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[Index]

1
An Unexpected Guest

Aldo Boffin meets a mysterious stranger at the Blue Swan Inn at Whitfurrows.


~~~

The Bounders

S.R. 1409

Chapter I.
An Unexpected Guest

Aldo Boffin sat at his usual place in the corner by the fire at the Blue Swan in Whitfurrows. It was mid-afternoon yet, and still harvest season, so the crowd was light. Aldo took a small sip from his pint of ale. He’d been nursing his first pint for an hour, while staring out the window and listening to the crackling of the embers from the fireplace. It was the last day of Winterfilth and Aldo had a lot on his mind. That morning he’d had a terrible row with his mother. His father, Baldo, had walked in during the middle of it when he came home from work for his luncheon. Baldo had raised his walking stick as if he were going to strike his son. He did not, but Aldo made a hasty and early exit from their smial anyway. Usually he waited until after tea to head for the Swan. His parents didn’t know what to do with him anymore, and the truth was, neither did he. Aldo’s sullenness and shyness was fine during his teens and early tweens, but he was in his late tweens now. He would turn thirty come next forelithe, and everyone seemed to feel it was high time he began to mature. His father wanted him to take over the family business. They sold goose-down comforters and pillows. His father managed ten employees, who collected the feathers from their flocks of geese, then sowed them into the finest cotton to make the best bedding in the Shire. It was a fine business, but Aldo wanted something… different…

Aldo read more than was good for any hobbit, as his father described it. He was somewhat slender and certainly shy. He had light brown hair and delicate features. He didn’t feel that he was remarkable in any way. Maybe the only thing Aldo felt he was good at was hoops and spindles. His arm was surprisingly strong for his frame. Sometimes he could score three hoops with one cast of the spindle.

The innkeeper, good old Tom Mugwart, slid his tea and fried perch sandwiches across the scrubbed wood table. “Will ye be wanting another pint, Master Boffin?” he asked.
“What? Oh, no thank you, Tom.” Aldo said, then he cringed as the door opened and two sadly familiar hobbits stepped into the Swan: Felco and Hargis Burows. These two delighted in bullying Aldo, but they never came to the Swan. They were always down to the Floating Log, surrounded by a flock of simpering lasses.

Aldo wished he could make himself invisible, or fly off on wings, or some other such foolery, but what was the use of wishing for stuff out of storybook tales? Nothing good ever came true. The two strode over to the bar to get their ale, while Aldo slunk down in his chair. Perhaps he could slip out quietly before they noticed him. Just then, the Swan’s door burst open with a bang, and a very tall, broad-shouldered hobbit came inside, shutting the door rather more quietly than he had opened it, and wiped his muddy boots on the mat. Aldo glanced out the window again and saw that the morning’s cold gray sky had turned to rain at last.

The stranger sat at a table by the door with his back to the wall, facing Aldo. Steam was rising from his shoulders and head as he removed his dark green traveling coat. He wore a fine white shirt underneath, embroidered with a fanciful green emblem Aldo did not recognize. Old Tom spoke with the stranger, then brought him a pint of ale and a loaf of wheat bread with cheese.

Felco and Hargis had been staring at the stranger all the while, but now they noticed Aldo. They whispered to each other and chuckled ominously, then they approached Aldo’s table, each with a mug in their hand. “Sweet Aldo Boffin,” said Hargis. “No hello for an old friend?” Felco helped himself to a bit of Aldo’s sandwich, then a sip from Aldo’s ale. “Say, get us a round, my dear, will you?” said Hargis. “We’re sadly short until the harvest is sold, and you’re never short, are you?”

Aldo could feel the eyes of the stranger and of old Tom on him as he resolutely looked down at the table. Yes, his father did well, what of it. He had started from nothing and worked very hard. As much as he didn’t want to do it, Aldo mumbled, “All right.”
Felco called out to Tom, “You heard the hobbit. A round and some of those fine sandwiches for Aldo’s dear friends!”

When Tom brought the sandwiches and the ale, the two remained standing over Aldo, taking large swigs from their mugs. When Tom’s back had turned to clean up behind the bar, Hargis picked up Aldo’s still half-full mug and dumped it in Aldo’s lap. Hargis and Felco began guffawing like buffoons. Felco said, “You never did like the Swan’s ale did you, Har-“ but his joke was cut short.

The stranger had moved as fast and as silently as a wolf through the forest of tables and chairs. He had both Felco and Hargis by the collar, one in each hand, practically lifting each off the ground. His voice was deep and certain, “I came in for a quiet drink and a warm fire. You wouldn’t want to be spoiling that now, would you?” he asked. The two were shaking and looked about to wet themselves, and when he let go of their collars, they scurried from the inn like a couple conies freed from a snare. Aldo sat gaping at the stranger, who now turned to him, and was surveying him closely. “From the look of your clothes and hands,” he said, “you would appear to be a gentle-hobbit. But somehow you have forgotten your manners?”
Aldo blurted out, “We may not be Brandybucks, but we do well enough!” The stranger was grinning slightly, while Aldo found himself terribly confused.
“I thought you might invite me to join you for a drink,” the stranger said.
“Oh! Oh, of course,” said Aldo, practically knocking the table over as he got up. “Aldo, Aldo Boffin at your service, good sir.”
“Nay, I get my fill of sir in many other places. Evangrim is my name and that’s what you may call me.” He paused for a moment in thought, then added, “Evangrim Took of Long Cleeve.”
“The Northern Tooks,” said Aldo.
“The very same,” Evangrim replied. “So you see we do still exist.” Then he sat down.

Tom soon appeared at the table carrying two new pints of ale and a cloth to clean up the spill. “’Tis on the house, sirs,” he said. “’Twas a lucky thing you stopped by,” he said to Evangrim. “Those two buffoons be nothing but trouble.”

Aldo and Evangrim sipped their ales in silence. Aldo was feeling even more shy than usual. He snuck looks at Evangrim when he thought the other wouldn’t notice. His new companion had a chiseled, weathered face which showed off shockingly blue eyes. And he had the darkest black hair. Finally, since he felt something needed to be said, Aldo asked, “What brings you all the way down from Long Cleeve?” He was about to add, ‘sir,’ but caught himself just in time.
“I have business on Girdley Island,” said Evangrim.
“Girdley Island! But no one goes there.”
“Almost no one,” said Evangrim, but he offered no further explanation. After another long silence, Evangrim said, “I best be off. Have to find a good campsite before nightfall, or perhaps the Bridge Inn,” he said, mostly to himself.
“But the Bridge’ll be full,” said Aldo, “being harvest time and all.”
“The stars for a roof then,” said Evangrim as he stood up, put on his coat, then hoisted his very large and heavy looking pack over his shoulders. “Good day to you, Mr. Boffin,” he said.
But Aldo answered before Evangrim could finish his sentence, “We have two spare bedrooms!” Aldo saw that this announcement had made Evangrim smile slightly from the corner of his mouth. Aldo said, “I mean, please come and stay the night, with my family. It’s the least I can do to repay your kindness.”
“All right,” said Evangrim, “There’ll be plenty of nights under the stars for me soon enough.”
When Aldo got up he noticed that Evangrim was looking at his trousers, and from the heat on his face he worried that he must have turned the color of a ripe apple. Evangrim said, “Not to worry, Aldo. Your coat will cover the spill. It’ll be dry by the time you get home I’ll warrant.”

Outside, the rain had stopped, leaving a perfectly gray sky. The oaks were the brightest yellow against the gray. Aldo thought that this was more beautiful than any spring morning – the way the sky set off the brilliance of the leaves just so. A flock of geese flew over, honking, as they made their way to unknown lands in the south. Aldo let out a deep breath as he turned all the way round to take in the sites of his favorite season and type of day.

They walked in silence for some time along the lane north to Aldo’s family smial. Evangrim began to hum a tune softly, which Aldo did not recognize, but he found it haunting, and was surprised to hear such beautiful music from such a sturdy and stoic looking hobbit.

The well-worn path grew smaller as it wound its way down the flatlands towards The Water. “We live almost to Budgeford,” Aldo explained, mostly because he felt he should be saying something. His companion only nodded slightly in reply. The light was beginning to fade, and a soft, foggy mist filled the air as they came to a low hill: the last before The Water. Aldo’s family smial was dug into the far side of the hill, facing the river itself. Unlike most hobbits, perhaps because of growing up right next to a body of water, Aldo enjoyed swimming and boating. Some of his happiest times as a lad were spent out alone on the river.

Lanterns had already been lit inside, and smoke was coming from all three chimneys that poked their way from different places in the hilltop. Aldo hesitated before opening the elaborately carved front door to his home. One could just make out in the failing light that it had recently been painted a bright blue color. Quickly he turned to Evangrim and said, “I must warn you. My parents can be a little… difficult.” Then, with a deep breath, Aldo opened the door and they went inside.

Both of his parents were in the kitchen, which was to the right of the entrance hall. Facing this, and to the left, was their main sitting room, which also served as the dining room. The family took their meals in there, instead of in the kitchen. Aldo paused in the kitchen doorway. His father was seated by the fire, sipping from a mug of tea. His mother was busy rolling out a pie crust. Their maid, Violet, was stirring the stewpot over the fire. His mother looked up from her work and noticed Aldo and Evangrim. “What’s this, Aldo?” she asked.
“I met a uh…” but he couldn’t find a good description to fit Evangrim, “at the Blue Swan,” he added.
His father turned round from facing the fire. “A thinking of opening an inn now, Aldo? Well at least have some manners and introduce your guest.”
“Yes, of course. This is Evangrim. Evangrim Took from Long Cleeve,” Aldo said. “Evangrim, my parents, Baldo and Esther Boffin, and our maid, Violet. But before he could quite finish his sentence, his mother had let out something that sounded like a squeak, and she began wiping the flour from her hands and apron, and from her nose.
“Aldo, why didn’t you say! I’m a right mess!” said Esther. “Violet. The dining table. The guest plates,” she said, and the two women scurried from the kitchen.
Baldo rose almost as quickly to shake Evangrim’s hand. “Welcome to our humble home, Mister Took,” he said.
Evangrim answered, “It is lovely, and so kind of you to take in a weary traveler such as myself.”
“Aye, ‘tis a long way from Long Cleeve, no mistake about that,” Baldo said. Then he shouted, “Violet, our guest’s coat.”
“Evangrim said, “Please, you are too kind. Call me Evangrim.” And he hung his own coat on the peg by the door. When Evangrim turned back around, Baldo fairly gasped, and he gaped at Evangrim’s shirt, at the embroidery in particular.
“What is it, father?” Aldo asked, now becoming quite ashamed by both of his parents’ behavior.
“Don’t you recognize the design?” his father asked.
“Should I?”
“Mister Took here is a bounder,” his father said. “Though I don’t quite recognize all of the emblem.” Aldo had heard the term before, but he didn’t actually know what a bounder did, or if they still practiced their trade. His father asked, in a hushed tone, “Then you’re down to East Farthing on business?”
“Indeed,” said Evangrim, smiling almost mischievously at the total confusion his arrival had caused to the quiet household.

Evangrim and Baldo soon retired to the study for a pipe and a glass of Old Winyards before dinner. Aldo was sent to fetch the bottle from the cellar – the finest bottle no less, the last of the 1382 vintage! After that, he was assigned to help his mother and Violet with dinner. He could see his father’s ideas taking shape. Baldo would be planning to try and sell comforters and pillows to the northern Tooks, and perhaps even hoping to outfit the entire Great Smials as well.

At last everyone was seated around the elaborately decorated dining table, except for Violet, Aldo noted with a frown, who usually dined with the family. His mother had regained some of her composure, and she reached over to try and straighten down a wayward lock of Aldo’s hair. “Mother, really!” Aldo said. Evangrim was sitting across the table from Aldo, and his face had the expression of a cat who had just devoured a songbird.

The meal was quite a feast, with potato and leek soup, a pork pie with cheese and grapes on the side, then spiced, baked apples for dessert. There was wine with dinner and brandy afterwards. Baldo and Esther began to speak lightly and freely of geese and Whitfurrows gossip. Evangrim joined in occasionally and seemed to be enjoying himself.

At the meal’s conclusion, Baldo was leaning back in his chair and sipping his brandy. He announced, “Just sold twenty pillows and ten comforters to the Master of Brandy Hall himself today.”
Evangrim grew suddenly more intent at this. “Saradoc is at home then? At Brandy Hall?”
“Why, yes, I made the delivery myself this very morning… Is that where your business is then?” Baldo asked in a whisper, “Something to do with the Old Forest?”
“Not exactly, but I need the use of a boat, such as the Bucklanders can provide. And I… unfortunately have little experience with boats.”
“Why Aldo here is a fine boatman,” Baldo announced exuberantly. “He would be only too happy to assist you, having naught else to do but reading his storybooks.”
At this Evangrim’s pleased sort of grin returned, and he looked to Aldo and asked, “Well then, will you assist me with my business, Aldo?” Then he added, much more soberly, “It may take several days, and we may have to sleep out of doors.”
“Okay,” Aldo sort of croaked in response.

That night Aldo tossed and turned in his usually comfortable feather bed. He was thinking about what adventure the morning might bring. It must have been almost dawn before he fell asleep. His thoughts also kept slipping through the bedroom wall to the inhabitant of the guest room next to his. Evangrim was not remotely like any hobbit he had ever met before.

[Index]

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