2. Chapter Two
“Samwise!” Boromir groaned, fighting the urge to draw his sword and hack up something. When the Man had agreed to escort the three young hobbits to the marketplace, he had no idea that “escorting” would including following, chasing, hunting down, paying reparations to outraged merchants and generally being treated as an amiable pack-pony by the halflings. There was no possible way he could defend them in case of attack; his arms were loaded with bundles and packages, his pockets stuffed with cheese, apples, and a skin of something that was leaking down his leg.
Upon arriving at the marketplace, the hobbits had taken off in three separate directions, driving their guard near to distraction. He had corralled Pippin at the sweets vendor, unearthed Merry from among the apples and dug out Sam at the spice merchant’s. He had rounded them up and sternly lectured them about staying within his sight at all times. They had nodded dutifully and shot away the moment he finished. The halflings were neither reckless nor disobedient, he knew, just preoccupied and excited by the first chance they had in months at shopping. He was entirely unable to keep them in sight and only saw them when one or the other returned to shove another parcel into his arms. Why hadn’t he let the dwarf accompany them? Or the Elf? Aragorn would have managed them better but the Ranger had departed the inn almost immediately, his stern face set as he left to seek out an informant he knew in the town. At least the youngest hobbit hadn’t disappeared this time; Pippin had skidded to a stop before a honey vendor and was busily handing over copper coins for a dripping comb dusted with sugar.
“Just what he needs,” observed Sam gloomily, returning to the Man. “He’ll be bouncin’ off the walls all night and won’t none of us get any sleep.” Sam’s own arms were similarly full of purchases but he had taken the time to fold his cloak into a carry-bundle, a foresight the Gondorian envied. Boromir dared not put everything on the ground to arrange it more carefully; he felt that the entire load was shifting precariously in his arms and might go at any moment.
Pippin’s curly head tilted all the way back to let the sweet honey drip into his mouth, sticking his tongue into the waxy comb and licking the edges. The comb was also dripping down his arm, smearing his shirt cuff and running inside his sleeve. Merry arrived a moment too late; Pippin grinned at him impudently, knowing that Sam was obligated to buy him sweets even if his elder cousin refused. Good thing he’d heard Frodo tell Sam that before they left the inn.
The little town had never before seen hobbits, and despite the little ones’ willingness to introduce themselves to all and sundry, did not know what to make of these small, energetic folk. Boromir understood the feeling. Despite months of traveling with them, and the two months spent with them in Rivendell before that, they befuddled and confused him, annoyed him, aggravated him … and he would die to protect them. Good thing, too, Boromir mused; the owner of the cart that Pippin had accidentally overturned had looked near to making that a possibility.
Pippin had cut a small swath of unintentional destruction from the edge of the marketplace to the center, Merry a step behind in horrified disbelief. The youngest hobbit had never seen such a wealth of fascinating things and his own small hoard of coins had quickly been exhausted. Too excited to be circumspect, the tweenager’s weariness and apprehension were forgotten in his absorption. Pippin was sorry that Frodo hadn’t been allowed to come and his own pockets were stuffed with choice apples and pipe-weed and molasses candy for his cousin. Hopefully, Pippin thought, Gandalf would realize they were in absolutely no danger in this delightful little town and allow the Ring-bearer to venture out of the inn on the morrow.
Pippin gave the honeycomb a final slurp and tossed it down to join the others at his feet, rubbing his arm across his sticky face. A step later and he decided he understood why Men wore boots. The honey and the deep-fried apple and the cheese and the frosted sticky bun and the meat-onna-stick and the strawberry shortcake had been delicious but now he was ready for some real supper. The filthy, sticky tweenager looped his arm through his cousin’s and grinned up at their escort. “Merry, I’m hungry. Come on, Boromir, let’s eat.”
His nerves worn thin, the Man could have wept with relief.
* * * * *
Aragorn sat across from the informer, a blacksmith known to gather information for the infrequent times a Ranger passed through the town. He had met the man once before, long ago. The man had been suspicious, but after the proper passwords and several coins had been exchanged, the smith had been willing to talk. At his side in the rough house sat Legolas, the Elf hiding his fair features under one of Aragorn’s spare cloaks. Gimli had declined to accompany them, preferring instead to work on oiling and repairing the rings of his heavy mail coat. Legolas had leaned over the dwarf and sniffed pointedly as Gimli hauled the heavy chain mail over his head, earning him a growled, “I know, I know. It smells bad. Metal does if it is rained on and wet for months on end. I’ll take care of it.”
“Good,” returned the Elf with an elegant lift of his eyebrows. “I would appreciate not walking next to a rust-bucket that creaks with every step.” The dwarf had just rumbled under his breath, his thick hands surprisingly nimble as he rubbed the oil into each of the thousands of links, cleaning away the red specks of corrosion.
The blacksmith’s heavily-muscled hands reminded him of Gimli’s, Aragorn thought, his attention abruptly returned to the conversation at hand. He was tired, he realized. He should have stayed with Gandalf and Frodo and left this interrogation for the morrow. But the smith feared to meet with the Rangers during the day, preferring the darkness when his neighbors slept.
“So there have been many strangers moving through the town?”
“Yeah.” The blacksmith’s voice was deep and slow. “Though you lot be stranger than most.”
“What can you tell us of these strangers?” Legolas’ clear voice made the smith raise his head and try into see into the Elf’s face.
“Would you lower your hood, sir?” asked the man, and slowly, Legolas did. The smith stared at the Elf for long moments then smiled, his teeth startling white in the mask of ingrained soot. “Never seen one o’ the Fair Folk before, sir. Hope you don’t mind.”
Legolas returned the man’s smile, amusement gleaming in his luminescent eyes. “No offense taken, good smith.” He covered his head again and gently prodded the man. “You were telling us of the strangers that have passed through your town.”
The man nodded. “Most travelers come and go. Not much here ‘ta hold them. But two have come and stayed for near two weeks. One’s a dark figure in a dark cloak I’ve only heard tell of. The other has hired one of our townsfolk, Kent, to show him around. His face I’ve never seen. He wears a black cloak at all times and the hood’s always up. They’ve been spending coin like water, asking questions ‘bout any small folk that have come through town.”
Aragorn leaned forward. “Small folk?”
* * * * *
“You are certain the little people said they were from ‘the Shire’?” asked the man, his thin, eager face lit by the flames of the great hearth of the common room. Beside him, the second man was silent, his face hidden by the deep hood of the black cloak he wore.
“Aye,” responded the innkeeper. “Heard ‘im clear, I did. Nice little folks, none the worse for being strangers here.”
“And the smaller one had dark hair?”
“Not dark, exactly,” hedged the innkeeper, “more brownish-bronze –“
“But his hair was darker than the other? The other was larger and more blond?”
“Aye, that he was.” The innkeeper looked at the men intently, “See here, you don’t mean those little folk any harm, do you? I won’t stand for any o’ that type of thing here.”
“No fear, good Innkeep,” murmured the second man, his voice low and somewhat distorted. “Give the good Innkeep a little expression of our gratitude, Kent.”
The man the other had named Kent pushed a small sack across the bar, which clinked when the innkeeper picked it up. At the door, the cloaked man turned and addressed the innkeeper again. “And you saw them leave with the warrior, you said? They asked you for directions to the market?”
“Aye,” the innkeeper responded again, sorry he’d agreed to speak with these two in spite of the weight of the small sack in his hand. “Look, if you’re wantin’ to know more about them, talk to that old man at that there table, the one with the big grey beard and the hat and the walking stick. He’s been talkin’ to folk all night.”
Both of the strangers stiffened. “No, no need for that,” said Kent hurriedly. “We were just curious, my friend and I. Just curious, that’s all.” The two left and the innkeeper was glad to see them go. He hoped he’d not brought the nice little people any trouble.
* * * * *
Frodo paused at the top of the stairs, leaning against the rail to stare out over the inn’s common room. He had indeed eaten too much, he reflected ruefully; he wasn’t used to it. Sam would be proud of him. Too bad his friend wasn’t here to see his master make an absolute pig of himself… Frodo groaned, rubbing his stomach. A walk would make him feel better, but he had promised Gandalf that he would not leave the inn. A bath would be just the thing but the innkeeper had informed them that the fires beneath the great copper boilers were banked for the night. He’d have one in the morning.
Frodo trudged to the room he would be sharing with his fellow hobbits and Gandalf and Aragorn, noting the disarray of packs on the floor and items strewn about the room. Well, he could scarcely give himself airs – Bag End often looked like an hurricane had torn though it, despite Sam clucking his tongue and picking up after him. Housekeeping had never been his highest priority but unlike Bilbo, he had managed to keep most of his books and papers off the floor. He hung up his jacket and folded his waistcoat in some attempt at neatness, sliding off his braces and unbuttoning the top two buttons of his shirt. In Bag End, he’d be sitting in his study now, in his dressing gown, writing or studying, a cup of mint tea at his elbow. Bag End … dear old Bilbo … with a grimace, Frodo rebuked himself for indulging in melancholy. Yawning, the hobbit checked that the door was locked, as he had promised the wizard he would, and pulled up an oversized chair before the fire. So good to just sit … sit and think…
Thirty seconds later the Ring-bearer was sound asleep, his dark head fallen forward on his breast, furry feet propped up on a footstool before the flames.
Outside the night deepened, the cold stars twinkling above. The hobbit would not have heard the quiet click at the window even if the fire had not crackled with such soothing enthusiasm. Aragorn and Gandalf had given the poorly-glazed window a hard stare as they came into the room, but as the room was located on the second story, far out of reach even with a ladder, they had not sought to bar it. The swollen wood of the window creaked and the dark shape perched perilously on the sill froze. Climbing down from the eve of the roof had been difficult; it had required all the agility and stealth the shadowed shape possessed. But the little figure before the fire did not stir at the faint noise. The dark shape waited a moment longer, to be certain the Ring-bearer slept, and then continued gently levering open the window.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.