebrow. “All males must present to the muster.”

“He is only 10, sire,” Moses said. “And small for his age. But as I think about it, perhaps being in the levies would be a good thing for him. He is … reluctant … in matters of warfare. Perhaps a few years in service will set him on a good path.”

“I will see this boy,” the squire said.

“Jeremiah, present yourself,” Moses bellowed at the house.

The men on horseback roared with laughter when Jeremiah exited the house, and even the older brothers snickered, although they were constrained by the red, embarrassed look on their father’s face. Jeremiah had exited the house wearing one of his mother’s red aprons which, being too large for his thin frame, looked like a maiden’s dress.

“You jest, surely,” the squire chuckled. “Is this a boy?”

“Mostly,” Moses muttered, realizing that he was not solving his Jeremiah problem, but may have insulted the squire. “He is 10, but as his younger brother says, does not do well with sword or bow.”

“I can think of some hand-to-hand combat that he might do well at in camp,” one of the mounted men said, leering at the boy.

“Enough of that, Benson,” the squire said sharply. “I think we need a guard out on the road. Take that post.”

The chastised horseman realized that he had offended the squire, and quickly trotted out of sight, although not without another leer at the pretty boy at the doorway.

“He is too young, and too small,” the squire said. “But there is something about the boy that intrigues me. I will take him as well. A party will appear within a week. Have him, and the goods, ready for them. He need not bring the apron,” he added, gaining more chuckled from the others.

“NO,” came a scream from within the house. Miriam, not having been called out, had waited within, but at the door where she could hear everything. Now her patience was tested, and she broke out past Jeremiah, and strode up halfway to the squire. Moses gave her a look that said stop, but she didn’t heed it. “You cannot take Jeri from me,” she wailed. He is a gentle soul and the levy is not a proper place for him.” She fell to her knees.

The squire looked past her, and at the boy on the steps again, noticing the similarities, not just in the hair, but in the facial features as well. It was clear that he was his mother’s son. He looked at Moses, and the farmer immediately knew that he was dishonored by having his woman interfere in men’s business. Moses just looked to his sons, and the three elder ones immediately took their mother and dragged her into the house. At least she did not further dishonor him by resisting, although Moses could see that she wanted to.

The squire turned and led his men away, headed for the next holding along the path. Moses strode into the house, picking up a stick from the ground as he did. He measured it against his thumb, and saw that it was acceptable, and went into the house, ordering the boys and girls out and down to the stream. Jeremiah carried baby Mary, and was last in the party to leave. Thus he was still within range of the sound of the whipping, and the screams. He paused, wanting to go back and help his mother, but aware that the rage he had seen on his father’s face told him that there was nothing he would be able to do, except get a beating of his own. He hurried after his brothers and sisters instead.

They came back an hour later, and found their father sitting alone in his chair, with a dark face as he used a kitchen knife to slowly whittle the switch into shavings. His sisters tended to the fires, which had gone out, and made the meager dinner. Jeremiah put Mary in her cot, and then rushed into his parent’s room, finding his mother laying face-down on the bed, her dress a mass of red blood stains where the skin had broken. As gently as he could, he tore the tattered dress apart, revealing the many welts. Only a few were bloody. Moses was not an evil man, and had stifled his rage when he saw blood on his wife’s back. But by that time, there were a half dozen open sores, along with dozens that were merely welts and bruises.

One or two of the open wounds actually had bits of fabric from Miriam’s dress in it, and Jeremiah carefully washed the debris free before binding the sores with strips of fabric from the already ruined dress. Miriam moaned in pain the entire time, and when she was finished Jeremiah went to the main room of the house, and took a bowl, filling it with the remaining soup. She took it back into the bedroom, where she managed to spoon about 10 spoonsful into her mother, who was hampered by laying on her stomach. After Miriam refused to eat more, Jeremiah finished the rest, which was enough of a meal for him.

He returned his bowl to the wash station, and was surprised to see that his older sisters had done the washing up from the rest of the meal. Usually that was his job. So he washed up the remaining bowl and spoon, and then went to check on Mary. He found her sleeping and fed, and told Sarah to mind her. He didn’t look at his father, who still sat at the table, making little piles of wood shavings. Jeremiah went out into the barn, making a bed in the loose hay, and snuggling in for a somewhat scratchy night.

He didn’t sleep all that much. He lay in the hay and decided what to do. He was terrified of being forced into the levy. The leer of that one soldier was burned into his memory, and he knew that there would be many, many more like him in the army. He liked the squire, who had smiled at him in an entirely different and acceptable way. The boy would protect him, but it would be impossible for him to be near the squire at all times. It was the men he feared.

He hated his father for what he did to his mother, but even that hatred waned through the night. Moses was his father. He just didn’t understand Jeremiah. Only his mother did, and she was in pain. That thought made Jeremiah get up, pull on his pants, and hurry through the cold air to the house.

Father still sat in the same place, a bigger pile of shavings in front of him. It took a moment for Jeremiah to realize that he was asleep. Jeremiah took some water from near the fire, and went into the bedroom, where his mother was sleeping fitfully. She noticed his presence immediately. “Such a gentle soul,” she whispered as he started to remove the bandages.

“I hope I can be gentle, Momma, but this may hurt a bit.” Jeremiah unwrapped the bandages, and was glad that he had come in. The scars were starting to scab up a little, and had he waited until morning, removing the old bandages would have been very painful. When his mother’s back was open to the air, he washed it with the warm water, and then gently patted it dry. His mother purred a little as he washed her, so the pain must be lessening. He waited a full hour before reapplying the bandages, and when he did he could see that they were scabbing up. Hopefully by morning she might be able to move with bearable pain. He went out into the kitchen, and checked Mary. Her diaper was wet, but not soiled. He changed her without waking her, and then left.

Jeremiah tiptoed past his sleeping father, and headed back out to the barn. As he did, he realized that he must leave the farm one way or another, and it should be his own decision. Two or three days at most. He must wait until his mother was healed, but he didn’t want to wait too long. The squire had said ‘about a week’ for the men to come. He did not want to be here when they came.

The next morning Jeremiah was up before dawn. This time his father heard him come in, and jolted out of his sitting sleep.

“Make my breakfast, boy” Moses ordered.

“Make it yourself,” the boy snapped, taking a pitcher of warm water into the bedroom, not even looking back at his glaring father.

In the room his mother was awake, but moving slowly, still on her stomach. “Don’t anger him, darling,” she said softly as he started to remove the dressings.

“He has angered me,” Jeremiah said as he saw the welts and bruises clearly in the morning light. As he had hoped, the open sores were scabbing over, and only needed light bandaging so that they wouldn’t bleed anew when Miriam moved about. And she was insistent that she should move, in spite of Jeremiah’s protestations. She managed to smile as he helped her into her other dress. She only had two … one now, since the other one was in rags as bandages. “He’ll have to buy me a new dress, or at least the material for one. Will you help me sew it?”

“I wish I could,” Jeremiah said. “But I won’t be here, will I?”

“Oh, Jeri,” his mother said, reaching out to put her arms around him, but wincing at the pain her back caused her. “You are going with the levy, aren’t you?”

“No Momma, I am not,” the boy said.

“What?” Miriam said. “Where will you go? And when?”

“I can’t tell you that, Momma,” he said. “If I do, then they will beat you again when they find I am gone. If you don’t know, then they can’t hurt you.”

“Promise me you won’t go into Withywood Forest, Jeri. It is dangerous there, where the little people rule,” she said.

“The hobbits? Perhaps I should seek them out. I would be tall amongst the hobbits.”

“Jeri, don’t joke about the little people. They once ruled all this land, but they are not gone. They are still seen occasionally.”

“I cannot say where I will go, or how I will get there, Momma. But I promise I will let you know that I am safe as soon as I can.”

All that day and night Miriam kept a close watch on Jeremiah. She woke up several times during the night, to check if he was still sleeping on the floor next to Mary’s cot. He always was, and she went back to a fitful sleep until the next time she had to get up and check.

The next day Jeremiah decided that she was feeling better. They made bread that day, and Miriam made a larger batch than normal. Two loaves were put into a cupboard, not too high. They were within Jeremiah’s reach, and he knew why they were there.

That night he woke up in full starlight. There was a partial moon, so he could see to walk in the forest, but not so bright that searchers would be able to track him. He first checked on Mary, and found her diaper dry. He gave a kiss to the babe, wondering how old she would be when he next saw her. He went to the closet, and took one loaf of bread. He didn’t eat much, and the family was quite poor. He didn’t want to deprive them of food, and a second loaf might spoil while he ate the first. He stood to leave, and then saw his mother standing in her nightgown at the bedroom door.

“Is it to be now?” she asked.

“It must be,” he said. “I hoped I could do this while you slept.”

“I want one last hug from my sweet boy,” she said, opening her arms. She winced when he put his arms around her, but when he tried to pull back, she said: “It is not very sore now. And I need to feel you in my arms once more time before you go. Please.”

They hugged for a long time, and then he headed for the door.

“I won’t say anything until morning,” she promised.

“No,” he said. “Give me an hour, maybe two, but no more. I want them searching in the dark, when it isn’t easy to see.”

“And so they won’t think I helped.”

“You didn’t,” he said. “Two hours.”

“My gentle soul,” she whispered as he walked out the door.

-- -----

It was nearly dawn when Jeremiah reached the edge of the forest. His mother had said not to come to Withywood, and that was exactly where the boy headed. He knew that the searchers would not come into the black forest, well other than his father and brothers. It was the best place to hide. And if he could reach the Withywindle River then he might be able to make a raft or something to float downstream until he came to … somewhere else entirely?

The sun came up and got brighter, but at the same time the forest trees got closer together and more menacing, so it remained as dark as pre-dawn within the woods. Paths seemed to move to and fro, and steer him deeper and deeper into the wood. That was fine with Jeremiah. That was where he wanted to go anyway. Meanwhile, he got deeper and closer to the river.

Finally he reached a clearing. It was small, and to the south lay a great willow tree, with a trunk as big as his entire house had been. Just past it, he could hear the Withywindle flowing by. The clearing lit a space and a section of the great tree. By the sun, it must be nearly noon. He pulled off his pack and leaned against the tree, pulling out his loaf of bread. He sat down and ate some, drinking liberally from his water bottle secure in the knowledge that the river was close by to refill it.

He ate for a while, feeling drowsy. He had walked half the night, so a little nap would be appropriate. He glanced down and saw that half the loaf was gone. He was full, but without soup or anything else, he had eaten far more than he expected. He might only be able to eat once more. He really should get up and start making a raft or something. But. he. felt. so. drowsy.

There was a sudden crack, louder than any sound he had ever heard before. He fell backwards, into the tree. He was suddenly wide awake, and he saw a root from the tree jerk, throwing his pack into the tree after him. Then there was a second crack, and the opening into the tree closed. He found himself trapped within the tree. He stood up, and looked around. As he did, he felt the tree closing in around him until he was squeezed on all sides. In a few minutes, he knew, the squeezing would kill him.

“Over here. It was this way.” It was Aron’s voice. He was saved. He tried to call out, but found that the tree had him bound so tightly that he couldn’t breath, let alone speak.

“There were two cracks,” Moses said as he followed his son into the clearing. “Like a tree exploding when lightning strikes it.”

“He was here,” Aron said. “Look, there are his footprints, and breadcrumbs. He wasn’t here long, or birds would have cleared the crumbs.”

“If there are any birds or such in this place,” Moses muttered. He leaned a hand on the old tree.

Inside Jeremiah realized that he could see out of the tree, but they couldn’t see in. He even blinked when his father put his hand up to the tree, less than a foot from his nose. He tried mightily to yell, but couldn’t even produce a squeak.

Aron walked around the tree. “We can track him here, and we see the crumbs, but there are no other tracks. Where could he have gone?” He looked up. The tree was climbable, but not by Jeremiah. Men with ropes could climb it, but it was at least 40 feet up to the first branch. And Jeremiah was deathly afraid of heights.

“That boy didn’t go up,” Moses decided. “Down, maybe.”

“Down? How could he go down? There are no signs of digging.”

“Hobbits,” Moses said. “They got him. They are clever little diggers, and I’ll bet they come up through this tree.”

“How do we get him out?” Aron asked.

“We don’t,” Moses said. “Your mother can’t say that I didn’t look for him. Nor that squire fellow. Blow your horn and let your brothers know the search is over and we will head back.”

--- --- ---

Jeremiah watched his father and eldest brother walk away from the clearing, with Aron blowing five blasts on his horn as a signal to the others. They had work to do to get the consignment ready for the levy. It would be bad enough not to have the boy ready to go, but not to have the other more valuable goods would be worse.

Jeremiah stood in the tree. At least it was no longer squeezing him to death. An hour passed, then two more, and the sun disappeared from the clearing and the afternoon went on. Suddenly, Jeremiah heard the most wonderful sound ... like bells, but a voice. She happened to come down the same path that Aron and Moses left on, and he could see her clearly though the tree bark. She wore a gown made mostly of flowers, flowing around her and swirling above the forest floor, as if to avoid getting soiled. Her hair was long and blonde and entwined with flowers. She sang as she approached.

Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!

Jeremiah recognized the song, or at least parts of it. Tom Bombadil was a fairy as old as all time and the River-daughter must be Goldberry, his mate. They were masters of their world, which was largely the forest of the Withywindle.

Goldberry approached the tree, stopping her song in mid verse. “What is this? Old Man Willow has captured another? Hobbits know not to pause near him. Is this one of the new people?” Goldberry put her hand on the tree, quite close to Jeremiah. It seemed as if she could see him inside, even though his father and brother had not.

Listen, Old Man Willow, this one is not your fellow
Loosen your grasp so tight, or Tom you will fight
Wait. There is work to be done under many a sun
Your task you know, Work it under the snow.

Then she sang to Jeremiah within the tree:

I feel your sensitive soul, my friend. Old Man Willow will help you mend.
When you are done, and ready for the sun, my Tom will see, and released you shall be.

With that she danced off into the distance on a path behind the boy’s line of sight. He could hear her singing for what seemed like hours though. There was no longer any constricting pain from the tree. He could feel it pressing in a bit on his waist and neck, but no longer on his hips or chest. He no longer felt hunger, or tired. He thought that he wanted to lay down and sleep, but realized that it was just habit, and found he could sleep perfectly well standing up.

And sleep he did. He spent weeks at a time asleep. He woke once and it was fall, with all the leaves lying about on the ground. The next time he woke there was a light snow on the ground, and the time after that there was snow several feet deep all though the forest, and the Withywindle no longer sang in the background. The final time he woke it was springtime again, and he heard another song, with a much deeper voice than Goldberry’s:

Hey dol! Merry dol! Ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! Hop along! fallal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!

There appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown, and a long blue feather stuck in the band. With great yellow boots on his thick legs with a blue coat and a long brown beard, eyes blue and bright and a face that was red like a ripe apple and creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter. Walking alongside was beautiful Goldberry, carrying a bundle of white in her arms.

“Hey Tom, Ho Tom,” she sang. “Loose the sinews of Old Man Willow. For he has within his sinews a gentle soul that needs to feel the sun. But turn, turn as the Willow lets go, for what he releases, we do not know.”

Tom sang and danced about a bit, spry in spite of the seeming endless age of his face. Jeremiah felt the great tree weaken its hold on him and then with a mighty crack the tree opened again, and thrust him out into the clearing. A second later his pack followed, and then with another crack as large as the last, the tree sealed itself up.

He noticed himself naked after nearly a year in the tree, and Goldberry held out a nightshirt for him to slip into. The material was softer than anything he had ever felt before, and clung to his skin in an oddly comforting manner.

Tom spun around as soon as the garment hem stopped following:

Dilly Dee, Dilly Do, her face is white as snow
The River-daughter has found a daughter
As beautiful as herself, Dilly Dee, Dilly Do.

That was about the time that Jeremiah realized that he was no longer a he. Looking down, he saw breasts on his chest, with the new gown clinging tight to them. Between them she could see a thin waist, and nothing where his small boy parts had been. Her hips were slender, but womanly, and in fact she did look much like a younger Goldberry, although with jet black hair rather than blonde.

Goldberry led her to the river, and with a touch the Withywindle froze into a smooth liquid pool that allowed her to see new body. Her face was much like her mother’s, but her figure was much slimmer.

They walked through the woods, and through the sing-song voices of Tom and Goldberry, Jeremiah learned that her new name was Ruth, and she was being requested to spend three months in the wood until all the changes in her, and in the world, settled down. Less than one year had passed for the rest of the world, but she had gained an additional five years, and now was a 16-year-old. She was led to a small house, deep in the forest that was built into a mound, with a great round door at the front. Tom and Goldberry would not enter, but sang until the door opened. One short person, with large hairy feet (for he was unshod) peered out, and then a rush of other men of his type tumbled out nearly as one, in a manner than made Ruth giggle.

They were men, four had beards, two of which were of some length, although nowhere near as long as Tom’s. They were the height of small boys, but much wider, and had deep voices, and three were smoking pipes. Goldberry told her she would be safe with them, and that they had agreed to house and feed her for the next three months. With that, she and Tom danced off back up the forest trail.

“Oh my,” Ruth said as she looked at the seven hobbits. “I am Ruth now, I guess. Perhaps you can tell me your names?”

“No, no, no,” said one of the older hobbits. “We were told by Tom that you were Snow White, and that is the name we will use. I am Andwise, and my brother is Milo.” The other bearded hobbit bobbed his head.

“I am Bodo.” “And I am Drogo,” said two of the younger hobbits speaking in near unison. They were clearly twins, and Ruth knew she would have trouble telling them apart. Bodo had a brown vestcoat on, and Drogo had a red one. She hoped she could remember that … and that they didn’t switch.

“Shush,” said an older hobbit. “Kids today. Don’t mind them, they are only in their Tweens … not yet 30. They are nephews of mine, I am afraid. I am Berilac.”

“And I am Falco,” said one of the smokers. “And I am Griffo,” said the other smoker. I am fourth oldest, but this is my house, as it was my father’s, he said, puffing with importance.”

“Well, I am pleased to meet you all,” Ruth said. “I don’t have any bags, except this sack. There is a half loaf of bread in there, but it will be quite stale, as it was baked a year ago.”

“Seems fine to me,” Bodo said. He had opened the bag and was helping himself to a chunk of bread, while his brother Drogo snatched it away to take a piece. “It is wonderful,” he said. “Can you bake bread like this?”

“I helped bake it last year,” but it spent a year in Old Man Willow with me.

“That explains things,” Berilac said. All the hobbits were now munching on the bread. “Things do not age in Old Man Willow.”

“Except for me,” Ruth noted wryly, causing the hobbits to stop their munching and stare at her. “I went in as a 10-year-old, and came out at 16.”

“I see,” said Andwise. “That must have come as quite a shock to you.”

“You have no idea,” Ruth said. “But somehow, I feel better the way I am. Goldberry said I was fixed by the tree. I didn’t know I was broken, but I do feel better now.”

“Tom and Goldberry do that,” Griffo said. “Fix things, that is. World would be a better place if they could get out more and fix in a bigger area. When the humans came and started to crowd us out of the Shire they came up with the idea of us getting places here in the Withywindle valley. There aren’t nearly as many of us now as before, but we are getting by.”

“Isn’t it going to be odd?” Ruth asked. “One woman living with seven men?”

“Not at all,” Andwise answered. “First of all, you are human and we are hobbits, so no problems there. And we are all bachelor’s or widowers. The young ones still may find a she-hobbit, but they are rarer than men, so many of us live together. If one of the kids finds a mate, they will move out, and we will let another in. It just happened that we had an empty room big enough for a human, although you really aren’t that tall.”

Ruth had no idea how tall she was, in human terms. Her body had certainly made major changes in other ways. She knew that hobbits were small, and she had always thought of them as half the height of men. Weren’t they called halflings some times? She stood a bit more than a foot above these men, who were all within six inches of another in height. Would that mean she is only four feet tall? She was a half foot taller than that before she changed.

“Come, come,” Milo said, waving her into the house. “And there is no need for you to bake any more of that wonderful bread for us … unless you want to. We told Tom that we would look after you, and we will.”

“Does she mend?” asked Berilac. “None of us mend well. Fat fingers. If you can mend a bit, it would be a real help.”

“I certainly will help out where I can,” Ruth said as she entered the hobbit hole, finding it remarkable neat and tidy for a house of seven bachelors. The room she was shown into was a bit taller than the others, although she didn’t have to bend over in any rooms. Her head was nearly at the height of the doors, but not quite, so she felt she could live comfortably here for a few months. She opened the door to a wardrobe, to find a large selection of dresses and other clothes, which the hobbits said Goldberry had brought the day prior.

Suddenly she sat down on the bed, and started to cry uncontrollably. All seven hobbits crowded into the room, confused and upset. They were not used to dealing with women to start with, and especially human women. And a crying woman was just over the top. Gradually she stopped sobbing and noticed how upset they had become.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what has come over me. No, actually I do. I am in your lovely home, and it reminded me of my own home, and my brothers and sisters, and my parents, although I am still a bit cross at my father. No I’m not, I love him dearly, even though he did something terrible. But by now I know Momma will have forgiven him, and I should too.”

The hobbits seemed to have to work a bit to sort that all out, what with the statements and then the cancellation of them, and feelings. Hobbits, especially male hobbits, are not especially good with feelings.

“I’m sorry, you must think me a flighty woman,” the younger hobbits started to nod agreement, and were then slapped by the older ones. “You see, I miss my family dearly, and promised to tell them, at least Momma, that I was all right. And it has been a year for them, and they must all think I am dead and they have forgotten me.” She started to sob again.

“No, no, please,” begged Andwise. “You mustn’t cry. Perhaps we can send them a letter, telling that you are fine and thinking of them. We will deliver it for you. We cannot wait on an answer, but at least they will know. And in a few months you will be able to go back to them.”

Ruth looked up with teary eyes. “You would do that for me? Do you have pen and paper? Wait. I cannot read or write.” She started sobbing again.

“Are you sure?” Falco asked. “Here is a paper. Can you write your name? Sometimes Old Man Willow will teach you other things when you are ‘inside’.”

Ruth looked at the paper, and smoothed it out on the small table in her room, and started to write. Gripping the stubby pencil was the hardest part. R-U-T-H appeared in large block letters on the paper.

“That’s not how you spell ‘Snow White’,” Drogo complained. “Is that how you spell Snow White?”

Ruth picked up the pencil again, and printed out Snow White above the name Ruth, using smaller letters, and upper and lower case this time. “That’s right, that’s right,” Drogo said, going into a little dance with Bodo.

It was easier and easier to print, and then Ruth realized that she could write script as well. “I wonder if I can read as well?” she asked.

“Of course you can,” Berilac said. “If you can write, you can read.” As he was saying this, another hobbit (Bodo?) thrust a book into her hands. The title page said “There and Back Again,” and she opened it to some momentary confusion, as the letters were in hobbit-script, which is a bit different from human script. But in a matter of minutes she was reading it aloud. “This is a very good book. May I borrow it for a while? I should like to read it.”

“Would you read it aloud to us?” Milo asked. “Reading aloud is one of the favorite pastimes of hobbits. We have all read it in school, it is required reading in tertiary school for young hobbits. But to have a woman read it to us would be special.”

And that is how Ruth, also know temporarily as Snow White, settled in with the seven hobbits. The first evening she wrote a long letter to her mother, hoping she would be able to find someone to read it to her. The hobbits delivered the letter the next evening, since they do not like being seen by the big people in daylight. She not only baked bread for them daily, it never lasting into a second day, but she cooked and cleaned house for them as well. She opened the door to the sewing room, and was almost knocked over by the pile of mending that was piled there. Even so, she managed to make a huge dent in the pile as she finished her first month with the hobbits.

One other skill she discovered that she had learned from Old Man Willow was healing. Several times one or another of the hobbits would come home from the gardens with a bruise or sprain, and she was able to heal it by simply putting her hands on the affected area. She would feel a great heat come from her hands and flow into the hobbit, and soon the hurt was gone. She also knew of herbs and roots that could ease pain and help healing.

She learned that in the forest winter comes early, and leaves early, and that it was still early April at home, two months after Tom had rescued her from the Willow. That was when Milo burst in late one evening, while she was reading about the adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves in There and Back to the others.

“You missed the start of reading time, Milo,” Andwise said.

“We will miss more than that,” Milo said in a hurry. “Everyone pack up immediately. We must go now. Snow White’s mother is ill. I saw Tom on the way home, and he said it was okay for her to go now, even though it is early.”

“Momma is ill? Ruth cried out. “I must go to her.” She got up and started to fling a few things into her bag. Only a small portion of her new clothes would fit. And when she was finished with her packing she saw that five of the hobbits were standing ready with packs laden.

“Bodo and Drogo will stay behind,” Milos announced. “They will pack the rest of your things, and some additional supplies on a pony and bring it behind. It will take an extra three days, and you will find the goods in your barn on the following morning. We six will hobbit-fly.”

“Hobbit-fly,” Ruth asked. “What is that?”

“It was Tom’s idea. It is how we got your letter to your house in one night. Hobbit-fly is a system of tunnels set up by Tom for the hobbits to get around quickly, and to escape detection by the big people. We should be able to get to your house in only a few hours. Before midnight at least.”

The tunnels the hobbits crawled through were a bit short for Ruth, and she had to travel the entire three hours hunched over. She didn’t really feel anything, other than concern for her mother, until the hobbits came out between two trees in a part of the forest that Ruth remembered from her boyhood.

She stood straight, feeling a slight pain in her back. She nearly darted off to the house, but then stopped and looked back at the five little men she had spent the last month with. “Will I ever see you again?”

“You are deemed a hobbit-friend,” Milo said. “Where other big people will never see signs of hobbits, you will. You may meet us again, or others of our kind. Be well, eat well, and hurry to your mother.”

That was all it took, with Ruth rushing towards her house, only minutes away now.

Moses sat on the porch of his small house, worrying about his wife. The healer had left two hours ago, and said nothing could be done. She would be back in the morning to lay out the body. The moonlight was full, and Moses could first hear, and then see, the girl rushing towards the house. At first he thought it was the Miriam of his youth, rushing back to him. He rubbed his eyes and saw the girl again, now closer. She was much younger, and thinner, but still incredibly attractive, perhaps prettier than Miriam had been in her prime. He stood as she approached, but she didn’t heed him at all, and just rushed into the house.

His last glimpse of her had shown him a great similarity of face between the young girl and his wife. Perhaps she was a sister? She certainly had no qualms about entering a strange house. Moses mused a bit. It was not uncommon for a widower to remarry a sister. This girl was young and ripe, and the man smiled a grin as he thought about her. He decided to let her visit her sister until Miriam passed, while he went down to the well to wash up and make himself more attractive.

Inside, Ruth was at her mother’s bedside. She was unconscious, and barely remaining on this side. She muttered ‘Jeri, Jeri, my gentle soul’ and sometimes just ‘Jeremiah.’ Ruth put her hands on her mother’s chest, and felt the warmth spread into her. There was so little left to save in there.

“I am here, Mother,” she said, and immediately felt her mother coming back, growing stronger. The warmth from her hands got stronger, and Ruth started to feel that she had a chance. She continued to pour warmth into her mother’s chest, and felt the blackness within shrink and wane.

“Jeremiah, that feels so good. You came back. I knew you would,” her mother said in her delirium. “We got a letter last month, and the vicar read it to us after church. It said you were well, and living with hobbits, and wouldn’t come, couldn’t come till midsummer.”

“Then I got sick. Just a nick with a knife I thought nothing of it, but it festered, and grew evil looking. The healer wanted to cut it off, the entire hand, but I said no. How can a woman do her work with only one hand? Then the hurt got deep into me, and left me like this. Oh, my dear, that feels so good. My hand hurts a bit now. It hasn’t hurt for the longest time.”

Ruth looked at her mother’s hands. The right one was healthy, but the left one was withered and evil-smelling. When Ruth put her hands onto the blackened flesh, it felt spongy and weak, and the girl recoiled a bit before steeling her nerves and sending heat into the hand. Soon the flesh felt firmer, and the smell lessened, and eventually went away.

It was about an hour later when Miriam awoke, to find a strange woman sitting on her bed, feeding warmth into her chest again. For a moment she was surprised, and then recognition hit. “Jeremiah? You are a girl now? And so grown now.”

“I am Ruth now, Momma,” the girl said. “And I will save my story for a later time, when all the family can hear it together. Do you feel you want something to eat? Some broth perhaps? I will get some.”

“No dear,” Miriam said, swinging her legs out of the bed. “I can do it now.” She looked surprisingly strong, perhaps more so than Ruth, who had expended a great deal of energy in healing her mother. Ruth helped her mother into a dress, looking carefully at her back to see if there were any more lash scars. She was amazed to feel that the skin on the woman’s back was smooth and flawless. After only a year, at the very least those five deep scars should still show, but there was no trace. Had Ruth healed those as well?

Moses was in the kitchen, sitting on his chair when the girl came out. “Is she gone,” he asked.

“I am right here, you old fool. And quit leering at Ruth. She is a guest,” Miriam said, stepping out of the bedroom behind her daughter. “We will make an early breakfast. We are both quite hungry. You might have some too. And why are you washed up so proper. I usually have to fight with you to clean up.”

Moses just stared in amazement at his wife, wondering if this was a ghost or real. It was only when she slapped him on the face to move him out of the way that he knew she was real. The young girl had restored his wife, and the old man was glad. He put away the thoughts he had earlier, and wondered perhaps about the girl and one of the boys? Aron was seeing the Stonechurch girl, and they had an understanding. But one of the younger ones? She looked about 16, the perfect age. But if she was Miriam’s sister, the relationship would be too close. Perhaps she is a niece? Miriam is past 40, surely she wouldn’t have a daughter so young. But the church would allow cousins to marry. Perhaps one of the boys?

Soon the women had made a breakfast, and even though it was pre-dawn the rest of the family woke to the smell of the food. The older children were expecting to arise to find their mother dead, and here she was in the kitchen, cooking with a strange, but beautiful young girl. The boys all rushed out to the well to wash up.

Even little Mary woke, and crawled out of her crib. A baby no more, she was now a toddler just learning to speak. Normally she was shy with strangers, but as soon as she saw Ruth she ran to her, and grasped onto the girl’s skirts. Ruth wiped her hands cleaning of the cooking soils, and reached down and picked her up, giving her a great kiss.

Miriam brought the food to the table. Everyone had questions, but Miriam ordered them held until after the meal. Mary sat on Ruth’s lap and chewed on a crust, occasionally opening her mouth to eat a small portion of eggs from the girl’s plate. She seemed happier than she had for months.

The older girls cleared the table, and the questioning began. First up, how had Miriam made such a miraculous recovery? Miriam handed that one to Ruth, who merely noted that “I have some talents for healing.”

“Who are you?” Moses asked. “I can see the resemblance between my wife and you. Are you a sister, or a niece?”

“You knew me as Jeremiah,” Ruth said, and heard gasps from all those around the table, except from Miriam and little Mary, who just gurgled in glee. “I ran away, as you know, to avoid going into the levy. Father, you and Aron found where I had breakfasted, and noted the crumbs. I had just been trapped inside that great willow tree minutes before you came. I spent nearly a year in there, and during that time I was changed to look like what you see now. I was also taught about healing, and given some powers. After nearly a year I was released from the tree by Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, and went to live with some hobbits for three months. But I only spent two months there, when hobbits learned that Mama was ill. The hobbits flew me here, and I arrived in time to help Mama.”

“Bombadil, Goldberry, hobbits, trapped in a Willow tree: it all sounds preposterous,” Moses said. “But what you say fits. You know of Jeremiah, and his disappearance, down right to the spot we saw the crumbs. But you were a tiny boy of 10, and now you are a full girl. I was thinking you could wed one of the twins?”

“My brothers?” Ruth giggled. “I don’t think the church would approve.”

“No, I rather guess not. So what is to come of you? Will you live here with us?”

“She will,” Miriam said insistently. “Although I wonder how the people around here will talk. She leaves a boy of 10, and comes back a mature girl? We don’t want a witchcraft scare starting up.”

“I … erm. Well, when the girl first came in I wondered if she was a sister or a niece to you, love,” Moses said. “You both look so alike, other than of the age.”

“Yes, we could say that you are my niece Ruth, a healer come to save me,” Miriam said. “When word gets around, there will be no shortage of people come through looking for a good healer.”

“Is Constance Longbridge not healer for the valley still?” Ruth asked.

Aron snorted. “You’re more like to get ill after she treats you,” he said. “She told us to prepare a box for mother, yet you healed her easily.”

“Not easily,” Ruth said. “And what I did was through the powers of the Withywindle, not normal healing. I don’t want to upset Constance. Perhaps we can divide up the healing for the valley between us, or I can act as her apprentice. She is getting up in years, and will soon be ready to retire. Perhaps we can work something out?”

“You will have your chance,” Abram said. “Here she comes.”

Constance was amazed to see Miriam up and serving breakfast. But not so amazed as to refuse to take her up on the offer to join in. She heard the sanitized version of the story, that Ruth was Miriam’s niece, and had come to try and help, and succeeded. She said she had some skills as a healer, and the older woman tested her. Ruth answered all her questions truthfully, and didn’t argue when Constance insisted on a certain herb or root being of a use that was not the correct one.

Eventually, they pieced together a plan. Constance would take Ruth on as an apprentice, but agreed to Miriam’s insistence that the girl live with the family, at least for a year. During that time, half of any earning that Ruth made as a healer would go to Constance, and the other half would go into the family income.

The next day it started, and there was a stream of visitors to the house with one ailment or another, and the healing hands of Ruth cured them all. There was a steady flow of coppers and the odd silver piece into the family pot from satisfied healed people. Constance was privately irate when her trade completely dried up, with no calls in over a week, but she was happy when Michael or Abram dropped off her share of Ruth’s earnings. She was making about three times as much in a week as she had before, without doing any work. She began referring patients to Ruth in the many cases where she felt uncertain she could heal someone, or in the more frequent cases where her treatments failed to help.

There was no levy that spring, and the little family thrived. The hut became Ruth’s clinic as Moses and the boys had enough cash to buy sufficient wood to build a proper house. It had four bedrooms, one for Moses and Miriam, one for Ruth and Mary, who insisted on being with her sister whenever possible. Another bedroom was for Aron and his new bride, Helen, while the fourth was for the boys. Eve, the eldest sister was also married that year, and had moved out, and Jessica, the other older sister bunked with Ruth and Mary, although Jessica was also seeing a boy regularly and hoped to soon marry and move out into the Tanner household. The most amazing part of the house was the small room at the back. It was one of the first houses in valley to have indoor facilities.

Thus, over the months the family grew more and more prosperous. Additional land was bought and added to the farm, making Moses and Aron among the larger holdings in the valley. Somehow Ruth became an integral part of the family decision-making team, which was only fair when it was considered that she was bringing in more than half the family income. More than a few young gentlemen callers came to woo the young healer, but few had much success. She was accompanied to the few social events in the valley by one of her brothers, or her father.

To be continued? My main story, River, holds the bulk of my attention, but I hope to get back to this tale in time.

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