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Title: Friends in Need
Author: Dreamflower
Rating: G
Author's Notes: This story features Bilbo's uncle, Hildifons Took, whose story I told in my story Trotter, and takes place early in his career as a Ranger.
Summary: A chance call on an old friend turns into an opportunity to help.

Friends in Need

It had been five years since Trotter had found himself among the Rangers. The Men of the West had made him one of their own, and he had enjoyed his life with them. This, however, was the first year since he had begun rangering with them that he found himself so close to the Shire.

Now he and Archer were riding West upon the Great Road, and he found himself wondering if he should depart for a season and visit his family in the Shire. But he had never received an answer to his long-ago letter, and it seemed to him that his family might have been angered at his long absence. Perhaps it would not be a good thing to go back just yet-- for he was quite sure that if he did, he would never be allowed to return to his Ranger duties.

The Road had not changed much since he'd last journeyed along it; the Barrows still stood as a menacing presence to the South of the Road, and at mid-day they had passed the area where he had once been captured by brigands. He rode along at Archer's side, remembering how carefree and innocent he had been the last time he had passed this way, before that encounter. Suddenly, he gave a glad cry.

"Look, Archer! It is Mistress Polly's cottage!" He pointed to a tidy little steading, slightly ahead and to the North of the Road. "She was the first friend I met after leaving the Shire. Do you suppose we could call on her? I should like to tell her hello, and ask after her family!"

"Mistress Polly?" Archer asked doubtfully.

"Mistress Polly Thistlewool. Her daughter is Mistress Tilda Butterbur of the Prancing Pony in Bree!" He said this with every confidence that this connection would sway his companion.

"I do not know, Trotter. She might welcome you, but I misdoubt her welcome to me."

"Oh, Archer! I'll vouch for you!" He gave the Man a winsome look, widening his eyes to their fullest. He'd discovered that this worked even better on the Men than it ever had on his parents.

Archer laughed ruefully. "I can never say 'no' to you, Trotter! But if she chases me off with a pitchfork, do not be surprised!"

Trotter just laughed, and the two riders picked up their pace and approached the farmstead.

As they got closer, Trotter was surprised to see some small signs of neglect. It looked as though the geese had been at the garden, and the door to the small stable stood open. He could hear a cow lowing forlornly, as though she had not been milked. He glanced at Archer, and realised his companion had noted the same things.

"Something is wrong, Trotter. I hope that your friend is well."

Trotter dismounted Porridge, and raced up to the cottage door, and knocked. He heard shuffling steps, and then a quavering voice said, "Who is it?"

"Mistress Polly?" he called. "It is Hildifons of the Shire. Do you remember me?"

The door slowly opened, and his elderly friend looked down upon him. "Why bless me! It is you, Master Hildifons! My Tilda told me you'd gone off into the Wild with one o' them Rangers!" Then she looked up, and noticed Archer on his tall horse. "And I see you must've took up with 'em! Well, it looks as though they've done you no harm." She turned a gimlet eye on Archer, who smiled at her. His smile quite transformed his dour face, and she responded in kind.

"Mistress Polly, this is my friend Archer. We were passing by, and thought to call. Is all well with you?"

Just then a voice called from the interior: "Who's there, Ma? Is it Diccon?"

"Nay, Jon, 'tis not your brother! 'Tis a hobbit and his friend!" She looked back at her guests. "Well, you might as well come in. Nay, all is not right. Me son Jon put his back out three days since, and 'tis all I can do to look after him, much less manage the work about this place! We'd been a-hoping his brother would call, for we'd no way to send a message."

Archer dismounted. "Perhaps we may be of help, Mistress Polly. We can do some of the tasks that need doing, and then, if you tell me where to go, I can take a message to your other son, if it be not too far distant."

"Oh, bless you!" she cried, tears appearing in her rheumy old eyes. She lifted a corner of her apron up to wipe them. "Come in, come in!"

Trotter saw that the neat little cottage had not seen much change in the last five years. Mistress Polly led them to the back, where a doorway covered with a homespun curtain led to a small bedchamber. A Man in his middle-years lay upon a bed. He tried to move when he saw them, and then gave a wince of pain.

"Who's this then, Ma?" He gave Archer a wary look.

" 'Tis Master Hildifons and his friend Archer. They've offered to help, and Archer's offered to take a message to Diccon."

The Man sighed with relief. "My thanks then, to ye! I feel a right fool, putting out my back so! I was trying to move a stump all on my own, y'see. 'Twas a very bad idea!"

"Indeed!" said Archer. "I noticed that your cow seems to need milking. What else needs to be done immediately? I can take care of those things before I take your mother's message to your brother."

A few moments later, armed with a list of tasks, Trotter and Archer found themselves busy. As Archer milked and fed the cow, who was most grateful for the attention, Trotter busied himself in the small garden-- indeed the geese had wreaked minor havoc, but Trotter was able to set things to rights, gathering up such undamaged vegetables as he could, and seeing to putting the plants back in order. It looked much better when he was finished, and he had a basket full of carrots, onions, turnips and other things that had not seen too much damage. Mistress Polly told him the geese were all at the small pond back of the cottage now, and he decided to leave herding them back for later. While Archer gathered and brought in firewood, Trotter fetched some pails of water from the well, and while Archer fed and watered his horse and Trotter's pony, and secured Porridge in the stable, Trotter gathered up another basket-- this one filled with apples from the two trees which grew behind the little house.

Mistress Polly watched gratefully as these necessary jobs were done, thanking them effusively.

"Me son Diccon's place is about a league to the West," she said, "and about a furlong and a half North of the Road. Tell him we could use his help. And if his mother-in-law could come along, Jon 'd be most grateful; she's a healer of sorts, and mayhap she can do something about his poor back."

Archer nodded. "I will bring them back with me as quickly as I may, Mistress Polly!"

He rode off to the West, turning and giving Trotter and Mistress Polly a jaunty wave before disappearing over a rise and round a bend in the Road. "Ah, Master Hildifons!" she said, "I couldn't be happier that you passed this way, you and your friend. I must say, he's quite different to what I hear about Rangers! Quite well-spoken, he is, and kind as well!"

"I may tell you, Mistress Polly, most of what people have to say about the Rangers is utter nonsense! Why, I owe them my very life! I should have listened to you that day and stayed over with you, for I fell into grave danger that very night, and it was only the courage of the Rangers that I avoided a sad fate!"

Mistress Polly looked most interested, and Trotter told her of his encounter with the brigands, and his rescue by the Rangers. She was enthralled, for Trotter had quite a talent for telling a tale, and his own feelings about the memories it brought back made him even more than usually eloquent.

"Well, seeing as there will be more people than me and my Jon here to sup tonight, I suppose I shall need to see what I have on hand for cooking."

Trotter looked at her weary face. "Mistress Polly, you've had a dreadful time the last few days. Why don't you take your ease this afternoon, and allow me to see to making supper! I am sure I can manage, and if you wish, you may sit and supervise and tell me where to find things-- I would like it very much, I would, for I've not had a chance at a proper cooking hearth for weeks!"

Mistress Polly was no more proof against his winsome expression than Archer had been, and she truly was tired. She made no more than a token protest to his suggestion, and soon found herself ensconced in a chair near the fire, a coverlet over her knees and a cup of tea in her hand. She watched in amazement as Trotter bustled about, assembling the things he'd need.

He used the vegetables he'd rescued from the garden to start a soup, and then asked Mistress Polly where he could find other ingredients. She directed him to some sausage she had put in the cold cellar, and to the baking supplies she kept in a box there.

He came up with his arms laden, and looked over his treasures-- then he grinned, and went outside for a moment, coming back with the basket of apples he had collected. Before long, the soup was bubbling in a cauldorn over the fire, while among the embers, barleycakes and apples stuffed with sausage were giving off delightful aromas. He poured himself a cup of tea, and topped off Mistresss Polly's cup, and sat next to her on a small footstool as she regaled him with stories of her grandchildren's doings.

It was somewhat past the time a hobbit would call teatime, but a little before what would be called supper, when they heard a commotion in front of the house. Trotter bounced up and raced to the door, while Mistress Polly followed more slowly.

There was Archer, on his horse, escorting a waggon. The waggon was driven by a Man somewhat older than Jon-- that must be brother Diccon, Trotter guessed. Two women sat with him, one seemed to be the same age as the Man, while the other seemed no younger than Mistress Polly herself. And in the back were five boys, appearing to range in age from twelve to twenty. The youngest leapt out before the waggon was fully stopped, and raced over to Mistress Polly. "Gammer!" he shouted, and grabbed her about the waist.

"Ah, young Tam!" she laughed, and ruffled his hair.

"Ma!" said the Man, as he clambered from his seat. "I wish I had've known sooner you and Jon were in trouble!"

"Well, you're here now, Diccon, thanks to Master Hildifons and his friend."

And it was not long until all sat down to a fine meal of soup, barleycakes and sausage-stuffed apples, listening to the children's jests and to Trotter's tales. It was settled that the two oldest grandsons would stay until their uncle was on his feet again, which Mistress Ella, who was Diccon's mother-in-law and a healer as well, said might be a week at the least, if he behaved, and a fortnight if he did not.

Trotter and Archer slept that night in their blankets on the floor by the hearth among the grandsons.

The next morning, they left to Mistress Polly's blessings and thanks, and with pockets full of apples.

She stood next to her son and daughter-in-law, and waved until they were out of sight, and said with a sigh, "I'm right glad to know as there's more to them Rangers than folks think!" She poked her son with a sharp elbow. "Next time you hear someone call them Rangers 'stick-at-naught', you just up and tell them about those two!"

Trotter's Sausage-stuffed Baked Apples

1 Tablespoon butter
¼ of a medium sized sweet onion, diced
1 pound of mild bulk breakfast sausage
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs-- preferably whole grain bread
Apple juice or cider
6 large firm apples

Preheat the oven to 350o.

In a skillet, melt the butter, and sauteé the onion until translucent. Break up the sausage and add to skillet. Brown the sausage, making sure not to allow large chunks. While the sausage is browning, prepare the apples: slice off the stem end, and use a paring knife to core the apple part of the way-- leave the bottom intact. If you should accidentally make a hole, you may plug it with a little piece of apple. Once cored, hollow the apple out, reserving the pieces. Make sure to leave about a half inch "wall" all around, so that you have a little apple bowl.

When the sausage is browned well, drain off some of the fat. Chop up the reserved apple pieces, and add those to the skillet as well. Stir in the breadcrumbs, and then slowly add just enough of the juice or cider so that the mixture will hold together. Stuff the sausage mixture into the prepared apples, and arrange them in a baking dish. Pour about a half inch more of the juice or cider in the bottom of the pan.

Bake the apples for 35 to 40 minutes, until they are tender but not mushy. Serve hot.

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