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In Empty Lands: 28. Yuletide Cheer
First written for B2MEM 2012 and posted in "Through the Eyes of Maia and Wizard."
The Wizard drew near to Aragorn in order to murmur into his ear, "We will need a camping place that is sufficiently sheltered to allow for a fire."
The Dúnadan met his gaze, his brow creased. "Do you think it wise, Gandalf? We are not that many days out of Rivendell, you know."
"And we've seen no eyes, friendly or unfriendly, for three days. Nor do I sense any hint of anyone within a day's march of here." At Aragorn's continued expression of wary concern he continued, "It's the turning of the year, my friend, and without some acknowledgment of that fact I fear we shall suffer rebellion from at least the Hobbits." Gandalf cast a look behind them at the rest of the party, save for Legolas, who had gone before them as scout. Boromir walked just behind Merry and Pippin, watching the two younger Hobbits with concern of his own. Merry appeared stoic, his intent to remain steadfast in spite of his personal misery plain to eyes accustomed to reading Hobbit sensibilities. Pippin was singing softly to himself, but the tune did not appear to give him much comfort. Sam walked behind those three, patiently leading Bill while looking thoughtfully toward Frodo every few minutes. Gimli walked at the end of the line for the moment, as far distant as possible from the Elf, attentive to any hint of sound behind or on either side, one of his smaller throwing axes in his hand, his large battle axe strapped for now to his back. Frodo walked alone, before his cousins and behind Ranger and Wizard, his eyes veiled, his naturally pale features set.
Aragorn said softly, "Frodo feels guilty, as if he is responsible for his kinsmen and Sam—indeed, all of us—being out here in the wild rather than comfortably among our own as the year turns."
Gandalf nodded his agreement. "Elrond feared this would happen, so he made provision that we should know at least some pleasure this day."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow, and then smiled. "I'd wondered why he sent evergreen boughs," he admitted, adding confidingly, "That one package has a distinctive odor."
Gandalf's eyes crinkled as he smiled in return.
A chirp of a nightjar, and Wizard, Ranger, and Frodo looked up to see Legolas standing above them on a limb to the first tree they'd seen for hours. A graceful slither, and the Elf was on the ground, indicating he'd seen no signs of any other wanderers anywhere near, and no indications that orcs or wolves had been recently in this barren area. "The only trail I've seen is of two riders who came this way perhaps two weeks ago," he said. "As the shoes are similar to those of horses I saw among the northern Dúnedain who visited Imladris while we sojourned there, I suspect they were left by those sent this way in search of word of the Enemy."
Aragorn nodded. "Yes, Halbarad sent Halladan and Faradir this way when we were seeking signs of the Black Riders after the flood at the ford," he admitted. "Have you seen aught of a place where we can perhaps take refuge for a day and a night, somewhere that is safe for us to have a decent fire? As the year turns in the coming night, it would be good for morale should we make somewhat of a holiday of it."
The Elf cast an understanding glance at the four Hobbits, and nodded. "I saw a sheltered place ahead perhaps a quarter of a league. Let me go examine it again. It's the most secure spot I believe I've seen in this bare land, and what fire we might light will not easily show, as long as our fire is kept smokeless." In a trice he'd melted into the surrounding lands, and Aragorn gave the signal to the rest to take a few minutes' respite.
"Not even a decent tree to be seen," muttered Sam Gamgee as he resettled one of the bundles perched on the pony's back, giving the one Legolas had visited a scornful glance. "There you be, Bill my lad," he said, his tone conciliatory. "Soon we'll be giving you a decent first breakfast, and then perhaps we'll have one for ourselves as well." He looked up at the greying sky and added, "Not as I'd truly think it first breakfast, seein' as we was walkin' all night long,"
Gandalf, Aragorn, and Boromir all saw the wince that Frodo couldn't hide at Sam's words. Boromir came forward to join Aragorn and the Wizard as Merry and Pippin closed around their kinsman. "Master Baggins appears even more solemn and withdrawn today than I've seen him yet," he confided.
Aragorn looked purposely off toward the horizon, murmuring, "He would rather all of us were safely home this day with our loved ones, to celebrate the turning of the year in comfort."
"Hobbits celebrate mettarë?" Boromir asked.
"They certainly celebrate the turning of the year, which they know as Yule," the northerner told him. "Tonight there will be bonfires in all of the villages and settlements throughout the Shire, with much feasting, dancing, and music of all kinds. There will be many parties, and a goodly portion of the inhabitants will wait to greet the first to come over the threshold of their homes with food and drink and gifts. Families exchange presents, and the children are allowed to be thoroughly spoiled. Or so Bilbo has assured me many times since he came to dwell in Rivendell seventeen years past.
"Knowing how the Hobbits especially will be missing their loved ones at this season," he continued, straightening some, "Lord Elrond made shift to supplement our stores with something appropriate for the holiday, or so Gandalf has just assured me."
"Then we shall need wood, I must suppose," suggested Boromir.
Gandalf nodded. "Indeed."
Soon the Gondorian and the Hobbits were all busy scouring the area for such fuel as they could find to carry with them to their new camp, and once Legolas returned with reassurance that the place ahead was sufficient to their needs all reformed the line to move forward once more with what little they'd been able to find so far.
The spot chosen wasn't far from a gully, at the bottom of which ran a cheerful stream. Here more wood washed from the slopes overhead could be found, and they soon had enough to keep a fire going all day and through the coming night as well. While Sam saw to the preparation of a slightly more substantial first breakfast than they'd known for the last few days, Gimli cared for Bill, and Merry and Pippin decorated the hollow in which they were to camp with the greens to be found in an elongated bag from among their stores. After setting out the bedrolls, placing that of the Ringbearer near the fire as he'd noted was customary, Boromir settled himself near to the Wizard and began going through his gear, making certain all was well with it, while from time to time watching the two youngest Hobbits as they decided just where they should settle the various garnishments they pulled out of the bag.
Frodo had rummaged about within his own pack and pulled out a bundle that he opened as if to check its contents, closed it and considered it carefully, then stowed it once more. He offered to help Sam, who made it clear he'd prefer to do things himself this morning, and at last came over to sit near Gandalf. "And you meant what you said, that we are to hold to this course for forty days from Rivendell, before we will cross over the mountains to the course of the great river?"
"I fear that we must, Frodo."
"But it will be Solmath—February--long before we begin to turn east! I never dreamt Mordor was so far to the south."
"Actually, it is much further south of the Shire than it is east of it."
"Aunt Eglantine will surely disown me, having allowed Pippin to come along on this fool's journey."
"I would not be the least surprised to learn she will threaten to do so once this business is finished, Frodo Baggins. However, once she is assured her son is hale enough, I strongly suspect she will forget about you and focus more on him. Oh, I am certain he will feel the sharp side of his mother's tongue some, but at the same time she will be spoiling him terribly to make up for all of the feasts and banquets he's missed during his travels. But then, the fault isn't yours—if anyone's, it's mine, and you know it. I'm the one who assured Elrond that it would be best to allow the two of them to travel with us, after all. Better than sending him home tied up in a sack as he indicated would have to be done to keep him from following after."
Frodo sighed. "He'd not have made it home in any case, not if I know Peregrin Took. The first time they released him to relieve himself he would have slipped away from them and would be haring after us anyway."
"So, there you have it. Far better to have him openly with us rather than skulking along behind us and falling into who knows how many scrapes! Besides, you need him to see to it you laugh at least once a day, my dear Hobbit—you are becoming altogether far too serious, you know. Not, of course, that you don't have good reason to be concerned. But we all do better for a good laugh at reasonable intervals."
Frodo grimaced and looked away.
"Why don't you go ask Aragorn if you can aid him in finding what might be foraged around here, Frodo?" the Wizard suggested. "He's right over there, near the path down to the stream. I think he's considering setting a snare or two, if nothing else."
The Hobbit muttered something, and shrugging, rose to follow Gandalf's suggestion.
Boromir watched after Frodo, remarking, "He does feel responsible for the danger we are all in, I deem."
Gandalf drew out his pipe and filled it carefully, husbanding each shred of leaf as if it were infinitely precious. "That he does. But then he's always been a most responsible sort, and from his youngest days as Bilbo has assured me has been true of him."
"His—people—must be very proud of him."
Gandalf gave Frodo's retreating figure a thoughtful glance. "I believe I saw him but once when he was a babe, and not again until he'd come back to Hobbiton to Bag End to live as Bilbo's ward and heir, over twenty years later. Even that one time it was from a distance. I'd met his parents a time or two, not that they were quite—comfortable with our acquaintance. But then, most Hobbits tend to view me with suspicion, considering me quite a bad influence. Look what I did to Bilbo, after all—inspired him to becoming involved with the Dwarves and a Dragon, turning him from the height of predictability and therefore respectability into a marked eccentric. And they blamed me for Frodo's appearance of sudden change of fortune, when he announced he'd come to the end of his money and would be leaving Hobbiton to go back to Buckland once more.
"Merry's parents fostered him after his own parents' deaths, and they love him as if he were indeed their first son. They didn't want to give him up into Bilbo's care, but had to admit it was necessary in the end. They would grieve indeed to see him as he is now, much less what he is likely to come to as the quest requires still more of him."
"He may not survive it, you know."
The Wizard met the warrior's eyes. "This quest is likely to cost any or even all of us our lives. Would you turn back now, knowing you may never sit in the Black Chair with the Steward's Rod in your lap?"
Boromir gave a mirthless laugh. "I need not have come so far from my home to know that to be true, Mithrandir. Each time I face Mordor's creatures that is true."
Gandalf sighed. "You have the right of it." He glanced back at Frodo where he now stood speaking with Aragorn, then back toward the campsite where Merry and Pippin were arguing over where a swag of ivy might best be displayed before turning to Boromir once more. "If they could understand what is at stake, I suspect that Merry's parents at least would be very proud of Frodo—ifthey could get over their terror for what might befall him, their son, and their nephew, that is. As for Paladin Took and his wife—well, they are quite a different kettle of fish. Paladin thinks himself quite worldly, which means he questions all tales of things he's never seen himself. He has no time for tales of Mordor and distant lands and possibly returning kings. He's the Thain and the Took now, quite a big responsibility in itself, seeing to it that his extensive family is properly cared for and that the borders of their lands are watched. He fails to think further afield than Bree, and thinks of that only because he visited there a time or two many years since when it was still safe to travel so far and he was merely concerned to turn a bit of a profit from the excess wool and grain from his farm in Whitwell. Now that he's succeeded his cousin Ferumbras as the nominal head of the Shire and as the patriarch of his family, however, he has too many real problems to solve, as he sees it, to pay attention to what he thinks of as children's fables and ghost stories. He and Eglantine indeed must be out of their minds with anxiety with their son gone missing along with Merry and Frodo and Sam. And, when they get back----"
"Ifthey are able to return," cautioned Boromir.
Gandalf shrugged. "If and when these return, I doubt either of Pippin's parents will wish to believe a word any of these four should attempt to tell them of what they went through, much less why they left the Shire to begin with. It's not going to be an easy return for young Pippin, and he knows it. But it didn't stop him from demanding to come along."
They ate the meal that Sam had prepared with better cheer than they'd known after such meals on previous mornings. One hamper they'd not opened until today proved to hold fresh eggs and sausages, a rather larger ham than they'd expected, some bread that tasted almost fresh, and even some preserved strawberries of excellent quality. Gandalf offered to take the first watch, and the rest took to their bedrolls soon enough. Pippin was the first to awaken in the early afternoon, and he set the fire burning merrily once more before taking kettles, pans, and water bottles down to fill them at the stream.
The rest were far less gloomy than they'd been at the end of the previous night's walk, and Boromir awoke feeling quite refreshed. When Pippin began entertaining the party with what Merry insisted was a most inappropriate version of a typical Yuletide carol even Frodo smiled some. Sam served them slices of ham warmed in his skillet alongside potatoes that had been cooking in the coals for some hours and fried slices of cored apple. Bill appeared happy with his share of the apples and the grain poured into his nosebag, and Legolas had managed to bring in some partridges that all expected to eat the following morning. Meanwhile they had some excellent tubers Frodo and Aragorn had dug up down in the gully to set by for the future, and a sizable haunch of beef was turning on a spit over the fire for their holiday supper.
Then Frodo came to Sam with a rough cloth bag. "Bilbo gave me these," he explained. "I thought we could all share them with our evening meal."
Boromir peered into the bag with curiosity, and his expression soured at the look of what was there. "Bits of wood?" he asked.
Sam gave him a glance of reproof, sniffing appreciatively at the contents. "Wood? I'd say not! They're dried mushrooms, and excellent morels, I'm thinkin'. Old Mr. Bilbo was most generous, givin' these to Mr. Frodo like that. And you don't know as how great an honor it is to have my Master willin' t'share in such bounty. There some things as Mr. Frodo just don't tend to share easily, you see."
The dried mushrooms were combined with sliced potatoes and such dried vegetables as formed part of their stores and the drippings from the roasting meat to make a rich and savory vegetable stew that Sam served that evening alongside the sliced beef, with stewed apples soaked in wine and honey for afters.
Boromir was eating his stew with pleasure when he found in it his first slice of mushroom. He fished it out with his knife blade, eyed it distastefully, and casually flicked it to the ground, to the horror of all four Hobbits and a cry of "You shouldn't waste them like that!" from Aragorn. Wizard, Elf, and Dwarf all turned to watch the small drama with interest, and Gandalf noted that Frodo's eyes were wide with both shock and fury. Frodo Baggins, he remembered, particularly loved mushrooms, and as Sam had noted he did not share his mushrooms with just anyone. For someone to not realize just how much of a sacrifice Frodo had made in having Sam include these in the meal to the point of throwing them on the ground was an affront that Gandalf feared Boromir could not yet appreciate, but which he very well might rue in short order. For Gandalf also had heard Bilbo boast of just how inventive his lad could be when taking vengeance….
"Oh, no you don't!" Pippin said as the Gondorian speared another mushroom out of the stew, and he reached out and took it from the knifepoint and popped it into his own mouth with all signs of satisfaction. Merry was looking with interest between Frodo and Boromir, and at one point shared meaningful glances with Aragorn, who merely shook his head, watching Pippin's antics with a measure of yearning. The Dúnadan also liked his mushrooms, the Wizard remembered.
Deciding that it might be best to provide a distraction, Gandalf lit his pipe again, and fell back on his old trick of turning his smoke rings different colors and sending them here and there about the hollow, and even turned the flames of the cook fire green and red. The others began to laugh, and even Frodo managed to crack a smile, but still he appeared to count every slice of mushroom Pippin rescued from Boromir's knife tip. Stories were told and songs were sung, and Aragorn was coaxed into singing a lay about the first meeting between Thingol and Melian and how the Elven lord stood entranced by his first glimpse of the one who had finally stirred his heart. By the time all were ready to sleep for the night rather than resuming their journey, Gandalf hoped that Frodo would realize that no offense was intended and let the matter go. Certainly the Baggins returned to his bedroll as if he felt exhausted, returning Boromir's wishes for a pleasant rest readily enough.
Gimli took the first watch that night, with Merry set to relieve him at the third hour. But when Gandalf woke to take the third watch of the night, he found himself relieving not Merry but his older cousin.
"I was feeling wakeful and thought Merry could do with some more rest," Frodo said, smiling easily. "So I rose and took over from Gimli. It was the least I could do for my Merry for Yule."
He'd also apparently done a fair amount of tidying up about the campsite, Gandalf noted. The mugs from which they drank their morning tea were all washed and set out neatly on a larger stone near the fire pit, and the two kettles, already filled with water, stood near the flames of the cook fire to warm some for washing once all were awake.
Near each bedroll was a neat pile comprised of a face cloth, toweling, and a bar of scented soap--Frodo's gift, Gandalf realized, to each of them. He smiled, and placed a cloth pouch of pipe weed on top of these for each of the Hobbits, Aragorn, and Gimli, and a flask of wine each for Boromir and Legolas. When he awoke, Merry proved to have a whetstone for each of them, while Pippin had small packets of sweets that he'd brought from Rivendell. Sam had handkerchiefs for everyone, at least three each—he swore that Bilbo had insisted that these would prove useful for all of them. Gimli gave each of them a bead on a cord to carry for luck or protection, each bead hand carved of a different gemstone. Aragorn provided packets of sweet biscuits for them all, and offered in addition a new pair of leather laces to Boromir, who accepted them with surprised thanks.
They ate a leisurely first breakfast, enjoying the partridges Legolas had taken the day before as well as some fish Frodo brought up from the stream. Afterwards they reluctantly burned the greens in the fire while Pippin sang a song customarily sung at the lighting of the Yule Log as he scrubbed the pans and metal plates and cups at Frodo's direction.
As he brought one of the sprays of evergreens from the east side of the hollow, Merry noted, "That's rather strange—I could swear I put the yew over there yesterday."
It was after they finally resumed their way southward that Boromir cursed.
"What is it?" Gandalf asked.
"There appears to be something in my boot," he was told. The Gondorian pulled out of line, sat down on a stone, and pulled at the lacing for his right boot—only to have it suddenly break on him. Three times he shook it out, ran his fingers over the inside of the boot, put it on, took a few steps, then sat down anew before he finally found that a pebble had somehow worked its way under the thick layer of leather that padded the inner sole of his footwear.
Once he finally had one of his new laces in place and properly tied they started anew. Within a short time he was having to remove his other boot, and finally his sock. Somehow a yew needle had worked itself into the knitted fabric, and it had been irritating the arch of his foot. The irritation continued, and at last he found a fir needle was somehow caught in the seam of the leather and was poking through the sock into his leg. Then he found a bit of horsehair through the seam of his trousers, irritating his inner thigh. And when he stood up, it was to find he'd somehow managed to sit upon a mash of holly berries that no one had seen upon the rock before he'd sat upon it.
When the lacing of his pants broke as he went to change to his spare trousers, he cursed again. Aragorn smiled smugly as he caught Gandalf's eye. "I suspected that he might well need some new laces today," he whispered to the Wizard. "Anyone who is disrespectful toward Frodo's mushrooms tends to know remarkable runs of bad luck, you will find."
Gandalf gave Frodo a suspicious look, but found that the Ringbearer appeared properly commiserative regarding Boromir's distress, although did he indeed have a sprig of evergreen needles in his hair?
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