A/N: This was originally written for the following prompt for the March 18, 2011 Back-to-Middle-earth-Month Challenge:
There is no beautifier of complexion, or form, or behavior, like the wish to scatter joy and not pain around us. 'Tis good to give a stranger a meal, or a night's lodging. 'Tis better to be hospitable to his good meaning and thought, and give courage to a companion. We must be as courteous to a man as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The act of kindness or hospitability usually comes from a generous heart. Write a story or poem, or create a piece of art where your character displays this virtue.
"Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in your own."
~Adam Lindsay Gordon
"2758-9: The Long Winter follows. Great suffering and loss of life in Eriador and Rohan. Gandalf comes to the aid of the Shire-folk." (Appendix B: Tale of Years)"
"And then there was the Shire-folk. I began to have a warm place in my heart for them in the Long Winter, which none of you can remember. They were very hard put to it then: one of the worst pinches they have been in, dying of cold, and starving in the dreadful dearth that followed. But that was the time to see their courage, and their pity for one another. It was by their pity as much as by their tough uncomplaining courage that they survived." (UT, Part III, The Third Age, Chapter III, "The Quest of Erebor")
Gandalf pulled his threadbare cloak more closely, and bent his face into the wind. It was tempting, oh so very tempting, to call upon Narya ever so slightly to warm himself up. But he resisted. The Ring of Fire was meant for the benefit of others, not to be used lightly or selfishly. And while his body was not as impervious to the cold as that of an Elf, still he reminded himself he had his own small power as a wizard to keep himself from freezing to death, if not to be actually warm. He did lend some of his own warmth to his poor horse. Dear Borin deserved to be in a nice warm stable somewhere, not wandering about the wilds like this during a winter which should have been long past. Spring's first signs should have been showing up weeks ago.
He did not share Elrond's suspicions that the lingering winter could be a device of the Enemy; it did not have that sort of feel to it.
Nevertheless, he had fewer memories of Middle-earth than did his friend, and Elrond was a mighty loremaster in his own right, so it had seemed worthwhile to look into the matter. His investigations into the lands that had once belonged to Angmar had been inconclusive, but his consultation with Iarwain had been reassuring. "Do not fear: There is no weather-master. Naught that goes on two legs may make the year go faster. Spring will come when she will come, no sooner and no later." Bombadil, as he was calling himself these days, had cheered him and urged him to remain his guest until the return of milder weather. But Gandalf had declined. He had the nagging feeling his presence was needed elsewhere. Now he was wishing that he had taken his old friend up on the offer, as a particularly nasty gust of wind threatened to carry his tall blue hat away. He put a hand to it, and took a deep breath of bitter cold air.
Realizing that he was actually in danger of losing the road, he decided it might be best if he could find a place to stop. He had come from south of the road, and there was nothing there which would provide good shelter, unless he wished to go and turf a wight out of its barrow. He was far too cold and weary to deal with such a nuisance.
However, if he had not already passed it by, he seemed to recall there had been an abandoned farm nearby. The cottage had long ago been destroyed by a fire (which was why it had been abandoned) but the half-ruined stone byre had still been standing the last time he passed this way. If he could find it, it should provide enough shelter from the wind and enough protection that he could start a small fire- Borin carried kindling and some firewood. He began to peer forward, and plodded on, leading his tired horse behind.
Perhaps it was his earnest prayer that gave him his glimpse of it, or perhaps it was the working out of what was meant to be, but there came a lull in the howl of the wind and the swirl of the snow, and he was able to spot it ahead and to his right, about two rods to the right of the road, and about a half a furlong ahead.
Shelter, he thought, more pleased than he could say. Yet as he approached he heard a sound, as of a sad keening- it was not the wind, which had died down for the nonce. It had the sound to his ear of a creature in grief or pain. Perhaps more than one such creature...
Moving carefully, lest he alert whatever it might be, he made his way to the ruined hulk of the building. As he drew nigh, it became ever more clear that there were at least two creatures.
One was moaning, the other was attempting to offer reassurances, though the voice was laden with its own fear. Gandalf could not make out the words. The snow muffled his quiet approach.
"Who is there?" he asked, as he led his weary horse around the end of the broken wall. He stared in surprise, and received a look of shock in return.
Rumble was doing his best to keep from despair, but Bard's moans and Hammie's illness weighed on him, dragging him down even as he tried his best to cheer his cousin. They had Hammie between them, but there was precious little warmth to be had from their own bodies, and Rumble feared they would not be able to keep the younger hobbit from freezing to death. He lay between them silent and still, and only the tiny plumes of his breath gave Rumble to know he was still alive.
He reached across, and pulled Bard as close as he could with Hammie between them. "Come now, cousin," he said as lightly as he could manage past the lump of sorrow in his own throat. "Just think how often we used to wish for snow when we were younger!" It was a foolish thing to say, but he could not bring himself to utter false reassurances that everything would be all right, and it cut him to the quick to hear Bard grieving already. But what hope had they, really?
What a failure their errand had been! A forlorn hope at best: to buy food and bring it from Bree. They had managed to purchase only a few bags of barley-flour, not even enough for the needs of the Tooks, much less the rest of the Shire. Bree was not much better off than the Shire. But it was useless now- the pony had died, and now it looked as though they would as well, and the food would not even get back across the Brandywine. Their family would never know what happened.
They could not hold out much longer- the meagre journey food they had with them might make two more scant meals, and they could not eat raw barley-flour. Then they could all huddle together in the snow, and fall asleep never to wake again. If it were not for his fears for the family members awaiting their return, he could almost welcome it.
Suddenly, there was a noise above the howling of the wind. A deep voice called out, "Who's there?"
Bard ceased his keening, and Rumble sat up, and stared in astonishment. One of the Big Folk! A tall and elderly Man with a worn grey cloak and a tall blue hat, a silver scarf wrapped about his mouth, and a long grey beard extending below, he led a perfectly enormous bay horse. The two hobbits gaped in astonishment and received just such a look in return.
Halflings! Gandalf had seen a few in Bree, where they were known as hobbits, but they had all been very shy of him. He had not actually spoken to any of them, though he thought they were rather curious and interesting little people. It had been in the back of his mind for some little while now to find out more about them. But this was most unexpected- what were three of them doing out in this sort of weather? And in such sad condition?
The one on the left stared for an instant longer. Then he gently shifted the one in the middle closer to the other hobbit, who still gaped fearfully. Slowly and stiffly, the shuddering halfling arose and gave a little bow. "I am Ferumbras Took at your service," he said in a voice that stammered with cold. "These are my cousins, Flambard Took and Hamilcar Bolger. I am afraid that we cannot offer much in the way of hospitality, but you are welcome to shelter with us out of the wind. We have a little journeybread and some dried fruit, if you are hungry."
Few things could surprise Gandalf, but this did. Their faces were blue with cold, and the one who spoke could scarcely stand. The one who was still sitting gazed up at him, his green eyes huge in the thin and shadowed face, but making an effort to show interest. And they had greeted him kindly and offered to share, even in their dire circumstances. As he gazed down on them he felt humbled and a great swell of Pity filled his heart. He blinked back unaccustomed tears.
"I am called Gandalf the Grey, and I thank you, Master Hobbits, for your kind offer. As it happens I also have some small provision. Perhaps we can put them together, and thus have more for us all. I see too, that you are suffering from the cold." He indicated the kindling and small amount of firewood that Borin carried. "I can start a fire."
"Oh, could you?" asked the one who'd introduced himself as Ferumbras. His face lit up with hope. "We had no kindling, and the wind is too fierce, even here, for us to have much luck."
It was the work of only a few minutes to lay a fire. Looking at his shivering companions, Gandalf thought it would not be an abuse of Narya's power to manage the fire, making it burn with a steady heat, that was warmer than usual. He looked with concern at the hobbits, especially the one that seemed to be unconscious. "May I ask how the three of you come to be here?"
"We were on our way back from Bree, where we had hoped to buy some food for our family. We weren't able to find much." Ferumbras shrugged sadly. "Then Hammie got sick, and the pony died."
Flambard made a gesture, and for the first time Gandalf noticed a shape half-buried in snow just beyond the edge of the ruined byre wall. It was a small sleigh, and clearly another shape completely buried by the snow must have been the body of the pony.
Gandalf now took the time to look at the sick one. "Hammie" the others had called him. He appeared much slighter and younger than the other two. He was alarmingly still, and for an instant, Gandalf thought his spirit had already departed. But he gravely inspected the small form. "His breathing is laboured; I am no healer, but I very much fear lung sickness…"
The other two nodded sadly. "So do we," said Flambard. "Poor Hammie! He's so young…" the hobbit's voice choked in a sob.
Ferumbras patted the other on the back, and gave a sigh.
"You mentioned journeybread and dried fruit. I have also a bit of journeybread, and some cheese, and a small flask of spirits in my saddlebag." He rose and removed the saddlebag and the kindling from his horse. He handed the saddlebag to Ferumbras, and set about arranging the fire. He used a little power to start it, and kept it small, that their wood would last the longer.
After a few moments the four companions were settled. Borin was brought close, and his bulk blocked a bit more of the wind. They had shared out their meagre supplies, Gandalf taking only a small portion, for he was not particularly hungry. He had hoped to rouse the unconscious hobbit enough to get him to take a sip of the spirits, but he was unresponsive, and Gandalf feared to try and simply pour some down his throat, even a few drops might choke him, weak as he was.
However, he drew Hamilcar into his lap, and with the other two hobbits at his side, he arranged his cloak about them all, and began to sing in a low voice, a song of the coming of the Sun and the Moon…
Rumble allowed himself to lean into the warmth of this Big Person. He did not know why, but somehow this Gandalf felt very safe. Perhaps they would get out of this situation alive after all. He bit his lip. Perhaps all of them would. How could he possibly return home without young Hammie? He was only twenty-nine, after all.
But even if they did, what would they find when they got home? So little food!
Yet they had found a new friend all unlooked for. Poor Gandalf, wandering about in the Wild with no companion save his horse! How lonely the old fellow must be—what a pity he had to be on his own! Rumble was glad they had found one another.
But Gandalf was very warm, and it was very comfortable beneath the cloak. And Rumble was so weary…
Gandalf felt the two older hobbits fall into slumber, and he bent his thought to the one he held. So young, he was, but his hold on life was very thin. He was already on the path that would lead him out of Arda, but he was young and alone and confused. Gandalf had not the power to call him back, but he did have the power to lend him comfort and his presence so far as the Gates.
He could not read the little one's thoughts, but he could feel his fëa, as it turned from confusion to joy, and there was a brief instant of gratitude sent his way before it flared and went beyond his ken.
And Gandalf sent forth his own prayer of gratitude. And then wondered what he would tell the youth's remaining companions when they woke to find their kinsman gone from them.
Morning came, bright and blue. The fire was down to mere coals, but the snow had stopped and the wind no longer howled. The cold felt less brittle. But Rumble and Bard could take no joy in it, for they had wakened to the news that Hammie had died in the night.
He and Bard clung to one another, weeping silently for a while. Bard had done much of his grieving the day before when they realized this outcome was all too likely, but Rumble had held on to some hope once their mysterious new friend had arrived. Still, he did not blame Gandalf—it was unlikely he could have saved poor young Hammie. And at least the lad had been warm and comfortable in his last few hours.
But now what were they to do? They still had no pony, and very little food was left, even with Gandalf's contributions—only a tiny bit of the journeybread. And—he hated to think it—but what about Hammie? Were they going to have to leave him here, in this forsaken place?
Gandalf had laid Hammie's body out very gently and with dignity. Rumble thought that in death, his young cousin actually looked less blue than he had the day before. At least he no longer felt the cold.
He was startled when Gandalf spoke. "I know that it might be somewhat awkward, but I think it might be possible for Borin to pull your sleigh. I know the shafts will be short, but I think we can make the adjustments necessary…"
Given a practical problem to think about, both Rumble and Bard were able to put their grief aside for the moment. The three of them went over to the cart, and Gandalf used his long arms to sweep much of the snow off of it. He banged his staff on the sides, and soon it was cleared off.
It was indeed a makeshift and awkward arrangement in the end, and Borin did not look very happy. But he was a placid-natured horse, and accepted his new role with only a little snorting.
Hammie's body was laid in the back, and Rumble and Bard sat in the seat. Gandalf was going to walk and lead the horse, for there was no way that the hobbits could handle driving such a large beast, nor any way Gandalf could fit upon the seat of the sleigh.
"The only question now," said Gandalf, "is where are we going?"
"If there's no more snow," replied Rumble, "we could make it to the Bridge Inn in half a day."
"Very well," replied the old Man. He urged the horse forward, and they began their journey in silence.
The Sun continued to be bright, and lend her warmth to the three weary travellers. Perhaps, thought Gandalf, Spring was on the way at last. He noted the melting snow dripping from branches and heard the occasional "crack" of breaking icicles. He looked at his small companions, who grieved as they were over the loss of the younger one, still looked about them.
Ferumbras spoke. "Perhaps Spring's come at last!" There was a note of hopefulness in his voice in spite of all that had happened.
"If only we could have found more food in Bree," said Flambard. "I do not know what we will tell Aunt Miradonna; it seems as if poor Hammie died without purpose."
Ferumbras shook his head. "Hammie would insist on going, you know—he might even have followed us if we had not given our permission. And his heart was in the right place."
"It was," Flambard agreed. "He was a brave lad, and he worried so over the others. I know it weighed on him, the hunger of the younger children."
"It weighs on me as well," said Ferumbras, "the hunger of the children, and of the old folk, too. Not to mention everyone else. But winter can't last forever. Things will come 'round soon, you'll see."
"I know. And we'll see to it that everyone honours Hammie for his courage and great heart." Flambard took a deep breath. "And we are not home yet; we may still find some provisions along the way to take back with what we've got. And though what we've got isn't much, it's better than nothing at all."
"You're right, cousin," said Ferumbras. "And word was sent to Brandybucks in Buckland before we left, and to Bandy in the Northfarthing! Hobbits will help each other, you'll see!"
Gandalf, walking alongside the horse, looked in amazement at his small companions. There was no sign of defeat about them, sorrowful though they were at the loss of their cousin. They clung to hope, and spoke lightly and without doubt. What amazing creatures these little people were—such great hearts as he had not encountered before, out of all proportion to their size, and filled with Pity and kindness.
He was glad of this encounter, and he would accompany them home if they would allow it, and do what he could to succour them and their people. It felt right somehow, almost as though it was a memory of something that had happened already. He knew in his heart that he had found friends, and he could not think their meeting now was Chance.