1. A Fright for Mettarë
Pippin screamed suddenly, and the rest of the companions, spread out along the high ridge they were traversing late one day after leaving Rivendell, turned to see him flailing at a several rocks with his staff.
"Pip! What is it?" cried Frodo, running back towards him.
Merry, the nearest, was trying to get closer to him without being struck.
Boromir seized the end of the staff, holding on and almost falling backward when Pippin abruptly let go. Sam grabbed his arm, trying to get him to sit down on another stone, but the Hobbit resisted, saying over and over, "No, no! They must be all around us!" He was trembling violently, his eyes squeezed shut.
"Peregrin, hush!" Gandalf said, touching his head. "Open your eyes!"
"Come, my friend, we know you are no coward," Strider added, kneeling down in front of him. "Tell us what the danger is, so that we can help you face it." He and Sam eased him several feet away from their route, as Legolas and Gimli examined the spot. "What was it that so alarmed you?'
"S-s-snake! I saw a snake! Grey and brown! Ugh!"
Frodo turned white. "Did it bite you?"
They managed to induce him to sit on Strider's pack, hastily unslung, and the Ranger carefully examined Pippin's feet and lower legs. "I can find no punctures," he said at last. "If you were bitten, those tough natural soles on your feet protected you. But I wish I knew what kind of serpent it was!"
There was a shout from Gimli, and the Dwarf and Elf came towards them, a lean body dangling from Legolas' slender fingers. He held it up. "The Dwarf has avenged you," he said cooly. "First by prying up the rock, and then by decapitating it with his axe."
"Well, all know that snakes take until sunset to die, beheaded or not," Gimli rumbled.
"I need to see the head too, please," Strider said, and Legolas went back to find it. "We might as well make camp here."
"Not here!" cried Pippin, shuddering.
"Hush, my friend! We will go a little farther, but you will ride on Bill, until I am certain you are unhurt," Strider soothed.
"Come, Pippin," said Boromir gruffly, lifting him onto the pack pony's load.
They went swiftly on, soon finding a sheltered spot some distance away. Merry and Frodo improvised brooms, sweeping aside leaves and other small debris, while Gimli started a fire and Sam hastily made supper and heated a pot of water after a whispered conference with Aragorn. Strider vanished, returning with some herbs and a small rabbit, and Legolas joined them as they were eating, tossing down a small head beside Strider, who was bathing Pippin's feet in some herbs crumbled into the warm water.
"Here you are, Aragorn," Legolas said. "Be at ease, Pippin!"
"Ah, indeed you can be, Pippin!" said the Ranger, as he carefully examined both parts of the creature. "I had feared you were bitten by a Rock Viper, but this is its cousin, the Stone Snake, and harmless."
"But it's a snake!" said Boromir, grimacing.
"Yet not all snakes are harmful," Legolas said.
"Some are tasty, if hunted and skinned carefully," Gimli added unexpectedly. "There's a kind of cave snake that is every bit as good as the Stone Lizards."
Merry, Pippin and Frodo looked as revolted as Boromir, but Sam looked interested. "P'raps 'tis in the way o' cookin' it, like," he commented.
"Do not fix roast snake for us, Sam!" Frodo said sharply.
"Not 'less'n you find more'n this little 'un, Master Frodo." Sam said. "Hardly a mouthful to it!"
"How can you tell, Strider?" asked Merry.
"See, it's speckled brown and grey, as the Rock Viper is, but there's a yellow spot behind its head, just above the body, and that tells me it's a Stone Snake. Looking at it more closely, you can see that there are no fangs like a viper. It would have to chew on you for a while to deliver any venom, but even then, it could not kill you! They commonly eat such things as slugs, earthworms, leeches, lizards, amphibians, ants, frog eggs, toads, and rodents, and if nearer water, tadpoles or small frogs. It gave you a great fright, and that is a good thing."
"It is?" Pippin asked. "I feel like a fool, screaming like a faunt, when it was as harmless as a garter snake!"
"Nay, you were frightened, and that will make you and all of us more careful," Gandalf told him. "Sometimes we overprotect those younger, but that does them no favours in the long run. I wager all Northern children in Ranger families are taught such things as a matter of course, but not in places like the Shire!"
"Not in Minas Tirith, either," added Boromir. "My brother has ever been more interested in such things, being a ranger too, but I have spent most of my time learning to fight in battle array, and long the fang that would be able to bite through my boots, as well as sharp! But without shoes or boots, I would be as vulnerable as a babe, so your Hobbit feet stood you in good stead, Pippin!"
They groaned at the pun, but Pippin looked a bit more cheerful.
"So when did you know it wasn't serious?" he asked.
"I suspected at once," Strider replied, accepting his own plate after drying Pippin's feet on a cloth Merry tossed him, "because I caught a whiff of its musk. They rarely try to strike, but the rest of us probably disturbed it as we passed, and then they give out that odor. But it's why I wanted to see the head, to be sure, and you weren't showing the effects of a viper's bite, thank the Valar!"
"I feel like a fool," Pippin muttered.
"At least it was among friends," Strider said. "I remember a lesson I learned about snakes one Mettarë!"
"Please tell us!" Merry begged.
Strider set aside his plate and took out his pipe and tobacco-pouch, slowly filling it as he said, "I was perhaps twenty, the first winter after I had left Rivendell to be with my people. Most welcomed me, easily seeing that I was the son of Arathorn, but some were a bit…suspicious. Lord Elrond, in an attempt to protect my mother and myself while I was growing up, had discouraged the Dúnedain from coming there, and that had been deeply resented because they did not know why. I knew that I would have to work for acceptance from all. I resolved to be the best Ranger they had ever seen."
"As you are," Gandalf said.
"I have striven to be, but no Man is without flaw. Thanks to my foster brothers, I had experience in woodlore and hunting, particularly Orcs, but I knew little about getting along with or leading a group of Men, mostly older than myself."
"A difficult situation," Boromir said from where he sat sharpening his sword.
"That is why I did not try! Mostly I obeyed my uncles and sought to learn. I was most at ease in the wild, on patrol, and least when we went home. After all, it did not feel like home to me, and I was further ill at ease with the maidens' attempts to find husbands."
Legolas laughed aloud, and Gimli chuckled. "A dilemma most would envy you. lad!"
"I know. At any rate, it was almost Mettarë, and I had never seen so much snow! I had arrived two days before with my cousin Halbarad. What I did not know was that his younger brother, Halladan, and another even younger yet, Hardorn, were both resentful of me. They had always thought that Halbarad would be the next Chieftain, after his father, Haldaran, who had been acting chieftain following my father's death."
"How old were they?" Pippin asked.
"Halladan was perhaps three years younger than I, and Hardorn was about twelve years old. Both took Halbarad aside, and vehemently protested my being there. Halbarad had become my friend as well as my kinsman, and he told them firmly that they should get to know me before they judged. He believed that I belonged in the family, and that they would come to agree.
"Halladan agreed to see. Hardorn was headstrong at that age, and decided to embarrass me so much I would just go away." Strider bent forward to light a twig at the fire and carry the burning end to his pipe, puffing until the pipeweed caught.
Gimli snorted, but Boromir nodded. "Twelve-year-olds," he said.
"Aye, I suppose I should be grateful he did not challenge me to a duel! At any rate, his first attempt to discredit me was by talking at the evening meal about snakes, how big they were in the North, how they sometimes slipped inside a house to find a warmer place to hibernate, but were deadly if awakened."
"How could that discredit you?" Frodo asked.
"He hoped, by my reaction to his putting a snow snake in my bed that night."
"He put a snake in your bed?" gasped Pippin.
Aragorn gave one of his rare laughs. "Well, he intended to, but fell asleep before he could, tired from all the day before Yestarë preparations! But the next night, he repeated his talk, although others were mystified by his sudden apparent fascination with the subject, and told him to stop or tried to change the subject. And that night, he slipped upstairs to my chamber, and did put it in the bed, at the foot.
"You can imagine his confusion when he woke the next morning, and there had been no outcry in the night. I said nothing about it when we broke our fast that Mettarë morning. Later, we all went outside, for one tradition they have in the North on that day is to play a snow game. The space, perhaps a third of a league, was made into a narrow trough that was about a hand deep, gradually built up into an incline about Hobbit-height at the end nearest the holding. It can be played by teams or individuals against each other, and some say it was devised to teach youngsters how to use a spear to bring down small winter game. Others say that it was designed to stave off boredom in the cold weather, and the women say it was to keep the men out from underfoot while they prepared the feast." Strider blew a smoke-ring, remembering.
"But what is the trough for?" asked Boromir.
"How do you play with spears in a game?" Merry asked.
"Each person, the thrower, has a carved stick. Some men have sets of sticks that are their height plus the length of their upraised arm to the tip of the longest finger. Each man may have up to twelve or even twenty-one sticks, in groups of three, in different kinds of woods and with different kinds of finishes rubbed into them, for different kinds of snow—"
"Different kinds?" Gimli asked. "Snow is snow, cold and wet!"
"Is this a Lossoth game?" asked Legolas.
"What's Lossoth" Sam queried.
"They are the Men who live in the Far North, on the other side of Angmar," Gandalf replied. "It is said that they have many words for snow and ice, as Dwarves have many for what they would deem rock.
Gimli took his own pipe from his mouth. "Any fool knows that there are many kinds of rock, all different!" he protested.
"Just as any fool knows that not all trees are the same!" observed Legolas.
"How do these sticks work?" Boromir asked loudly. "Could you two please not wrangle, just until the story is finished?"
Strider continued, "Each is about a finger in width, and as I said, some are very long, made of maple or hickory or birch or spruce, depending on the kind of snow conditions. Three are in a set, and some melted pewter weights the heads. The bodies taper to a blunt point. They are decorated and carved, so the owner knows which are his. When they aren't used, they are put in a special cloth, divided into pockets, rolled up and kept carefully from year to year and sometimes from generation to generation. But I did not know this at the time, I merely watched as the men and boys brought out their sets, wondering what it was about, and trying not to shiver in my cloak. It was a raw morning!
"Well, up came Halbarad, carrying two bundles, and handed me one. 'Open it!' he urged.
"I aske dwhose it was, and his father, standing nearby, replied that it had belonged to my father, that he had had it from his father, and from his before him. Taking the first set, he told Halladan to give me the other set.
"This was a smaller bundle, in a dark blue embroidered cloth. It was smaller because the sticks were only about as long as your arm, Master Pippin. My uncle Haldaran explained that my father had made them, in that smaller size, for me to use as I grew older, and my mother had spun, woven, sewn and embroidered the case for my fifth Mettarë. I had never seen it before, because Arathorn died before my second birthday, and my mother did not think to take either set when we went to Rivendell. The Elves don't play this game. However, when I opened it, I found one pocket empty. The set was incomplete!
"For the first time, I saw these folk become angry for me, on my behalf. It was a part of my heritage, a small part, but still a part they valued. Chieftain Haldaran demanded to know who had stolen it. He summoned the boys who had begun playing their game with their shorter sticks, and demanded once again for the culprit to come forth.
"Hanging his head, Hardorn did so. He was the smallest of the boys his age, and I knew from Halbarad that he wasn't very good at most of their games. It was hard for him, youngest of the Chieftain's sons, always compared to the older ones.
"His father asked, bewildered, 'Why did you do this, my son? You have your own set.'
"But Hardorn shook his head. 'No, I don't, only the old one all my brothers had before me, all warped and splintered from the last time Halladan used them, because the roof leaked over the corner where they were stored one winter. I asked him to help me make new ones, but he never had the time, and neither did anyone else. I'm the only one who hasn't practiced.' It was true, I could see it by the color flushing his brothers' faces. And his father's. No one ever had time to help him. He stood by himself, facing us, trying to keep his voice steady and the tears filling his eyes from falling, trying to be a Man."
"Then what happened?" asked Merry breathlessly.
"I went over and stood beside him. 'Uncle,' I said, 'the fault is mine. Last night Hardorn brought it to my room, to show me. I kept it by me after he left; indeed, it was at the foot of my blankets this morning, and I brought it out in my pocket and forgot to give it to him. Here it is.'"
"That was the snake he put into your bed?" Pippin cried. "I thought you meant a real snake!"
"Oh, if you had seen it, Pippin, you would have thought it real enough, especially by the flicker of candle- or firelight, when you didn't expect to encounter it!" Strider leaned back, crossing his long legs. "Actually, I didn't find it until I woke that morning, when I felt it with my foot, and tossed back the blankets with one hand while tightly gripping my dagger in the other! It was by the mercy of the Valar that his ploy hadn't succeeded, for you can imagine the laughter caused by my battling a stick of wood! I would probably have been given another nickname instead of this one, like Fearstick or Battlewand!"
They laughed, but Frodo said, "It was kind of you to help him."
Sam wanted to know, "What happened next, Mr. Strider?"
"Oh, I got him to show me how the snow-snakes were used."
"At last! May we know too?" Boromir demanded.
"You gripped it a few inches from the end, holding it with the head pointed forward, took three running steps, and threw it underhand. The idea was that the snake would slide along the trough—if you didn't slip on ice as you threw, or it didn't miss the trough and stick in the bank, where you'd be teased for trying to spear the snow or nail down the trough to keep it from escaping. Really, any bump or hump might make it stop or slow or go off the course. The farther it went the better, and some were almost a blur, they went so fast. Brute strength didn't always help you, either. It took some skill, and some maintained that the real skill was in the carving, arguing the merits of one wood over another, or arguing about wax finishes, which were handed down from one generation to the next and kept secret by some."
"How did you do?" inquired Gandalf.
"Horribly! But I didn't care, because as it turned out, Hardorn had a natural gift for it. He was the only lad whose snowsnake went clear to the end of the course that day. We became good friends, because he became determined that I should excel. I finally improved somewhat, but I was hampered by not beginning early enough. He is a champion thrower and waxer."
"Where is he now?" Sam asked. "What does he do?"
"He's a Ranger here in the North, like his brothers, helping Halladan. Any more questions, or can we go to bed? Pippin, you need to rest. Boromir, you have the first watch."
"Just one," Pippin said pertly. "What was his nickname? In case we ever meet him, you know."
Strider grinned. "Your folk never understand it."
"What is it?"
"Snowsnake, because his are the best, of course. Now good night, Hobbits!"