Pride and Prejudice: A Hobbit's Tale Part XIII
by Lillian C.
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Elizabeth arose late the following day and immediately sought Jane who had promised to show her Lydia's letter. However, ere she reached Jane's room, she was intercepted by her mother who was still in a miff about the events of the previous evening.
"So, you are up and about at last! You were very naughty to behave as you did last night, stealing into your home like a thief, carrying on as if you were some dark ruffian!" Mrs. Bennet cried as she pressed her handkerchief to her breast in a rather mournful fashion. "Have you no compassion on my nerves?"
"I apologize, Mama," Elizabeth said with some confusion. "It was not my intention to disturb you. As I arrived at a very late hour, I chose not to rouse anyone."
Mrs. Bennet huffed indignantly and swept passed her toward the stairs without a word. Jane peered into the hall from her room and looked at Elizabeth with questioning concern.
"Think nothing of it, Jane. Mama was just welcoming her dearest daughter home," Elizabeth smilingly explained.
"Dearest daughter indeed!" their mother retorted from the stairs.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and brushed past Jane into her room. Jane followed, closing the door behind her. She then removed a folded paper from a box on her dressing table.
"Here," Jane said as she handed Elizabeth the letter, "perhaps you can derive more from this than we have."
Elizabeth eagerly unfolded the letter and read the following:
No doubt you will all be quite jealous when you read the contents of this letter, for I am now off on my own grand adventure! (I am determined that Elizabeth shall not have all the fun!) And who is to be my noble escort? Well, if you cannot guess, I shall think you all daft! Wickham alone has any claim to my heart. Do not look for us to return any time soon. I expect Wickham plans to take me to many wondrous, faraway places ere we think of returning to dull and dismal Bree! My sisters may rest assured that, should I meet any other eligible, handsome Rangers, I will send word by the swiftest messengers. After all, I would be a very selfish creature to keep them all to myself! I can just imagine the looks on your faces at this moment! I am in danger of a laughing fit just thinking of it!
"Typical Lydia!" Elizabeth cried. "Thoughtless to no end! She cannot be so amused at her situation now. Wickham is a villain, and I shudder to think of what may befall her."
"Do you think he would intentionally harm her?" Jane asked, alarm clearly written on her face.
"I know not what to think or expect," Elizabeth replied, shaking her head in frustration. "I cannot understand his allowing her to accompany him. What could his motivation have been?"
"He must truly love her!" Jane said warmly. "What other motivation could he have? She is, after all, without fortune or worldly consequence. And it is still possible he is not entirely the villain you think him."
Elizabeth did not try to argue this point with her, as absurd as she considered the idea that Wickham could care for her sister. Jane would not be able to support the idea of Lydia alone in the Wild with one who could cause her harm, and Elizabeth knew it well.
"Whatever his motivation, they need to be found, and soon. I feel that the world is a great deal less safe now than it once was, even for a would-be Ranger."
"Are you thinking of the dark riders?" Jane asked in a voice that was barely above a whisper.
"I hardly know," Elizabeth admitted. "We met with no such...people on the road from Mithlond, but I felt something last night as we drew near Bree. I believe my companions felt it as well. They were most anxious to take their leave once we reached Longbourn. It may have nothing to do with dark riders, but I have never felt such a feeling of disquiet near the town. Even the inn was silent."
Jane frowned and said, "I think we had better not speak of this to anyone else, save perhaps Father. It would not do to give Mother any more cause to be...nervous."
Elizabeth heartily agreed.
Later that day, Mrs. Lucas hastened to Longbourn, eager to relate the events that had caused a great commotion throughout Bree that morning. Her two daughters, Charlotte and Maria, accompanied her so that they might call on the Miss Bennets. The two girls left their mother with Mrs. Bennet in the drawing room and proceeded to the garden where they were told they would find the others.
Even as they left the house, they could hear Kitty's voice complain, "Everything is so horribly dull without Lydia! Can we not go to Bree or something?"
"No!" said a voice in a sharp tone that could only be Elizabeth's. "It shall not be said that the Bennets of Longbourn cannot live through a day without parading through town!"
At the sound of her friend's voice, Charlotte hurried ahead of her sister to the garden where she found Jane and Elizabeth seated upon a bench and Kitty stalking about, pouting in an admirably Lydia-like fashion.
Mary had stowed herself in a low nook of a tree nearby and had her face hidden in a book. Upon hearing the exchange between Elizabeth and Kitty, she solemnly closed her book and said, "Kitty, you would do well to employ your time with more worthy pursuits. Might I suggest elven lore? I could teach you The Fall of Gil-galad perhaps." Unfortunately, Mary received little more than a look of disgust for her pains. She sighed heavily at Kitty's sad lack of education and returned to her book after nodding towards Charlotte.
"Charlotte!" Elizabeth called gaily. "It is wonderful to see you! Do join us and enliven our conversation. We have been too melancholy all day!"
Kitty, seeing that no one save Mary cared to attend to her woes, made a heated exit and pulled a bewildered Maria after her. Charlotte looked after them in confusion before taking a seat opposite Jane and Elizabeth.
"I am glad you are come home safe, Elizabeth. We came with our mother who is anxious to share the latest news from Bree," Charlotte explained. "The whole town is in quite an uproar!"
"What has happened, Charlotte?" Jane asked.
Charlotte lowered her voice and said, "Your uncle's inn was raided last night! One room in particular was entirely ransacked! What is more, many of the animals he kept were driven away or taken!"
"My poor uncle!" Jane cried, paling visibly at Charlotte's account. "Tell us, is he well? Did he suffer any hurt?"
"No! No one was harmed. But it is said throughout town that some foreigners from the south are behind it all. Others speak of the black riders. And then there was the strange band of travelers who left the inn this morning."
"What travelers?" Elizabeth asked.
"Oddly enough, a party of hobbits from the Shire. And I have heard there was a Ranger with them."
Elizabeth exchanged a worried glance with Jane. "Did you see the Ranger?"
"No, but nearly everyone else did," said Charlotte. "Just about the whole town saw them off when they left Bree this morning. It is generally hoped that the possibility of further danger has left with them."
Elizabeth smirked. "I somehow doubt that is the case. I believe that the danger has just begun."
Charlotte regarded her friend curiously. "Did you see anything during your travels to make you believe this, Elizabeth?"
"No," Elizabeth admitted, "It is just a feeling I have."
An uncomfortable silence followed this statement. Jane shifted uneasily as she observed her sister in solemn contemplation of evils she could not imagine. Wishing to pull Elizabeth from her dark reverie, Jane said, "We should call on our uncle as soon as possible. And perhaps he has heard something of Lydia or Father."
Elizabeth nodded mutely in response to Jane's suggestion.
"Then Mr. Bennet is still from home?" Charlotte inquired cautiously.
"Yes, and I would very much like to hear news of him," Elizabeth said as she rose to her feet. "I think we should walk to Bree today after all. Would you care to join us Charlotte?"
"Why do you not accompany Mother, Maria, and I when we return?" Charlotte suggested. "Mother did not intend to remain for long."
Mrs. Lucas had indeed intended to make but a brief call. However, Mrs. Bennet had other ideas and was not about to lose her chance to make the most of a potentially sympathetic ear. Mrs. Bennet's ever-lengthening list of woes was too good to be kept to herself, so it was a while before Mrs. Lucas could share anything of import.
When Mrs. Lucas was finally able to share her news, Mrs. Bennet was most profoundly affected. She gaped speechlessly at Mrs. Lucas for several minutes together (an exceptional event in itself) and twice attempted to raise herself from her chair only to feebly collapse back into it. The uncharacteristic dumbness of her neighbor frightened Mrs. Lucas to no end, and she immediately left to fetch Mrs. Underhill.
It was shortly after she left that Charlotte, Elizabeth, and Jane entered the drawing room to find Mrs. Bennet fluttering about the room, whimpering and making random exclamations.
Jane ran immediately to her mother's side and said, "Mother! Are you unwell? What has happened?"
"Smelling salts!" were the only intelligible words Jane could derive from her speech. She immediately fetched a bottle of salts from the mantle piece - nearly every room in the house was equipped with a ready supply - and held it to her mother's nose.
"Ah Jane! Mrs. Lucas has just told me the most distressing news!" Mrs. Bennet cried as she slumped into her chair.
"Yes Mother, we know it all," Jane said soothingly, spreading a blanket over her mother's knees. "Let us be thankful, though, that my uncle Butterbur was not harmed."
"But we are all ruined! My brother's inn was attacked last night, and Longbourn will be next! Mark my words! Oh, would that your father were here!"
"Mother, we intended to call on my uncle today," Elizabeth said, "and perhaps hear some news of Father."
"You shall do no such thing, Girl! You would all surely be abducted ere you reached the gates!"
At that moment, Mrs. Lucas returned with Mrs. Underhill. They each regarded Mrs. Bennet fearfully. Mrs. Underhill hesitantly stepped forward and addressed her mistress, "Are you unwell, my lady? Is there anything I can get for you?"
When Mrs. Bennet did not answer, Jane said gently, "Thank you, Mrs. Underhill. I will see to Mrs. Bennet. You might go fetch Kitty and Maria."
Mrs. Underhill nodded to Jane and offered a curtsy to her lady before making a swift exit. Mrs. Lucas looked after the retreating housekeeper with something akin to envy before turning to face Longbourn's distraught mistress.
"Will you not sit down, Mrs. Lucas?" Elizabeth offered, noticing her discomfort.
"Thank you, but I must decline," she replied. "It is getting late, and I should take my daughters home. I do hope all will turn out well Mrs. Bennet."
"You are very good," was Mrs. Bennet's feeble reply. "Let us all hope that nothing else occurs to afflict my poor nerves!"
Elizabeth silently seconded her mother's wish as she saw Charlotte and Mrs. Lucas to the door.
The sharp chill of the wind that tore at Darcë's hair and raiment seemed to augment the fear that still permeated the area. That same fear had caused Darcë's horse to bolt in terror, which left him no choice but to bear his burden to Bree on foot. However, even elves have a limit to their strength, and Darcë was coming ever closer to reaching it. Fortunately, they were not far from the town.
When a torrent of cold rain began to fall, he at last allowed himself a rest. He laid Lydia against a tree and covered her as best as he could with his cloak. As he settled beside her, he gazed anxiously at her unconscious form. Darcë believed the Black Breath did not seriously harm the girl, but she apparently received just enough exposure to render her in a continuous sleeping state. (Although Darcë felt due compassion for Lydia's situation, he found it impossible to entirely lament her condition of speechlessness. Of course, he probably would never have been able to persuade her to be escorted home if she had been conscious.)
For some time, Darcë sat absolutely still and gazed intently into the face of his new charge. It was not long before his raiment was soaked, and the coldness reached up his limbs and penetrated deep inside him. His only comfort then was the resemblance he could discern in Lydia's features to another Miss Bennet.
Darcë sighed deeply and bowed his head, not heeding the steady stream of droplets that ran from his hair to his hands. For the thousandth time, he wondered whether Elizabeth had arrived home in safety and how she was dealing with her family's grief. Whatever her sufferings, he would do everything in his power to relieve them soon enough. Truthfully, the gratitude Elizabeth would undoubtedly feel when he returned her wayward sister was of little comfort to Darcë. Gratitude was infinitely more preferable than the apathy she had shown him in Rivendell, but it was far from the feelings he yet had hopes to inspire.
He shook his head at this train of thought. Such were not his concerns at the moment. Elizabeth's happiness was all that really mattered.
As Darcë made ready to complete the last stage of his journey, a sound that was at once hopeful and ominous reached his ears: a horse approaching on the Road. Thus far, Darcë had not taken the Road, but the path he followed ran close to it, close enough to put them in potential danger.
Darcë crept with the utmost stealth to the edge of the Road to observe the passerby. While caution kept his body tense and his sword ready, his heart was buoyed up by a strange and sudden certainty that the approaching rider was not a servant of the enemy. After minutes that seem to stretch so long they preyed even upon an elf's patience, horse and rider appeared, advancing at a somewhat half-hearted pace. Beyond all hope, the rider was none other than Mr. Bennet.