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Don't Panic!  by Boz4PM

Chapter 5 - “The Latrine of Doom”

A knock on Halbarad’s door disturbed him as he oiled his bow. He laid down his work and stood, wiping his hands on a cloth and unlocked the door. A serving wench stood in the doorway.

“Excuse me, sir. Batti said the foreign lady travelling with you needed some clothes? Is that right?”

He nodded. After his initial fury with her behaviour and decision he would get her a pair of shoes and nothing else, he had relented and decided, in all honour, he had to get her something to wear. Elrond would think less of him if he did not and, besides, he really did need to have his clothes back. It was double motivation and so he had spoken to Butterbur about it when he had brought him his towels for his bath. Added to which she had created enough of a stir without people seeing her wandering about in male clothing. Even if he hadn’t torn part of the garments he had found her in they were hardly suitable for a woman, let alone to wear in late autumn.

The young woman was holding out a dress and an undershift to him saying Batti had asked her if she had an old one she would not mind parting with too much since she was probably a similar height and build to Penny.

“The dress is a bit worn and patched, but it will serve just as well I am sure.”

“I am sure it will,” he nodded. “I thank you.” He reached to his belt for his pouch, “Here, let me give you something for your trouble at least.”

She protested, “No indeed! It is an old dress and I am glad I can help her. Is it true she was wandering lost?”

“Yes. If you hear of anything, a travelling party that has lost one of their number for instance, then let me know.” She nodded. Before she could protest further he pressed a coin into her hand. “Not a word. I insist,” he said as he shut the door on her.

The woman stood for a moment, looking at what he had just given her. Far more than the dress had cost new. For a filthy Ranger he wasn’t half generous.

“A fool and his money...” she murmured and wandered off down the corridor, pocketing her coin as she did so.

Halbarad inspected the dress. It had two patches in it, but it was still reasonable enough. Simple, but it would do. Good.

He opened his door once more and stood outside Penny’s room. He hesitated. He took a deep breath. Then another. Then one more, just to be on the safe side, and knocked.

Penny had enjoyed her bath. She had inspected her feet while she was there. The cuts and scratches were healing quickly and the bruises were still visible but going green and fading. She had washed her hair, with difficulty, but she managed. The soap didn’t lather and left a kind of slimy film on her skin that was vile. Maybe that was the reason for the scrubbing brush, which she had been forced to use in the end on various parts of her anatomy that seemed stained with something brown and immoveable. She now had livid pink scratch marks where she had done so. As she dried herself her only thought was that she would have to get back into smelly clothes.

She had not been long dressed and was tackling her hair once more when Halbarad knocked. She opened the door and could not believe what he had in his hands.

Halbarad tried a faint smile. It seemed to work.

She grabbed the clothes, sniffed them and beamed at him.

“Thank God! Clean clothes!”

“Thank Eru,” Halbarad muttered. For once she was not complaining, whinging or muttering. He turned to go, then hesitated and turned back.

“Pen-ii. My clothes. You will need to wash them.” She looked at him incomprehendingly. “My clothes,” he said again, and reached out to hold the bottom of his undertunic. “Wash,” he repeated and rubbed the material between his hands as if he was washing it. He repeated the action, looking at her to see if she had understood him.

She had. She pointed to her bathtub.

“In there?”

He could see the remains of her pyjamas draped over the side of the tub, dripping wet. The bar of soap and the brush were on the floor where she had been scrubbing at her clothes. He laughed.

“What’s so bloody funny?” she scowled. “I have to clean them don’t I?”

Halbarad couldn’t believe it. Washing her clothes in bath water? Where was this woman from? He began to wonder if she really wasn’t some grand lady fallen on hard times. She had never seen someone gut a rabbit before and had clearly never washed clothes before. There was water everywhere.

He laughed again, but tried to soften it now. He shook his head and grinned at her.

“No. Out there.” He gestured behind him, through the wall in the direction of the stream and the washing stoop the women used. “Down the hill, you’ll see it easily enough. I’ll show you, or get one of the women to take you.”

She had not understood him, but realised there was clearly somewhere else to wash clothes. She nodded. He smiled and left her to change.

The dress was made of a coarse cotton. It was simple in style and the person it was made for clearly had a larger bosom than her because it sagged quite a bit round the front, but otherwise it fitted her well enough. There were buttons down the front of the dress, almost to the waist, so one could get in and out of it easily. It was shaped, but relatively loose and dyed a brown-red colour.

As Penny inspected it she realised it had been hand-stitched. The entire thing. Some poor cow had slaved over this. She balked at the idea. The buttons were wooden and very delicately carved. The shift had been entirely hand stitched too. It was sleeveless, made of an undyed white cheesecloth kind of material and much like an old-fashioned nightgown.

She had to hand it to them, these role-playing guys were very dedicated: working by hand and doing so with obvious skill. That had been clear from the comb too. They were still all barking but she was impressed. It was like living in a commune... but with swords and dwarves. She giggled.

She was grateful for the shift. Somehow she did not feel quite so odd about walking round with no underwear with two layers. Added to which the skirt was long.

She couldn’t even remember the last time she wore a skirt this long. She barely wore skirts at all. Still, it was nice of him to go to the costume department and pick her out something.

She loved the patches.

“Very ‘authentic rustic maiden of Bree’,” she muttered, grinning. She could see herself getting into this.

Then she sighed. No, she mustn’t. She had to find out what was going on somehow and get home. She suddenly had visions of her boss ringing her flat to no reply, her mother going crazy with worry, police breaking down her door to find it empty. She felt tears coming into her eyes. Well, if this is what it took to get them to call off the joke and let her go home, she would do it. She would play the good little Bree-lander.

There was a knock on her door once more. It was him, saying her name, no doubt asking if she was ready.

She opened the door for him and sat on the bed to put on the leather shoes. He nodded his approval at her. She looked much better.

She noticed his hair was wet and his hands and face looked a lot cleaner. She wondered if he’d actually had a bath.

‘Hold the front page! The Mighty Stinker Stinks No More,’ she thought and giggled to herself. He raised an eyebrow at her. She shook her head. “Nothing,” she muttered.

She stood, grabbed the undertunic and leggings and bundled them round her sodden pyjamas. She picked up the soap and waved it at him. “Shall I bring this?”

He looked at her as if she was mad.

“Obviously not,” she murmured. Then she had second thoughts. She WOULD bring it. She did not even know where he was taking her. Somehow she doubted it would be a launderette. Given the horrific ‘authenticity’ of everything she suspected she would be handwashing.

She was right, of course.

He led her out of the archway and down the street towards the gate. Then he veered right, stepping carefully over the sewer. He was gentlemanly enough to hold out his hand for her so she could step over without difficulty. She hitched her skirts near to the knee though and the expression on her face spoke volumes.

Halbarad sighed and smirked. Bree was not the most pleasant place in the world, but it was not so bad. She, on the other hand, behaved exactly as an elf would. He had to admit he found the stench fairly unbearable, but it was still amusing to see her disgust and clear nausea.

There was a little path that wound between two houses and through some grass where a few cows were grazing sullenly. They were nearing a stream that ran within the town walls for a while before disappearing underground to eventually join the Brandywine. A washing well had been built round it. It consisted of little more than a roof stood on pillars that were ranged on either side of the bank. The stream was wide and shallow at that point and there were several large boulders dotted about in the water. Steps had been cut and flagged into the banks so that the water could be reached and in several places there were flags angled so they leaned into the water and one could actually sit or kneel on the bottom step, reach the water and use these angled flags to beat the clothes against.

There were one or two women there already, one of them a ‘hobbit’, and they all turned to smile at the new arrivals. Penny noted, though, that their looks changed immediately on seeing Halbarad. The two women standing near each other exchanged a glance and muttered something before carrying on with their work. The ‘hobbit’, on their side of the stream, simply turned her back nervously and continued dipping her clothes in the water. Halbarad murmured something to Penny and headed off back to the inn.

“But how..?” Penny started saying to his retreating back. She looked at the stream, the women working there. She groaned. “You have to be kidding me. I have to wash HIS bloody clothes in a sodding river? For God’s sake!” She bit her lip but she was sorely tempted to scream several obscenities at the ridiculousness of it all.

“Twenty-first bloody century and these idiots are washing in river water,” she muttered to herself, stomping down the path to the washing stoop. “Probably full of cow piss as it is. Delightful. Bloody ridiculous. Farcical. Grrrrr!”

She reached the stream and sat on the bottom step. She noticed the other three women had taken their shoes off so she did also. She took a little time about it so she could watch what they were doing.

It seemed to involve thoroughly soaking the garment in the water, swilling it round a bit, then beating the crap out of it on a stone or a flag. Then you would rinse it once more, bang it against a rock, rinse, bang, rinse, bang. It went on and on. They were really giving it some welly too.

‘This looks like bloody hard work,’ Penny thought to herself.

She was suddenly grateful she did not have too much to wash. She also noticed they were not using soap. How the hell did they get stuff clean without soap! She had a sudden moment of horror as she realised that was how the cloths she had just used to dry herself with after her bath had been washed. How the bed linen she would use tonight had been washed. How the dress she was wearing had been washed. She shuddered.

Well, her pyjamas were well soaped and scrubbed already. She knelt on the step and rinsed them thoroughly in the freezing cold water. She started scraping the material tentatively against the flag that leant into the water.

She could feel two pairs of eyes on her from across the stream. She gritted her teeth. She glanced up and stared at the women.

“Yes? Can I help you?” she snapped.

The women whispered to each other and carried on with their own work. Penny sighed in irritation and carried on. She was not doing well. She sat back and rolled her sleeves up to beyond the elbow.

“Right, Pen! You can do this, girl. Easy peasy,” she muttered.

She lifted the sodden material and started whacking it against the stone. It was not easy given that her fingers were so cold from the water they hurt, but after a few goes she felt she was getting the hang of it. The lessening in whispering and giggling from across the stream seemed to confirm this, which was no bad thing.

After a while she reckoned the pyjamas were done and she turned her attention to Halbarad’s leggings. She soaked them, banged them, rinsed them and then got the soap and rubbed it all over the material.

She heard a gasp from across the stream as she did so. She ignored them. They didn’t want to wash with soap that was their affair. Stuff ‘em!

She rubbed the material together till her hands were near raw. She threw it against the stone violently again and again till she was sweating and panting slightly. She stopped to wipe her brow.

This was hard work, but she found that she could imagine she was pounding ‘Halbarad’, and that seemed quite therapeutic. She was knackered though. She was rinsing, bashing, rinsing, bashing till she could feel her arms aching. And she still had his sodding undertunic thing to do too! The bugger. Why couldn’t he do this?

She looked up at the other women. They seemed to do a lot of bashing for each item and seemed to manage it with a lot more strength than she could achieve. They didn’t seem tired in the least. She sighed.

She rinsed the leggings once more and inspected them. They seemed clean enough. She sniffed them.

Still smelt a bit musty. Dear God, this was going to take forever.

She bowed her head and sighed heavily.

Just then she heard a quiet voice behind her. She turned. It was the ‘hobbit’ woman. She smiled and said something to Penny once more. Penny returned her smile apologetically.

“I don’t understand the language here. I’m sorry.”

The hobbit nodded and smiled. She worked at the inn and knew Penny was the foreign woman who had arrived with the Ranger. She pointed at the undertunic. She could see this woman was struggling, clearly unused to washing clothes, however odd that may be.

“Can I help you, miss? You look tired and you only have that one garment left to do.”

She could see Penny didn’t understand her so she bent down, picked up the undertunic, moving to kneel next to Penny and started dunking it in the water.

Penny suddenly realised what she was doing.

“No, no. It’s quite alright. Please, you don’t need to. It’s very kind, but really...”

She tried to stop her but the ‘hobbit’ just muttered something like a ‘shh’ at her, grinned, batted away Penny’s hand and carried on washing the undertunic. Penny smiled.

“Thank you. Really. Thanks.”

The ‘hobbit’ guessed what she had said and inclined her head, smiling.

So the two sat side by side. The other women had left for which Penny was grateful. She had been ready to get up and punch them if they’d giggled or whispered once more. She noticed the hobbit woman stand, tie a knot in her skirts and then get in the river so she could really fling the undertunic at the stone work. This seemed like good thinking as far as Penny was concerned so she copied her. You could certainly get a better whack against the stone, more force behind the hit from a standing position.

As she rinsed off the leggings yet again she studied the little figure working away next to her. The woman’s curly hair was tied up behind her out of her way so Penny could clearly see the hairline and ears. It wasn’t a wig. Definitely not a wig. No way on earth it was a wig.

Penny shrugged. So someone short with already curly hair wanted to pretend to be a hobbit? Fair enough. Who was she to stop her. It was the ears that intrigued her, though. She bashed the leggings once more, not wishing to draw attention to the fact that she was staring, but even as she did so the woman was finishing, saying something to her and holding out the undertunic to her.

‘Well if she’s finished, so have I or I’ll be here all bloody day’, Penny thought.

The ‘hobbit’ then indicated they should wring out all the clothes. Penny helped the ‘hobbit’ with her own washing too that she had in a basket. It involved each garment being held by the two of them and twisted to within an inch of its life. Penny was amazed that garments such as these, hand- stitched, could survive such abuse. It worked though. The clothes were still damp but would dry fairly quickly once they were done. Penny had been surprised how much strength the ‘hobbit’ showed. As for herself she felt like her arms were about to fall off they hurt so much. The ‘hobbit’ said something to her and waved farewell. Penny thanked her once more and received a smile. She picked up her clothes and headed back to the inn.

She was not really sure what she was meant to do now but that was not what was concerning her right now, though. What was concerning her was the fact that as that ‘hobbit’ had stepped out of the river she had seen a clear view of her feet... and there was no bloody way on earth they had been fake.

She had seen the tendons in the arch of the ‘hobbit’s’ foot, the veins on the top of her foot underneath the hair, the way her toes had bent and her skin crinkled as the foot had moved. Her mind was reeling. How was this possible?

She shook her head. A one-off. Freak of nature. Had to be. Someone wouldn’t go to the length of plastic surgery... would they? But then, given how mad these people clearly were in their fanaticism for all things Tolkien, she would not put it past them.

Nah. Must have been a trick of the light. Must have been.

Mustn’t it?

One of the women who had brought Penny her bath water was walking towards her as she stepped through the door in the archway of The Prancing Pony. She smiled at Penny and, beckoning for her to follow, led her down a corridor away from the stairs to her chambers and indicated a small room to one side. Penny entered cautiously.

There was a roaring fire, a table with low benches on either side of it. Halbarad was sat in one corner by the window smoking an evil smelling pipe. He turned as she entered, took the pipe from his mouth and said something, smiling at her and indicating the bundle of damp clothes.

“Yup. All washed,” she nodded. “What do I do with them now?”

As if he had understood her, which he had not, he pointed to one side of the fire. A clothes rack was standing next to it.

“Oh. Right,” said Penny and she started laying out the four items over it and positioned it directly in front of the fire.

Halbarad watched her, then shook his head and sighed, though he smiled. He stood and pulled the rack back from where she had placed it.

“We want them dry, not burnt,” he grinned.

“So, now what?” Penny asked him. He had returned to his seat by the window and he indicated for her to sit by the table.

As she did so she winced. She really needed the toilet. She was in some considerable discomfort. She had no idea how she would explain what she needed and there was no way on earth she was going to try and explain it to HIM. She mentally kicked herself for not trying to say something to the serving woman who had led her here.

She shifted uncomfortably on her bench. Wriggling just made it worse and meant she wriggled even more. Oh, God. What was she going to do?

Halbarad watched her. She was in pain. Discomfort. Why was she jiggling around like that? She also looked vaguely embarrassed.

Suddenly, he guessed what the problem was.

He stood, went to the door, stuck his head out and shouted for the serving wench. She appeared soon enough. He explained the Foreign Lady, as she was now officially known, needed to be shown the latrines. He also added, remembering her look of disgust as she had neared the open sewer, that she should be provided with a jug of water.

“Water, sir? Whatever for?” The woman stared at him.

“Never you mind, girl. Just do as I ask.”

She nodded. Bloody peculiar, that’s what this was as far as she was concerned. She scuttled off to fetch a jug.

Halbarad turned to Penny.

“She’ll take you. Don’t worry.”

He sat down. Given her demeanour so far he suspected she might like the opportunity to wash herself and her hands after experiencing the worst latrine this side of the Misty Mountains. Not for nothing had he answered that particular call of nature early that morning in the woods - he was no fool.

Penny had watched all this with interest. She had opened her mouth to try and get the woman’s attention but she had left before she could get a word in. She wondered what Halbarad’s hand gesture had meant. He had indicated the height of something and asked something of the woman. The woman clearly thought the request odd whatever it was.

She understood when the woman returned a minute or two carrying a jug of the size Halbarad had indicated. She beckoned to Penny. Penny looked at her and then at Halbarad. Halbarad nodded and indicated with his pipe for her to follow the woman. Penny did so.

She was led out to the courtyard and toward the hill into which the two wings of The Prancing Pony were cut. To one side, near the stables, a wooden door was cut into the turf. The woman handed Penny the jug, which she now could see was filled with water, and indicated the door.

Penny looked at the woman, then the door, then the woman again. What was this about? The woman smiled encouragingly at her and indicated the door again. Penny stepped forward nervously.

She guessed what it was when she was within about four feet of it. The stench was unbelievable and she could feel herself gagging. She had no choice, she knew, but it would seem all her worst fears about this place were realised.

She glanced back to see the woman was already half way across the courtyard and heading back to the inn. She stood before the door, one hand to her nose and clutching the jug. Why did she have the horrible impression she was going to find something like the toilet from Trainspotting on the other side of the door? She put down the jug, lifted and tied a knot in her skirts as she had done to wash the clothes just to be on the safe side. She bent to pick up the jug once more, gritted her teeth, took a deep breath of nearly fresh air and opened the door.

Oh. My. God.

The smell hit her like a breezeblock.

The floor was lined with straw and seemed clean enough, though, for which she was truly grateful. At the opposite end, though, was a hole. A large hole in the floor. That was it. There were marks in the earth on either side of it where countless others had stood or squatted before her. She gagged. To one side of the hole there was a pile of large leaves, green and dry, strips of bark and.. you had to be joking, surely... pieces of bone!

She was suddenly very, VERY grateful that Halbarad had insisted she be given water. This was going to be utterly, utterly vile and definitely one of the worst experiences of her life and considering what had happened to her so far in the past two days that was really saying something.

She could feel tears come to her eyes. There is no way on earth any television company in the world could get away with doing this to people. She would sue. There had to be laws against this sort of thing. Then she felt the pain in her stomach again and had to admit that, as things stood, she had little choice right now.

But someone was going to pay for this.

And pay BIG time.

Author’s Notes:
“Batti”, as far as I can discover, is Barliman’s REAL first name (in Westron).

You CAN get clothes clean without soap if you bash them hard enough and for long enough.

Yes, people DID used to use bone to clean themselves...

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