To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Popcorn popped, favorite soda on the coffee table, blanket, pillow... present and accounted for. My regular Fellowship of the Ring get-ready-to-rummbuuuullll supplies were laid out. Yeah, I'd watched it seventy trillion times. Whatever. Still gave me goosebumps. Viggo was a total hottie. I could even give Sean an appreciative glance once in awhile, even though he turned into a dork later on. Didn't matter. Unshaven, unwashed, and scruffy as he was, Viggo still had it. And I wanted to watch it again.

I could forget my endless week of trying to please everyone and everything nationwide. Such was the life of a government peon. Whether you could help the people on the phone or not, whether they were rude as hell to you or sweet as pie, the 'yes, ma'am's and 'no, sir's and 'I'll make sure your complaint reaches the appropriate authority's still had to roll off the tongue as if you meant them. Until the weekend, when you could tell the telemarketers to go screw their grannies. That you could mean.

Rubbing my eyes, I tried to forget for one blessed evening that I worked in a pitifully small office inspecting goods entering and leaving the country on international flights, and let myself wander into a less complicated world. A world where it's easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys: good guys are beautiful, and bad guys are ugly. Easy peasy. Good guys get to exact instant justice on the bad guys, too, not lock them away in a prison to eternally feed off the public while wishy-washy politicians debated whether lethal injection or electrocution was more 'humane.' Or whether the guy caught red-handed with the victim's head in his icebox was really guilty of the murder or not.

There I go again, I thought with annoyance. Shut the hell up, and listen to what Gandalf is saying. It could be important. Like I didn't already have the dialogue memorized.

No matter how many times I watched the party scene, Merry and Pippin's introduction with the fireworks still got a chuckle out of me. I wished I knew guys like them. Curling up on the couch with my fuzzy pink kitty slippers, dressed in purple cotton Eeyore pajamas, I snuggled up warmly with my blankie and smiled.

I could feel my eyelids beginning to droop about when the Black Rider made his first appearance. No, Frodo, don't put on the Ring! my weary thoughts mumbled automatically. Thank goodness for Sam, because if it were up to me to stop him, I probably would be too busy screaming and running around like an imbecile because a centipede crawled across my arm. Like there'd be a chance of the Nazgûl missing that.

After a moment, my eyes jerked open. I'd drifted off a little, I supposed, for now our intrepid wanderers were running flat out for the Bucklebury Ferry. Dammit, I couldn't keep my eyes open. No. Sleeping was not an option when Viggo was about to enter the scene. They'd be at the gates of Bree in just a few minutes... Hang in there... Once I see him, I'm sure I won't... be able to... close... my eyes...

How the hell did my couch get so hard all of a sudden? Did I leave a window open? I was cold, stiff, and rather shocked at how dark it was. Maybe the power went out...

And maybe it took my apartment with it.

Oh crap. I was outside. In my pajamas, near as I could tell. On a doorstep. Someone's freaking doorstep. It was bloody freezing out, too. Wasn't it summer? What the hell?

Sitting up, I leaned against the door and tried to get my eyes to adjust to the gloom. There were darker shadows against the black sky, like a tall hedge or several trees planted close together. It was rather strange. I couldn't recall anyone living nearby - certainly not within walking distance - who had a house surrounded by trees. My apartment was on a busy street with few residential neighborhoods around it. I would have had to sleep walk for a couple of miles to find a place like this.

Of course, a quick glance at the sky told me I wasn't anywhere near where I thought I was. I would have had to drive for at least an hour to find a place so deep in the countryside that the actual Milky Way was visible.

The sky was quite literally pocked with stars. I hadn't seen so many since camping as a kid with my dad. It was the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen in my life.

I was so transfixed by the sky, I totally forgot about the house, and wasn't prepared when the door suddenly opened behind me, spilling me backwards into several pairs of legs. Very short legs, come to find out.

"Here now, what's this?" one of the leg owners said, obviously startled. "Who're you?"

I scrambled up... and up. Holy mother of god, I towered over these guys! I just stared at them, bewildered for several seconds. Then it hit me.

Short. Kind of round in the middle. Curly-headed. Bare feet with hairy tops. Good lord, they're Hobbits. But they didn't look like Elijah or Sean or Dominic or Billy. Well, maybe a little. If all those guys put on about fifty pounds. Who the extra one was, I had no idea.

"Um...," I offered intelligently.

"Have you been spying?" the speaker accused, glaring at me.

I swear, the first thing that came to mind was, No sir, I ain't been dropping no eaves. But I restrained myself.

"No, I swear!" I cried, shaking my head vigorously. "Um... I just sort of... fell asleep here. I guess. A bit."

"We don't have time for this," another one said, still eying me warily. "State your business, and be quick."

"Um... I... uh...," I hedged, thinking fast. Or as fast as my sluggish brain could manage, under the circumstances. "I heard you're going to Bree, and I thought..."

"Who told you that?" the same one said hotly, crossing his arms over his chest. "None but these four knew anything of my plans!"

"Oh, so you're Frodo!" I crowed, smacking my forehead and pointing at him as if I'd just made the connection in a game of twenty questions. I could tell I was right by the stunned look on his face.

"How do you know me?" he hissed suspiciously while the others shushed me and glanced around warily.

"Uh..." I didn't think I was making too great an impression on these guys.

"Are you from Bree?" another asked, and I wondered if it was Merry. He always seemed the more well-traveled.

"Sure, yes, that's it," I said eagerly. "I'm from Bree. I'm on my way back there now. I'd... uh... love to travel with you, if you don't mind. Safety in numbers, and all." I shrugged kind of lamely and grinned. I'm not sure they could see it in the dim light coming from the foyer, though.

But then, I was pretty damn sure Bag End was built into the side of a hill, too. This was more of a house like I was accustomed to seeing back home, though the door was round.

"I suppose you would know to come here, since I told everyone back in Hobbiton of these plans, at least," Frodo said thoughtfully. "But I told none that I would not be staying. How did you come by such news?"

"This... isn't... Bag End?" I asked hesitantly.

They exchanged bewildered glances. "No. This is Crickhollow, in Buckland. Where did you think you were?"

"Crick what in Buck where?"

"Who told you my plans?" Frodo pressed, enunciating each word slowly and clearly as if he were an American tourist. Yeah, I know what we're like: slower and louder English is much easier for non-English speakers to understand than regular English spoken normally. We're idiots. But apparently this applied to whatever passed for the "Common Tongue" around here, too.

This wasn't getting anywhere, and by the way everyone was chafing and antsy, it seemed I was holding them up beyond what was acceptable even for polite gentlemen. Any minute now, one of them was going to rudely clear his throat.

"Okay, you want the absolute truth?" I said with a sigh. "Gandalf sent me. I... uh... he was delayed, and sent me in his place to make sure you... got moving. You know. Left and such. Before the Black Riders catch up to you."

"Gandalf sent you," Frodo repeated skeptically. Frankly, I was having a hard time believing me, too. Regardless, I had until Bree to come up with a different story. I probably wouldn't be able to convince Viggo... uh, Aragorn. Strider. Whatever.

Oh. My. God. I was going to meet Aragorn. Fangirl squee!

Okay, self, compose. Settle down.

"Yes, he sent me," I replied a bit more confidently. Falsely confident, but hopefully they wouldn't catch that. "I know what you carry, and I'm here to help in any way I can."

"Oh, just bring her," one of the ones said who'd been quiet all this time. "If naught but ill comes of it, you'll be no worse off, I reckon."

"I'm not sure as I trust a Big Person," the spy accuser said under his breath. "Mr. Frodo, it's up to you, but I don't remember Gandalf saying nothing about taking a lady along."

"You must be Sam," I laughed. Now he was startled. "Gandalf said you'd be suspicious of me. I'll try not to cause any trouble."

"What's your name, then?" Sam bit back.

"Tanith," I replied. "Tanith Walker."

"What in the world are those?" the mysterious fifth wheel asked, pointing at my feet. All eyes shot downward and widened with surprise.

"Uh... slippers?" I suggested uneasily.

"And what is on your clothing?"

"A... uh... very sad donkey," I muttered. "Look, um... I don't suppose you have extra extra large clothes lying around?"

Luck was not on my side in the area of outfitting, but at least I was following the Hobbits on their journey. For some strange reason, they were headed for a gate in a tall, overgrown hedge where the unknown Hobbit pretty much waved and ran off. Seemed to me he was saying Better you than me!

I'd seen the movie a gazillion times, and I had no recollection of this. Didn't they go straight from the ferry to Bree? What's up with the side trip through a great, evil forest? And where did all these damn ponies come from? There were five of them. I swear they left the Shire without a single one.

Mystery ponies notwithstanding, we were now in a great, big, evil forest. It made me extremely nervous, and reminded me somewhat of Fangorn from The Two Towers. Like the special effects guys in charge of Spanish moss and vines went completely apeshit here like they did in the other forest. The sun was starting to come up, but you'd hardly know it. Apart from being able to see a little better where you were going, daylight didn't seem to have much other benefit. I barely listened to the Hobbits chattering away about this and that. It's quite possible they were talking about the forest, but I was completely oblivious. I felt like eyes were on me, watching. And they weren't happy eyes, not welcoming eyes. Not at all.

You know how you can get a feel of a person based on body language, tone of voice, where their eyes focus, how their lips move? All those visual cues? Well, in the absence of seeing anyone or anything to assess the threat level, I had to go with other senses, and they were screaming that there was evil afoot and we were headed straight for it.

I did actually catch Merry saying something about being frustrated that we were headed away from where he wanted us to go, and he couldn't do much about it. Like the forest was herding us to this apparently god-awful place called Withywindle. Holy crap, it was just like Fangorn, but honestly, that forest was miles and another whole movie away. We hadn't even gotten to Bree yet. Where the hell were we?

We reached the banks of a river, and Merry seemed even more agitated, but really tired. It was now full day, and while we'd stopped for about half a dozen meals already, because they're Hobbits, everyone dropped to take another breather anyway. I sat down to check out my slippers, which weren't made for this sort of treatment, not by a long shot.

They were still very damp from walking in the dew-soaked grass to get to the hedge. Already the soles were starting to wear out. Another few hours, and the soft cushion would wear through completely. I pondered the possibility of just hanging it up and going barefoot, but my brain wasn't in the mood for complicated debates like that. Like they'd done while watching the movie, my eyelids started to droop. There was a weird humming in my ears; not unpleasant, and not like bugs or anything, more like... a soothing voice murmuring... something.

The next thing I knew, there was a round-faced, blue-eyed man with bushy brown hair and a thick, mountain-man sort of beard staring down at me. He wore a big floppy hat and a blue jacket. I just sort of blinked at him with surprise.

"There, now," he said kindly, a twinkle in his eye. "The willow song is put to rest, and soon so shall weary travelers." Turning, he laughed, "You shall come home with me! The table is laid for all, and Goldberry is waiting. Time enough for questions when we have supped and drunk our fill. Follow me as quick as you are able!" With that, the strange man skipped down the path, singing and dancing all the way.

I was completely floored. Who the hell was that? Merry and Pippin grabbed my hands and pulled me to my feet, then we all hustled after him, trying to keep the big blue feather in his hat in sight as he bobbed and weaved ahead of us. The Hobbits brought me up to date, informing me that we were under some kind of sleep spell, a big honking tree tried to eat Merry and Pippin, and the same tree threw Frodo into the river to drown him.

Yeah. That's right. The tree did all that. Huh. Odd. I thought those two didn't get eaten by a tree until Fangorn. But then, that was in the extended edition.

Anyway, the Old Forest seemed to be reluctant to let us go, and stepped up the creep-factor as we got close to the border. It was like dragging myself to work every day. Like you knew you were going somewhere unpleasant that you hated, but you had to go, there really wasn't any choice.

As soon as we left the cover of the trees and saw what's-his-name's house, it felt like a shroud was lifted and we could breathe again. Whoever this guy was, he had awesome landscapers. The grass was so well tended I almost thought I'd stepped onto the world's biggest putting green. The house was huge and sprawling, and built on the top of a rise as if it were sort of dropped there by a big kid and spilled over the sides. Not a mess by any means, but one that would have 'quaint with lots of character' in the realtor's description.

Up on the porch, we could see the happy guy standing there, waving and singing his silly songs that made no damn sense. I had to admit that after the oppressive forest, this guy was a really nice change. I hoped he wouldn't turn out to be one of those irrepressibly cheerful people who make you want to murder them within five minutes because absolutely nothing gets them down.

Which suddenly put me in mind of an ancient Steve Martin bit where he's talking about music, and how you just can't sing a depressing song with a banjo. Oh, death and grief and sorrow and murder. Yeah. You just want to clap and sing along. And I didn't know what the hell that had to do with this guy, other than that he was like banjo music to me.

Out of nowhere a woman's voice joined in, and her voice reminded me of trickling water. Not the kind of sound that makes you need to pee, but sort of like the chuckling, giggling sound of water over smooth river stones.

Eventually, we made it into the house, and wow did they ever welcome us. Total strangers, never met before, and this guy, whose name was Tom Bombadil I learned, just totally embraced us like we were old friends. For a semi-city girl who was accustomed to keeping her eyes down when the neighbors I'd lived next to for years walked by so I wouldn't feel obligated to strike up a conversation, this was weird.

The woman we heard turned out to be named Goldberry, and I was pretty sure I'd heard Tom mention her earlier in passing. She was one of those stunningly beautiful women you feel really plain and uninteresting next to, but her whole manner sort of makes you feel like it doesn't matter to her, and because of that, nobody else thinks you're ugly by comparison because she doesn't think you are.

"Enter, good guests!" she cried, rising to greet us. She was just as energetically enthusiastic as her husband Tom, who'd gone out to tend the ponies, and soon even I was feeling right at home.

The décor fascinated me more than the conversation. I hadn't gone into the house at Crick-whatsis, so this was the first real house I'd seen. The entry was well-lit and very cozy; lamps hung from the ceiling and candles burned throughout the room. The lady of the house was sitting across from the front door surrounded by basins and pots filled with water, in which white lilies floated, when we entered, and now led us to a huge, dark-wooden table to sit and rest until Tom came back. She began bustling about, bringing in platters of food to lay out on the table.

"Please," Frodo said a little shyly to Goldberry, "who is Tom Bombadil?"

"He is," she said with a gentle smile. "He is the Master of wood, water and hill."

"I wonder if he knows why I'm here," I muttered. It would certainly ease my mind, knowing what purpose I was supposed to fulfill. I frankly didn't see much value in throwing someone from my world into this one as 'the hero without whom the good guys cannot possibly win.' What a laugh that would be. Quite the joke on some unsuspecting idiot.

"Such knowledge may not be his," Goldberry said, and I was a little startled that I'd spoken loudly enough to be heard by anyone. "But you may ask him upon his return."

Naturally, the Hobbits all looked at me with surprise. They thought I was Gandalf's friend, after all.

"Yes, I'll ask," I said quickly. "So... what's next? Now that we're through the forest?"

Merry raised an eyebrow. "Well, we need to get to the East Road, and that means from here we must travel through the Barrow Downs."

I nodded. Didn't sound too bad.

"After that, we are to meet Gandalf in Bree," Frodo supplied. "From there... I do not know."

"Good, good," I said. "Bree is an interesting town."

The front door suddenly opened, and Tom Bombadil entered. "How fare our guests? Have all been soothed of their hurts? The feast prepared and the table set?"

"All is in readiness, though our guests may not be." She smiled kindly at all of us as she ushered us into a room with several soft-looking mattresses laid out for us, apparently, and basins with cool water. Washing up, I was pretty surprised to see that there was one large mattress longer than the others, as if our hosts knew a 'Big Person' traveled with four short Hobbits and needed a bigger pallet to sleep on. The little green slippers next to each mattress also seemed to be intended for wide and long Hobbit feet, compared to the ones next to my mattress that were dainty by comparison.

The perfection of everything made me think I was on the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the way the right size clothing was made available when we needed it and there were just the right number of beds of the right size for our different forms. What was next, Ensign Broccoli challenging Geordi LaForge to a Musketeer-like duel so he could get biz-zay with Deanna Troy?

Wow, I watch too much TV.

Stupid suspicions of completely out of this world conspiracies and inappropriate references to technological advancement aside, dinner was simple but oh so filling. I felt like I was going to pop if I didn't go have a lie-down. I excused myself and turned in early. That wasn't really a 'normal' nap I had, and I hadn't gotten much sleep after a really stressful week before coming here, where 'stress' is so pervasive it has the corner office and its own secretary. I think I was probably asleep before my head hit the pillow.

And I dreamed.

The smells were horrible, like a fetid swamp backfilled with garbage. Stooped, dirty, and misshapen creatures limped or scuttled about, constantly checking on something in a huge mass of seething mud. One of them grunted rasping, unrecognizable words and pointed out one membranous mass that seemed to have... something... trying to get out.

Two attendants converged on the thing and poked at it, perhaps checking reflexes or responses to their prodding. The flinching and muffled snarling must have satisfied them, for they began to rip into the membrane with their clawed hands.

The tissue tore easily, and a slime-covered mockery of a humanoid form slithered out onto the dirty floor. It lay there weakly trying to rise for a moment, then seemed to come to its senses and scrambled to its feet. The attendants looked it over and nodded with satisfaction. Each one grabbing an arm of the confused creature, they roughly dragged it away.

I shot awake and sat up straight, my heart racing and breath coming in gasps. What the hell?

A/N: I think the Steve Martin bit is on either "Let's Get Small" or "Wild and Crazy Guy." Memory is vague on that. And yes, I had the vinyls. Dear god, how old does that make me? ;) Star Trek:TNG episode referenced is "Hollow Pursuits." Massive apologies to Tolkien for grabbing some of his lines and paraphrasing others, but you stick a strange woman dressed in purple jammies into the mix, and people aren't going to follow the script. :)