The late afternoon sun bathed the narrow country lane in a golden glow. Newly reaped fields stretched as far as the eye could see like an enormous patchwork quilt. The hedgerows were laden with an abundance of wild berries, which three small figures were collecting in baskets almost as large as themselves.
“Come along, May, and get your basket filled. We don't have all day.”
“But, Ma, I’m tired!”
“I am sure your sister is too, but look how many berries she has picked!”
Bell paused for a moment and rubbed her back. The new baby was due any day now, but she was determined to harvest the last of the elderberries and make some jam before it arrived. Her elderberry jam was a great favourite with the lads, while Hamfast loved a drop of elderberry wine on a cold winter night.
“Ma, I’m tired too!” Eight-year-old Daisy put down her basket. “I like blackberries better!” To illustrate the point, she plucked a handful from the hedgerow and stuffed them in her mouth.
Bell sighed. Maybe they had come too far with the baby so near and the girls unaccustomed to walking more than a mile or so from home.
“Ma, why are elderberries black?” Daisy enquired.
“I’m sure I don’t know, Daisy. Now come on, just a few more berries to pick and we can go home.”
“I’m hungry, Ma!” four year old May complained.
“You should have eaten all your dinner then!” her mother retorted.
“There was too much cabbage and I don’t like cabbage,” the little girl retorted.
“Those were your Da’s prize cabbages that you were eating,” said Bell, plucking another umbel of berries.
“I don’t like cabbage and I’ll never like cabbage not until the king comes back!” May retorted, using an expression she was wont to copy from her elders. “I don’t like elderberries either; they taste and smell funny and make you feel sick!” the little girl pouted. She looked as if she were about to hurl the contents of her basket into the hedge.
“May!” her mother said in a warning tone.
“The bogey man will get you!” said Daisy somewhat gleefully. “Da told me a story where he comes to take naughty little girls away!”
Bell sighed again. The girls were usually so good. Why, today of all days did they have to be so unruly? Her backache was steadily getting worse and it was getting late. The sun was starting to sink in the western horizon and a low mist was forming over the surrounding fields, heralding the approach of autumn. She forced herself to smile. “Let us gather the berries from just one more bush, girls and then we’ll go home. If you are good, you can have mushrooms for tea.”
“Hooray!” May danced round gleefully. She did not see the exposed tree root and tripped over on it, falling to the ground with a loud cry before bursting into tears.
Bell knelt to comfort her daughter only for a sharp pain to stab through her belly. She knew that sensation all too well, having given birth to four children. The last two had been born really quickly and Mistress Primrose had said it was likely to be the same this time. The fifth was about to make its appearance at a most inopportune moment. She forced herself to remain calm. The Cottons' farm lay nearby. If she and the girls could but reach there, Farmer Cotton would send for the midwife.
“I can’t walk, Ma! My ankle hurts!” May sobbed while her mother tried to coax her to her feet.
Bell felt like bursting into tears herself as she thought of what to do next. Maybe if she asked Daisy to run to the farm? It was only a few lanes back, but still a long way for a little girl on her own.
Suddenly a stranger loomed out of the mist and climbed over the hedge to reach them. He was the tallest person Bell had ever seen, even amongst the Big Folk, a rough looking fellow in well-worn garments of dark green. The stranger's hair was dark and shaggy and his big hands seemed quite powerful as they reached towards her.
“The bogey man!” screamed Daisy starting to run.
Bell tried not to show the terror she felt. “If you want money, I have none!” she cried. “Please let me and my girls go on our way.”
The man dropped on his haunches, immediately appearing less threatening. Bell noticed that for all his fearsome appearance, the Big Man's deep grey eyes were kind.
“Come back, Daisy!” cried Bell, causing the child to freeze in her tracks.
“Peace, mistress,” said the stranger. “I was passing by and could not but help notice you and your daughter appear to be in distress. May I be of some assistance? You have my word that I mean you no harm.”
“Could you fetch help from the farm, sir?” Bell asked.
“I will take you there myself,” said the stranger. “If you could just hold on to your little one, I will carry you both.”
Bell took a deep breath and decided to trust the stranger. She bit back a cry of pain as another contraction seized her. “Thank you, Mister…? She said once the pain had subsided.
"I am called Strider; at your service;" the tall man replied. "I am a Ranger."
Strider scooped up Bell and Daisy in his arms as if they weighed nothing at all and made his way towards the Cottons' farm with great long strides. Daisy trotted along behind doing her best to keep up.
Strider appeared to reach the Cotton farm in minutes. The dogs started to bark at the approach of a stranger. Lily Cotton came out, her sons clutching at her skirts to investigate the noise. She gasped in alarm at the sight of the stranger carrying Bell.
“It’s alright, Lily,” Bell called from high in Strider’s arms. “Could Tom fetch the midwife please; my baby is on the way. This stranger helped me when I took poorly in the lane and May twisted her ankle.”
“Come in!” Lily cried, beckoning them through the doorway, which Strider entered with some difficulty. "It’s straight to the bedroom with you, Bell! I’d lend you one of my old nightgowns. Tom will have Mistress Primrose here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Sit down, mister; I’ll fetch you a drink and a bite once I’ve sent Tom to the village.”
“I’m hungry too!” May complained.
“You shall have some bread and jam and a nice glass of apple juice,” Lily smiled.
She bustled off outside once Bell was safely ensconced in the bedchamber.
May started to cry once the door closed behind her mother. “Let me bind your, ankle, little maid,” said Strider. “It will hurt you much less then”
May nodded shyly. She whimpered for a moment as Strider gently felt her foot, but was smiling happily and sitting on his lap by the time Daisy came through the door panting with the effort of trying vainly to keep up with Strider.
Mistress Primrose arrived within the hour and disappeared into the bedroom together with Lily. Farmer Cotton took the boys outside to play despite the gathering dusk, which left Strider with the two little girls in the Cotton’s kitchen.
Bell’s cries from behind the closed door grew louder. Daisy and May looked increasingly scared. Lily bustled back and forth but never stayed long enough to tell them what was happening.
“What’s wrong with Ma?” May asked.
“She’s giving us a new sister or brother,” Daisy explained. “She cried like that when you were born.”
“I don’t want a new brother or sister!” May pouted.
“Shall I tell you a story?” Strider volunteered. After accepting a mug of ale and a hunk of bread and cheese from Lily, he had retired to the chimney nook to smoke his pipe.
“Yes, please!” chorused the little girls.
“You wanted to know why elderberries were black, did you not?” said Strider.
“You were listening!” Daisy said accusingly. “Ma says it’s rude to listen to folk talking and you’ll hear no good of yourself!”
“I was concerned about your mother,” Strider said mildly. “I thought you might need help. Now do you want to know why elderberries are black?”
“Yes!” said Daisy, while May thoughtfully sucked her thumb.
“Once upon a time, long, long ago Elbereth the Star Queen was placing the stars in the sky,” Strider began. “She was robed in a gown of gleaming silver and around her neck was a long necklace of shining pearls. As she went from star to star, one of the points of the stars caught on her necklace and broke it. The beautiful pearls fell down to earth, and as they fell they took on the colour of the midnight sky.
Yavanna the Bountiful caught the pearls as they fell and was about to return them to her sister when she noticed a tree sobbing pitifully. The tree called to her for help as all the other trees in the wood were bearing berries, while the poor Elder bush had none. Yavanna took pity on the tree and gave it her sister’s pearls, which ever since have been elderberries.”
“Did that really happen?” asked Daisy.
“So the Elves say,” said Strider with a smile.
Just then Lily entered the kitchen, a beaming smile on her face. “Your ma has someone she wants you to meet, girls," she announced. “Come on!”
Daisy and May followed her into the bedroom where their mother was sitting up in bed clutching a shawl wrapped bundle. Bell looked tired, but she was smiling. ”Daisy, May, meet your, new brother,” she announced holding up the bundle, from which a small red face peered. “I think this little one will share your Da’s love of growing things, since he almost arrived when we were picking elderberries!”
“What’s his name, Ma?” asked Daisy.
“Samwise, Samwise Gamgee,” Bell replied smiling lovingly at her baby son.