Chapter 14: Rabbit Stew
The lurch back into the realm of Middle-Earth is less unsettling this time. I open my eyes and stare upwards at the clouds above through the thickets of trees. I look down I find that I am still in my skater dress, and it is still covered in mud; I'm still relieved that the dirt did not follow me home. The odd transition from the warmth of my bed to the chill of sleeping outside is rather a shock; I've never been a big fan of camping. I sit up quickly, rubbing my forearms against the cold, then I realise then that I have someone's cloak wrapped over me. I look about the bunch and see that Kili, who is now awake and attaching the horse's nose bags, is missing his own; I takeit to him and thank him for it.
"It's not mine," he says, "mine is over there." He points over to one of the pack ponies, and I see that it is slung across her broad back.
"Oh," I say, "well, that is awkward... then whose is this?"
He nods over to Bofur, who is squatting down on a rock, stirring up some leftover stew brought from Bilbo's house last night. He is cloakless rubbing his hands against the fire to try and keep warm. Oh, he is such a sweetheart.
"You'll freeze to death," I smile, pulling it back over his shoulders as he hums merrily despite the chill. He turns to me and grins.
"Not as much as you will, with your legs in the cold," he tells me, and tries to give it back; I shake me head, sitting beside him at the fire, and he pulls the cloak over both of our legs as a blanket.
"There," he says. "Compromise. We'll have to stop off somewhere on the road and get you some proper attire, there's no use you travelling like that. You'll catch your death when we get nearer to the mountains; summer's on its way out now."
Surely enough, we do; we stop off on the road at a small farm in the hills run by a young man- man, I should add, properly sized like Gandalf- and the Wizard manages to persuade the farmer to sell us one of his wife's dresses, in either rosewood red or a dusty sort of teal colour for what I'm assured is a rather decent price. When it comes to paying, Gandalf turns to the company.
"Are we agreed that it is a suitable charge?"
The Dwarves mumble in agreement.
"Good," the Wizard smiles. He holds out an expectant hand towards the Dwarven party; suddenly, the charge is no longer considered reasonable.
"Extortionate!" Gloin growls, "charging that much, for rags!"
"If she can pay for it, she can have it," Thorin proclaims. I scowl to myself, because there's no way that's not going to happen.
"I guess I'll just freeze, then," I mumble from the back of Fili's pony, who has been delivered the burden of carrying me today. I think to myself how I'll just hunt for winter gear when we go shopping tomorrow; Thorin won't be laughing then, when I'm in my thermal-insulation leggings, skii-grade gloves and fur boots. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, your Majesty. I fold my mud-crusted arms across my chest against the cold, and a small chinking bag flies past my head.
"Here," comes Kili's dry voice, and I see the farmer catch hold of the bag. I turn to Kili, surprised. He stares ahead, not even acknowledging the sum he has just given away. "There's more than enough there; give the lady the dress."
The farmer counts up his winnings, grinning at the gold before reaching over and handing out the burgundy dress to me. Kili raises his hand.
"We'll take the green."
The farmer nods and swaps the dresses; Fili laughs, taking hold of the burgundy one as the farmer pulls it away.
"For that price, we'll be taking both," he says, folding the dress in two. The farmer bows, thinking better than to argue with the group of Dwarves. spreading the other garment over my lap. I look to Kili, more than a little touched, and give him a smile.
"Thanks," I say, running the heavy fabric between my fingers, "it's beautiful."
Kili nods with a faint smile, clicking at his pony and riding onwards. I watch him absently from over Fili's shoulder, his hair blowing lightly in the coming breeze.
"My brother has taken quite the liking to you, it seems," Fili smirks quietly, moving the pony forwards slowly. I decide not to reply.
We ride onwards for hours on end, during which time I listen to the Dwarves exchange stories of home; tales of gold and ore, war and family, and, of course, extraordinary beards. All goes quiet for a while, before I hear Bofur gently chuckling to himself. He takes a deep breath in and bellows,
"Oh, the King beneath the mountains,
The King of carven stone,
The Lord of silver fountains
Shall come into his own!"
"Not now, Fili, for the sake of Aulë," Thorin yells back, but I sense the hint of a smile in his sharp voice. From further up the line one or two of the other Dwarves join in, and soon enough the entire assembly is singing along, all but myself, Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarven King.
"His crown shall be upholden,
His harp shall be restrung,
His halls shall echo golden,
To songs of yore re-sung!
The woods shall wave on mountains,
And grass beneath the sun;
His wealth shall flow in fountains,
And the rivers golden run!
The King beneath the mountains,
The King of carven stone,
The Lord of silver fountains
Shall come into his own!"
The Dwarves all cheer heartily. I lean close to Fili's hair so that he might hear me better and ask,
"Are all Dwarven songs about your uncle, or just the ones you lot sing?"
Fili laughs. "That one is not just about him; it's about me, as well, I suppose. All the heirs to the line of Durin; Kili, too, should I die before I have any children."
"Do you want children?"
"I suppose so... well, yes, if anyone will have me."
"Anyone would be lucky to have you," I assure him. "Any Dwarven ladies you've got your eye on?"
"Mahal, no. I have yet to find a Dwarf woman with a beard quite thick enough."
I can't help but laugh, and he grins back at me. I guess there's no dating sites in Middle-Earth, no Plenty-O' Beards . com.
"It is no laughing matter, my Halfling friend. The beard is the defining characteristic in women of our race. And Dwarves mate for life, so once you've made your choice there's no deviating from it."
"Not only that, but there are not many women of our kind," Dori proclaims, "which means we are a dwindling race; that's why we're all counting on our lads to find themselves some nice Dwarven ladies and start families once this quest is done. Do you hear that, boys?! Ori, Fili, Kili?"
"I'm trying to pretend not to," Fili laughs, and the two younger Dwarves simply look embarrassed. Ori tugs at the sleeves of his yarn arm warmers and smiles shyly.
We ride all day and half way through the night, at which point my sides are so numb and my stomach rumbling so loudly that I feel I might just break down. When Thorin calls for us to stop, it is at the site of an abandoned farmhouse.
"We'll camp here for the night," the leader of the company drawls, hopping down from his own steed. "Fili, Kili, look after the ponies, and for Durin's sake, make sure you stay with them."
"Of course, Uncle."
Once the Fili and Kili Kiss-Ass Show comes to an end, the young Dwarves drift to the edge of the woodlands and set about removing the satchels and supplies from the ponies.
"I think it would be wiser to move on," Gandalf suggests. "We could all make for the Hidden Valley."
Thorin practically growls aloud. "I have told you already, I will not go near that place."
"Why not? The Elves could help us. We could get food, rest, advice."
"I do not need their advice."
"We have a map that we cannot read. Lord Elrond could help us-"
"Help?!" Thorin scoffs, "a dragon attacks Erebor; what help came from the Elves? Orcs plunder Moria, desecrate our sacred halls. The Elves looked on and did nothing, and you ask me to seek out the very people who betrayed my grandfather? Who betrayed my father-?"
"You are neither of them!" Gandalf scalds the Dwarf, "I did not give you that map and key for you to hold onto the past-!"
"I did not know that they were yours to keep!"
With that, the Wizard turns on his heel and walks away, mumbling under his breath.
"Gandalf," Bilbo calls, "where are you going-?"
"To seek the company of the only one around here who's got any sense!"
"...Who's that, then?"
"Myself, Mr. Baggins! I've had enough of Dwarves for one day."
"And the girl?!" Thorin shouts after him. Woah, don't bring me into this. "Your responsibility, you said! You gave me your word, Wizard! Gandalf!"
Gandalf ignores him, and Thorin's thunderous eyes turn to me; for a moment, he looks as though he intends to kill me. Instinctively I back up a step; I feel a movement behind me, and turn to see Kili stood at my side. Thorin holds his blazing stare a moment longer before his gaze weakens, a sigh escaping his lips. He turns away.
"Have the girl get a fire going."
"She has a name," Kili says abruptly from the bush; the entire assembly silences once more at his forwardness, myself included. "It's Lavender."
Thorin walks to the edge of our makeshift campsite, eyes on the horizon ahead.
"Have Lavender," he glowers, "get a fire going. We're all hungry."
The Dwarves busy themselves with unpacking their belongings and I stare at the outskirts of the forest, having no idea what kind of wood will be suitable for burning. Bofur must take note my befuddled expression, as he offers to come along with me in my search for firewood. I gratefully accept, a little unnerved by the prospect of being out in the woods and not knowing what is out there waiting to gobble me up or otherwise defile me. The two of us walk awkwardly beside each other through the edge of the forest, Bofur clutching onto his mining mattock and picking at its leather strap whist I stare at the ground, trying desperately to think of every episode of the Bear Grylls shows I've ever seen; unfortunately, I don't think drinking my own urine or making a wet-suit out of a seal carcass is going to help me here.
Come on, Alice, I scald myself, use your mind palace. Think, think, think...
The mind palace is not in working order. Please try again later.
I shrug my shoulders and reach down to the nearest fallen branch; Bofur twiddles his fingers in my direction and says,
"Heavens no, not that mangy old twig, Lavender. That's green wood, it won't burn at all."
I sigh. "I've got no idea what I'm doing, if I'm honest."
He smiles. "I thought as much; here." He crouches beside a few loose twigs and snags them up with a curl of his fist. "These will do; we'll need lots of these, a few as big as your arm and a nice flat one to set it all on. Make sure you pick up dry ones, too; the dryer the better."
The two of us hunt the wood down for a good we do so, Bofur hums a gentle tune, another song about gold and mountains and slaying Dragons. Those seem to be the predominant themes of Dwarvish lore.
"That should do it," Bofur smiles, "let's get this back; there should be enough supplies to cook up another day or so's worth. There's potatoes, carrots, and a little rabbit, too, if I remember right. Pair that with a few of these beauties-" Bofur reaches down and uproots a sprig or two of some wild-growing garlic- "and you've got a stew fit for a King, which it's going to have to be seeing as our Thorin will be eating it."
"That smells amazing," I say, referring to the garlic. Bofur wipes the mud off one of the sprigs with his fingers and hands it over to me.
"Keep it in your pocket," he advises me. "It's meant to bring good luck; perhaps it's all superstition, but we need all the luck we can get on this journey, wouldn't you say. Come on, Lass. Let's get back and I'll teach you how to get this fire going."
Back at camp Bofur sits me away from the others that the fire might have a little more leeway and he will be able to discreetly direct me. Bombur, distracted by the fine cheeses which we brought from Bilbo's house, keeps out of the way long enough for Bofur to talk me through it. He pulls out a hunting knife and whittles a notch into the largest piece of wood we have collected, kneeling atop it before leaning forwards and grabbing the ends of a lock of my hair; he slices the ends of the curl off and rolls it up in his gloved hands, pushing the tuft down into the notch. I wince a little, mourning the loss of my strands.
"Needs a little tinder," he explains, "you'll be as bald as Dwalin by the end of our journey, make no mistake."
He then begins sharpening one of the thicker twigs, pushes it into the notch and tells me to start building up the pyre whilst he tries to catch a flame. "The little twigs, then the larger and so on, if you please," he chimes, working hard to light the wood; after a long time it begins to catch, and Bofur grins. "I'll finish up here, you go and ask that brother of mine for the stew ingredients." He blows lightly on the wood to encourage the new-born ember. I do so and bring the sack, water supply and culinary instruments over to Bofur's handiwork, which is now blazing rather magnificently. He stares at it with wide, proud eyes, tapping me on the back as I sit down beside him.
"Well then, my lovely, best get started on this stew."
I stare at the ingredients, removing them slowly from their canvas packaging in order to give myself as much time as possible; the rabbit is wrapped up in fabric, and my health-and-safety alarm bells start to ring wildly. The smell of the meat is vile, and it's slimy, sinewy texture makes it utterly repulsive to me. I quickly wrap it back up and put it aside, breathing through my mouth as not to inhale the stench of the meat. Bofur still sits next to me, and I get the feeling from his silence that he has begun to gather that something is up. I take the knife which he has left beside the fire, wipe it clean with a little of the water on the hem of my dress and begin peeling the potatoes into my lap. Bombur sits beside us, and begins dealing with the rabbit.
"No, don't skin the things," Bofur directs me as I butcher the potatoes, "the skin is good for you, makes it a little bulkier. Just chop it, like this."
He takes the knife and vegetable from me and proceeds to do it himself whilst I prep the cauldron over the fire. I bring a little of the water to boil, imagining that to be the next logical step, and watch as Bofur scrapes the chopped potatoes into the pit. He crunches the garlic with his bare hands and drops it in, mud, leaves and all.
"I get the feeling you're not entirely sure about all this," Bofur says quietly, nipping the ends off the carrots, "am I right, Miss?"
I restrain a frown, but cannot maintain it as Bofur looks at me, his kind eyes questioning.
"I don't know all that much about cooking," I admit to him. "...Well, not that much at all, really. But I'm learning. I'll get better, I know I will," I reassure him, and for once I'm not actually lying; I plan to at least have a practice at home. By the end of this journey I'll be the Gordon Ramsey of Middle-Earth.
Though he tries to maintain a strict expression, I sense the glimmer of a smile near Bofur's teeth. "What makes a girl like yourself want to come out on a quest to slay a Dragon, anyhow?"
"Trust me," I say, cracking open some pea shells and entering their contents into the pot; Bofur gestures for me to add the shells, too, and I do so. "I'm not here for the Dragon."
"What is it you're after, then? A little adventure?"
I smile and shake my head. "I just want to get home. And I can't do that without the Wizard's help; he's here, so I am, too. Well, he was here. What about you, Bofur? What convinced you to come along?"
"Me?" he says dismissively, pulling the rabbit meat into thinner braids as Bombur pulverizes another chunk of it with his sausage-like fingers, "oh, I'm just here for the craic. Now, Lass, take note- when cooking rabbit, you really have to be careful of the colour of it..."
Bofur and his brother help me along with the recipe, and we manage to brew up a half-decent stew between the three of us. I couldn't be more grateful to the Dwarf; I thank him continuously in a quiet voice, and he shrugs off my hapless mewling with a bashful smile.
"He's been a long time," says Bilbo as the night gets darker, fussing left and right. "Gandalf, I mean."
"He's a Wizard," Bofur reassures him languidly, dishing out the now tepid stew, "he does as he chooses; here, do us a favour, Bilbo. Take these out to the lads."
Bofur thrusts two pots of stew into the Hobbit's tiny hands, and Bilbo scurries off to the forest, where Fili and Kili have been charged with watching over the ponies. The group of us sit merrily for a good few minutes, slurping away at the rather delicious stew.
"Bringing along another cook was a good idea," Nori calls from across the camp, "delicious, this is."
"The garlic leaves give it a particular earthly charm," Dori adds.
"Scrumptious," notes Ori.
"Looks like you've got yourself a rival, Bombur," Bofur grins, smacking his brother on the back fondly. Bombur laughs heartily, slurping contentedly into his stew. I mime Bofur another thank you, wondering just where Gandalf has got to; my train of thought is shattered as Fili bursts into the clearing, golden hair adrift and blithering wildly about some danger in the forest. The entire company stands on cue, ears pricked as Fili hisses,
AN: Just... Bofur. I love Bofur.