The pounding on the door to the inn went quiet before Barliman Butterbur had to leave his own rooms to answer it. Good—he blessed the day that he chose to take on Nob as his main Hobbit-of-all-work about the place. With Nob willing to deal with those who pounded on the door this late at night, Barliman rarely had to get out of bed any more.
But it appeared that tonight the newest guest at the Prancing Pony was more intent on argument than on accepting Nob’s guidance to a room. He heard the rumble of a low voice that grew increasingly loud and demanding, while Nob’s answers were growing shriller with alarm by the minute. Barliman rose and put his comfortable (if rather shabby) dressing gown on over his nightshirt, took up the stout cudgel he kept on the clothes press, and went out to his parlor door just as Nob began desperately pounding on it.
“Mr. Barliman, sir!” cried the Hobbit. “You must come out—Mr. Gandalf here is in quite the state!”
Gandalf? The Wizard was here at the Pony tonight? Whatever for? Before he could open the door it was grabbed out of his hand and pulled wide, and there on the threshold stood the old fellow, his grey robes sodden with the rain falling over the Breelands that night, his hair and beard looking particularly wild and fierce, and his eyes intent. The innkeeper was so alarmed he dropped the cudgel on the floor with a loud clatter.
“The Hobbits from the Shire!” Gandalf demanded. “Have they been here? Where are they now? And what’s this about spooks and horse thieves?”
“What’s this about, Mr. Gandalf, sir? What for are you shoutin’ at me and the help the way you are?” Barliman asked. “If you can keep to but one question at a time, perhaps we might be able to answer them for you in order, like! Nob, go off to the kitchen, stir up the fire a bit, and put the kettle on. Hurry with you, now! And bring us a plate of bread and butter, and perhaps some cheese or slices of ham—you don’t mind if the ham’s cold, do you, Mr. Gandalf? Yes, some ham will do, and some of that seedcake as we’ve put by for second breakfast tomorrow morning. Will some Shire black tea do for you, Mr. Gandalf, or would you rather have some Buckland grey? We do have a blend they put up in Archet as well, but it’s not as full-bodied as the grey or black tea, I’m afraid. I could have Nob stir you up an egg or two as well, we’ve more than enough for second breakfast, I’m certain. Well, Nob, why are you standin’ about? Off with you and see to it as Mr. Gandalf has a good plateful and a hot mug t’warm him up a bit. Why, you’re all wet, Mr. Gandalf, sir! Come here into my rooms and I’ll fetch a towel for you to dry yourself with.”
So saying, he took the Wizard by the wrist and drew him into his own rooms, rapidly fetched a towel from his wash stand, and fell to seeing Gandalf dried and settled comfortably in a chair with a blanket over his shoulders and his hat steaming itself dry by his small but adequate fireplace, keeping up a steady stream of talk all the while so rapid that Gandalf couldn’t manage to squeeze in a single word. “It’s good as the Missus is away,” Barliman was now saying, “over Combe way visitin’ her sister, you see. All this bother as we’ve seen hasn’t touched her, or not yet, at least.”
Finally Gandalf could bear no more. “Barliman Butterbur,” he barked. “Will you be still, or shall I have to change you into a statue to get a moment in which to ask a question of any kind?”
The innkeeper’s face was indignant and rather frightened, but at least he went quiet.
“The Hobbits of the Shire I told you were coming out to Bree,” he began. “Did they come? When?”
“They got here yesterday, and left this mornin’, they did,” Barliman answered in a squeak of dread. “Left just after elevenses.”
“So, they are off to Rivendell? I only hope that it’s not too late,” Gandalf prayed, his worry clear to be seen. “Did they go by way of the Road?”
“I’m certain as I couldn’t tell you,” was the answer. Then, with a different tone to his voice, Butterbur added, “Although I’m certain as that Bill Ferny could tell you. He watches everything.”
Gandalf shook his head in frustration. “I can’t understand why Frodo waited so long to leave the Shire. Why, I told him in that letter I had you send him for me to leave as soon as he could!” Something in Butterbur’s expression gave the innkeeper away. “Didn’t you send it right away as I told you to do?”
“Well, it wasn’t all my fault, don’t you see? No one was headin’ that way for days, you understand, and I was kept so busy—I’m sorry, Mr. Gandalf, sir, but I did try!”
“You forgot?” shouted Gandalf.
“Well, like I was tellin’ Mr. Underhill when I give him the letter, one thing drives out another----”
Gandalf stood up to loom over the Man, his beard and eyebrows bristling furiously. “Why I ever trusted you with that letter----”
“I’m that sorry, sir, but I plumb forgot! I’m a busy man!”
“I swear, Barliman Butterbur, that the only reason you remember your very name is because people yell it at you all day long! That letter was important! I told you at the time! Who knows what mischief might come of it having been delayed?”
At that moment there was a tap at the door, and without waiting for an answer, Nob entered with a heavily laden tray he set on the small table in the corner. He gave wary glances first at his employer and then at Gandalf, nodded toward the food, and retreated for the door, saying, “I’ll leave the two of you to it, shall I?” He then scurried out the door and closed it firmly behind him.
Gandalf watched after him, gave a sigh, and fell back onto the chair again, pulling the blanket around himself as he returned his attention to Butterbur.
“Why isn’t Harry Goatleaf on duty at the west gate tonight?” he demanded.
“We don’t know as to where he’s got himself off to, but suspect as him went off when them Southerners as we believe stole all the horses and ponies from the stable last night.” Barliman took a breath before adding, “Someone had to of let them through the gate in the night both in and out of the village. At least I suspect as Lindor Greenwillow won’t let in folks as is likely to knife people in their beds.”
Gandalf’s face paled. “Someone was knifed in his bed?”
“Well, it wasn’t for lack of tryin’,” Barliman admitted. “Last night, here at the Pony, if you’ll believe it! Someone broke into a room in the north wing and hacked the beds and what was in them to pieces!” He nodded to add emphasis to his description.
“The north wing? Where the rooms for Hobbits are?”
“Yes, but no one was in the beds—only bolsters and extra quilts, you see.”
Gandalf reached out and clutched at the front of the innkeeper’s dressing gown in desperation. “The Shire Hobbits—they didn’t take that room, did they?” He read the answer in Butterbur’s eyes, and let go, his gaze searching the Man’s face. “Where were they?”
“Them stayed in the parlor, sleepin’ on the floor instead.”
“They weren’t hurt, then?”
Barliman shook his head. “No, thank the stars.” He took a deep breath. “It’s all more’n a bit of a muddle, don’t you see. There’s been all kinds of folks comin’ up the Greenway from the south for months. And last night we had a full house, but we did have the one room with four beds and the private parlor there in the north wing. So when this Mr. Underhill comes in and asks for beds for four and a private parlor for Littles, I gave them that. They were nice folks, not stand-offish or nothin’ like that, and three of them went into the Common Room and was sociable.
“Only it seemed as they was getting’ too much attention, see? There’ve been all kinds askin’ about Hobbits comin’ through and wantin’ news, not least that Strider fellow.” When Gandalf straightened again, his eyes widening, Barliman appeared to think it was due to the Wizard being further alarmed. “Oh, dear, but it wasn’t for lack of warnin’, but I have to admit as he got to them in spite of me tellin’ him to leave them be and tellin’ them as him was a Ranger and likely up to no good on his own part. But they took up with him in spite of what I said. It’s not my fault,” he added, almost prattling now in his terror for what Gandalf might say or do at this news.
“They went with Strider? Is that what you are trying to tell me?”
“Yes, but as I was sayin’, I tried to warn them off him----”
Gandalf threw back his head and laughed in relief. “They went with Strider! Oh, bless you, Barliman Butterbur! Bless you.”
“Like to end up killed in their sleep, they are,” Butterbur worried, not certain what to make of the Wizard’s reaction to his news.
Gandalf sprang again to his feet, and pulled Barliman to his as well, drawing the innkeeper into his embrace. “It’s the best thing you could tell me! If they’re with Strider, they’ll be in the best of hands. He’ll get them through to Rivendell if anyone can! Praise be, they’re as well off as they can be, considering the dangers they’ve faced so far! I’ll tell you this—I’m going to lay a spell of special excellence on all you brew here at the Pony, a spell of excellence for seven years, do you hear? I can’t tell you how much reassurance your news gives me!”
Barliman Butterbur couldn’t believe his ears or his eyes. The Wizard wasn’t going to turn him into a toad or a doorpost, but was going to put a spell of excellence on his beer and ale? Who would have thought it possible, considering how much worry that letter and Gandalf’s earlier anger had cost him?
“I’ll stay the night, then,” Gandalf said, loosing the innkeeper and finally reaching toward the tray to take up the teapot and a mug. “I’ll stay the night and leave right after second breakfast. It will be the first time I’ll have slept in a proper bed since I was last here, now that I think on it. Yes, a good night’s sleep and perhaps a quick bathe, and a couple of good meals before I have to take to the road again. Oh, and I’ll owe you for stabling, too—Bob took Shadowfax in hand when I arrived. You’ll not lose anything more from me being here tonight.”
Barliman shook his head at the wonder of it, and poked his head out the door to call for Nob.