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Adraefan: 44. Ill News at Bree
The wizard paused for a moment to think.
The day was overcast, bleak. Grey skies looming low. Rolling hills in the distance. They would pass Weathertop soon – this evening or tomorrow. And then further along the Great East Road, passing the downs, and onto Bree. And then further and further - passing through Buckland with the Old Forest to the South, and then across the Brandywine Bridge and Hobbiton and home at last.
All of Pippin's nervousness had long since evolved into a bubbling excitement. And each day seemed to drag by so slowly that he thought they should never get home. To think, he would be seeing everyone again! His parents, his sisters, his cousins, the Brandybucks, even those wretched Sackville-Bagginses! He could not wait, if only to see again the green hills and rolling country and sun-drenched homes. If only to once again have an ale in The Green Dragon or The Golden Perch, all of them together, Merry and Sam and Frodo and him.
And so to pass the time - or rather, to urge the time along as quickly as possible - Pippin had taken to talking with Radagast. For where Gandalf was acerbic and dry and mostly taciturn, Radagast was quite happy to prattle on about his birds or his home or anything else which struck his fancy. Today, the Brown Wizard had suitably offended Gandalf by saying he was resembling a boar more and more as he aged. Gandalf had harumphed, saying perhaps Radagast had forgotten social graces, but he did not take kindly to being called piggish. Radagast had promptly defended his opinion, sustaining that there was nothing wrong with boars, and being called boarish was not the same as being called piggish – but that, come to think of it, he was being rather piggish as well.
There had followed a lengthy bout of bickering and arguing, much to everyone’s entertainment, until finally Pippin, overwhelmed with curiosity, had simply asked the question. This had silenced Gandalf, who shook his head, laughing, and the others had perked up, interested in hearing Radagast's answer as well.
Finally, the wizard looked up.
"Well, Master Took, in truth I have not known you for very long... but you have the air of a rabbit, I feel."
"Ha!" Merry guffawed. "Hear that, Pip? I'm not surprised."
The others laughed as well, and Pippin felt his face heat.
"Now there is nothing to be ashamed of, Master Took," Radagast continued. "For rabbits delight in games, and they are quite content to lead a peaceful, simple life - they do not pose themselves excessive philosophical questions, not like the over-wise toads. Nay, they are bright, happy creatures."
"Well, that's nice, I suppose," Pippin said.
"What would Merry be?" Frodo asked. He was riding his pony further ahead, but he reined it in slightly so as to join the conversation.
"Hmm..." Radagast rubbed his cheek with his pipe. "From what I see, and from what I have heard of Master Brandybuck, I would say he most closely resembles a fox."
"Just as frivolous as the rabbit, but, if needs be, also quite cunning. A very sly creature. As I'm sure you will all agree with all, judging from all that I have heard of this Master Brandybuck."
"That certainly sounds like you, Mister Merry, if you'll pardon me sayin'!" Sam chuckled from further ahead.
"And Frodo?" Merry asked.
"Oh, that’s quite simple," Radagast said. “A donkey.”
This provoked roars of laughter from all around. Frodo appeared stunned. Boromir, who had been riding behind them at a distance, came trotting by, slowing his pace as he heard the laughter.
"A donkey?" Frodo repeated, mystified.
"What did you expect?" Radagast asked, equally mystified.
Merry seemed entirely consumed by giggles now, and Pippin was watching Frodo with a smile. Sam was chuckling to himself, shaking his head. Up ahead, Gandalf and Dínendal were speaking.
"I'm not sure," Frodo admitted with a shrug. "Perhaps I imagined myself more a bird... or, or perhaps a deer."
Merry howled with laughter at that one, and a small, embarrassed smile tugged at Frodo's lips, but Radagast simply shook his head.
"No, no, at least I do not know what you were ere the great journey you made, but you have most assuredly acquired the hanging head and burdened shoulders of a donkey."
At that, Frodo's smile faded and, solemn, he nodded. Merry spoke quickly:
“And Sam? Do Sam as well.”
Sam seemed to cringe under the wizard’s shrewd gaze. Boromir pulled the reins of his horse, guided it so that he was trotting alongside Pippin. The hobbit smiled up at him, and then motioned for him to listen since Radagast was about to make his decision.
After several long moments, Radagast nodded to himself. “I have come to it. An ox.”
“An ox?” Sam repeated.
“An ox,” Radagast said.
The others did not laugh, rather each fell into his own thoughts, interpreting.
“For like the donkey, you may carry the heavy burden,” Radagast explained. “Yet you have also firmer ties to the land than the donkey, and perhaps a hardier sense of home. I expect you shall be the first to settle down among these bachelors, Sam.”
At this, Sam blushed bright crimson, and the others smiled warmly.
Radagast met eyes with Boromir. “Ah! And Boromir, I would assume you are quite aware of your closest animal relative?”
Boromir grinned crookedly, rolled his eyes. “So long as it is not a squirrel or some other measly creature, then I am satisfied.”
Radagast guffawed. “Nay! Ha ha, nay, you are by far the most bullish Man I have met in many years. Quick to anger, reluctant to seek help, one who delights in battle, thick-headed – ”
“I am not thick-headed,” Boromir interrupted, annoyed.
“Very well, very well,” Radagast ceded. “Perhaps I am teasing you. But, truthfully, you are very much like the bull.”
Weathertop. From ill luck, they passed Amon Sûl much later in the day than intended, so that they had to make camp with the dark hill still in sight. The other hobbits fretted over Frodo, who had gone pale and quiet for several hours, but he, with forced smiles and forced shrugs, urged the others away, encouraging that they enjoy their dinner and sleep without worrying too much about him. Gandalf and Radagast had fallen into a deep discussion, quiet, so that the others could not hear.
A cold, clear evening. Trees. The darkness of impenetrable forests, surrounding their patch of ground, their orb of light.
Boromir sat by his pack, knees up, staring blankly into the fire. Sam, Merry and Pippin were eating. They had offered him some, but Boromir had honestly said he desired none, and that it was better for them to eat it rather than let it go to waste by giving it to him. Dínendal sat across the fire, and Boromir had to smother a smile, for the elf was rigid, distracted, clearly eavesdropping on the wizards. They were standing several paces behind him, away from the group.
“I shall be happy once we leave this place.”
Boromir turned. Frodo arrived, pipe in hand. He sat on his bedroll, a few paces to Boromir’s left, stared into the fire. Watching the flames lick up into the night sky. He looked pale, with dark rings under his eyes.
“Tomorrow morning,” Boromir said.
“Aye. Not soon enough.”
They sat in silence, the fire crackling. Boromir’s expression darkened.
“Yet I can understand…” Frodo looked up. Boromir motioned vaguely, “…why you – I mean, the unease you suffer.”
Frodo nodded. “Aye, more than unease… ‘tis like a heavy weight – ”
“ – pressing against your shoulders.”
“Yes. And my neck, like the – the…”
“…like the Ring is still there.”
Silence. Boromir shifted.
“And you feel – ”
“ – as if no one could ever understand.”
They met eyes, smiled. Frodo chuckled. And both, unconsciously mimicking each other, sat back against their bedrolls, leaning their heads against their packs. Boromir folded his hands across his stomach, careful of the old wound, straightened his legs with a stifled groan. The other hobbits had gone to sit further off, facing away from the camp, and Boromir could just see the clouds of pipe-smoke drifting up in the moonlight. Murmured conversations. Dínendal was still eavesdropping on the wizards.
Frodo was looking at Boromir, wide eyes questioning.
“Where did you injure your knees?”
“With the Easterlings. I fell in a well.”
A muffled snort. “I’m sorry – forgive me – ‘tis just… it’s rather funny…”
“I know, you need not feign a scowl.”
“And they still trouble you?”
A pause, awkward.
“That must be a pity, with all this riding.”
Boromir shrugged noncommittally, embarrassed by the questioning. Frodo seemed to understand, for he nodded, though with a soft smile. They sat in silence, listening to Pippin’s high-pitched laughter drifting over, followed by a cheerful exclamation by Merry and some murmured comment from Sam. The wizards had moved to the fire now, where Radagast was picking out sausages from the frying pan and placing them in the plate which Gandalf held out. Dínendal seemed distant, thinking, but when he met Boromir’s eyes through the flames, he raised an eyebrow.
When the wizards moved off again, moving to sit with the hobbits, and Dínendal had since settled down, staring up at the sky, seemingly asleep, Frodo spoke again.
“Does it hurt, sometimes?”
For a moment, Boromir thought he meant the knees again, or some other wound, and when he turned, he saw Frodo was not looking at him, but was looking away, arms crossed, embarrassed.
“Does what hurt?”
“Gandalf said you have Morgul-wounds.”
A slow response. “Aye.”
“And do they hurt – I mean, sometimes – does it feel like…” Frodo shook his head, inhaled. “Oh, I’m not making much sense, am I? I mean – just sometimes it feels as if the blade is still there,” he pressed the heel of his palm against his left shoulder, “as if… it’s happening again. I suppose it must be passing this place. But… has it happened to you? Something similar?”
Boromir gave a bitter smile. “Do you remember our meeting with Saruman?”
“Aye. In Dunland?”
“Aye…” Boromir shifted, crossed his arms, entirely conscious of his own hand drifting up to knead the wound in his own left shoulder. “I suppose that is what you mean.”
“Oh, when you…?”
A half-smile tugged at Frodo’s mouth. “Oh… I see. Forgive me, but I had thought you were just ill from the night before. Because you had had too much to drink.”
“Nay,” Boromir said, abrupt, offended.
Frodo nodded quickly, muttering an apology. An awkward moment.
Finally, Boromir, huffed, grunted, “Well… ‘twas also the drink.” He cleared his throat. “But I think ‘twas also that… thing of which you speak.”
“Aye,” Frodo said. “Well, it makes sense. For it was Saruman – ”
“ – who poisoned the arrows. Aye.”
The hobbits sitting further off had fallen silent now, and the sounds of the fire and the crickets and the owl and the wind and Dínendal’s even breathing could be heard. When Boromir looked over to the others, he saw the three smaller silhouettes – Sam, Merry, Pippin – sitting next to the two taller ones – Radagast, Gandalf.
“That is comforting, I suppose,” Frodo said. He smiled slightly. “Well, good night, Boromir.”
Boromir muttered his own good night and waited for the hobbit beside him to shift down into his bedroll, adjust himself, and fall still. Once Frodo had fallen asleep, he let his eyes wander to Dínendal. The elf lay on his back, hands folded across his stomach, gazing up at the sky, glassy-eyed.
For a moment, staring at Dínendal, as if that should trigger some Minas Tirith memory or Dagorlad thought, Boromir felt the strong and inexplicable desire for a drink. The numbing heat. The quick, easy sleep – thoughtless – without nightmares echoing. And yet no matter how much Boromir repeated silently that he did not need it, that he did not desire it, more and more did that desire, that need, grow, so that after what felt like several hours – though it was surely only a few minutes – he thought he should go, take his horse and ride to Bree tonight. If only to find a tavern and sacrifice himself completely to the burning relief.
He was already considering plans – ways to explain it to the group – means of escape – when the elf’s eyes flickered, awake, and met his. Boromir flinched, startled. The elf pushed himself up, smiled. The others were returning from further away. Pippin was stretching his arms with a yawn.
“Boromir, you are not weary?” Dínendal asked.
Boromir shrugged. “How is it that you always manage to startle me, e’en asleep?”
“I was not asleep,” Dínendal said. “I was thinking.”
Immediately, Boromir cringed to think if the elf had heard his conversation with Frodo. He did not want another layer of pity to coat the elf’s already painfully merciful and forgiving behavior towards him. Yet Dínendal gave no indication of having heard. Rather, he stood, walked over to Boromir’s bedroll.
“Seeing as you are still awake, I would speak to you in private.”
The others were beginning to settle down into their bedrolls. Boromir looked up quizzically. But Dínendal’s smile was gone, and he was serious now, frowning almost. He gave one meaningful glance to Gandalf and Radagast – enough for Boromir to blink, confused – and then went off towards the woods without waiting for the Man to rise. Boromir scrambled up, followed him.
They did not walk far. Once they were suitably out of sight and earshot, Dínendal turned, waited for Boromir. Without the light of the fire, the forest was pitch-black. The moonlight disappeared amidst the leafy canopy, and Boromir nearly stumbled over the roots of a tree. He held his hands in front of him, brushing away the low branches. And there, waiting against a tree, was Dínendal.
“What is it?” Boromir asked, somewhat irritated at having to rise from the comfort of his bedroll. Whether he would ever admit it or not, he was not as young as he had been in his first journey north – little more than a year ago – and more and more did he find himself wearied in the evenings. Shivering discussions in the deep night-forests he did not desire. Better the warmth of the fire, his blanket, empty sleep.
“There is some darkness in the Shire,” Dínendal said bluntly.
“Aye. I overheard Mithrandir and Gandalf speaking of it this evening. And my own unease has grown with each passing day. The War is not yet finished.”
A heaviness in his gut. Boromir scowled.
“And the little ones? Do they know?”
“Nay,” Dínendal shook his head. “And Mithrandir plans to leave them ere they reach the Shire.”
“I know not.”
Boromir growled, paced back and forth, back and forth, running again and again his head through his beard. Finally, with an incensed grunt, he sat on the ground with a thud. His knees hurt. Dínendal frowned.
“And what means this?” Boromir asked.
Dínendal shrugged. “I do not know. ‘Tis only what I have overheard.”
Boromir ran a hand through his hair, exhaled sharply.
“And why did you listen? ‘Twas clear the wizards did not wish it.”
“Would you have preferred I had not heard?”
“Aye! I would have preferred it!”
Dínendal was silent. After a few moments, he spoke again.
“Whatever it is, I trust Mithrandir. I will not tell the hobbits. I thought only to tell you so that we may be prepared, whatever should happen ere our arrival in the Shire.” Dínendal paused. “I did not mean for it to anger you.”
“Of course I am angered…” Boromir seethed, quiet. “The wizard persists in hiding from us what we should know. ‘Twas the same in the dwarf mines.”
“Mithrandir perished in the mines, I was told.”
“Aye, and yet he walks with us still. I do not think Samwise knows such tricks.” Boromir swallowed, lowered his voice. “Nor Pippin.”
“What do you imply?”
“I imply that he keeps from us what should be known! I imply that he puts lives at risk with his secretive ways! And now you say he means to abandon the little ones to some black fate awaiting them in their Shire? It is madness!”
“Hush!” Dínendal hissed. “You shall be heard.”
Boromir bit back anything more, but he could not help slamming his fist into the ground before pulling it back up, kneading the knuckles, pressing his brow against the bruises. Heavy breathing. And the bubbling pain in his gut, the agitation before battle. For a battle awaited him now, some violence. And again – again – again – the desire to drink. To escape.
He cursed Dínendal silently.
“Of course…” the elf began slowly, whispering, “perhaps I am mistaken. I may have misunderstood.”
Boromir smirked in the dark. “Aye, perhaps.” He exhaled. Slow, shaking. “’Tis strange. All this time… I thought it should be peace which I loathed. That if only – if only I could pick up the sword again, hack through some vile creature – then all this darkness in my heart would flee.” He lowered his voice. “Yet now I tremble at the thought. What is there in the Shire that should draw evil there?”
Movement. Dínendal came, sat down next to him.
“I know not,” he said. “But I too am aggrieved by this news.”
“Would that it were not the hobbits. Not the little ones…” His voice trailed, whispering, and then suddenly he barked; a half-laugh, half-sob. “To have come all this way only to be cut to pieces ere they reach their beds!”
A hand on his shoulder.
“Not if we are there to aid them, friend,” Dínendal said.
Boromir clucked his tongue, leaned forward, covered his face in his hands. I am not the fighter I once was, he wanted to say. I have no mind for battle-strategy, no strength for the broadsword, no spring in my legs. ‘Tis likely even Samwise could cut me down in a contest of strength. And the cold sweat, like a layer of ice, coating his back, trailing down the spine. Ever since Imladris, the nauseating climb back to sobriety. And the slow, slipping desire… pushing against his throat, beckoning him to allow himself at least one night of numb oblivion…
Yet Boromir gave only a heavy sigh. “Aye. Not if we are there to aid them.”
“Now, beggin’ yer pardon, Mister Boromir, but yer face is as long as yer horse’s, if ye don’t mind me sayin’.”
Boromir silenced the cheerful hobbit at his side with a rough growl, telling him to leave off and mind his own. All day long, the hobbits – especially Sam – had been talkative and in bright spirits. Between Merry’s exaggerated tales of Rohan, and Frodo’s easy laughter, and Sam’s constant repetition of Couldn’t a been sooner, so it is! Why, it’ll be puttin’ my heart at ease to see the old gaffer safe an’ well again! their excitement had grown to a near giddy state. All day, all day – Pippin’s hysterical laughter, Frodo’s occasional singing, the constant cloud of pipe-smoke, and – and – and we are not even come to Bree yet!
Boromir and Dínendal had placed themselves one at the front, one at the back, already setting up some sort of defensive position should any attack come on the road. Gandalf seemed entirely serene, occasionally smiling at the hobbits’ enthusiasm. ‘Tis so easy for him to smile and hide the grim tasks to come? Boromir glared. And riding beside them, a light trot, Radagast.
The sky was overcast. Grey storm-clouds. Icy November winds.
Boromir shrugged his fur cloak further, scowled, grim. Occasionally, he would meet eyes with Dínendal and they would share a private look. And the lands – bare, brown, barren lands. Rolling hills – yellowing, grass-less. Muddy slopes. The hobbits seemed blind to this harsh landscape.
They arrived at the East Gate of Bree by dusk. The grey clouds had dimmed to a smoky black, and just as Sam strode forth and knocked on the doors, the first clap of thunder sounded. Moments later, great curtains of rain, washing over them. The wooden gate swung open and, one by one, the travelers trudged through the mud into the town of Bree. Boromir heard, over the crashing noise of the thunderstorm, Pippin holler a joke to Frodo – saying they were doomed to always visit Bree on rainy evenings. And indeed the town was almost entirely hidden from Boromir – for all he could see were passing shadows, blurred, in the torrent of rain.
Hooded, drenched and muddied, the Travellers and Escort arrived at The Prancing Pony. And here, they dismounted, knocked, waited, occasionally yanking at their hoods, pulling further to shield themselves from the wind and rain. Again, Boromir and Dínendal had placed themselves in strategic positions – flanking the group – looking back and forth, back and forth. Boromir was surveying the empty roads so fervently, occasionally flinching back if the horse shook its head, that Radagast, who was standing next to Boromir, eventually commented, “Heavens, Man, calm down! You are as agitated as a headless chicken, and you are working on my nerves! Do you always get this way when you are wet?”
Boromir gave Radagast a long-suffering look and did not answer. He too can jest so easily? Does he not recall what Gandalf told him? The horse gave another whinny, threw its head back, brayed.
The tavern door swung open. A small figure poked his head out before pulling it back in with a shocked yelp and slamming the door shut. The travelers shared irritated, slightly comical looks. After a few moments, the door opened again. And this time a large, heavyset Man appeared.
“Oh! Nob, you idiot! You gave me such a fright, and for nothing! And look who it is? Well if it isn’t those fine hobbit gentlemen! And Gandalf as well, hello there to you too!” He arched his head out, squinted. “Though I don’t know these fellows!”
“This is Dínendal of the Woodland Realm!” Gandalf yelled over the rain. “And these are Boromir, son of Denethor, and my colleague, Radagast! Gentlemen, this is Barliman Butterbur!”
“Well, it’s a pleasure making your acquaintance, fine sirs!” Butterbur hollered. “I expect you’ll be wanting to get out of this rain!”
The tavern-keeper beckoned for Nob to take care of the horses, though both Gandalf and Radagast insisted on tending to their own. While the wizards went tramping off towards the stables, all the horses and ponies in tow, the rest of the group entered the tavern.
Inside The Prancing Pony. A fire burning. Wooden crossbeams on the ceiling. Musty furniture. The Common Room, empty. The familiar scent of ale – Boromir flinched, already an ache in his chest and an instinctive swallow – as well as the perfume of vegetable stew, roast chicken, bread baking. Rows and rows of clean, empty mugs behind the bar. Steins. Dusty bottles – short and fat, tall and thin – standing in neat rows on the shelves. Huge tankards, waiting spouts.
The group entered this warm, dry place, shaking off their drenched cloaks, rubbing their hands together. All four hobbits were flushed from the cold, their curls plastered against their heads. Dínendal looked the same as he always did, only glistening wet.
“Well, we’ve the same room from last year, little sirs,” Butterbur said, taking each cloak in turn and hanging them up on the many-knobbed coat-hanger. “As well as several larger rooms for you gentlemen – I’m sorry, I’ve no head for names, what was it again?”
“Dínendal,” the elf said.
“Boromir,” Boromir grunted, still surveying the Common Room.
The door opened, bringing with it the noise and rain, before slamming shut again. Nob came barreling in, loaded with several saddlebags and packs.
“Upstairs, Nob,” Butterbur instructed. He turned to the hobbits, shook his head. “All the rooms are free, y’see. It’s been that way fer almost a year now – hard times, aye, hard times we’ve had.”
The door opened again, closed. And the wizards arrived, grumbling to each other, rough laughter, shaking their cloaks. Butterbur hastened to take each cloak and place it over the others on the hanger.
“What hard times, Mister Butterbur?” Frodo asked.
“Oh, I won’t dampen your spirits just now. I expect you’re all right hungry, aye? We’ve got some nice broth stewin’, as well as some bread and cheese.”
“That sounds lovely,” Pippin nodded.
“Aye,” Merry agreed. “We’ll take our meal in the Common Room, then.”
“And we would like you to tell us all the news, Barliman,” Gandalf said, adjusting his belt. Beside him, Radagast was wringing the rainwater from his beard. “Especially everything you know of Bree, and of the Shire.”
Boromir stared. And what did the wizard need to know? He knew all of it already, it seemed. Why does he insist on feigning ignorance? Boromir shared a look with Dínendal.
But Butterbur simply nodded, moustache bristling.
“Aye, that I will!” he said. “I’ll join ye in the Common Room, fer as ye can see, there aren’t any other customers to keep me busy. Aye, and there haven’t been, for quite some time now. None but them ruffians that started coming in – not long after you little sirs went off with that Strider fellow – oh, they’ve been coming in swarms ever since then. But I’ll tell ye all of this in a minute – Nob!”
The halfling had just come down the stairs. He looked up, questioning.
“A round of stew and bread and cheese for these fine gentlemen. Also, any of the scraps of meat, if there are any left. Something to warm them up!” He looked at the group. “And a round of ale, sirs?”
“Maybe just tea for now,” Pippin said.
“I will have an ale,” Boromir announced.
The entire group turned to look at him, staring, and he met Gandalf’s gaze, challenging. The wizard frowned. Meanwhile, Butterbur simply nodded and turned back to Nob – stopping the hobbit mid-stride.
“Nob! Bring a kettle o’ tea and some ale as well. Just a pitcher for the gentleman here.”
“Aye, Mister Butterbur,” Nob called and went hurrying off to the kitchen.
Everyone was still looking at Boromir, though eventually they became distracted as Butterbur ushered them into the Common Room. They took their seats at the long table by the fire, and once they were all settled in, Butterbur excused himself to go help Nob in the kitchens.
Once he was gone, no one spoke. Boromir slouched low in his chair, stared at the table. He was sitting at the head of the table, with Radagast on the other end. And then, coming from Radagast: Sam, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf. On the other side, facing away from the fire: Dínendal. Occasionally, Pippin glanced at Boromir, sideways, but the Man did not return the look. Dínendal sat beside him, staring blankly. And slowly, in several trips, Nob returned with plates, knives, forks, mugs. A tray full of steaming bowls – the broth. Wide platters of cheese. Butterbur returned. A basket of bread. A wicker pad and teakettle. One by one, Nob poured them tea, skipping Boromir. Butterbur meanwhile brought a large pitcher, poured Boromir a foamy ale. Merry also accepted a half-pint, and the innkeeper allowed himself some ale as well.
And so, they all set to eating, quietly, while Butterbur stoked the fire and took a seat in one of the chairs nearest to the table.
Not having yet touched his food, Gandalf leaned back.
“Tell us then, Master Butterbur. What is this news of ruffians passing through Bree? And you say the Prancing Pony has had poor business as well?”
“Oh, aye – ” Butterbur began and in that moment, Boromir took a sip of ale.
He nearly groaned with relief in that first moment. And his stomach, bubbling with a steady anticipation. As the innkeeper spoke, recounting his tales of missing Rangers, ruffians passing west to the Shire, the steady decline of Bree, the loss of business and the slow exodus of decent folk, the violence in the streets, everything, Boromir drank. Letting the heat wash through him, burning low in his gut. Long swallows, generous. And all the while, the others talked with Butterbur – only confirming what Boromir and Dínendal already knew – that there was some darkness in the Shire and apparently it was called Sharkey.
Boromir finished his mug, moved to refill. The others shot him sporadic looks – they were all keeping an eye on him, gauging the amount he drank. Let them look. Between chiding him his only drug and hearing what this fat barkeep had to say – they were speaking of Aragorn now, and the days when he was called Strider, and the Northern-kingdom – the others chose the latter. And for this Boromir was grateful. Aye, for it let him drink. Even when Dínendal met his gaze, causing Boromir to pause as he lifted the mug to his lips, even then it was not enough. Two pints, finished.
Sam. Sam was agitated now. Boromir poured himself his third drink.
“Oh, now this is bad news an’ no mistake,” Sam said, looking anxiously at the other hobbits. “I don’ know about all of you, but I’d say we hitch up and get going right now – tonight. Me skin’s gone all a-prickle to hear this Mister Butterbur’s talk, an’ me ol’ gaffer always said it was better to get things done sooner rather ‘an later. What do you say, Mister Frodo?”
“Let’s not be hasty, Sam,” Frodo said. “If we left now we’d be riding all night, and the roads don’t seem to be very safe for those traveling by night.”
While the hobbits were speaking, Butterbur noted Boromir’s drinking. He leaned in.
“Can I get ye anythin’ else, good sir?”
“Have you anything stronger?”
“Aye. Shire brandy and a fine whiskey from the Southern lands.”
“The whiskey then. A bottle.”
“So it be, sir.”
Butterbur scooted out, swept the empty pitcher out of the way, as well as several empty plates. He offered them some of Nob’s mother’s apple pie, and Radagast happily accepted. The Brown Wizard was seated across the table from Boromir, at the other end, and when Butterbur bustled out, Radagast met Boromir’s eyes sternly. Boromir ignored him.
“I don’t doubt that we could fend for ourselves for one night, Sam,” Frodo was saying. “But I think we should sit down and think about what we want to do before we go barreling off to the Shire with swords unsheathed.”
“Aye,” Merry concurred. “We don’t even know what we’re up against.”
“And I’d like to know who this Sharkey fellow is,” Pippin said. “Butterbur said he’s the leader, apparently.”
“Indeed,” Gandalf rumbled. “Though perhaps a good night’s rest is what is in order. The Shire shall remain intact come tomorrow, I would think.”
The last comment was meant to be a feeble joke, for the hobbits laughed, nervous, but Boromir scowled and felt the strong impulse to stand up and confront the wizard. And what does he intend with these half-truths? He makes light of the situation, when he knows full well the gravity of it! Boromir pressed the palm of his hand into the wooden edge of his chair’s armrest, gritting his teeth. The whiskey arrived. Good. At least he could drown the impulse, throttle it in his throat. For he could not betray Dínendal’s confidence, and he could do nothing save accompany the hobbits to the Shire and aid them in whatever battle needed to be fought. But that was tomorrow. Tonight he would drink himself into silence, or at the very least babbling docility.
And so he poured himself a hefty glass of whiskey, drank. Across the table, Radagast pulled his sleeve up, held it with his free hand, took the fork and edged it through a slice of pie. The fire flickered, crackled, snapped. Outside, the winds howled, rattling.
“Well, Nob’s set up everything in the rooms upstairs, so whenever you sirs feel weary, you’re welcome to go on up. An’ I must say, tonight’s talk has been a bright spot in a month of Mondays. Now, ye’ve given me a lot to think of – and look towards – an’ so I’ll leave you kind sirs to yer dinin’ an’ rest. Good night, gentlemen.”
A chorus of good nights and thank yous. Downing the glass with a pant. And finally, finally – the faintest of buzzing in his ears, the lightest loosening of his limbs. Boromir suppressed a groan, leaned back in the chair. The hobbits had fallen to talking – Sam was constructing a strategy, moving saltshakers and forks around, shaking his head, instructing – but Gandalf and Dínendal, both of whom flanked Boromir, turned to him.
“By the Valar, son of Denethor,” Gandalf whispered harshly, “what are you doing?”
“Leave off, wizard.”
“And what do you intend with all of this?” Gandalf gestured to the bottle, mug, disgusted. “Have you learned nothing since Imladris?”
Across the table, Radagast finished his pie and stood, walked over. He took a seat beside Dínendal, leaned in. Boromir rolled his eyes, huffed impatiently, shifting in his seat.
“And what is this?” Boromir asked, muttering. “A committee of caretakers? Can you not leave a Man in peace?”
“Aye, caretakers indeed!” Gandalf huffed. “You force us to be with this behavior!”
“Leave off, wizard!” Boromir snarled. He slumped back. “I weary of your scolding…”
“Boromir…” Dínendal said. He placed a hand on Boromir’s forearm, but the Man shook it away, reached for the bottle. He poured himself a full glass, shakily, slammed the bottle down. Taking the glass. Drinking.
“Boromir,” Dínendal repeated. “Stop this.” He lowered his voice, a private mutter. “It will not help.”
“Nay, indeed, it will not!” Radagast interjected loudly. Further down the table, Merry was lighting a pipe. Frodo and Sam were still discussing tomorrow’s plans, but Pippin’s attention was drifting towards Boromir’s end of the table. “Seek you relief from Barad-dûr? Still?”
Boromir attempted to suppress it. With all his will, gritting his teeth until his head should burst. But it could not be helped. He slammed the glass down with a crack, stood abruptly from the table, knocking the chair back.
“Nay, indeed I do not! For what relief is there to be had in such constant torment?”
Someone was holding him back. Dínendal. And Gandalf’s hand on his arm, a vise cutting away his circulation. Radagast was leaning back in his chair, staring wide-eyed. Everyone – the chairs pushed back as if they had all quickly moved away from the table. And Boromir saw then that the mug was broken – had he broken it? – and his hand was bloodied. Pieces of glass, lying shattered against the wooden table. A sharp sting in his palm. The hobbits, yelling. Sam, Pippin – standing. Frodo. Merry scrambling for his pipe, for he had dropped it in shock. And Boromir’s lungs – heaving, burning breaths. Butterbur came bustling into the Common Room.
Boromir quickly wiped his hand on his surcoat, heedless of the cuts, dragging away the blood. He could tell – he was red-faced, breathing hard. Butterbur glanced at the group, stunned.
“T – trouble, good sirs?” he asked. “My, but I heard a noise…”
There was a long pause; ragged breaths. Slowly, imperceptibly, Dínendal loosened his grip on the Man. Gandalf maintained his. Sam and Pippin began to sit down, watching Boromir or staring at the ground.
Finally, Frodo shook his head. “Nay, nay, no trouble. ‘Twas an accident. We have broken a glass.”
“Oh!” Butterbur hastened to the table. “Oh dear, I’ll get Nob in here to clean this up in a minute. I’m sorry to hear that! I’ll get ye ‘nother one right now.”
“Nay,” Boromir said, and his voice sounded hoarse. “Nay, there is no need, sir.”
Another lengthy pause. Gandalf let go of Boromir’s arm, muttering to himself, and sat. Butterbur nodded slowly.
“Very well…” he fumbled for a moment before adding, “I’ll get Nob in here. Just a moment, please.”
And he was gone. They listened to his movements outside, the floorboards creaking, shuffling footsteps. Nob’s name being called. Boromir was the only one left standing. And he looked down at all of them, all of them who would not meet his eyes now. Without a word, he took the bottle, pulling it from the table, a sharp sting in his hand where the alcohol seeped into the cuts, and walked out of the room, nearly colliding with Nob at the door.
“I’m on pins an’ needles, Mister Frodo, an’ no mistake. I can’t sleep like this. Me head’s spinnin’ with all these thoughts – why, the mornin’ couldn’ a come sooner.”
“Just lie still, Sam. Lie still and think on nothing. Sleep will come soon enough.”
Frodo could not help but smile as he heard the bedsprings creak as Sam once again tossed and turned. They were in their room, each in his own bed. While Merry had complained briefly about the mattress being too soft, he had eventually fallen asleep. Pippin, Frodo and Sam had talked long into the night, first about Boromir, then about the news from the Shire and what they would do when they arrived, and who this Sharkey could be. But the moon had waxed high in the sky, and soon the sounds from downstairs and down the hall had disappeared, so that it was clear that The Prancing Pony was asleep. And so they had blown out the last candle and settled down.
But despite the late hour, Sam kept shifting restlessly in his bed, keeping Frodo wide awake. Not that Frodo slept well anymore – his sleep had become a light, fragile thing, easily dissolved with the slightest noise; not to mention Boromir’s strangled howls or Sam’s incessant mutters. And so he had spent the last half-hour lying on his back, staring at the shifting moonlight reflected on the ceiling, listening to Sam grumble.
“I can’t sleep either,” a new voice announced. “We should just talk until morning. Only Merry’s managed to fall asleep anyway.”
In the darkness, Frodo could just see the dim silhouette of Pippin sitting up in bed, leaning back against the wall. With a resigned sigh, Sam turned over, propped himself up one elbow.
“Aye, it’s no use,” Sam said. “Ever since Mister Butterbur gave us that warnin’, me blood’s up an’ it won’ come down.”
Frodo raised his arms, tucked his hands under his head. But his right hand ached – another reminder of the wound, of the Ring – and so he pulled it down, laid it against his chest, fingering the Evenstar lightly with his middle finger. Quiet. Merry’s soft snoring.
“Well,” he whispered, “what do you want to talk about, Pip?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Anything. Preferably something light and funny. I’m tired of all the ill news we seem to get.”
“Aye…” Sam concurred. “An’ even the pipe-weed’s gone out? By me ol’ gaffer, I’ve never heard of a pipe-weed shortage. Why, it’s never happened before, that’s for sure. What do ye think it means, Mister Frodo?”
“We’ll see tomorrow evening,” Frodo sighed.
“I can’t even imagine,” Pippin said softly. “Tomorrow evening and we’ll be sleeping in our own beds…”
“And back to double breakfasts with proper tea,” Frodo added.
A snort. “Aye…”
Silence. They fell to thinking. Even breathing. Frodo let his thoughts wander. He remembered mornings with Bilbo, and the sweet tea Bilbo used to make. He remembered mornings spent in the study, reading elvish books or studying maps with yellow edges. Evenings at The Green Dragon. Cheese biscuits. Litheday festivals. Visiting cousins in Buckland. Bilbo’s eleventeenth birthday, the youngest Blackfoot child’s high-pitched giggle.
There was a knock at the door which caused all three hobbits to jump. Immediately, Frodo’s heart pounded and his wounded finger throbbed. He heard Sam scramble for his hidden sword. Pippin was gasping for air. The pounding continued. Frodo thought absurdly: A nazgûl doesn’t knock. Ruffians? Slowly, Sam edged out of his bed, tiptoed to the door. He looked back to Frodo and Pippin, nodded. Merry muttered something in his sleep, turned over.
All three heaved a great sigh of relief when Sam swung the door open and had to dodge out of the way as Boromir stumbled in. Even in the dark, Frodo recognized the Man’s large figure, reeling. His heavy tread. And he saw the Man stumble forward, arms outstretched, before knocking his knees against Sam’s disheveled bed and cursing fluently.
“Boromir?” Sam asked, whispering.
Frodo leaned over to his bedside table, grabbed a match, lit the candle. Boromir hissed at the flickering candlelight, shielding his eyes. He looked bleary, rumpled. Sam came forward, took hold of his arm to steady him.
“Where’s Pippin?” Boromir slurred, speaking loud. “I must speak with Pippin.”
“I’m right here,” Pippin said. He had moved forward and was sitting on the end of his bed. “What is it?”
At this, Boromir straightened, staggered the few steps to Pippin’s bed before leaning forward, clumsily, taking the hobbit’s face in his hands and kissing the curly head. Frodo chuckled. And then Boromir, hobbling, uneven, knelt. He cupped the hobbit’s face in his hands.
“Little one, think you ever of Amon Hen? Little Pippin?”
Pippin glanced uncomfortably to Frodo. Acknowledging the call for help, Frodo climbed out of bed, joined Sam at Boromir’s side.
“I suppose I do, sometimes,” Pippin said, and Boromir promptly enveloped him in a hug, burying the hobbit’s face against him so that Pippin’s smaller arms flailed helplessly at the side.
“Ai me, so do I!”
Laughing slightly, Frodo stepped forward, pulled at the Man’s shoulder.
“Come on, Boromir, I think it’s time for bed…”
“Frodo!” Boromir turned – and Frodo was surprised to see trails of tears glistening against his cheeks. Voice cracking, the Man pulled Frodo into the embrace as well, shoving him next to Pippin. A kiss against his hair. “Frodo! Forgive me! ‘Twas madness – aye, when they say Boromir the Mad, if they only knew! Forgive me for that day!”
His face stuffed against the Man’s doublet, Frodo smelled all the harsh whiskey and sweat and leathery scent rubbed into the cloth. He gave Boromir a few comforting pats with his free hand, all the while trying to wriggle himself free. Beside him, he could feel Pippin also pushing away from the Man. But Boromir simply squeezed further, burying his nose in their curls, rocking back and forth.
“Do not forget that I love you as brothers, all four of you, and that Gondor shall ever – ever see you as her sons…”
“Come on, Mister Boromir…” Sam said gently. “Let’s go.”
Reluctantly, and with a final kiss on each curly head, the Man allowed his grip to relax on Frodo and Pippin, so that the two hobbits were left gasping. From the other side of the room, they could hear Merry mumbling to himself as he came slowly awake. When Boromir knocked against something as he stood, nearly stumbling to his side, Merry snorted, jerked awake. The hobbit stared at all of them, still half-asleep.
“What in the name of Sam’s gaffer is going on?”
“Nothing, Merry, Boromir’s just assuring us Gondor’s loyalty,” Frodo chuckled.
With a grunt, Merry flopped back down into the pillow, turned to his other side. “Oh, mother of Belma, enough’s enough, Boromir! Don’t you think so?” He muttered several more imprecations before falling again asleep.
Frodo and Pippin exchanged a look, smiling, and Pippin mouthed a humorous Mother of Belma? Meanwhile, Sam was still tugging at the Man, coaxing him back onto his feet and out of the room. Blearily, Boromir stumbled forward, bent down over Sam’s bed, clearly intending to collapse onto it.
“No, no, no,” Sam said quickly, vainly trying to pull the Man away. Frodo stood, hastened over to help him. “No, that’s a hobbit-size bed, Mister Boromir. Come on, we’ve got to get you to your own room, to a Big Person bed. A bit o’ help, Mister Frodo?”
“I’m right here, Sam,” Frodo said, and he took hold of Boromir’s arm. “Come on, Boromir. It’s time to go. We need to get up and going – Aragorn’s waiting, Boromir. Come on, Legolas and Gimli are already making camp.”
Boromir nodded loosely, pulled back long enough to ruffle Frodo’s curls with a clumsy hand and a clumsy smile. He then fell forward, nearly toppling over Sam. And so, slowly and colliding often with the doorframe, the door, the corridor wall, other doors, Sam and Frodo pulled, urged, tugged Boromir along, at one point helping the Man back to his feet when they all went stumbling to the ground outside his door. The two hobbits attempted to whisper and keep the noise down, but Boromir often spoke loud, laughing harshly or softening to his usual tearful apologies.
Finally, they reached the free room – apparently Boromir’s, for Sam nearly fell when he stepped on an empty bottle, rolling on its side, and slipped. The moonlight streamed in from the open window. A cold wind. As Sam helped the Man into bed, fully clothed, Frodo hurried over to the window, worked to close it.
“I need – where is Second One?” Boromir was struggling to get up. “I need to tell him of First One – ai, First One!” Tears.
“Now jus’ settle down, Mister Boromir, yer as drunk as a Sandyman,” Sam said, attempting to keep the Man down. “Mister Second One’s fine – an’ so’s Mister First One and Mister Third One and Mister Fourth One, too…”
“Nay, I – I need – ”
Frodo understood just in time to dive forward, pulling Sam’s hand away. “Sam, I think he needs to – ”
Boromir pushed them both away, jerked to his side and retched over the side of the bed. With a startled yelp, Sam jumped back, colliding into Frodo. Once he was finished, the Man fell back with a groan. Moments later, he was asleep. Silence. Frodo and Sam looked at each other in the dim light.
Sam sighed. “We’ll be needin’ that window open again, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, I don’t feel right leavin’ all this for ol’ Nob to clean up. And I’d wager Mister Boromir’s not quite finished yet, if you take my meaning. Looks like we’re here for the night.”
Frodo shrugged, walked over to the window. In the east, he saw the faintest glimmer of light.
“Almost dawn,” he said.
From behind him, he could hear Sam dragging over a bucket, searching for some towels. “Aye?”
“Well, thas’ a relief. I thought this night would never end.”
“We’ll be leaving in a few hours.” Frodo touched the Evenstar at his neck again. And then, from the bed, a choking sound, coughing. He turned to see Sam helping Boromir to his side.
“Easy, easy now, Mister Boromir, that’s it…”
Once the Man heaved the rest of last night’s meal, and flopped back down onto the bed, mumbling about First One again, Sam began pouring the water from the basin into the bucket. He dipped a towel in, knelt down. Frodo meant to help, but despite himself, he hesitated. After a few moments of indecision, he stepped forward, took the second towel, dipped it in the water.
“Oh no, no, Mister Frodo, not you. This ain’t work for a gentlehobbit like yerself. Just keep an eye on him, I’ll take care a the rest.”
“It’s a foul business, Sam, I’d rather help you. Two will finish it sooner than one, anyway.”
He knelt down, began scrubbing at the wood. Meanwhile, the light – a soft pink. Dawn. They would meet the others outside, in the frigid morning air, shivering beside their horses. Frodo frowned at the smell, but he smiled inwardly when thinking about their departure. It had become such a familiar sight, especially in the last few months, of Merry and Pippin standing next to their ponies, stamping their feet, rubbing their hands together, whispering some inane quip or carrying on with Shire gossip while Gandalf pretended not to listen.
“Guh, what we’d need here are some pinchers,” Sam said, wrinkling his nose. “Now, I’ve got a lot a respect for the Man – despite everything – but when it comes down to it, he’s become a rank stinking drunkard an’ no mistake.”
Frodo sat back on his heels.
“Aye… but it will be a pity to see him go. Merry and Pippin have always been rather fond of him,” he added with a smile, “despite everything.” A pause. Frodo turned his head, looked out the window. Already, the pale light was spreading. “Minas Tirith has nothing for him now.”
Sam shrugged, kept cleaning.
“Can you imagine that, Sam? Coming back to find your home unrecognizable? Everything different, the Shire changed, and for the worse?”
“Now, Mister Frodo, there’s no sense thinkin’ like that. That’s those dark places talkin’, not you. I’m sure Minas Tirith is the same as it was before Mister Boromir left it, and I’m sure the Shire is just the same as we left it too. It’s not the places that change, Mister Frodo, it’s us. An’ so they just look different.”
“And feel different.”
“Aye, that too. But it’ll be the same old Bag End once you’re back in it, you’ll see. I jus’ hope the old gaffer’s kept the garden in order – I don’ want a be pullin’ weeds out fer the next month.”
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