The next day the pair made little progress. Bree was still about fifty miles away, if they were to take the Great East Road, but they had four days in which to travel. The Old Forest was clearly out of the question, even though, as the crebain flies, it would cut the distance nearly in half.
“Short cuts make long delays, my father used to say,” Faramir declared as they crossed the Brandywine Bridge and the eaves of the wood came into sight. “We’d end up getting lost and eaten and that’s without the Barrow Downs to worry about!”
Faramir himself seemed rather changed. While the incident with Snuggles had rather unnerved Elanor, it had brought out the adventurous Took in him. He was always laughing, and closer to song than to words. Elanor was pleased, and was inclined to feel sorry about their dispute. When she attempted to apologize, Faramir brushed her off.
“Oh, Elanor. There was no harm done, and all’s well that ends better. Besides, if you hadn’t have taunted me, I wouldn’t have been in that tree in time to save you from the wrath of ‘Snuggles.'”
The Hobbits went only perhaps twelve miles each day, going slowly and resting often. Squirrels and rabbits were abundant, and there was no lack of wild berries and apples. The winter would be spent in comfort in the north that season, for the harvest had also been plentiful. Or so it seemed until the fourth day, when they drew near to the village of Bree.
The grass was withered and ominous clouds hovered over the town, periodically flashing with lightning and the sound of mighty drums. Animals grew scarce, and not a bird sang or deer grazed. Fruit was rotten on the tree, and the corn was stunted and brown. The scene was dreary and silent but for the wind, and not with the quiet of peace.
“Aye, wha’d’you want?” came a snarl when Elanor knocked on the heavy wooden gate, many times her height.
“We’ve come to spend the night at the inn,” Faramir cried over the howling of the wind.
“You’ll not find yerselves welcome, if I’ve half the wit I’ve always had,” replied the unpleasant voice.
“Please,” Elanor pleaded, “We’re looking for our guide. We’ve been sent here by the King!”
The gate opened immediately, exposing an exceedingly damp town of wood and metal, and the wizened face of a newly respectful gatekeeper.
“Righ’ you are, little Master and Mistress. It’s down the way, on yer righ’.”
It was raining heavily and the Hobbits were soaked in a few minutes. It was not until they passed the first Hobbit home that they noticed something odd. Though the storm raged about them, over every home not owned by men, (distinguishable by names such as ‘Deepburrow’ and ‘Underhill’, painted in clear strokes on each gate post,) the evening was clear and still! The stars shone brightly and pumpkins blossomed in every garden. The late flowers were just beginning to bow to the early frosts, and the soil was firm and dry. Despite this, only a few lights shone in the darkness, and most of the abodes were dark and unkempt. Elanor and Faramir walked on in awed silence, and did not notice the inn until they stood by its door.
Inside the atmosphere was not much better. Wreathed in smoke, the leaky common room had a gloomy air. A few nervous Hobbits sat in silence in a far corner, while men all around the bar glared at both the locals and the newcomers.
“Name’s Brandolin Butterbur, how migh’ I serve you, little Master, Mistress?”
Faramir settled his eyes on a thin, haggard looking man behind the counter. He looked as one who has lost a good deal of weight in rather a small time, and seemed to be going bald.
“Er… Forgive me, I’m Faramir Took, and this is Elanor Gamgee. We’re looking for our guide, by the name of Gwynna, said to meet us here this day.”
“No,” replied the man, “No one’s been asking after such names. But if Gwynna’s coming, that’s good tidings indeed, always brings in customers. Is there anything I can do for you while yer waiting? A room, maybe, and a nice warm supper?”
“I think that’d be best,” Elanor whispered to Faramir. “I certainly don’t want to wait out here with all these unpleasant folk.”
A gruff voice sounded from the bar. “Send ’em off, Brandolin, they’ll just cause more witchery.” Grunts of agreement were heard all about him.
“See here,” Faramir began, but Brandolin spoke over him.
“I’ll not send off payin’ customers, ‘specially when they haven’t done us no harm. If you’ll follow me, little master, this way.” He led them past the forlorn local Hobbits and down a dim passageway before addressing them again. “You’ll want two rooms, I suppose?”
Faramir grew slightly rosy. “Yes, two, please.”
“Yes,” Elanor agreed, “Definitely two.”
Using an old, iron key, the innkeeper opened a door leading into a cozy sitting room with a door on each side of the large fireplace, though with just a small blaze inside. He spoke slowly.
“After yeh’ve dried off a bit, yeh can join the company in the common room for an ale or the like, but t’ tell yeh, sure as Bree-talk, yeh’ll not find them welcomin’. If yeh need anythin’, just ring an’ Hal’ll come runnin’, he’s stablin’ the ponies now. I’ll send ‘im in with yer supper in a bit…” Pausing a second, he looked at them and backed out of the room.
The two Hobbits looked at each other. “Don’t know what that’s about,” said Elanor quietly.
“I think I have an idea, but if you’ll excuse me, I’m dripping, so if you don’t mind…” Faramir turned to the door on the right and gave Elanor a smile as he shut it behind him.
Going to her own room, Elanor replaced her soaked tunic and breeches with her simple gown, light blue laced with a green ribbon. She returned to the sitting room as Faramir stoked the feeble fire. He shook his head ferociously, sending droplets of water onto the already struggling sparks. He was wearing his brown weskit, to which Elanor shot a scowl. Seeing her, he smiled apologetically.
“At least it’s dry…” he said hopefully, looking remarkably like a puppy seeking approval. Elanor laughed quietly.
“You said you thought you knew what all this unpleasantness is about, Faramir?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he replied, settling himself in an elderly chair and shivering. “You saw as well as I did that every Hobbit house, (they don’t even live in holes, which I find rather queer,) in the entire village was bone dry and flowering! I’m nearly sure that the Big Folk think that the Hobbits are causing this blight. From what I overheard, they seem to think it’s some sort of magick.”
Elanor scoffed. “That’s ridiculous. Hobbits are as non-magickal as they come, everyone knows that!”
“Nonetheless,” Faramir countered, “The men were certainly inhospitable enough, and the few Hobbits who were in the common room did look rather nervous.”
“Still…” Elanor shrugged reluctantly.
Several minutes later, there came a knock at the door and a young Hobbit entered, carrying a tray laden with bowls and mugs. He looked rather worn and did not bother to close the door as he set the tray on the table. From the common room they heard the sound of a door slamming and heavy feet stomping into the inn.
“BRANDOLIN!” came a deep, yet strangely melodic voice. “An ale, and right quick, I’m frozen through!” There was a murmur from the innkeeper that the Hobbits could not hear. “No, I don’t want to dry off first, I want that ale! Oh, and has there been a Hobbit out of the Shire asking for me today? I’ve been sent to meet her.” Another murmur. “Two? Oh, that’s splendid, I’ll go to them right off, just you give me that ale before I knock you off your feet!” The Hobbits glanced at each other, stepped past the exhausted Hal, and entered the common room.
Sitting in a sagging armchair by the fire, her large booted feet thrown out in front of her, was the most peculiar woman that Elanor had ever seen. Her dark brown skin was shining and glistening in the firelight. Her white hair shocked out from her head like a mane and startled the eye, contrasting sharply with the hue of her skin. Her robes were red, as was her cloak, draped over the hearth, a small circle of water spreading on the bricks beneath it. She glanced at them, and the Hobbits noticed with a start that her eyes were a violent shade of indigo. A tall and gnarled staff of richly stained oak leaned precariously on the padded arm of the heavily patched chair, just within easy arm’s reach of its owner.
Without taking her eyes from the faces of the two young hobbits, the stranger accepted a large tankard from the innkeeper, raised it to her lips, and coughed explosively.
“Gah, Brandolin, this is dreadful! I know you’ve had a bad year, but your stuff’s been good since your father’s days! Take it away, then, I don’t want your apologies.” As the landlord returned, Elanor heard her mutter softly, “Those are the ones out of the Shire?” When Butterbur nodded, she gestured to them and looked pointedly at two seats near to her own.
“Gwynna’s my name,” the woman in red announced briskly, drawing a silver flask out of her robes and drinking deeply from it. “You’re Elanor Gamgee, I presume, splendid to meet you by the way, but I haven’t heard of your companion here…”
“Faramir Took, son of Peregrin,” Faramir replied curtly, his back stiff and eyes wary. Gwynna regarded him with a judging eye. Elanor looked between them curiously, not understanding the tension.
Finally, Gwynna nodded. “It’s best to be wary when in unknown parts, though I’d hardly call Bree ‘unknown’. Well, you’d best be knowing more about me if we’re going to travel all ’round the country side.” She settled herself more comfortably and looked at them with her beautifully hypnotic eyes. With one hand, she gripped her staff, and cast the other over it as she began to speak. “First of all, I am a wizard.” The staff’s head began to glow, dimly, but slowly burning brighter. Several men at the bar grunted in surprise. “I am also a mariner, and come from the far south, where the seas are wild and untamed by men.” A picture came to Elanor and Faramir’s minds of tempests, tossing waves, and the bones of long forgotten ships dashed apart upon the merciless cliffs of a barren shore. The light faded, and the vision vanished.
“I was sent by the king to guide you to the Great Council. Has my simple illusion gained your trust, Master Took?” Her face was solemn, but the wizard’s eyes smiled.
“Your pardon, Lady Gwynna,” Faramir replied, slightly awed.
“Er…” Elanor began awkwardly. “I thought all wizards were men.”
Gwynna’s penetrating gaze turned to her, and she suddenly felt rather foolish for questioning this mysterious stranger. “Obviously, you were mistaken.” The violet eyes flicked towards the door. Several Hobbits edged in to settle in the same corner as their neighbors, all focused directly on Gwynna. News traveled fast in Bree.
A harsh voice broke the uncomfortable silence. “Aye, you little louts flushin’ out to see a few lights and bangs. Get back to yer rat holes, an’ stay there!”
“Comin’ to learn a few things, more like,” came another voice.
“Ain’t the blight yeh’ve cursed us with enough?”
“Y’ought t’ follow yer little friends an’ make off fer the Shire, yeh’re not welcome ‘ere!”
Gwynna stood up, a mixture of rage and confusion cast across her kindly features. “What’s this?” she scoffed. “The halflings have just as much right to living here as you do! It’s not right to blame your misfortune on them just because they’re nearby.”
“And what’d you know about it, y’ meddlin’ wench?”
Gwynna’s eyes narrowed to mere slits, and burned with a frightening intensity. “More than you could ever hope to comprehend. The drunkard should not condemn the sober from where he lies on the floor.”
Every man and hobbit in the tavern stood, raised voiced echoing from every table. Men shouting accusations, hobbits defending themselves with shrill tones, the scene was chaotic. Elanor and Faramir pressed themselves against the wall, narrowly avoiding a clay tankard that smashed against the bricks of the hearth. Gwynna ushered them towards the passageway, whispering hurriedly.
“Go to your rooms, gather your things, we may have to depart sooner than we would. I’ll try to sort this out, I’ll fetch you when I may.” She turned back to the dispute, the two hobbits rushing back to their rooms and bolting the door.
Faramir gave Elanor’s hand an encouraging squeeze and went to his room, gathering all his belongings into his newly empty pack, while Elanor did the same. They had barely returned to the sitting room when there was a knock at their window. Gwynna stood there with a lantern, their ponies, and the small gaggle of hobbits from the common room. She beckoned to them, signaling for them to remain silent.
Faramir threw open the panes, stepped out, (thankful indeed that they were on the first floor,) and offered a hand to Elanor, who tripped over her skirt. The wizard led them to the center of the town, speaking loudly to the local hobbits over the wailing of the storm.
“Are there any other halflings left in the village?” she asked, looking towards the inn nervously.
“No,” responded one, an old gaffer with a creaky voice. “They all left for Bywater by the east road last week. We thought we could last them out.” He shook his head sadly.
Gwynna patted his shoulder. “Follow them. There’s no time to get your things, that illusion won’t fool them for much longer.” The gaffer grasped her hand, blessed her, and led the way to the east gate, as Elanor, Faramir, and the violet-eyed wizard made their way to the south gate.
We return to the forests again. Our hobbit friend has lost all faith and finds the true meaning of apathy by the end of this chapter. He is taken captive by a band of elves and one human. This chapter suggests that some of his past will be revealed soon.