This fic was actually inspired by my job as a reference librarian, and one of my favorite reference books, An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton (and if you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a joy). I like to think that there were some lighter moments among the Fellowship as they traveled to Moria. Most grateful thanks to my dearest, most patient and wonderful beta Marigold. Note: the definition of venery I am using here is ‘the sport or practice of hunting, or the animals hunted’.
It was the sound of a pebble rattling that roused Aragorn from his private thoughts. He looked up from contemplation of the glowing bowl of the pipe he held in his hand, and frowned slightly as he beheld Boromir skirting the edge of the small campfire that Gandalf had, with some reluctance, permitted them to light.
"Boromir, what is it? Is aught amiss?" Aragorn asked quietly as the other man sat down beside him on the large rock that served as his watch post. Boromir should have been sleeping, like the other members of the Fellowship. It was well past mid-day, and Aragorn had still two hours remaining of his watch duty before he would wake the rest of the Company to eat their supper.
"Nay. There is naught amiss," replied Boromir in a low voice, arranging his rich, fur-lined cloak about him. The Company were twelve days out from Rivendell, and a bitter wind blowing strongly from the east continued to nip at fingers and noses, while the chill air turned their breaths to lingering clouds of white. "But I could not sleep, and tossing and turning on the hard ground suits me not. You may go and rest, Aragorn, if you desire, and leave me to the watch."
Aragorn was silent for a moment, considering. “We shall keep watch together instead, Boromir,” he answered, “for I, too, find sleep elusive.” He gestured with his pipe toward a jumbled heap of blankets on the far side of the fire. “Unlike our hobbit friends there.”
Boromir’s gaze followed Aragorn’s gesture, and he studied the sleeping halflings with wondering eyes. Little could be distinguished of the individual hobbits, for they slept close together for warmth, entwined like the thorn-bushes that grew in thickets everywhere in this cheerless land through which they travelled. Here might be seen the outline of a hairy foot or a mittened hand, peeking out from the blankets; or there the glint of a stray curl on a hobbit head when a weak ray of sunlight penetrated the cloudy sky. But as to which of the halflings these parts belonged? Boromir could not tell.
“Indeed,” he replied at length. “They are a curious race, the Halflings. A puzzle, I deem, for they are proving themselves hardier on our long marches than I could have imagined, yet they think always of their meals and their pipeweed.” He gave a short laugh and continued, “And their rest. Look how they sleep together, Aragorn: more like to a litter of pups, or a kindle of kittens, than a people of Middle-earth.”
“Or an exaltation of larks,” murmured Aragorn, most unexpectedly.
Boromir gave him a sudden, sharp look. “An exaltation of larks?” he repeated in a curious voice.
Aragorn laughed softly. “I beg your pardon if I seem to speak in riddles. It is a strange phrase, is it not? It comes from a book in the library at Rivendell, one that I read in my youth. The book was titled An Exaltation of Larks and listed the terms of venery. Your words called it to my mind, Boromir, like some ghost from the past.”
“But I know the book well, Aragorn,” Boromir exclaimed, then, as the Ranger raised a cautionary finger to his lips, continued more quietly, “My younger brother Faramir owns a copy, given to him as a gift when he was but a boy. Ever did Faramir take delight in words, from the time he was first able to read them, and in that book especially. He knew all the terms of venery by heart, and taught many of them to me- whether I would or no,” he added with a rare touch of humour.
Aragorn heard Boromir’s words with surprise, yet it was not chiefly his unexpected knowledge of the book that surprised the Ranger. For never had the voice of the stern man of Gondor sounded as soft as it had when he spoke the name ‘Faramir’; it was plain that Boromir’s brother was very dear to him indeed.
“I never learned all the names by heart,” replied Aragorn, “and recall even fewer now, but there are some that I do still remember.” He closed his eyes and recited: “A gaggle of geese; a run of poultry; a trip of goats; an unkindness of ravens; a chattering of choughs.” The memory of reading the words aloud to his mother, and feeling the warmth of her encouraging smile when he stumbled over the more unusual ones, was strong upon him as he spoke.
“A dray of squirrels;” Boromir took up the litany, almost as one in a trance, “a murmuration of starlings; a drift of hogs; a sloth of bears; a husk of hares.” He paused, and sighed. “Would that my brother were here, Aragorn. He would remember many more, and entertain us with his own inventions, for he made a game of the terms of venery.”
His eyes seemed far away, and Aragorn guessed that Boromir, too, was remembering another face in another time: a younger version of himself perhaps, slender and with intelligent grey eyes set in a pale face. For a moment, Aragorn seemed to see that young Faramir seated at his desk while he read from the book spread open before him, his older brother standing behind his chair, one hand resting affectionately upon his shoulder.
Aragorn’s gaze returned to the hobbits, and he said, “What then, I wonder, would your brother make of our little folk yonder, Boromir? Could he invent a word to describe such a group of sleeping hobbits?”
“I doubt not that Faramir would find one suitable for them,” Boromir replied with unshakeable confidence in his brother’s cleverness. As though struck by a sudden idea, however, he continued slowly, “Yet in his absence, why may we not try, Aragorn? It will help serve to pass the time, and take our minds off- other matters.”
Aragorn, seeing the light of challenge in the other man’s eyes, smiled a little, but readily agreed, and they sat in thought for some moments, eyes fixed on the hobbits for inspiration.
“What say you to a ‘huddle of hobbits’?” It was Aragorn who spoke first.
“Or perchance a ‘tangle of halflings’?” countered Boromir.
“A ‘larder of hobbits’?” Aragorn offered slyly, and the other man chuckled softly.
“Most apt, Aragorn,” he said with a smile, and Aragorn thought the smile became him well. Was this how he had been used to look, before the weight of duty and obligation had fallen heavy upon him?
Boromir thought hard, on his mettle now. “Ah, I have it: a ‘nestle of halflings’.”
“Very good, Boromir,” Aragorn laughingly approved, and had just opened his mouth to offer his next suggestion (a ‘heap of hobbits’), when there was a sudden stirring near the fire.
A deep voice said in irritable tones: “It is called a ‘pile of hobbits’, gentlemen. Or, to be more precise, a ‘hobbitpile’.”
Aragorn and Boromir startled. Their eyes flew to the source of the unexpected words: it was Gandalf, and his deep-set eyes held a glint of annoyance as he propped himself up on one elbow and looked at the two Men from under lowered brows. “The word is one the hobbits coined to describe themselves, and will not be found in any book known to Men or Elves- or even Wizards.” He went on, “Now if you will be so kind as to grant an old wizard his rest, and save your discussion of the terms of venery for another time, I would be grateful. Not even for such delights as a ‘knot of toads’ or a ‘thunder of oliphaunts’ am I willing to sacrifice my sleep.”
At Boromir’s surprised expression, Gandalf went on testily, “Yes, yes, I am familiar with the book, Boromir. It was, after all, I who gave it to your brother.” And with that, he turned his back on the two Men, settled himself back down by the fire, and drew his blanket quite over his head.
A guilty silence fell. Aragorn and Boromir did not so much as dare to look at each other, but stared resolutely at the fire. All would have been well, had not one of the hobbits at that very moment muttered quite distinctly in his sleep, “Pass the butter, please.” The two Men dissolved into helpless mirth.
“A- a ‘larder of hobbits’, indeed,” gasped Boromir, and wiped his streaming eyes, while Aragorn attempted to stifle his laughter behind his hand.
There was a muffled snort of amusement from the vicinity of Gimli’s bedroll, while the bright dark eyes of Legolas watched the Men with Elvish incomprehension. A loud sigh of exasperation issued from beneath Gandalf’s blanket.
But the hobbitpile, snug and warm in their nest of cloaks and blankets, slept on, oblivious.