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Don't Panic!  by Boz4PM

Chapter 3 - “The Horror of Bree”

Halbarad came back to the little camp under the trees from having filled the water-sac from a nearby stream. The sun was up. It was several hours after dawn and the morning was well under way.

She was still asleep.

He shook his head. They needed to be off.

He had heard her whimpering and crying in the night. She had not made any attempt to go for his sword again either. As a consequence, it meant he had softened towards her a little. She seemed to be utterly lost. If it were not for the fact that she could not have travelled that far, judging from the state of her, he would have assumed she had wandered into Arnor from a distant land, unaccustomed to their practices or language.

It was all very odd.

He kicked over the traces of the fire, threw the last unburnt twigs and sticks from it under the trees and buried the signs of their presence as best he could. She stirred at the noise. There was a groggy groan from underneath the bedroll and she rolled over, blinking at the daylight.

Well, he had not killed her in the night, then, Penny mused to herself. That was a definite plus.

What time was it? It felt like it was some ungodly hour. Her back was killing her and her head was throbbing. That must have been the worst night’s sleep she had ever had. She had kept expecting to find him leering over her with a knife to her throat. Added to which on several occasions in the night her shoulder, hip or back had started aching against the hard earth. Thus while she had slept, admittedly, it was for no more than a few hours maximum and even that had been fitful.

She groaned again just for good measure and sat up. He was staring down at her, arms folded.

“What do you want?” she muttered.

He grinned, crouched down and grabbed his pack now she had taken her head off it.

“Let me wake up, why don’t you?” she grumbled.

She felt dreadful. Her feet were throbbing, her head felt like it was wrapped in a plastic bag and she ached all over. Her mouth was dry and she became conscious of the fact that she hadn’t brushed her teeth for two days... or possibly longer... she didn’t know. She reached a hand to her hair. It was all matted and no doubt had leaves and twigs in it now. She sighed. This was hateful. She attempted to run her fingers through it but gave up after a while. Pointless. She just smoothed it down as best she could and left it at that.

Halbarad saw her attempts and chuckled. She was as bad as an elf. Well, tough. She would have to wait till they got to Bree before she could brush her hair. Keep things to a bare minimum when you were on the road, that was his motto, and that didn’t include carrying combs or onions, no matter what Gildor said. Or soap. He was looking forward to having a bath at Bree. Old Butterbur might be a pain in the backside at times but his beer was good and he had decent sized tubs available for his guests.

He had been rootling around in his pack and found what he was looking for: lembas. The perfect breakfast. He was starving and not best pleased at having had to wait for her majesty to wake before he could eat. He had seriously considered kicking her awake at first light so he could get to his pack but knew she had slept little and had relented. He broke off a piece of lembas and offered it to her. She had rolled up the bedroll and came to sit in front of him, taking what he was offering with a smile. He placed the water-sac between them so she could help herself.

Penny took the lembas suspiciously. She sniffed it. It looked harmless enough. Something like a giant biscuity flapjack or stale toast with the crusts cut off. There was no more forthcoming though she knew he had put a great big chunk of it back in his bag. Mean bugger. She sighed. What she would not give for a bowl of cornflakes right now... A croissant... A doughnut... Three doughnuts!

She nibbled at the corner of the lembas gingerly. She was surprised. It tasted quite good. After last night’s boiled rabbit fiasco she had been wary but this was really quite delicious. It had a sort of honey-ish flavour to it: buttery, sweet but not sickly.

She scoffed the lot and then looked at him expectantly, hoping for more, but he had stood to tie his pack and bedroll to his saddle. It was clear that was all she was getting for breakfast, then. She took a swig from the water-sac. Well at least the water was fresh and clear. As good as evian. Though not quite as good as gin.

Oh, for a gin and tonic...

The thought of water made her realise she needed a wee. He was clearly getting ready for the off as he now turned for the water-sac to tie that to the saddle also. She stood, hesitatingly. She wondered if she should try and say something, though quite what or how she had no idea. There did not seem much point. It would no doubt cause more confusion and wasn’t worth the effort. She turned and ambled off into the trees. He looked up and watched her go, shrugged his shoulders and finished tying the water-sac.

She went quite a distance. Whenever she thought she had gone far enough she could see him still and panicked that he would be able to see her. He would no doubt have guessed why she had gone wandering off. Even so it made her uncomfortable knowing a complete stranger knew what she was up to. She squatted behind a tree and tried to pee as slowly and quietly as she could. No mean feat and one that meant she was a lot longer than she might have been. She suspected she needed to relieve something else as well but she was damned if she was going to do that squatting behind a tree. No. She would wait, thank you, till they got somewhere more civilised than the great outdoors.

She ambled back to see he was leaning against a tree waiting for her. She went over to her pyjamas. They were still a bit damp but not sodden anymore at least. She noted he had not put them in his pack. She folded them up and held them under her arm and turned to him. He stood and went over to the horse and said something, looking at her as he did so.

‘If she thinks I am putting her reeking clothes in my pack,’ Halbarad thought to himself as he watched her, 'She is madder than I already suspect she may be.'

She had thrown him an irritated glance as she had folded them up, so he could guess she was annoyed she would have to carry them. Tough. He was well aware he was in desperate need of a bath and his tunic could do with a good scrub but at least his smell was natural. He did not stink of rotten peat and swamp unlike her. He had nearly gagged as he had sat behind her on the horse yesterday. At least today he would have her seated behind him, since this was more than a few minutes dash under the trees, and thus away from under his nose. First thing he would do when they reached The Prancing Pony was order a bath for her as well as himself.

“Right. Are you ready?” he asked her.

It occurred to him that he should look at her feet again before they set off. Easier done once she was on the horse though. The bandages were falling off her and needed redoing anyway.

Penny ambled over to him looking a bit sulky and clutching her PJs tightly to her chest. Now she was more awake she was aware the headache was not lifting and her head was really feeling a bit peculiar. She suspected she was coming down with a cold. Freezing her bum off in the pouring rain would not have exactly helped, of course.

He lifted her up into the saddle. Was it her or did he grimace slightly and wrinkle his nose as she drew near? Bloody cheek! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. She sat on the horse with a sullen look on her face feeling really very irritated. She can’t have been awake more than half an hour and already he was pissing her off.

Halbarad undid the bandages, inspected her feet, which were healing, smeared some of the balm from his pack over the soles and then retied the strips of cloth. For good measure he grabbed her hand and undid the wrappings on her thumb to have a look at that also.

That cut was healing nicely. Bit of fresh air would do wonders. He didn’t put the bandage back on.

As he carefully climbed into the saddle in front of her (not easy to do with her already sitting there and not bothering to move back to give him room to sling his leg over, but he managed) she inspected her thumb and poked at the cut. It was healing, the skin was already sealed and not sore at all. Whatever that stuff was he had put on it, it clearly worked.

Halbarad settled himself on the horse, tapped its flank gently with his foot, spoke to it and it set off through the trees. He could feel her wobbling behind him, trying to keep her balance while clutching her clothes and yet as stiff as board. She was clearly completely unused to horses. Another oddity. He sighed and shook his head. He reached behind himself, found an arm and pulled it. As they broke through the shadows of the trees and into the daylight at the edge of the wood he wrapped her arm around his waist.

“Oi!” she snapped. “What do you think you are playing at?”

She pulled her arm away. The last thing she needed was him getting her to grope him. She shuddered. Eewwww!

He shrugged and muttered something. They had reached the dirt track from yesterday and he now spurred the horse into a trot. Penny bounced up and down uncontrollably. This was not helping her head and it made her bum hurt.


Halbarad sighed and simply spurred the horse into a canter. If she did not want to hold on that was her affair. Maybe once she had fallen on to her head a couple of times she would reconsider.

As the horse sprang forward she screeched. He felt her slide away to one side and reached an arm back to stop her fall instinctively. At the same time she grabbed him round the waist with one arm, shoved her PJs in her lap and put her other arm round him as well. She clung on for dear life, screwing her eyes shut and pressing her face into his back.

God, he stank. He really did. But then he clearly thought she did too, so fair was fair she supposed.

After a little while the horse slowed to a trot once more. She took the opportunity to surreptitiously sniff at her armpit. She gagged. Oh my God. She hoped they had deodorant wherever they were going, even if he didn’t believe in using it. Deodorant. And a toothbrush. And shampoo. And soap. And.. and.. oh, a nice hot bath or .. or better yet a shower. A power shower!

She smiled, drifting off into all the possibilities that lay ahead of her.

She was disturbed from her thoughts by a sneeze. A large one. So large she hit her head against Halbarad’s back causing him to turn and glare at her.

“Sorry,” she mumbled and sniffed.

Five minutes later there was another one.

Then another one.

Then another.

This was not good. She definitely had a cold.

Halbarad gritted his teeth. If she sneezed over his tunic once more he was going to hit her. She was unbelievable! Vomiting over skinning a rabbit and yet sneezing all over people.

As she sneezed yet again he stopped the horse, turned to her and grabbed her pyjama trousers. He ripped down one entire leg of them. Then he ripped them again so he had a strip. He pulled his knife from his belt, made a cut in one edge of it and then ripped once more. He angrily shoved the large square he had made at her.

“Use it!” he snarled.

Then he shoved the tattered remains of her pyjamas into her lap, turned and set the horse moving once more.

Penny had gasped and watched in utter disbelief, her mouth open, as he had trashed her clothes. She couldn’t believe it when he then shoved an impromptu hankie at her. It beggared belief! He had no qualms about getting up to his elbows in rabbit guts, clearly did not believe in washing but insisted on burying vomit and blowing your nose.

She spluttered, incandescent with rage.

“Those were my favourite PJs, you bastard! God. It’s not my fault I’m sneezing. You’ve got a bag full of rags you can wrap my feet in but I have to blow my nose on my own pyjamas. Thank you so bloody much! Git!”

Halbarad stopped his horse.

He did not know what she had just said but he did not like her tone. He didn’t have to rescue her. He didn’t have to take her to Bree or feed her or let her use his bedroll so he slept sat up against a tree all night.

Ungrateful madam!

He turned to her, his face twisted in anger.

“Look, you,” he growled, “I have had just about enough of you. Any more from you and you can get off the horse and die out here for all I care, understand me?”

He jabbed a finger at her as he spoke and then pointed at the ground. He turned back and the horse moved again.

She had understood him alright: ‘Put up and shut up or get off the horse’. She stuck her tongue out at him. Sod. She didn’t really have a choice. But if she saw anyone or a car come by she was jumping off this bloody animal as quick as you like.

She scowled. Of all the people in all the world she had to be stuck with him. She still could not make him out. She had come to the conclusion he was some reconstruction fanatic who simply took it way too seriously and had taken to living his entire life like that. Mad, clearly, but hopefully harmless enough. She just prayed they would get to a house or town soon.

She blew her nose mournfully and watched the countryside go by.

The track was soon lined with trees on either side. To her right she could see hills rolling away into the distance. She could be imagining it but there seemed to be barrows or stones on top of some of them. She was puzzled. Did they have barrows elsewhere in the world outside of Europe? Obviously they did. Besides, she could not be sure that’s what they were anyway.

Soon enough she could see a wall ahead and a huge gate comprising of two large wooden doors. One was shut and even from here she could see there was a smaller door cut into it, big enough that a person could step through it, and square cut into that like a look-out or sentry might use. The other door was open and she could see a grubby looking man sat on a chair to one side of it sucking at a pipe and eyeing their approach.

Thank God! Civilisation at last. Other people. A phone. Maybe a car. She could feel tears in her eyes at the thought she might finally be on her way home.

As they neared the gate Halbarad stopped the horse and the seated man rose to stand in the gateway. Penny had hoped that this man who had rescued her was somehow some freak of nature: that whatever language he was speaking was not representative of wherever she was. All such hopes were dashed as she heard the gatekeeper speak and Halbarad reply. She did not understand a word.

She sighed and let her head drop forward onto Halbarad’s back. Where the bloody hell was she? She wasn’t stupid. She was well educated, for God’s sake. These were white caucasians but not speaking anything that sounded even vaguely European. Admittedly she did not know any Russian, Hungarian or Finnish or anything similar, but even so. It would sound kind of familiar somehow, surely, even if just the accent, the musical tone of the language itself.

Her 'rescuer' (if that's what he was) climbed down from the horse and, taking the reins over the horse’s head, led it towards the gate and the man eyeing them both suspiciously as they neared him. Penny scooted forward so she was sitting properly in the saddle. He spoke to the gatekeeper and gestured behind him to Penny. She could see the gatekeeper look round Halbarad at her and give her the once over. He scrutinised her for several seconds then looked back to Halbarad, shaking his head and muttering.

Halbarad sighed. If the gatekeeper did not recognise her she was no resident of Bree then. Nor had she passed through this way, it would seem. Most people would come via the roads, surely, but there is no way she could have passed through the Shire either without causing rumour and comment so that meant she had not come East or West.

He thanked the man and headed on through the gate and up the hill towards The Prancing Pony, mulling over this news in his head. No, there was nothing for it. He would have to take her to Elrond. He would see if anyone at the inn could help but otherwise he had little choice.

He groaned inwardly. The idea of being stuck with her for a week filled him with dread. Next time he would leave Gildor to deal with strange women wandering in the countryside. Or else leave them to the wolves or trolls or worse.

He scolded himself then. No. No matter how bizarre and irritating she might be she didn’t deserve that. Particularly not now the Riders were abroad.

He shivered slightly at the thought. That had been ill news indeed that Gildor had brought him: the Nine riding once more. He shook his head. And now strange incomprehensible women appearing from nowhere. Yes, Elrond needed to know about her, that was certain.

Penny was staring about her in increasing confusion as they slowly made their way up the hill. Someone was ripping the piss, weren’t they? She stared as people walked past or alongside them: everyone was in fancy dress.

Suddenly it seemed her rescuer was simply one of several. These were no doubt his fellow reconstruction fanatics at last. She had never come across anything like this before: everyone living out little roleplaying lives in ‘Ye Authentic Genuine Medieval Village’. God, they were all loonies. She felt her heart sinking. This couldn’t be happening. This had to be someone’s idea of a joke.

The stench from the place was indescribable. Even as she sneezed into her piece of pyjama leg she held the cloth there in a vain attempt to keep out the smell. There was a sewer running down one side of the road which itself was little more than hardened earth with some cobbles wedged into it. Halbarad was carefully picking his way round the horse shit in the road but she could see someone ahead busily sweeping it up and shovelling it into a barrow.

Authenticity was one thing, but open sewers? Dear Lord. And she thought him not washing was bad.

She suddenly had a moment of pure fear. She needed the loo. She knew that now and was feeling quite uncomfortable already. If this place had open sewers...
Oh God, no. No. Surely not. They would have a port-a-loo at least, wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t they?

She began to wonder if she hadn’t made the wrong decision back there in the woods.

Added to which... if they did not have toilets... would they have a phone? Or a car? They would have to have some means of contacting the outside world, surely, even if only by post. They couldn’t live completely cut off. Could they?

Or could they?

A child ran past, holding two chickens over his shoulder. He was barefoot.

‘Barefoot? On these streets?’ she thought and shook her head. They must be riddled with disease. Oh shit! She had shared a water-sac with him. What if..?

She groaned. Then she sneezed. She felt utterly miserable.

Even as she did so a thought flicked through her mind. Was it her or did that boy have hairy feet? She shook her head. She was imagining stuff now.

They had come to a three-storey building, its oak beams and whitewash making it look very authentic to Penny’s eye, and Halbarad led the horse through the central arch and into a courtyard.

“Very Stratford-upon-Avon,” muttered Penny. “Shakespeare would have loved it.”

It dimly occurred to her that that was what was wrong with this place. The buildings looked very much in the Northern European style. They wouldn’t have looked out of place in some English ‘Olde Worlde’ theme park. It was all deeply peculiar.

A short fat man came bustling out of a door under the arch and trotted up to Halbarad. They clearly knew one another. Halbarad spoke to him and gestured at Penny and the fat man nodded, said something and scuttled off. Halbarad came to her and held out his arms to help her down. She managed a bit better this time and didn’t nearly fall on the ground as last time.

She looked about her. She did not know why but she was beginning to feel nervous. The realisation that this man was not some lone loonie had unnerved her quite considerably.

A boy came running forward to take the horse as Halbarad undid his pack and bedroll. He murmured something at the boy, reached in a pouch that hung from his belt and tossed a coin at him. The boy grinned and said something as he led the horse away. Halbarad gestured to the door the fat man had disappeared into. It led into a dark corridor and to one side there was a counter.

Penny noted, with little surprise, there were no electric lights anywhere. Instead she could see a collection of lanterns and candlesticks with partially used candles in them arranged on shelves behind the counter.

The fat man had reappeared and Halbarad was talking to him now, gesturing at Penny every now and then and the fat man, his bald head glinting with the light coming through the door, was nodding and muttering.

“Two rooms and I want baths for both,” Halbarad was saying. “Then we’ll take some food. Separate from the company, I think. Oh, and I need shoes. Well, she does. I need to talk to you about her, too. Found her wandering lost a few miles West of here. Thought she might be local.”

Butterbur looked at her. She was filthy, dishevelled and clearly wearing this Ranger’s clothes. Her hair was tangled, and from what he could tell, cut far shorter than he had ever seen a woman wear her hair since it barely reached her shoulders. He studied her face, what he could make of it through the grime.

He shook his head. “Can’t say as I recognise her, sir. But then, once she’s scrubbed up a bit it may jog something in the old noggin. But no, no, I can’t say I have seen her before.”

Halbarad sighed. He had not expected Butterbur to have known her if the gatekeeper didn't but it had been worth a try.

Butterbur scuttled round the counter and started leading the way down the corridor and up the stairs to their rooms. Penny shuffled along behind him, Halbarad following behind her.

She was too exhausted, her backside aching from the horse, and feeling too unwell with her head cold to start throwing questions to Butterbur now. She had, when he had first appeared, tried asking him if he had a phone and had put her thumb and little finger up to the side of her head in the, surely universal and international, sign for a telephone. He had looked at her as if she was completely mad so she had just left it at that.

It was then that two things happened almost simultaneously that made her feel like she was losing her sanity completely.

First of all, a short figure came bustling past them on the stairs, hrumphing and grumbling at having to push past them. He was dressed in chainmail and a leather jerkin with large, heavy boots. He had an axe slung over his back and was wearing a helmet. He had the longest beard Penny had ever seen, divided into two and plaited. There were plaits come out from underneath his helmet too.

Penny started laughing.

A dwarf. A bloody dwarf. Okay, this was just becoming ridiculous.

The dwarf glared at her and growled. Butterbur had turned to look at her, a worried look in his eye. Halbarad hissed at her sharply and poked her in the back.

She giggled, clamping a hand over her mouth. They clearly took all this role-playing stuff very seriously. She muttered a ‘sorry’ and bit her cheeks as the dwarf continued past them.

Halbarad murmured an apology to the dwarf and explained she was foreign. The dwarf grunted. 'What in Mordor is wrong with the woman!' Halbarad thought to himself. She definitely could not be local if she had never seen a dwarf before. He shook his head. The more he learnt the more she confused him.

As the dwarf went past Penny could not help but stare. There was no sign of prosthetics on his face and the hair seemed very real. Surely, close up, you would be able to tell it was plastic and makeup? ‘WETA would be proud,’ she thought. It was very authentic. Really real. SO real, in fact, that...

It was then she spotted someone waiting at the bottom of the stairs to allow the dwarf to get past and then follow them up. It was a boy. Definitely a boy. Aged about eight or nine...

And yet...

As he neared them she could see, by his face, he was quite a bit older than that, adult in fact. Yet he was the height of a child. He had bare feet. Large feet. Large hairy feet. He had curly hair and slightly pointed ears pointing out through his tousled mop. Again the prosthetics looked very realistic.

She did not laugh this time. She groaned. Her head fell to her hands. Now she knew. Now she understood. This was someone’s really sick idea of a joke. And it was not funny.

She looked round at Halbarad and suddenly saw him in a completely different light.

He thought he was a bloody Ranger. My God. Historical reconstructionists were bad enough. She of all people should know. But reconstructing a world that never existed...!

She roared with laughter at him and Halbarad just stared at her in disbelief.

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