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Hunted: 1. Questions at The Prancing Pony
Just as they turned from the long corridor where the door to their parlour was, and into the shorter hall at the front of the inn that led to the common-room, they ran into a Big Person. Frodo and Pippin knocked into the stranger and nearly fell down backwards, while Sam barely jumped to the side. He was quickly standing just a bit in front of Frodo as his master regained his balance.
'Oh, dear! Oh, I am so sorry, Master Halflings,..'
'Hobbits!' all three chorused.
'Your pardon again! So sorry, Master Hobbits, for running into you!' The stranger had crouched down to put his face at their level, and looked genuinely contrite. Then Frodo noticed that the he was a she, and it was his turn to be embarrassed.
'Oh, no, Lady, we must apologize to you! We should have been more careful coming about the corner. On behalf of myself and my companions, my Lady, I apologize.' Frodo gave her a proper bow, hoping she would not be offended. Sam stepped back a bit and also gave a kind of bow, then punched Pippin to remind him to do the same. Pippin bobbed a little, but was too busy gawking at the lady to do much else.
She laughed softly and leaned back against the wall, seemingly in no hurry to stand up. Frodo found himself laughing with her. After all the frightening things they had been through in the last few days, it felt good to share a laugh, even with a stranger. She shook her head, still laughing. 'Oh, dear me, no, no, my dears,' she chuckled as she looked back at them with a cheerful smile and a face full of mirth, 'I am many things, but a lady is not one of them!' They looked at her in consternation.
Frodo studied her. The only other female Big Person he had ever seen up close was Goldberry River-daughter, and there was little in common between the two. The traveler’s hair was gold like the River-daughter’s, but dull and unkempt, pulled back in messy braid. It was too dark to tell the color of her eyes, but he could see lines at the corners of them. Her face was gaunt rather than slender, and while her face was not greatly lined, it also had lost the smooth plumpness of youth. Her smile was sweet and kind, however, and she had all her teeth. Her hands were covered in thin black leather gloves with the tips cut off the fingers. Her nails were short and ragged, but clean, as though recently washed. Her voice was deeper than he expected, near as deep as a man's voice, and it was soft and gentle. She wore mannish style clothes - breeches, a shirt and leather over-tunic, big belt and high soft boots - rather than a dress, and they were reasonably clean if much worn.
No, this was not a lady by any Shire standard. But she seemed a pleasant enough person. Uncle Bilbo had always told him there was no harm in treating people well, and much harm in being disrespectful - he might end up like a Sackville-Baggins if he didn't mind himself! Still, if she did not wish to be called a lady… Frodo felt quite confused.
'But then, how shall we call you?' He somehow felt it was very important that he call her the right thing.
'What should you call me?' Her face became wary. 'Actually, just call me "Lady" and that will serve for now.'
Frodo was sorry to see the smile fade from her face. It reminded him that their own situation was rather dire. He felt his heart jump when she spoke again.
'Are you travelers or are you from this town, Bree?'
Frodo balanced out what answer would cause the most trouble, and decided the truth would cause the least. 'We are staying at the Inn, but we are from the Shire. That is not very far away.' He put on a neutral expression. The Lady, however, seemed very interested in his answer.
'Shire? So Shire is near here?'
'The Shire, if you please, and yes, it's a day's ride west down the Road. Maybe less than a day on a big horse.' Frodo hoped this meant she would be riding west, away from them and Rivendell.
'Are there many hobbits in the Shire?' Now Sam and Pippin stared at her, incredulous.
'There's only hobbits in the Shire!' snorted Sam, 'It's where hobbits are!' He looked back at her with indignation, arms folded across his chest. Pippin nodded vigorously.
'Oh.' The Lady looked a bit chastened, then glanced at them in a speculative way, trying to figure something out. Finally, she nodded sharply, as if she had come to a decision. She took a deep breath and addressed Frodo.
'Master Hobbit, I am not going to inquire into your business, and I will thank you not to inquire too much into my own.' Frodo was glad to hear this since he did not want to know or be known. 'I am trying to find someone, and I have reason to believe he might be in the Shire. Can you help me find him?' Frodo's worries came rushing back. After all, were not the Riders trying to find someone in the Shire? He looked at Sam and Pippin warning them with his eyes, Let me handle this!, then turned back to the Lady.
'There are many people in the Shire, Lady, so I do not know if I would be of much help, but what do you want to know?' He tried to keep his face and voice neutral.
'Thank you, Master Hobbit. Whatever help you can give is greatly appreciated.' The Lady thought for a second, then said, 'First off, the one I seek isn't a hobbit.' Frodo thought he was going to faint with relief at that. Not a hobbit! So, it was not him and this was not some companion of the Dark Riders. He was pleased by this thought. He did not want to think the Lady could be in league with those foul things.
She went on. 'He is a Big Person. He is tall, even for a Big Person, he walks all over, and he smokes a pipe. He was taught to do so by hobbits in a place called Shire, sorry, the Shire. Do you know someone like that, or have you even heard of such a person?' She looked very hopeful.
Frodo had to suppress a chuckle. 'Lady, I am sorry to say that your words describe almost every Big Person who has ever walked into the Shire. You will have to give me some more details, such as a name, his age, more of what he looks like, that sort of thing, if you want help finding your friend.' He smiled broadly at her, and crossed his arms. He wondered why he had been so nervous earlier.
The Lady looked at him with a somewhat irritated expression. She obviously did not want to go into much more details. She sighed, 'Well, all right, he is not a young fellow, starting to get on in years actually, and he is called Mithrandir. He has a beard.'
Now that was interesting. Mithrandir. That was an Elvish name, Frodo was sure of it, though the fellow could not be an elf if he had a beard, not according to what Bilbo had told him. "Mith", that meant grey, and "ran" was, what? He tried to remember Bilbo’s lessons, then knew that it meant “wander”. A grey wanderer - Frodo's mouth went dry. An older bearded man whose name meant grey wanderer. That sounded like a very good description of Gandalf. He tried to think of what he should say, if he should say anything. If this is a friend of Gandalf's, then maybe she can help us, or maybe she is being chased by the same Riders who were after us. But if she is trying to find Gandalf for some other reason, something not good… Frodo looked over to the Lady with suspicion.
'That is an Elvish name. Is your friend an elf?' It was all he could think of to buy time, to see if he could get her to slip up and reveal more of her purpose.
'You don't like elves?' He wasn't expecting that reply, certainly.
Frodo answered in like manner. 'Do you?'
The Lady chuckled. 'Depends upon the elf, I would guess. When I meet some, I will let you know. So it is an Elvish name? I did not know that. No, no, the person I am looking for is not an elf that I know of. Though some say he is. I really do not know. Do you know of a person like this?'
Frodo considered his answer. 'Well, it sounds like you are describing a wizard.' Sam and Pippin both perked up that. There was only one wizard they knew of. They thought about the Lady's description of her friend, and arrived at the same conclusion Frodo had come to. They looked at each other, then Pippin started to talk, but Sam cut him off right quick with a gesture before he could get them into trouble.
The Lady had not missed their silent exchange, and looked sharply back at Frodo. She paused a moment before replying, 'Yes, he is named a wizard.'
Frodo shrugged and pretended nonchalance that he did not truly feel, 'Well, there are a number of wizards in the world. I have heard that there have been some in the Shire at times, even seen a few, but I have never heard of one named Mithrandir. Does he have other names?' He looked back at her with all the innocence he could muster.
He could tell she was unsure as to whether he was being honest with her. She thought for a while, then nodded her head.
'Well, he probably does, though none I have heard tell. I guess wizards are much alike, all tall and old with big, grey beards. Just like hobbits are all short and stout with big, furry feet.' She was silent for a bit then continued, 'This wizard always has a wooden staff with him, and he makes fireworks. And he always wears grey homespun robes, with a big blue hat, or at least I have never heard him described otherwise. Does that match any wizard you have ever heard of?'
Frodo had been reasonably sure all along she was talking about Gandalf, and these final words made him certain. He thought of the safest way to answer her. 'Yes, this sounds like a wizard who is known in the Shire. There is someone who is called Gandalf the Grey, and he does make fireworks, very grand ones, and I know he smokes a pipe. Yes,' he said quite firmly, as though he had only just made up his mind, 'yes, I have indeed heard of this wizard.' He gave her his nicest smile.
The Lady's face was equally pleased. 'Excellent! Well, then, my next question is have you seen him recently? Or else have had news from someone else who has seen him?' She look eagerly into Frodo's face.
This question merely reminded him of how desperately he needed to see Gandalf, and to wonder again what had happened to the wizard to delay him so much. Nothing good, that was for certain. Frodo shook his head. 'No, I am sorry Lady, I have not seen Gandalf or heard any word of him in months. He is well known in the Shire, and if he was there, I am very sure I would have heard of it.' Frodo did not have to feign his sadness about this.
The Lady was, if anything, more upset by the news. 'Where have you got to, old fool?' she scolded to herself, looking angry and worried. She looked down at the ground in annoyance, shaking her head and muttering. 'Well, I guess I will not have to search the West Road for you,' they heard her say with disgust. She rubbed her eyes and stared down at the floor in bleak resignation. 'East to Imladris, then.' She stood up with a great stretch. 'I thank you, Master Hobbits, for your time. Peace be upon you this night.' The Lady gave a little bow and started to walk off.
Frodo was struck dumb when she said "Imladris". That was Rivendell. She was going to Rivendell! And she knew Gandalf! 'Imladris?' he heard himself stutter, 'You are going to Rivendell? Why?' The last question was out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
The Lady whipped around quickly. 'That is my concern, not yours!,' she snapped. 'I have not gone prying into your business, now, have I? So please to keep your nose out of mine! And I go to Imladris, not Rivendell.' She pulled herself up to her considerable height, hands on hips, and looked thoroughly indignant.
Frodo quailed before her fierce expression, but pressed on. 'But Imladris and Rivendell mean the same thing,' he said.
'More of those Elvish words?' she said with a sneer, but seemed interested nevertheless. Frodo found himself a bit put off by her manner, and considered not answering her, but curiosity got the best of him.
'Yes, more of that. Rivendell is the common name for Imladris. They mean the same thing. Do you know what the place is?' he asked, hoping to find out more about why she would go there.
'It is where elves are,' she began, a bit sheepishly, 'so I guess it is proper for it to have an Elvish name. It is where the Wise are, too.' She looked sharply at Frodo, then at the other two, and back to Frodo. 'It looks like I am going to meet elves, Master Hobbit. I will be sure to come back and tell you if I like them.' She gave him a grin.
Frodo knew he had to risk a final question. 'Do you know Gandalf? Are you a friend of his?' If she was, he would talk to her about traveling with her to Rivendell.
The Lady looked at him, as if asking herself similar questions. She answered slowly, 'I think you want to hear that I am a friend of this wizard, perhaps because you yourself count him a friend. He is not a friend of mine, but neither is he an enemy. The truth is I do not know him at all. I simply know of him - tales told about him, others' stories, rumors of things he has done. I have been commanded to speak with him, if I can find him.'
She stepped back from the hobbits. 'That is all I care to say to you about my business on the Road. One word of advice - stay out of the common-room tonight. There are some mighty queer folk in there. Not the kind I would want knowing I was around. Peace be upon you this night, and safety in your steps tomorrow.' She walked away down the corridor.
Frodo watched her go. He felt he should talk to her more about her journey, but did not know how to do it. He sighed, and turned back to the others. 'Do you still want to go there?' he asked, not knowing if he meant the common-room or Rivendell.
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