45. New Horizons
“Why … why must we hurry so, Aragorn?” panted Pippin.
“We must be at a certain place at a certain time,” replied the Ranger, glancing down at the struggling hobbit.
Aragorn noticed Frodo inching up in the hopes that Pippin’s question would be answered. “To see a wondrous rare sight,” he explained.
“When we get there, Pippin, you will see.” Aragorn laughed when Frodo muttered something under his breath. Pippin looked over at him, confused and curious. “I would not answer Frodo’s questions, either, Pippin. All I will say is that if we are late, we will miss it.”
“Miss what?” asked Frodo and Pippin together. Sam was listening closely, while Merry was busily searching his memory and overheard conversations for clues.
“I will say no more. Besides, it is time we stopped for tea.” As he had hoped, that subject immediately diverted the hobbits. They quickly selected a small grassy knoll near to a brook, a small tributary of one of the lesser rivers that branched from the great Bruinen and protected the valley. Sam eyed the water with distrust, though he could easily have leaped across it.
Aragorn sat back at his ease while the hobbits prepared the meal. Pippin laid out a ground cloth and Sam unpacked their travel food while Merry and Frodo gathered firewood and started a small blaze. It was all done within minutes, especially Sam’s task. Aragorn stifled a laugh when four indignant faces turned to him. “Well?” he asked gently.
Surprisingly, it was Samwise who spoke first. “There’s not enough here ‘ta feed a mouse!” Four sets of unhappy eyes stared at the salted meat and dried apple rings and hard-rimed cheeses that Sam had kept ready in his and his master’s packs, as Gandalf had instructed when fleeing Rivendell looked to be a possibility. He’d then offered to help Mr. Merry and Master Pippin lay out their supplies, and they had looked at him, aghast. The two had obeyed Aragorn’s instructions and brought no food (though Pippin had snuck several boiled sweets and pieces of toffee into his pockets). Every bite they had would not satisfy even two hungry hobbits, much less four (one a perpetually hungry tweenager) and a Man.
Aragorn pulled himself more upright, and his smile faded. “Lesson number one. From now on, we live off the land. Pippin, I would like you to teach Frodo and Merry to set snares. Sam, I daresay you know something of harvesting wild plants and herbs?” Sam nodded cautiously. “Good. Please teach your master and his cousins to recognize and prepare them while we are on this expedition. Frodo and Merry, both of you have fished, haven’t you?”
The two cousins exchanged a glance, not liking the direction this was taking. “Yes,” Frodo began, “We all have … but -”
“Good. An hour should be sufficient for you to prepare the meal, then?”
“Aragorn,” objected Merry.
“It is more than likely that there will come a time upon our Quest that your survival will depend on you and you alone. Show me that you can survive without me. When I know what you can already do, I will show you even more about how to harvest the bounty of the Wild. There is food all around us. You have only to know how and where to find it.”
The hobbits looked about them doubtfully. “There’s some blackberry bushes over there,” Pippin said, pointing. “It’s too late in the year for them in the Shire, but the weather is a lot milder here. Maybe there is still some ripe fruit on them.”
“I see some marsh grass at the edge o’ the meadow,” contributed Sam. “Stewed marsh grass makes a fine greens dish.”
“Well done,” praised Aragorn. “Pippin, since you saw the bushes, you have the honor of battling the thorns. I will be the one to teach Frodo and Merry to set snares while you two gather our tea.”
* * * * *
“Careful, Merry. Those wires are sharp.” After watching Frodo favor his left shoulder and seeing Merry rub his bandaged and splinted arm, the Ranger had decided to be the one to teach the two snare setting for another reason than to simply allow Sam and Pippin to pursue their food-gathering assignments. Both cousins had taken an injury that affected their strength and dexterity, and the Ranger wanted to evaluate them. Frodo and Merry caught on quickly, but as he had feared, they had difficulty stretching and setting the snares. Merry’s wrist would strengthen with time and the proper exercises but Aragorn feared that Frodo might never have the force in his shoulder required to pull the wires taut.
Because of their injuries, the man allowed each to help the other, requiring that they both understand how to build the traps even if they could not set them alone yet. At last Frodo leaned back and wiped the perspiration from his brow. “How is that?” he asked.
Aragorn groped beside him and closed his hand upon a long stick. He tapped the end carefully over the leaves the hobbits had scattered over the wires. Snap! He grinned at the two tired cousins. “Excellent.”
“But it does not help us now,” grimaced Merry. “Seeking a rabbit-path and setting the snares could take an hour, and it might not be dusk until they come out. I’m hungry now.”
“I am as well,” said Frodo, then added indignantly, “Aragorn, there isn’t enough here for a decent tea! Surely you do not mean us to starve until dinner? We won’t have the strength to walk. We shall be too weak to walk to this wondrous marvel that you refuse to tell us what it is!”
“I think you exaggerate your hunger-induced feebleness, Frodo,” the Ranger said with a smile. “But I dare not put you to the test as Elrond would have my head. I should require you to go hunting with your slings … but you both have used those arms enough for today. You have done well and deserve a rest. I will bring down some game with my bow.” With that the Ranger strung his great bow and walked off into the forest with a stride nearly as silent as a hobbit’s.
Frodo lay down and drew up his knees, digging his toes into the grassy swath. He pushed back his cloak and began to rub his shoulder.
“Does your shoulder hurt, Frodo?” Merry asked, seeing him do so.
“A little,” his cousin admitted. “More than a little, actually. How is your arm?”
“It hurts, too.” Merry remained seated, his arms around his knees. “As much as I dislike admitting it, Cousin, Aragorn is right.”
Merry was quiet for a moment. “We are going to have to depend on the Big Folk to take care of us. Not just to defend us, but to hunt for us and take care of us. We haven’t a chance of completing this Quest without them.”
Hearing the distress in his cousin’s voice, Frodo propped himself up on his elbows and looked at Merry. He grinned weakly. “Don’t worry about it, Merry. We haven’t much of a chance of completing it with them, either.”
Merry sighed and lay down next to Frodo, angling himself to use his cousin’s midsection as a pillow. “I can always count on you to cheer me up.” He sighed again, deeply and regretfully. “It’s a good thing we didn’t bring Bill. Roasted haunch of pony sounds delicious right now.”
“Sam would … never forgive you,” responded Frodo, his voice slowing to a sleepy drawl. Two more breaths and he was asleep. Merry yawned; his nightmare the previous evening had kept him from sleeping well for the remainder of the night. His eyelids fluttered shut and he soon followed his cousin’s example.
He had barely nodded off when a loud, aggravated voice proclaimed, “Well, this is a fine sight! I get scratched and pricked and bleeding, and here you two are taking a nap!”
* * * * *
Several plump pheasants, stewed greens, the packed-in food and blackberries comprised tea. Most unexpected but welcome was Pippin’s harvest of a small stand of mushrooms, which Aragorn insisted on examining carefully before allowing them to be added to the menu. Pippin rolled his eyes at Sam behind the Ranger’s back; hobbits had been hunting and eating mushrooms for eternity. Sam glowered back forbiddingly, arms crossed, silently reprimanding the tweenager for questioning Aragorn’s judgment. Pippin subsided with a mumbled complaint.
All in all, not a bad effort, Aragorn decided. He could teach the hobbits nothing in plucking, cleaning and roasting a game bird, and Sam was certainly a better camp-cook than he ever would be. The gardener even managed to locate wild rosemary and thyme, and the roasted pheasant Aragorn was presently gnawing on would equal any served at Elrond’s table. Smearing grease into his beard with another bite, he met Sam’s gaze with a wide grin and a salute, and the stocky hobbit blushed, a diffident smile on his round face.
Frodo was more vocal. “Oh, Sam, this is wonderful.”
Merry swallowed and added his congratulations. “Though we might get tired of the same fare after several days. What else are you going to teach us, Aragorn?”
“There is little I can teach you in finding and preparing the foods you already know of, I think,” the Ranger said after a moment of consideration. “Therefore we will concentrate on finding and preparing the foods you don’t know. Roots, bulbs, leaves and flowers…” he noticed he had Sam’s complete attention. “Many have medicinal purposes, also.” Merry nodded, listening carefully.
“What flowers?” asked Sam eagerly.
“You know jacks-in-the-pulpits, Sam?”
“Of course.” Sam was somewhat offended. “Got a load of ‘em in Bag End’s garden. But you can’t eat those. They burn the mouth, they do.”
Aragorn smiled at him. “That burning is caused by crystals growing in the plant’s roots. Drying them or baking them slowly will remove the burning.”
Sam leaned back, unconvinced but willing to consider it. Aragorn was pleased; hobbits were a provincial folk and such are often resistant to new ideas. He should have known though, that if it concerned food, the hobbits would be willing to explore new horizons. The Ranger knew that the Shire was gentle land, generous in providing for its people. True hunger was almost unknown. Its folk had rarely had to consider alternative sources of food. But there might be limits… “And some types of insects.”
“Insects?” echoed Pippin warily. The others stopped chewing and stared at the Ranger.
Aragorn nodded. “Insects can be very nutritious. And worms, too.”
“Worms?” choked Frodo, peering with sudden suspicion into his bowl.
“Yes, Frodo. Ants, termites, beetles, grubs…” He rushed on before they could speak. “Nothing that stings or bites, or is hairy or brightly colored. No spiders or ticks, flies, mosquitoes. No midges.” He grinned at them but received only horrified stares in response. “Beetles and grasshoppers are quite … crunchy … after you cook them. And remove their legs and wings.” The horrified stares were turning nauseated. “You can eat most insects raw. The taste varies from one kind to another. Wood grubs are bland, while some ants store honey in their bodies, giving them a sweet taste.” He looked hopefully at Pippin, but the young hobbit just looked ill. “You can grind them into a paste, or mix them with edible vegetation, or -”
“I am going to be sick,” announced Pippin flatly.
Serious now, the Ranger met their eyes. “There may come a time when you will have to eat such things or starve. A person who ignores an otherwise healthy food source due to a personal bias -”
“Personal bias!” hissed Merry in strangled tones.
“- or because he feels it is unappetizing, is risking his own survival.” Aragorn glared at them and there was no compromise now on his stern face. He turned to the smallest hobbit. “Pippin, if you were starving and only by eating worms could you muster enough strength to protect the Ring-bearer, would you do so?”
Pippin opened his mouth, looking rather like a stranded fish. “Strider, that’s not fair!”
Pippin ground his teeth together and looked to Merry, but found no help there. Merry’s face was strained, blue eyes intent. Frodo had gone white and still, neither condemnation nor encouragement on his features. Sam was staring fixedly at his bowl, scowling, his face red. Suddenly, Pippin felt an overwhelming fear for his gentle, scholarly cousin.
“Pippin?” Aragorn pressed.
“I will do whatever I have to, to keep Frodo safe,” the tweenager declared steadily and unequivocally. Pippin saw Frodo’s eyes suddenly brim with tears, and one broke free and ran down his cheek. He put down his half-finished meal and stumbled to his feet.
“Excuse me,” Frodo murmured faintly. “I … I need a little … air. No, Sam, finish your meal. I’ll … only be a moment.”
Merry inched over and slid an arm around Pippin, startled to feel him trembling despite the strength he had heard in the lad’s voice. “I’m not having a good time anymore, Merry,” Pippin whispered miserably.
The rest of tea was concluded in silence. Aragorn regretted dimming the bright day for them – but neither would he have them unprepared for the realities they might well have to face. They still had many miles to walk before they could stop for dinner and set up camp. He helped Sam wash up while Merry and Pippin packed up the (very few) leftovers and bowls and spoons and ground cloth. Then they sat and waited for Frodo. And waited. After a quarter-hour, Aragorn rose to his feet and began to pace. Twice he started into the woods then stopped himself, respectful of the Ring-bearer’s privacy. The late afternoon shadows began to lengthen into darkness. Frodo did not return.
* TBC *
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.