7. Cows and Moons and Good Intentions
Shortly after Aragorn had disappeared, a short fat man with a bald shiny head, merrily twinkling eyes and rosy, dimpled cheeks peeked into the snug. "Would you like something to eat, Mrs. Anniel?"
"Yes, I am really hungry. What would you suggest, Mr. Butterbur?" I asked politely.
"Oh, the daily special is really good tonight. A nice soup of vegetables and mushrooms, and then we have a shepherd's pie and rhubarb trifle for afters."
"I'll have that, then. And another mug of your dark beer, please. It is really delicious. Would you put it on – my uncle's bill, please?"
Mr. Butterbur nodded, pleased with the compliment to his beer. "Yes, I will do that. Mr. Strider told me on his way out. Still something to attend to, has he?"
Not at all curious, the dear Mr. Butterbur… I smiled at him innocently. "I wouldn't know… but my uncle always takes a little walk before dinner. He says it's good for his health."
Mr. Butterbur looked a bit disappointed at this news. "Healthy? Oh, I am sure, I am sure. Now, I must be off, there's such a crowd here tonight. And all of them will be wanting their dinner in a jinx!"
With that he bustled off. And indeed, I could hear the common room grow noisy with the talk of many voices within minutes, as hungry guests came down from their rooms in search of dinner, beer and company. But as the common room was very large and offered enough corners for more reclusive guests, the separate room where I was sitting in the tiny panelled alcove, remained empty for the time being.
My meal arrived no more than five minutes later, carried by snub-nosed, cheery faced hobbit.
My first hobbit!
Peter Jackson had been astoundingly close to the real thing, I thought and tried very hard not to stare. The hobbit was as tall as a ten or twelve years old child, but the proportions of his body were that of a man grown into his feet, so to speak. As to his feet, they were not noticeably larger than normal, but they were certainly covered with thick, brown curly hair, and even looking at them from above the table, I could see that their soles were thick and leathery from always running around bare-footed.
He served me swiftly, setting down the soup in front of me, laying out knife, fork and spoon, a candle-lit warming rack, upon which he put the covered plate with the shepherd's pie and bowl with a delicious looking rhubarb trifle.
"Thank you," I mumbled. "This looks absolutely great."
The hobbit grinned, bowed to me and was gone. I stared after the hobbit and wondered whether Frodo and the others would be along shortly. But the fragrance of the soup in front of me soon cut through my musings. I took up my spoon and started eating. It was excellent food, fresh vegetables with herbs bringing out distinctive flavours.
When I had finished the soup, Aragorn was suddenly back, slipping back onto the bench across from me.
"Did you see the hobbits?" I asked in a low voice.
He frowned at me, but then he nodded, his face grim. "They are not careful enough."
He looked hungry. And judging from the din of the common room even the quickest hobbit would take some time to get back to us. I kept the spoon and shoved knife and fork at Aragorn.
As I was almost stuffed it was not a horrible sacrifice to take only a third of the shepherd's pie. "It will take them an eternity to get you any food. And when the hobbits come in you will want to keep an eye on them, won't you?"
He again looked at me with an expression that showed me clearly that he did not yet entirely trust me, but he started eating nevertheless.
The shepherd's pie was very good, too. In fact I had not known you could make them this juicy and delectable. Probably because in my world the potato mush comes out of a bag of instant powder, just add water and stir… In this pie there were real potatoes with small unmashed pieces here and there. When I had finished with my third, I knew that there was no way I would fit the trifle on top of soup and pie.
I sighed and pushed the bowl across the table towards Aragorn. "It's a shame, but I'm stuffed. And you look as if you need it."
Eating, the ranger had for a moment let down his guard, making his face appear years younger, and worry and uncertainty plain to see. When he looked up, his features were more or less unreadable again.
I sighed. Again. But why should he trust me, instantly? I had never in my life trusted anyone instantly, and in my world there was no dark enemy…
Suddenly the noise in the common room increased by a whole measure, many very light voices lifted in greetings and questions.
Aragorn lifted his head, listening. "The hobbits. Stay here," he told me. "I will sit down over there," he pointed to the centre of the adjoining room, from which he would have an obscured view of the common room, but remain fairly unnoticed himself.
"Yes," I said meekly.
Whatever Aragorn thought of me, it was plain that he did not want to leave either the hobbits or me out of his sight. Aragorn settled down on the bench he had indicated, put his mug of beer down in front of him and brought out an intricately carved pipe, which he proceeded to stuff. I sighed once again and turned my mug of beer idly in my hands.
When I looked up, I noticed a small figure approach Aragorn. A hobbit. Frodo?
I narrowed my eyes. Yes, it was a hobbit, but he was quite tall for a hobbit, perhaps 1.25 meters tall. He had the curly hair I had seen with the hobbit, who had served me at dinner, but his hair was much lighter, a very light, hazel brown, almost a dark blonde colour, and when he turned, I saw that he had very bright blue eyes, and a cleft chin, which gave him an impish, clever look.
Aragorn bent forwards talking to the hobbit, his intense gaze concentrated on Frodo's face. The hobbit drew back stiffly; I could tell from his body language just how uncomfortable he felt under Aragorn's scrutiny. I experienced a pang of sympathy for the hobbit. Aragorn's stare could be very disconcerting. Suddenly Aragorn raised his head, listening.
From the common room heard a bright, merry voice lifted in enthusiasm at the tale the speaker was telling. "And then there was a dragon! That was the most awesome fire work I have ever seen!"
Aragorn hissed something at Frodo, and Frodo's eyes widened slightly with apprehension.
Then he turned and ran back into the common room.
A moment later the common room fell silent, and I heard a pure, almost boyish voice rose in song. "There is an inn, a merry old inn…"
I froze in my seat. How could I have forgotten about this awful, embarrassing and dangerous incident!
He would repeat the song and at the end, he would take a tumble and disappear.
My heart started thumping like a drum.
My mere existence already changed the story.
Would it be possible, could I possibly?
Loud and long applause swept through the common room.
Frodo launched in his repetition.
Many voices joined in on the song, they seemed to know the tune and were quick to remember the words.
Slowly, as if pulled by invisible strings I rose from the bench and made my way to the common room, ignoring the signs Aragorn was making towards me.
When I stepped into the common room, I came to stand right at the edge of the table on which Frodo was standing and singing. On the corner of the table rested a tray full of mugs, which the serving hobbit had put there, who was listening in rapture from the corner of the bar.
My hands grew clammy with cold sweat.
My gaze fixed on the tray I inched forwards.
The last verse.
Frodo was fooling around on the table, enjoying himself now in spite of it all.
He jumped into the air, turning around in mid-jump – the scene unfolded before my eyes in slow motion: I saw the exact moment when he lost his balance, I hooked my left feet around the leg of the table and let myself fall flat on my face, taking with me the tray, bringing everything down in a horrible crash.
I lay with my face in puddle of ale, when something heavy hit my back. Then the weight lifted and was gone.
Shouting, screaming, an uproar went up around me.
I sat up and brushed at my beer covered shirt.
"Barley, you shouldn't give whores too much to drink, old fool!" A sallow skinned man with slit, evil eyes shouted, looking me up and down with a greedy expression on his face. There were hoots and hollers from the southerners at the long table in the corner.
I blushed and felt tears of shame rise in my eyes.
Barliman Butterbur hastened forwards and helped me to get up. His face was red with anger, as he turned towards the man. "She is no whore! She is the niece of a guest, so just shut you face, Bill." He turned to me. "That was a bit clumsy, Mrs. Anniel. Perhaps you should stick to tea for the rest of the evening! Nob, Nob!" He turned to the hobbit, who had been gaping at me. "Get your woolly head over here and clean up that mess!"
One of the Southerners had risen from his seat and was looking around the common room. "And where has that little singer gone off to? Are you sure that he paid his bill? Perhaps he belongs to this… girl – and they have banded together for some bilking?" It was evident from the look on his face that he for one thought I was a whore, too, no matter what Butterbur had said.
"Yes, where is the singer?"
"Where is Mr. Underhill?"
The din went up again, as everyone turned to look for Frodo.
"He can't have just vanished!"
"He's bilked and run!" Shouted one of the pot-bellied Bree-landers gathered at one of the round tables.
"He's not," Barliman objected, exasperation plain in his voice. "He's welcome to go where he will. It was a mistake on the part of the girl, just a bit of clumsiness, happens every day."
"But he's gone!" The Bree-lander repeated obstinately.
"And I say there's some mistake! You can't expect Mr. Underhill to stay lying in that mess the girl created, now can you!" Butterbur hissed. I backed away as unobtrusively as I could manage, fading back into the shadows of the separate room.
"Of course there's a mistake," Frodo said, walking into the common room. "I am no bilker, thank you kindly for those polite notions!" He nodded at the Bree-lander. "I've just been having a few words with Strider in the corner." He took one look around, then signed to two hobbits in front of the bar to come with him and turned back to the separate room at the back of the common room. Reluctantly the other guests turned their attention back to their own affairs. But the spirit of the evening had been broken, and soon the first guests were leaving, muttering dark suspicions about the kinds of guests Barliman was admitting on his premises these days.
I slunk back into the shadowy back room and slumped down on the bench.
At once Aragorn rounded on to me, his voice harsh with anger. "You tell me you know what is happening here, and then you go and pull this kind of stunt, what ever possessed you! We don't need any attention drawn to us! And you have no idea what those sorts of men will do to you now, if they catch you on your own!" His eyes were blazing with fury and I desperately wished for a mouse-hole into which I could vanish, so small and stupid did I feel under his scolding.
"I – I – look, I did it because I knew what was going to happen. I know you will never believe me, but Frodo would have fallen down even without me, and then he would have vanished in plain sight. I, I just thought, creating a more obvious disturbance would maybe be better."
I did not look up. The explanation sounded silly in my own ears.
"I don't believe you." Aragorn said with grim finality.
"But," a light voice suddenly interrupted from behind me. "She is right. I don't understand how she can possibly know what happened, but it's exactly the way she says. I don't know how it could happen! I just don't understand…"
I looked up and saw Frodo standing next to me, looking at me and Strider with alarm on his face.
Favouring me with another disbelieving glare, Aragorn turned to Frodo. "Then you've really put your foot in it – or should I say, your finger? Mister Baggins?"
"I don't know what you mean." Frodo objected, his voice shaking.
"Oh, yes, you do! And I should like to have a quiet word about it with you, now that the uproar has died down." Aragorn got up, effectively dismissing any further objections. "Let's go. It is a matter of great importance to both of us, and you may hear something to your advantage."
Frodo eyed Aragorn suspiciously, but nodded, a look of tired defeat on his face. He was thoroughly shaken by the incident with the ring. "Very well. But my friends will come with me."
Aragorn turned back to me. "You stay in there," he hissed. "Do not move! And do not talk to anyone!" I gulped and nodded.
Frodo bowed to me. "Miss." Then he followed Aragorn out of the room.
I slipped into back into the alcove onto my bench. I stared full of disgust at the mug of weak beer, which was still standing where I had left it.
My attempt at saving the hour and not turned out quite the way I had intended it.
I looked down at the dried stains of beer on my shirt and recalled the jeering voices and the leering faces. My cheeks were burning with the memory of their shouts still in my ears.
But I had changed the story, hadn't I? It could have been worse, couldn't it?
However, the ring had still slipped on Frodo's finger and alerted the black riders. They would be on their way into Bree this very minute.
And Merry would be somewhere outside, all alone in the dark.
I was out of the alcove without stopping to think.
"Nob, Nob," I called to the hobbit clearing away Aragorn's mug and ashtray. "Do you know where Mr. Brandybuck is? One of the hobbits out of the Shire staying for the night?"
Nob turned around, obviously thinking hard. "I think he went outside for a walk. Quite some time ago. He should be back by now, now that you mention it." He scratched his head. "Why do you ask?"
I hesitated. Good lies are simple lies, I remembered. "His friends have gone off to have a talk with Strider; they were worried because he had not yet returned. Could he have gotten lost?"
Now worry dawned on Nob's face. "Aye, now that you mention it, Miss, for foreign folk Bree would be a big place, where they might easily lose their bearings… should I be going and look for him?"
I sighed with relief. "Yes, please, that would be very helpful!"
Nob nodded and smiled at me encouragingly. "Don't worry, Miss, I will find him, and Bree's a peaceful place, nothing untoward is likely to happen here."
With that he bustled off.
Nothing untoward… I could only hope so. But there was a shadow of fear in my heart, which would not lift. I returned to my mug of stale beer and waited.
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.