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Chapter Three: Three is Company (Four is a Hiking Expedition)

Well, September the twenty-third arrived, as it had always meant to. I'd talked things over with Frodo; he had agreed I would walk to Crickhollow with him, Pippin and Sam (my explanation was I needed to speak to Gandalf, who would presumably be coming to the house if he had not reached Bag End by the twenty-third). I'd also talked things over with Sam, Merry and Pippin; they'd agreed I would be going with the four of them at least as far as Bree, after leaving the Shire. My job was still keeping Frodo distracted while the packing went on, which I was doing by getting lessons in just about anything. My explanation was I wanted to know as much as possible, just in case Gandalf couldn't send me back to my own world. The party on the twenty-second went well, although I left them to it. I stayed in the kitchen keeping an eye on things: my thank-you gift to the four of them.

I got my first glimpse of the Sackville-Bagginses on the twenty-second. Lobelia was one of those sharp, pinched women, the type who looks like she spends her entire life sucking lemons. I mentioned this description to Frodo, who nearly burst out laughing in front of her (which is what I'd intended anyway. He was looking almost as depressed as me at my worst when she and her lout of a son came by). Lotho leered at me most rudely, until I gave him a glare, at which point he went and hid behind his mother. Little pipsqueak lout. He really made me appreciate the good manners of Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam, as well as those of Fatty and Folco, all of whom had been most considerate and gentlemanly about the whole business. After I'd glared at him, he confined his gaze to the rest of the room, but his comments and his mother's about "Strange sluts from who knows where," and "no better than she should be," were perfectly audible. I was strongly tempted to take the little blowhard and shake him until his teeth rattled, as well as giving Mistress Lobelia a rather large piece of my mind.

Fortunately, Sam was able to come up with an explanation of who I was which satisfied the pair of them: I was a messenger from Gandalf, sent to look after Frodo's affairs here in Bag End and help him with the move. Good thinking, Sam! (One of the things people tend to forget about Master Gamgee is his creativity on the fly. I keep wondering where it came from. Maybe it's a result of a career of "explaining" to the Gaffer where he was when he was meant to be at work.) Of course, Mistress Lobelia then tried to hire me to work for her instead. Fortunately, I could say with perfect truth I had to accompany Mister Baggins to meet up with Gandalf, so I was unable to accept her offer. The sour-faced old bat took it in bad grace. Thank gods they went.

So we were finally off. The last lights had been quenched, the door had been locked, and I was following behind Frodo and Pippin on the way to the meadow gate at the bottom of the Hill. I had a pack of my own, with all my clothes rolled up good and tight in it, as well as a bedroll, some food for a couple of days and some blankets. I was back in my jeans and the long-sleeved t-shirt I had landed in: both black, which meant I was a bit harder to spot. Add the black velvet coat, and my bag (a black knapsack) and I was all set. My keys were all in my pockets, so they wouldn't jingle as much, while the Leatherman was on my belt, in its customary position near the middle of my back. Sam and Frodo were joshing each other about their packs, and Pippin was busy teasing the pair of them.

"Which way are we going?" I asked quietly. Frodo gestured with his stick, toward the fields, and led us off. I tried to move silently, something which was helped a little by the fact I'm a bit taller than the three of them, and I could therefore afford to stride out a bit more and place my feet carefully. Even so, they moved like shadows, while I moved like a moderately quiet rustle in the bushes. Part of it, I think, is I was wearing my boots, while they were barefoot. I can move silently when I want to, but the boots make it difficult, even on concrete. Speaking of the boots, I became more and more aware of the tiny patch on my right heel where the heel cup of my boot is just a half a centimetre too high for my actual heel and goes in where I go out and rubs and rubs and rubs and owwwwwwww. I was going to have a blister. What a wonderful adventure.

The walk continued for ages and ages, or so I felt, until I was so tired I could almost drop in my tracks. I was trailing behind and Pippin was starting to straggle behind with me. Eventually, he spoke up and asked for rest (a sentiment I concurred with). We all found a resting place in a little glade beneath some trees. I slept soundly for the first time in weeks. Exhaustion is a wonderful sleeping draught. The next morning dawned foggy. I seem to get woken up by the breaking of day, no matter where I am. I was stiff, aching and footsore. There was another day of walking to face. Time to start practicing those stretches I learned in dance class in earnest, as well as those few yoga postures I could remember from years ago. By then, Frodo had awoken, and I was about ready to burst. So while he woke up the others, I found a quiet bush to hide behind and rediscovered the joys of being female, in trousers, without plumbing (otherwise known as "How Not To Piss In Yer Boots"). Okay, so skirts have their uses. At least the leaves on the bush were the right size and the right type for what was necessary. Also luckily, I'd been so stressed out by the whole translocation my period hadn't started yet.

When I came back to the campsite, Frodo had gone for a wander (probably for much the same reason as myself) and Sam and Pippin were just starting to get themselves out of their blankets. I started gathering together some wood, to get the fire going again. Pippin commented he hoped Frodo would bring back some water with him. I took a look at where our packs were stacked: the water bottles were sitting there. "I think you're out of luck, Pippin," I laughed. Sam and I settled down to getting the breakfast ready; bacon, eggs, tomatoes and a few sausages each for the hobbits, while I just had an apple. Pippin gathered up the blankets and rolled them up for each of us, then found himself a bush to water as well. I watched the breakfast while Sam went and watered another one. Pippin and Frodo went to get some water and a wash, then watched the breakfast for Sam and I while we went and washed. After breakfast, and a cup of tea (hot water for me; tea seemed to burn a hole in my stomach these days, and there's no chocolate to be had anywhere in Middle Earth for love nor magic) we packed up and set off again.

The weather was warm and sunny. I took off my coat and stuffed it into my bag, while the hobbits took off their cloaks and jackets and tied them around their waists. But on we walked, over hill, over dale, sometimes singing as we went, sometimes not. As we topped a steep hill, everyone would stop and look at the road heading off into the distance. It was a beautiful sight, seeing the lowlands of the Shire and the Brandywine river off in the distance. There's nothing quite like it back on Earth. We stopped on a hilltop looking down toward Buckland for a rest and for lunch, then we moved off again.

About an hour or so later, Sam said he thought he heard a pony, and Frodo suggested that we get off the road and hide. Sam chose to stay with Frodo. I hid around the corner from them, with Pippin. I watched the black rider, as he dismounted and sniffed after the hobbits. All was going according to the story, when the Rider appeared to notice me, where I was crouched with Pippin. It turned toward me, almost looking at me - I would swear it saw me, no matter how hard I was trying to hide. But I can't explain what it did next, not in any way. It bowed in my direction, remounted, then rode off. I heard a gasp from Pippin beside me, and looked down to see him looking at me as though I'd turned into someone else.

"What's wrong, Pippin?" I asked.

"When that ... that rider looked at you, I could have sworn I saw someone different standing there, instead of you. Someone with scars on her face, along here." He gestured at his left cheekbone. "She didn't look nice, either. All cruel and hard. But she looked like you too."

I felt an odd sense of foreboding. "Would you recognise her if she appeared again?" I asked him. He nodded. I nodded slowly back. Something wasn't right here, but I didn't know what.

When Frodo and Sam rejoined us, Pippin was still looking shaken. After Frodo described the black rider and his actions, Pippin described what had happened to me, or rather, what he had seen.

"I can't believe the two aren't linked," he finished. "But what has one of the Big People got to do with us? And why is he in this part of the world?"

I listened as Sam told his tale of the stranger who'd been speaking to the Gaffer the previous night as well as to the discussion which had followed. I was trying to piece things together in my head, but at the moment I couldn't figure it out. I guessed there was an underlying pattern here, but at the moment, I was missing a lot of different pieces. I just hoped I found them. At least I knew the story was going mainly along the right track at this stage. although the fact it had drifted even slightly off course this early was worrying. Was my presence having such an influence?

We moved on.

Now we were walking off the road, keeping out of sight as much as possible. Dinner was in the bole of an old tree, then on again, trying to get as much of the distance between ourselves and Buckland cut down. I hummed along with them as they walked singing their song about Adventures, trying to keep my spirits up as much as possible. As the song finished, Frodo cocked his head and stated he could hear hoofs again. We slipped off the road and back into the darkness, hiding behind some trees. Once again, the Rider behaved curiously, appearing to be torn between chasing Frodo and chasing me. Oh gods, was my presence going to be confusing them the whole time? Thank heavens the elves would be along shortly. Yes, there were the shadows in the wood behind us changing - more light. The rider turned, mounted its horse once again, and moved off.

"Meg, Meg, are you all right?"

The voice was Pippin's. He was looking up at me again, concerned. "You were looking like that other person again. Your eyes were sort of glowing too. What is happening?"

"I don't know, Pippin. I really don't know. But I'm all right, I think."

His face showed his disbelief. "That's twice in the one day that you've gone all odd. Both times when those black riders are about, too," he said. "I'm worried about you, Meg. Are you going to be able to reach Buckland with us?"

I gave him a shaky smile. "I'll make it," I said.

Then the sound of the singing became more clear to us. I looked at Frodo, who'd come back to join us. He explained that yes, it was elves, coming this way. We all crept down to the side of the road and watched the elves go past. I'd never seen anything quite so beautiful. Something made them realise we were there. The final elf turned, noticed Frodo sitting among us and greeted him by name. Apparently three hobbits and a woman are a strange combination to be wandering through the Shire in the dead of night (no kidding!). So the greetings were exchanged, although Pippin interrupted to ask them about the Black Riders. This got them all talking among themselves. Elves going into a huddle looks most unusual; it's sort of like a gathering of fireflies, because of the glow about them, but very silent, very gentle. It was still rather startling to realise I could understand quite a lot of what was discussed, missing only the occasional word, especially when I know I don't understand Sindarin when I'm back home. Anyway, the end result of this was the elven group decided to take us with them on the evening's travel, which was rather reassuring. (I keep worrying my presence is going to throw the quest off its true course, which is frightening; I don't want to be single-handedly responsible for the downfall of Middle Earth). So off we set again, this time in the middle of a group of elves. Once again, I felt like a great clumsy wazzock. Drat.

Eventually we reached the elves glade and curled up in a corner. Pippin was so tired and exhausted from the day's excitements that he fell asleep. I must admit I was fairly close to the same state myself. I was feeling exhausted to the core. I think I slept for a while.

I awoke to find a large fire glowing in the distance and a she-elf (or at least, I think it was a she-elf; it's very hard to tell whether a particular elf is male or female on first glance) sitting beside me awaiting my awakening.

She (it was a she, on second glance) smiled at me and said "Your friends said you had not been well today, so they asked we let you sleep. If you wish, I am skilled in healing, and I may be able to help you?"

I smiled back ruefully. "What was their exact wording? I hadn't quite been myself?"

She looked at me and nodded. "It seems the riders are affecting you strangely," she commented.

"Yes, that's one way of putting it. A better way of putting it is I appear to be affecting the riders strangely. I don't know why, either, which is worrying."

"The leader of our band has said you are not join the gathering unless it is certain you are not an agent of the dark powers." The statement from the she-elf was blunt. I nodded in response.

"What would be required to ascertain this?" I asked her.

I have been trained by the Lady of Lothlorien. The voice was within my mind. May I enter within your thoughts, to ascertain you are not of the Dark?

I nodded again. I didn't really have a choice, after all. I needed to get to Rivendell. I knew this particular group of elves was in communication with the elves of Rivendell. They would be sending a messenger by their own roads to Elrond himself to warn of the hobbits and of the Black Riders. If they also chose to warn I wasn't to be trusted, I wasn't clearly of the light, then I wouldn't be allowed entry to Rivendell.

"Do you need me to do anything?" I asked. "I've never done this sort of thing before. My first time."

A chuckle came from the elf opposite me. "Like all first times, what is required is that you relax. Look toward the fire over there," she gestured in the direction of the bonfire, "and clear your mind of all thought. I shall be placing images in your mind, in order to see what comes to your mind first as a reaction."

I did as instructed, clearing my mind. A procession of images flickered through behind my vision. Flames, light, trees, stars, hideous faces, beautiful faces, mountains, grasslands, too many images for me to categorise or respond to with any sense of rationality. Indeed, they barely registered in my mind. After a minute or so, it was done.

"You are not of the dark, in so far as I can tell," the she-elf told me. I nodded. "You may be turned into a tool of the dark, but it will not be without a fight on your part. Yet there is something strange within your mind, memories and thoughts which do not fit what I know of Men."

"It's a long story," I told her. She smiled at me.

"In which case, I hope I am able to hear it one day. My name is Annunael"

She extended a hand and led me to the gathering by the fire. I was given food and drink. I looked around to see Sam and Pippin both spellbound. I could hear from some of the comments of the elves they thought it rather amusing to see the sheer joy on the faces of the two younger hobbits. Frodo was being treated in a princely fashion, something which is being assisted by his speaking occasional words of Sindarin. Thanks to Frodo's teaching, I'd learned a few words of Sindarin myself and I used them to thank those around me. Whenever I remember that night it is the singing of the elves which surrounds me. I keep finding myself regretting all the times I've ever said I had a good singing voice. I now know this to be a lie: beside an elf with a head cold, a sore throat and laryngitis, I still sound like a crow croaking my way through a song. The sound will remain with me for the rest of my life. I don't know if I'll ever be able to sing again without remembering it.

Eventually Frodo and I were the only ones left awake. Gildor, the leader of the elves, eventually sent Frodo off to sleep, but before I could go myself, he laid a hand on my arm.

"You, traveller from another world, what would you do?".

I looked at him. "I would return to my home. I cannot do this under my own power, but I hope Gandalf may be able to do this for me. If this is not the case, I would hope I may be able to build myself a home here on Middle Earth. I may not have a choice in the matter."

"But you know what stands in your path?"

"I know. In my world, this is a tale, one I've read many times. I worry my presence will skew the tale, change the ending, cause all to take the wrong path. The hobbits don't know I've effectively seen their futures. If I let them know, they'll keep asking me what they should do, which will change the story even more."

He nodded. "Annunael saw much in your mind, much which brings hope to us, even if it does not bring hope to you at this present. I would say your path lies with the Ring, at least as far as Rivendell."

I bowed my head. I decided not to quote the same proverb as Frodo.

"My thanks both to yourself, lord, and to Annunael for this gift. With your permission, I shall join my companions in rest." He nodded at me again, and I withdrew to the bower in the trees, carrying Sam with me.

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