1. Green Grows the Holly
Six days had passed since the Fellowship departed Rivendell. The grey cold of that last evening remained with them as they made their way slowly southwards, through tumbled and desolate terrain. The land itself was colorless and somber, with no greenery to break the monotony around them. What trees there were had long been stripped of their leaves in the fierce wind that blew steadily from the Misty Mountains to the east.
Gandalf frowned up at the edge of the hollow where the wind whistled and tugged at the tangled bushes which sheltered them. They were well hidden beneath the screen of twisted branches, but there was nothing to stop the icy blast flowing down from above.
"At least we are protected from prying eyes, if not from the frigid wind," remarked Aragorn, who sat at Gandalf's side, wrapped in a blanket as well as his heavy cloak.
"Yes," Gandalf agreed. "This is a good place -- as far as being hidden from prying eyes is concerned. But there is little comfort to be had in taking rest, without a warming fire. It could be worse, however; at least there is no snow to hinder us, as there will most certainly be if we take the High Pass over the mountains."
Aragorn sighed heavily.
"So that is why you sit here with me instead of resting in the warmth of your blanket! You wish to debate our route south with me once more."
"Debate is part of coming to a decision, and we must decide sooner or later. Have you taken any more thought on the route I have proposed?"
"I have," answered Aragorn, frowning. "And I am still against taking that path, unless all else fails. Gandalf, why are you so determined to attempt such a dark and evil road? It is dangerous!"
"Yes, it is dark and evil, but we do not know for certain how dangerous it might prove," Gandalf insisted. "It could well be that Balin's folk are there still, and their aid at that juncture would be invaluable. Also, it could mean a shorter road in the long run, and since time is of the essence in this quest, I deem that a worthwhile risk, in spite of the danger."
Aragorn shook his head.
"You admit that there is danger, then. As for the Dwarves, there has been no word from their colony in far too long. I deem it folly to assume they would still be there, unharmed -- more likely it is they who need aid, and we would encounter the same trap into which they have fallen!"
Gandalf raised his hand to stay Aragorn's retort.
"Aragorn, I value your judgment, and understand why you fear that road. I will not say you are wrong in what you fear. But the other way may prove just as dangerous. If nothing else, the cold will be severe and the snow impossible for the little ones."
"I know! But at least cold and snow are well-known enemies and can be prepared against to some extent. That other way..."
"Hush now," cautioned Gandalf. "The others are wakeful, and might overhear our discussion -- and I am not yet ready to share our debate with them. Let us put this decision aside for a while longer. We still have time before we must choose our way."
Glancing over at the others who lay wrapped in blankets on the floor of the hollow, Aragorn saw that at least one of the Fellowship was indeed awake. Boromir lay quietly, eyes wide open, glancing around the sheltered dell or staring up through the tangled branches at the grey sky overhead. He had a thoughtful expression upon his face, but gave no indication that he had overheard Gandalf and Aragorn's conversation.
As if coming to a sudden decision, Boromir rose and unwrapped himself from his blankets. He shook them out, and laid them over the hobbits who slept huddled together close by. Looking up, he saw Aragorn and Gandalf watching him, and nodded to them.
"I expect it will be time to rouse them and be on our way before long," he said in a low voice, so as not to disturb the slumberers. "Until then, however, the little ones should be kept as warm as possible in this weather. This cold is no more than I am accustomed to from my own travels in the mountains, but I fear they are not yet used to it."
"Does one ever really get used to it, I wonder?" Aragorn replied thoughtfully. "I, too, have traveled in places where cold and greyness settle in the heart and in the bones. Even those of us who are strong can find it hard to bear at times."
"Yes," agreed Boromir. "The greyness is hard to bear, particularly on this day..."
Aragorn nodded, and Boromir turned away.
"I must stretch my legs," he said over his shoulder as he climbed up and out of the hollow. "Fear not, I shall not go far, and will return shortly."
By the time Boromir returned, the others were awake and moving about the camp.
"Boromir!" exclaimed Pippin as he strode down the slope. "Where have you been? You almost missed our meal -- such as it is! I know it's too risky to have a fire and all, but I sure wish we could eat something warm for change..."
Pippin sighed heavily and the other hobbits sighed along with him.
"What do you have there, Boromir?" Frodo questioned, looking curiously at Boromir's bundled cloak which he carried gingerly in his arms.
"It is something I hope will cheer us," Boromir replied. "If we cannot have a fire or the sunlight to warm us, we need something else to lift our spirits."
He set his bundle down in the midst of the group and unwrapped it. Inside lay a long branch of holly, with glossy green leaves and bright red berries.
"Mind the sharp spines," he cautioned as the others moved in for a closer look. Their exclamations of pleasure brought a look of satisfaction to the Gondorian's face.
"Your holly is appropriate for the day, Boromir," said Gandalf with a broad smile. "Today is the sixth day since we left Rivendell, and that brings us to the last day of the year. Yule, as the Halflings call it -- Mettarë as it is known in Gondor."
"Indeed!" said Boromir. "That was in my mind, also, particularly after I saw this holly growing along our path further back. The little ones have been telling me of their traditions for marking the year's end, and it recalled to me one of our own customs, where we bring in greenery from outside and decorate the city and our homes. Holly is well-loved for such festivities, since the leaves retain their freshness and the berries are brightly colored. Even in Ithilien under the Shadow, the green of holly stays bright and is not subdued. What could be more encouraging when it is cold and grey outside than a bit of green to cheer the heart?"
"Encouraging, indeed!" laughed Aragorn. "If I recall correctly, is there not also a custom of taking mead together after the gathering of the greenery?"
"There is," answered Boromir. "Alas, I do not carry mead with me. However, as it happens, I do have a skin of wine I can contribute. It will be warming and make our cold fare seem more palatable, perhaps."
Gandalf shook his head in wonderment.
"We owe Boromir much this day," he exclaimed. "If not for him, we would have little cheer this Yule. Come then, bring out the wine and let us drink to the end of year."
"And to success and safety in the next," chimed in Frodo, "though both seem far away at the moment."
"To success and safety in the new year," they agreed in unison.
The wineskin was passed around, the meal finished, and then came the preparations for continuing their journey. Gandalf watched with quiet amusement as Boromir carefully affixed sprigs of holly to the coats of each of the hobbits.
"Green grows the holly that cheers the heart," he said softly. "Holly is also said by some to guard against evil. May it be so! Guard these little ones as you bring encouragement and the lifting of spirits!"