1. A Cat of a Different Colour
The day had dawned overcast and chill. Merry shivered and his attention was drawn to the sky as a huge flock of geese took wing in one swift motion, the loudness of their honking cries creating a stir amongst the smaller avian population in the surrounding trees. He shook his head in wonder and an easy smile crept across his face as the sight transported him back to a simpler time for just a moment. A time when he was younger, a little more trusting, even a bit naïve, before the cares and responsibilities he faced today.
Before the Ring and the feeling of darkness it summoned in his heart.
He sighed, an action that did not go unnoticed by his elder cousin. Frodo watched him with concern. Merry shook his head once more and gave him a tired smile. Frodo seemed to immediately understand and said nothing, merely raising an eyebrow and giving a slight nod in acknowledgement of his cousin's weariness. Merry glanced over at Pippin, who was preoccupied with chattering a storm of comments and questions, all directed at the big man of Gondor who seemed to be taking it all in his stride. Boromir even appeared amused.
Merry was pleased with the way the two of them had struck up a fast friendship right from the beginning. They had barely started the long and treacherous journey to Mordor when he realized he'd only had a small understanding of what their Quest entailed. True, he was not as naïve as Pippin, nevertheless, he hadn't yet quite grasped the full significance. He was beginning to comprehend it now.
The night had been a difficult one, long and tiring. They had covered much ground, albeit rocky and hilly all the way, and were exhausted. Merry was coming to a gradual realization of the dangers they faced as he listened and learned. He hoped Pippin could remain blissfully unaware for some time yet. He knew his little cousin would soon be forced to grow up fast and he despaired at his inability to shield him from the hurt he suspected was coming. Still, they had been united in their determination to accompany Frodo, wishing to be of some comfort and assistance to him in every way they were able.
All around him the Company sought out the most accommodating areas in which to deposit their belongings and prepare a place to rest as they made camp for the day.
Sam was already setting up the stones for the fire and gathering small sticks and pieces of wood. The hobbit gave Merry the impression of a mother goose happily scurrying about as he nurtured his flock with ease and determination, always making certain everything was attended to properly. The thought was oddly comforting and Merry enjoyed the scene as Sam saw to Frodo's comfort while still in the midst of his breakfast preparations. The Ringbearer endured his friend's fussing with a practiced and dignified aplomb that warmed his younger cousin's heart.
He turned his attention to Gandalf. The grey wizard was busying himself with his pack, poking around in its depths and muttering to himself in apparent irritation. Merry hid his grin as he removed his own burden from his shoulders and squatted to place his things on the ground. Gandalf's bark was worse than his bite and Merry chuckled to himself at the wizard's façade. This was a truth he had learned many years ago. Gandalf had a fondness for hobbits that was never difficult to see in his manner and speech. Merry revelled in the feeling of security he felt in his steadfast presence.
A soft low voice caught his attention and he twisted to look across their campsite. Aragorn and Legolas were deep in earnest conversation. Nearby, the dwarf leaned against a tree drawing on his pipe and surveying the immediate area with a keen eye. He had one stubby leg drawn up, his booted foot pressed against the trunk.
Feigning disinterest, Merry rummaged through his things while straining his ears to hear what the man and elf were discussing. He noticed Gimli shared an equal attentiveness to their words. As he watched the dwarf eavesdrop Merry's conscience nudged him gently and he felt a guilty blush creeping up his neck. He knew better than to listen in on the conversation of others. After all, he'd been well brought up. Merry reasoned that he would change in many ways on this journey but hoped that acquiring bad manners would not be one of them. Strange the way he could be so far away from home and still feel as though he had never left.
He eased his attention away from the private conversation and his self-conscious musings were cut short by the sound of musical laughter. Merry couldn't help grinning as he swung around to watch the smaller hobbit. Pippin shared his delight of the moment with Boromir who laughed heartily, and the sound was pure harmony as their voices mingled. He didn't know what was so amusing but that didn't matter. It was enough to behold the light-hearted moment amidst the solemnity so often thrust upon them now. He felt his spirits lift and his own laughter mixed with theirs.
"Merry!" Pippin noticed his cousin's scrutiny and gestured for him to join them.
"What is it, Pip?" Merry's grin widened as he made his way to them.
"Boromir was just telling me one of his tales and I wonder if he's making it all up. Come, give me your opinion." Pippin squinted up at his friend. "Go on, tell my cousin what you just told me. We'll see if he believes a word of it."
"Peregrin! Would I tell you anything but the truth, lad? Why, I'm utterly crushed by your disbelief!"
"Aye, certainly you are. Why, you seem to be of a mind that I'll believe anything I'm told! I may be young but I've a fair sense of what's fact and what's a wee bit of leg pulling." Pippin nodded at his cousin and winked. "Right Merry?"
Merry pursed his lips thoughtfully but said nothing, his amusement only growing as he regarded the still chuckling pair.
"Ah, I was just telling Pippin a tale about the mystical tortoiseshell cat of Gondor. 'Tis a legend we were brought up on."
"See? I told you so. A legend indeed! And here you are trying to tell me in all earnestness that this is a story of truth, not utter folly."
"Aye, well young sir, the tale of this mysterious feline is one worthy of consideration. After all, many a great truth is at the core of myths of old."
"Perhaps. And perhaps too, you are just having a good laugh at my expense!"
Pippin continued to grin, his feelings obviously none too offended by Boromir's jesting. The big man placed a hand on his shoulder as he bent to look him in the eye.
"We shall see, eh? I believe it would make a grand fireside tale for this morning. What do you think?" Boromir tilted his head in question at both hobbits.
"I'm inclined to believe it would have been more appropriate for the Eve of Samhain! All right then, we'll look forward to hearing it. Won't we Merry?"
"Of course Pip. Boromir is as good at spinning a tale as you are. It should prove to be highly entertaining."
"Ah, you are either complimenting me mightily or pulling my own leg now, Merry." Boromir grinned and patted Merry on the back before leaving them alone. The sound of his chuckling faded away as the halflings stared after him.
A cat that could forecast the future, indeed! Both shook their curly heads and exchanged a knowing smile before returning to their tasks.
Pippin made himself comfortable next to the small fire and leaned forward to warm his icy hands while thinking ruefully how much he'd come to appreciate this little comfort in the face of its rarity. Ah, how much he had taken for granted when life was soft and comfortable! He studied his returning cousins, watching from beneath his long lashes while poking at the fire with a long stick he'd retrieved from their supply of wood. Merry flopped down next to him and extended his own hands to the inviting warm glow.
"Well," Merry leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially, "are we going to hear Boromir's tale?"
Pippin shrugged and casually shifted his gaze to where Frodo now rested between Sam and Gandalf. The wizard stuffed his pipe and watched them all wordlessly as Gimli joined them and immediately busied himself in a like manner. The Ranger leaned against the closest tree while Legolas crouched nearby and tended to his weapons. It appeared they all awaited the promised story and several of them glanced expectantly at the man of Gondor as he took a seat and lounged back easily against a tree. The only sound was the crackling of the campfire until the sharp cry of a hawk caused Pippin to startle. Several chuckles made the youngest hobbit look around sheepishly.
"You should be used to that sound by now laddie," the dwarf teased.
"Aye, but my mind was on other things, that's all," Pippin defended himself, nevertheless smiling at being caught off guard.
"Well Boromir, perhaps this would be the opportune time to hear the tale you promised us?" Merry prompted.
"Why Merry, I do believe you're demonstrating even more curiosity than your young cousin is known for." Boromir tilted his head to the side with a look of mock puzzlement. "Are you turning over a new leaf?"
"Perhaps I ought to since Pippin is not readily showing his more inquisitive side today."
"Yes, do share your story, Boromir. Merry told me a little about what the two of you were discussing earlier and I admit it sounded very interesting." Frodo added his voice to the discussion and Sam nodded his agreement.
"Indeed, this is a tale I am not familiar with myself and I was certain I had heard nearly every story there was to be told in Middle-earth," Gandalf prompted.
Boromir glanced around at the rest of the group and upon seeing their unspoken encouragement he smiled warmly at his eager audience and leaned back to get more comfortable. Stretching out his long legs close to the fire he placed both hands behind his fair head and appeared to think hard. Finally he drew a breath and sighed deeply.
Pippin grinned and rolled his eyes at the big man's dramatics before settling into his blanket. He heaved a sigh of his own with no small amount of satisfaction, eager to hear the rest of the impossible tale and the others' reactions to it. The Gondorian took in the waiting expressions one by one before beginning. Pippin wondered if perhaps the big man had a wee bit more dramatic flair in him then he had assumed. His grin widened.
"This is a story that my brother always took great delight in hearing when he was a youngster so naturally I am quite familiar with it. Although, as I mentioned earlier, it is a well known legend amongst my countrymen."
"Aye, the legend of the mysterious soothsaying kitty," Pippin retorted dryly. Really, Boromir must believe I am truly gullible to even entertain such an idea. Still, the man was quite capable of spinning an entertaining yarn and he had no doubt the tale would be worth listening to, be it factual or simply a fanciful myth.
"Odd." Aragorn spoke for the first time. "I don't recall ever hearing about a future gazing feline either." The Ranger rubbed his scruffy chin and looked puzzled.
"Yes, well it is quite possible that not all the legends of Gondor reached you whilst you resided in Rivendell," Boromir reassured him. "You were bound to have missed some of the more, ahem…obscure tales."
Aragorn stared at him bemused, and waited to hear more. Boromir could contain himself no longer and burst out laughing.
"Aye, just as I thought," Pippin huffed. "'Tis all a great deal of stuff and nonsense!"
"Nay, Pippin." Boromir worked hard at controlling his mirth and finally wiped his flowing eyes and gazed warmly at the perturbed lad. "It is simply a more fanciful tale that was fashioned from another. One that is much more grim, although truthful. 'Tis the tale of Queen Beruthiel's cats."
"Ah, now there is a story I am familiar with," Aragorn nodded. "She was the wife of Tarannon, the twelfth king of Gondor," he explained. "Legend has it that she was able to communicate with her cats and read their minds. She used them as spies to keep an eye on the people of Gondor. And she was not kind to the cats either. Indeed, she was a very evil person."
Pippin folded his arms and regarded the men with a frown. "Hmph! I believe I prefer the fortune telling feline, in that case."
"You see?" Boromir laughed again. "I was trying to tell you the amusing tale that was derived from the actual one. It is much more fun. If a bit of a stretch of the truth."
"Hmm, just a bit. Oh, very well then Boromir, tell us the tale of the tortoiseshell cat." Pippin grinned, his good humour in full play. "And then," his eyes sparkled with obvious mischief, "You may tell us the other tale as well."
"Are you quite certain my lad? It is not a very happy story."
"And it does not have a happy ending, Peregrin." Aragorn warned. "At least not for Queen Beruthiel and her cats."
"But of course we must hear it now. I shan't be able to sleep for wondering about it! And then we shall have another round of tales!"
"It sounds as if we would be up all day telling tales. That would simply not do." Gandalf shook his head. "Let us save some for another time."
"Very well, but I am ready to hear this one! Do hurry up, Boromir!" Pippin settled back against his cousin, crossing his arms and lifting an impatient eyebrow.
Boromir grinned and opened his mouth to begin. "In my homeland of Gondor, many years ago, lived a beautiful queen who shared her castle with many cats. There were felines of every colour and description - black, white, and every colour imaginable in between, and many of each, save one. A sleek female kitty adorned in a coat of gleaming tortoiseshell, she was the only one of her kind! She was called Hithfaer, which means 'Mist Spirit', and like her name, her very presence invoked a sense of awe and reverence among all the people who laid eyes upon her. In Gondor it is said that a tortoiseshell cat can see into the future, and that she is capable of passing this gift on to another, whether it be animal or man."
"Ah, yes! Very mysterious." Pippin's eyes crinkled in amusement.
"Why, yes indeed young sir! More mysterious than you have any notion as yet," Boromir chuckled. "Because of her ability to predict the future people came from all around the country seeking an audience with her. They brought her gifts of food and soft feather pillows to lie upon in an effort to gain her favour. And at times she was gifted with a special herb that was said to stimulate her soothsaying powers."
"I believe I've heard of that herb," Samwise interjected. "My old Gaffer used to grow some in his vegetable garden, right in between the taters and the carrots. Attracted kitties from all around Hobbiton, it did! But he had to harvest it quickly, don't you know, before all those cats fair tore up his garden in their frenzy!"
"Yes, I know the weed you're referring to Sam," Merry snickered. "I think Pippin tried to give some of it to his cat once but--"
"She was allergic to it! All she did was sneeze!" Pippin laughed.
"Ahem! I thought you wanted to hear this tale?" Boromir frowned at them with mock sternness.
"My apologies, sir." Pippin offered, his humility equally contrived. "Please do continue."
"Hithfaer was allowed free reign in her small domain in the queen's rooms and the cat held audience once a week in a chamber in which a special diagram had been drawn upon the floor for her convenience."
"Her convenience?" Aragorn scratched his face and appeared bewildered.
"Well, despite all of her abilities as a fortune teller, the cat still could not speak Aragorn!" Boromir sounded as if that should be obvious. "So the queen had the chamber floor painted much like a child's game board, with symbols and words and many pictures depicting daily life in Gondor."
"Ah." Aragorn nodded as if this made perfect sense to him.
"You mean the cat would use the symbols to see the future, to predict what was going to transpire in the kingdom?" Frodo considered the notion for a moment. "Hmm. But would the cat's responses not be open to an interpretation of some sort?"
"Oh, of course! The Royal Interpreter was immensely important to the process. It was a position of great honour. It's my understanding that battles were fought for the right to ascend to the role whenever it became necessary to choose a successor." Boromir shook his head sadly. "A very messy business."
Pippin chuckled. "But then what happened when the cat died?"
"Then they probably fought another great battle for its successor, young hobbit!" The dwarf rolled his eyes skyward. "Naturally."
"Hithfaer was the tenth tortoiseshell cat in her line of soothsayers, Pippin." Boromir informed him seriously. "There was always another of the offspring being groomed for this hallowed position, waiting to take her place at court, never fear."
"Of course." The elf's soft voice agreed with amusement.
"But what about the Royal Interpreter?"
"Ah yes, Frodo, as I was saying, the Interpreter was revered almost as much as the kitty for he was charged with making certain Hithfaer's predictions were conveyed accurately to her audiences. And he was the queen's most trusted servant. Naturally, whoever held this position had access to many of the House's secrets but had been required to swear an oath never to reveal them.
During Hithfaer's reign the Interpreter was Barukan, a supposedly very wise elder who was chosen from the queen's inner circle of trusted servants. During the weekly audience he placed the cat in the middle of the diagram and all those present would gather around to see what she would do." Boromir fell silent.
"And?" Pippin sat forward, both eyebrows creeping into his curly hairline. "Yes?"
"Well, sometimes Hithfaer fell asleep in the middle of the floor."
"What?" Pippin sat back and folded his arms, grunting his disgust. "Well, I think…"
Boromir laughed at Pippin's reaction and raised a hand to stop him. "However, if Hithfaer slept with all four paws tucked beneath her the prediction denoted foul weather was coming."
Boromir waved his finger at them. "But sometimes… she walked the circle gracefully, ever so carefully placing one delicate foot in front of the other as if she were walking on a rope that she might tumble off. The Soothsayer sometimes touched upon particular words with her paws. And the Interpreter carefully recorded the cat's observations and dutifully reported them to the onlookers and the queen. On some occasions Hithfaer would sit upon one of the pictures and refuse to move for hours."
"Indeed." The wizard shook his head. "I would venture to assume at those moments she lost much of her captive audience then?"
"Oh no!" The Gondorian's voice grew hushed. "It was at those times the people paid even greater attention. For the longer Hithfaer crouched on the image, the greater was the strength of her prediction! The people both longed for and feared those moments you see, because the Soothsayer might foretell a momentous and happy revelation, or…" Boromir's voice fell to a whisper, "a catastrophe." The big man sat up straight and chuckled merrily. "Of course sometimes the cat was simply sleepy, having been allowed to feast on all the fine foods she was rewarded with!"
Groans emanated from his own audience and he grinned. Holding up a hand he stopped their protests. "However, on one such occasion Hithfaer sat upon the picture of a great storm cloud and stared hard at her admirers. Then she lifted her paw and began to wash her whiskers. And then her paw travelled higher and higher until…" Boromir paused for effect before whispering, "she preened the back of both of her ears!"
Pippin gaped at him, finally speaking. "Yes? And what is the significance of that? My kitty does that every time I feed her," Pippin snorted.
"Yes, but your cat cannot predict the future, can she?" Boromir asked.
"No, of course not! Well, not that I am aware of anyway. But my da says when a cat washes her face and reaches over both her ears with her paw it means we're to expect visitors."
"But not in Gondor! In my country when a cat washes behind both ears with a single paw it means one of two things."
"Aye, either she wants clean ears or you're having company!"
"Nay Pippin. And remember, she was seated on the image of the great storm cloud at the time, and for some hours, which made her prediction twice as ominous." Boromir glanced around the circle of listeners solemnly. "The Interpreter told the people Hithfaer had foreseen a great storm of terrible proportions and they would have to abandon the city for a distant refuge in order to save their lives. The storm was foretold to strike within two days because the Soothsayer had sat upon the picture for exactly two hours. Oh! The people worked themselves up into a state of frenzy and fled to their homes to prepare to abandon the great city quickly. Even the queen and her servants flew about in a state of terror packing their belongings and making ready to leave."
The little group fell quiet. Finally Frodo spoke. "And the Royal Interpreter? What did he do?"
"He watched and waited, pretending to make his own preparations. Then, at the opportune moment when all but he had fled the city, he leisurely gathered up much of the Queen's riches and packed them carefully into his waggon and on the back of his horse.
He was in no hurry of course. He had been cheerfully making up all the cat's predictions over the years whilst he laughed at the foolish people behind their backs and prepared for this day.
Oddly though, Hithfaer had reappeared in the castle and Barukan was at a loss to explain her presence for she had been packed off along with the silly queen and the other cats. As he passed by the chamber where the feline had held audience all those years he noticed she was crouched once more on the image of the huge storm cloud, washing behind her ears. 'Fools!' he snorted with an evil laugh as he exited the castle."
Boromir paused and looked slowly around the circle of his companions. The hobbits watched him, wide-eyed, forgetting their initial scepticism. Pippin held his breath.
Boromir grinned wickedly. "As Barukan rode away he happened to glance up. He saw Hithfaer perched upon the highest tower staring down at him while she washed behind both ears with one paw. The next moment a great wind blew into the city followed by a sudden downpour. The sky darkened to black and a clap of thunder loud enough to wake the very dead echoed throughout the city!
Barukan looked this way and that, his fear rising. His horse reared in terror and caused the heavily laden waggon to tilt precariously, spilling some of the queen's treasure upon the ground. Barukan dismounted and hastily retrieved his stolen goods, throwing them back into the waggon.
Meanwhile, from her vantage point upon the great tower, Hithfaer continued to stare at the robber with great distaste. As Barukan clambered back onto his horse his eye caught sight of the soothsaying feline once more. Legend says that her stony gaze enabled the man to catch a glimpse into another world and he knew in that moment what his fate was to be! The evil Interpreter cried out his anger and rage as a bolt of lightening struck him squarely in the chest and claimed his life. Hithfaer watched his demise with interest and at last rested her paw on the stone turret. She shook her sleek tortoiseshell head and stood, muttering to herself. 'Fool,' she spat."
Laughter erupted from the appreciative listeners and Pippin clapped his hands. "Oh my! So the mysterious kitty knew what was going on all along."
"Yes indeed. In this tale the cat was victorious and so was the queen because she did not lose her riches," Boromir nodded.
"Unlike evil Queen Beruthiel and her felines." Aragorn shook his head. "An extremely interesting tale, Boromir. I shall remember it."
"Aye, very interesting tale indeed." Pippin sat back and considered the story for a moment. Around him the others began to prepare for their day's rest.
"Yes, Pip?" The big man halted and looked down at the halfling.
"You never said what the other thing was. You remember, you mentioned that in Gondor when a cat washes behind her ears with a single paw it meant one of two things? A catastrophe or …?"
Boromir smiled at his small friend. "That's right. It signifies a great catastrophe. Often it is a death by accident, like Barukan's."
Pippin tilted his head to one side. "Or?"
Boromir raised his brow and chuckled softly. "Or 'tis about to rain!"
The voices of the entire Fellowship rose in a great harmony of gentle laughter and drifted through the canopy high above them.