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Fandom: Lord of the Rings
Title: 3018 Third Age, September.
Rating: Australian PG
They'd caught Butterbur on his way from the common room to the dining parlour, the way he told it to me lately. I'd been minding the tap in the common room, so I didn't see much of this. However, I did notice Strider coming in through the main door. He was looking a bit more battered than he usually did. He greeted me as usual, and took his usual place in the corner by the fire. I took a quick look over the company. Harry Goatleaf from the south gate and Bill Ferny were crouched together at their table, along with a rather sallow fellow from the party of southerners who'd arrived the day before. The Dwarves who'd come in this evening were finally starting to settle into their ale and were muttering among themselves in their own language. I wasn't listening too closely - I don't understand a word of whatever language it is they speak among themselves, but not a one of them will believe that. They're vicious beggars with their axes when they're roused and most of them are my height, if not taller.
Anyway, when I heard Barliman bellowing for Nob from out in the stableyard, I had no idea of what was happening, I just knew that I was going to lose my cup-gatherer. I couldn't leave the tap neither, not with Ferny in the house. His fingers were far too light for me to leave the cashbox out of sight for longer than a few moments. So, I waited where I was, until Butterbur came back to the tap, gabbling all the while about strange hobbits from the Shire, at which point I took over the task of fetching up the empties. The hobbit-folk from nearby had all come in in force - new arrivals always brought them in, cat-curious they were. There was also about double the number of normal idlers in from the village, as well as some of the more "solid citizen" types, wanting to see the newcomers. In all this bustle, I was easily able to slip around to Strider's table, take his order, his coin, and his reason for being in town in one easy transaction.
I slipped out to the kitchens. Jenny Butterbur was looking twice as apple-cheeked as ever today, simply due to the amount of cooking she was having to do. I smiled at her.
"Jenny, I hate to ask this, but Strider's come in. Is there any chance of a plate for him?"
Jenny laughed, that lovely comfortable chuckle which was so very reassuring. "Aye, surely there is. For such a regular customer, and one who always brings in good coin, there's always a plate to be had."
She put together a plate for Strider, which I took out to the common room, drawing a half of ale for him as well. "There you go, sir," I told him, depositing the meal on his table. "I tell you, we've been that busy lately, I'm having to help out everywhere. Even having to help Bob out in the stables." I tipped him the wink at that last, giving him to know that the usual assignation should take place in the usual location, then I ducked back to the tap. For the next quarter of an hour, I was busy serving pints, halves, and cider to the locals, while Barliman was off seeing to the new guests.
"'Tis time for my mealbreak, Barliman", I told the landlord briefly as he re-entered the common room. He nodded, as I took off my apron and slipped out from behind the bar. I stopped off at the kitchen, picking up the bowl of stew I'd readied for myself when I went to collect Strider's meal. Then I headed out to the stableyard. It was a warm night for late September, yet I still felt a strange chill up and down my back. I didn't have long to wait for the Ranger.
"Your eyes are keener than mine," I said to him in jest, "tell me how the evening star is tonight."
"The evening star is as beautiful as ever," he told me, and I could tell he was smiling as he said it. "What news of Bree?"
"Well, by now you're probably aware of those strangers from the south. They're the first Men up the Greenway from that direction in years. No mention from most of them of anything strange on the journey, neither, which is strange in and of itself.
"Bill Ferny's suddenly flashing a lot of coin about the town, which is strange as well. All of Bree would know if he'd suddenly decided to do a day's honest work, for the mayor would have it proclaimed by the crier. There's been no sign of that, nor yet any of the chroniclers being asked to record such a strange occurrence.
"Oh, and another strange party that's come in, just before you did - four hobbits out of the Shire. Barliman's housing them down along in the North wing, in the hobbit rooms there. Never rains but it pours, round here."
"Do you know the names of the hobbits?" Strider asked me. I thought for a moment. I could remember Barliman babbling on about them, but all of his words had muddled together between the gabble of his voice and the fact that he'd been talking to the ale barrel more than directly to me.
"I think he mentioned one as being a Gammidge or something like that," I said, trying to juggle the recollections together, "another Brandybuck. Third was Took, if that's a hobbit name?" Here Strider nodded. "The last one was the only one I recognised," I told him. "Underhill. Must be related to someone hereabouts." I have no idea even now what there was in that little speech to make him sigh in relief.
"Magda, you are worth at least twice the coin we pay you," he told me, giving me a brief hug. "Can you send a bird up to the Angle on the morrow?"
I nodded. "Remember, if it's going to be a cheeky message to the Captains, it goes under your rune, not mine!"
He laughed at the old joke between the two of us, but handed me a small scroll for bird transport. I took out the locket I'd had made of great-granda's Ranger star, and secreted the scroll within it. Just in time too - Bob came rushing out, looking slightly breathless.
"Magda, ye're wanted in the tap. Things is gettin' busy," he told me.
I gave him a smile. "The word is busier, Bob. I'll be in as soon as I've dropped off my stew plate with Jenny." I knew without looking that Strider had gone his own way back to the common room.
When I reached the tap again, I could see that there was a fair old crowd in the room. I quickly donned my apron and got to serving the pints and halves as needed. Thus it was that I was behind the bar when the three hobbits from the Shire entered the common room. Old Barliman was acting the genial host by the fireplace for a couple of the dwarves, and some of the southerners, while Strider had returned to his usual spot in the corner. I was amused to see that although he'd probably not been in the room even as long as I had, he'd managed to get hold of a pint of ale, and had his pipe out, giving the impression that he'd never left. I took a look at the newcomers from the Shire (I'm as curious as any other in the tap, it's just that I've a more honest reason for my curiosity than most). Two short, one tall. Well, tall for a hobbit, anyway, and fair for one of them as well. I listened carefully to Barliman's introductions of them to the locals. I'd got two of the names right, but missed on the first. Gamgee, not Gammidge.
The Shirefolk were quickly taken in by the local hobbit-folk, and asked all sorts of questions. I couldn't hear all of them that clearly (the tap was a fair way from the table that the hobbits had taken as their own), but from the snatches I could hear in between the conversations at the tap, I gathered that this Underhill character was writing a book of some kind. Strange enough. Yet Strider seemed to be listening in very hard to the conversation as well. Even stranger - usually he didn't pay much attention to the hobbits, being more interested in keeping track of the known local ruffians such as Bill Ferny and his like.
The thought reminded me of something. Yes, there was Ferny and that sallow Southerner, both of them watching those newcomer hobbits like cats watching a flock of birds. Something odd there. Very odd. Plus that strange chill down my back hadn't gone away. I started to feel very, very uneasy about the evening, for no reason I could put my finger on.
While there's foresight in some of the Dunadan, there's generally more in the high families than the low. My family wasn't one that was blessed with it, generally speaking, although I sometimes got hunches which were pretty damn accurate. This night, I was getting the feeling that anything with sense would be best off staying within doors and fastening those doors shut tight. A feeling which grew stronger whenever I looked at that Underhill character from the Shire. Who was he related to, anyway? Who was he reminding me of? For he reminded me of someone, although I had no clear recollection of who.
I kept on with my serving and ducking out to collect the empties, all the while worrying away at that little memory snatch, trying to get some use out of it. No luck, of course, because the more I tried to grasp it, the faster it slipped out of reach, like a greased frog.
I was out collecting empties when Underhill began his song. I'd noticed Strider going over to speak with him earlier, as well as catching snatches of the story that the others were telling. Something about a birthday party, it seemed. Now, why did that catch at my memory again? What was it I was trying to remember? Anyhow, I'd managed to get myself around to the point where I was by Strider's table, where I quickly told him of my hunches, and as much of the memory as would make itself visible.
I happened to be looking at the hobbits table when Mr Underhill did his caper, leaping in the air, and then vanishing. It was the vanishing that did it. All of a sudden, that memory I'd been chasing came back, full strength. An older hobbit, with a bit of a family resemblance to that Underhill character, sitting in the tap with a group of dwarfs, telling the story of...
"Mad Baggins!" I exclaimed. "Of course! That was what it was." I turned to Strider. "That Underhill fellow is bound to be related to the hobbit who told me of Mad Baggins and his disappearance, near on twenty year ago. I'm sure I told you about him - came through with a group of dwarfs, headed east. I've no idea where he be at this point, but if you could find him, he'd probably have something to say about that Underhill fellow. Might be able to explain why Bill Ferny, Harry Goatleaf and that squint-eyed southerner was all so interested in him, too."
I'd noticed the three of them slipping out the door. I decided that the table where they'd been sitting could do with a bit of cleaning up, and briskly wandered off to deal with it. Meantime, Barliman was trying to soothe down the local hobbit-folk, while also trying not to look as smug as a cat with a mouse caught in the cream-pot. I suppressed a snort of laughter. He knew that everyone in the house would spread the word to their friends, and that the whole story would become even more of a nine-days wonder than before. We'd have half the town in here tomorrow, all wanting ale and cider and somewhere to talk until the mystery was sufficiently hashed out. I resigned myself to a busy few days.
Myself, I was still feeling uneasy. I knew where that snatch of memory was from now, but I still didn't like the way the night felt. This night I was going to spend at home with my man. I felt the sudden need to be wrapped up in someone else's embrace, to feel a human warmth against my back as I slept. All of a nasty, the night had turned chill. I'd be sleeping in my own bed this night, rather than staying in the staff quarters of the inn. Barliman would understand, so would Jenny. So would my husband.
That startled me a little, although I was wise enough not to show it, but the other news was even more startling. No sooner had everyone at the inn finally headed to their beds last night than some rogues had broken into the inn through the very suite in the North Wing where the Shire-hobbits had been staying. Beds torn to shreds, bolsters scattered and torn, the visiting folk lucky that they hadn't been murdered in their beds, by the sound of things; and Barliman Butterbur in a terrible state because of it all. I was needed at the inn to help tidy up. But that wasn't the end of it all: to top everything off, each and every single horse and pony that had been stabled last night was gone. This included the five ponies brought in last night by the Shire folk, and wasn't there a to-do about that!
Anyway, Bob wanted to know whether I knew of anyone in the town with a horse or a pony they'd be willing to sell. Unfortunately, the only person I could think of who had anything of the sort available was Bill Ferny. He'd a rather scruffy pony that he was trying to sell for eight silver pence, which was about twice what anyone was willing to pay for the beast. From a shiftless ne'er-do-well thug like Ferny, this was a bargain. Bob nodded sadly as I passed on this information to him, then headed off to try all the other avenues; while I scrambled into my clothes, dragged my hair up into a knot beneath a cap, and headed off to the Pony.
When I got there, Barliman was in a fine old state, huffing and puffing and blowing and carrying on as though he'd been the one in danger of being murdered. I took one look at him and sent him out the back to Jenny in the kitchen. She'd soothe him down soon enough, so that he could be coherent before the rest of the guests. In the meantime, I roused Nob up from where he was hobnobbing with the Shire folk, instructing him to go out to the kitchens and get a plate for Strider, as well as something for the rest of us to bait on. It was going to be a busy day, after all.
Once he was out of the room, and I'd ascertained that the Shire folk were deep in their own breakfasting, I quickly walked over to speak with Strider.
"Any further messages for the North?" I asked him. He looked up at me and shook his head. I nodded and left the taproom.
That was the last I saw of Strider.