49. Into the Frying Pan
“Walking party, he said,” grumbled a soft, aggrieved voice behind Aragorn. “A leisurely walk to enjoy the lovely forest foliage. No one said anything to me about marching till we drop and starving and being attacked by Men and…” it continued on so for some time, until Aragorn decided to distract the tweenager by initiating a conversation that all could share in.
“How badly did you wound the man?” asked Aragorn of Merry. The young hobbit was walking beside him, providing the Ranger a convenient hand-rest on his shoulder to steady his steps. Merry kept the shoulder lifted to ease the strain on the Ranger’s arm while his sharp eyes sought the smoothest path for their steps. Aragorn feared he might be hurting the halfling, or at least allowing Merry to hurt himself, but Merry made no complaint and his careful steps never faltered. In truth, Aragorn was indebted for the support.
“We tried to push him down as we struck him with the knives,” the hobbit explained. “Knock him flat and crush the crossbow beneath him. We only partially succeeded; it still fired.”
“It misfired,” amended the Ranger. “Most certainly saving my life. I said it before, but it bears repeating now that I am more awake and myself. I am grateful for my life. Thank you, Merry. Thank you, Sam.”
Walking behind Aragorn with his master, the heavy-set hobbit ducked his head, his shy smile hidden in the dark. Frodo looked over to him then squeezed his arm. Merry beamed up at the Ranger, eyes gleaming and bright curls bleached silver by the stars.
“’Ta answer your question,” Sam said, “Mr. Merry and I both got a knife in him on either side, but not deep. At least mine wasn’t. He was moving – it were more o’ a slice than a stab.”
“The same for me,” agreed Merry. “You Big People take such long strides. We hurt him, but not to death I think.”
“Then he may well carry tales back to the one who sent him,” murmured Aragorn, his keen gaze unfocused in the starlight. “And the watch will be increased upon Rivendell. I will speak to Elrond about us leaving at night when we go – perhaps it will confuse or delay them, a little.”
Frodo had not spoken for some time, and Aragorn glanced back at him in concern, worried that the headache was worsening. There had been a brief but animated discussion ere they had set out between the Ring-bearer and the Ring-bearer’s gardener over just who was going to carry Frodo’s pack. Pippin had sat down and enjoyed himself, Merry leaning resignedly against his shoulder. Frodo had lost the battle of wills with the result being that Sam was carrying his master’s pack and Frodo walked unencumbered but disgruntled. Aragorn was glad that Sam had prevailed; Frodo was plainly tiring and in pain.
They would need to rest very soon. Pippin had resisted all of Aragorn’s attempts to retrieve his pack, doggedly carrying it as well as his own, and the sleepy tweenager was beginning to weave and stumble. Frodo was slowing, dropping back, so that Pippin and Sam were forced also to slow to keep him in the center of their protective circle. Aragorn doubted that the Ring-bearer realized what the others were doing, how they sheltered him with their own bodies. A sign that Frodo was tired indeed. If he did notice, the Ranger thought with a grimace, there would no doubt be a sudden resurgence of energy and strangled whispers and much aggravated waving of arms.
A small stand of close-growing pine was the only shelter he could see for as far as the starlight shone. “We will stop here,” he said, pointing to the grove, and nodded to himself when he heard four tired sighs of relief. “No fire. There is a little food left in our packs – let us finish it and we will hunt tomorrow.”
Only Pippin showed much appetite at all. Despite the urging of the others, Frodo refused his portion and gave it to the tweenager, sitting quiet and introspective, watching the stars. Sam and Merry ate their portions slowly, with no unnecessary words. Aragorn ate too, though he did not want the food, and pondered what might have happened.
He had thought to turn back, return to Rivendell. But the hobbits had vetoed the suggestion. “We want to see this marvel you keep going on about,” said Frodo stubbornly, “if you are able to continue that is?” He paused and looked at the Ranger closely. Aragorn returned the inspection with amusement and Frodo sat back, satisfied with the man’s recovery. “And if we haven’t missed it, that is?”
“It is over,” the Ranger had told them, hiding his delight at the four disappointed faces, Frodo’s most of all. “However … we haven’t missed it. And thank you, Frodo, but I am quite able to continue. What I have spoken of will appear at a certain time, and we can still see it.”
“But you haven’t spoken of it,” pressed Frodo. “And I think it is most unfair of you to torment us this way.” Aragorn smiled but no more hints would he give. Frodo looked like he would like to award him a good kick.
So it was decided that they would go on. Aragorn mused to himself that he had thought he would never see the day when hobbit curiosity overcame hobbit comfort. He had thought to take the first watch, enjoy a pipe in peace and think, but the hobbits would not hear of it. “You need to rest, Aragorn,” Merry said decisively. “You too, Frodo. Sam and Pip and I will take the watches.”
His and Frodo’s protestations were ignored. Merry sat down and firmly turned his back to them, sharp eyes already scanning the darkness. Aragorn settled into his blankets, wise enough to know when to give in. A moment later, three small warm bodies arrayed themselves around him. Frodo claimed the spot at his chest, Pippin at his back, and Sam curled against his legs. The Ranger was surprised. Before Weathertop, the hobbits had slept close to each other but scattered, seeking the softest ground. After that terrible place, not a night passed save those in Elrond’s House that Frodo and Pippin were not cocooned by the others. It might be Merry-Pippin-Frodo-Sam or now and again Sam-Pippin-Frodo-Merry, but Merry and Sam always claimed the outside spaces. But tonight they chose to drape themselves about him, placing him in the position of greatest safety. Warmed by soft hobbit bodies and comforted by their presence, the Ranger fell asleep to the music of their soft breathing.
* * * * *
The next morning dawned bright and cold, the sky that perfect blue that meant it would warm up greatly later in the day. The new day also brought with it a reminder for the Ranger – hungry halflings do not wake up in amiable moods.
After going into a hobbit-huddle, (so Aragorn had named it in his mind whenever the four stood shoulder-to-shoulder, curly heads together in tight discussion of some serious issue) they decided to go hunting with their slings. Aragorn marveled anew at the hobbits’ expertise with the small weapons. Considered children’s playthings among his own people, in hobbit-hands they were deadly. A luckless rabbit and a brace of grouse were now turning on the spit while Sam sliced up wild onions he had foraged to fry in the fat. Pippin gathered several handfuls of acorns, leaching out the bitterness in water and rendering them edible. These Sam diced and added to the onions, and the resulting aroma caused a symphony of rumbling stomachs.
Breakfast was consumed with little talk, in reverent respect for the food. At last Aragorn sat back and handed Pippin his bowl and mug for wash up. With a wince, he slung his pack over his back, after removing a certain item. “Are you certain you do not wish one of us to carry it today?” asked Frodo, seeing the Ranger flinch.
“I am all right, Frodo. Thank you. How is your head?”
Frodo started to touch the spot behind his ear then withdrew his hand. “Sore. But not so aching.”
“Perhaps this will help,” Aragorn said, steeling himself for battle. He presented one of the vials of tonic that Elrond had required be administered to the Ring-bearer and handed it to the hobbit, who took it automatically. Then Frodo’s dark brows drew down and his mouth opened –
“My lord said you were to take it,” the Ranger said firmly. “It will strengthen you.” He noted that the other hobbits had withdrawn to a safer distance. He felt an overpowering desire to join them.
Frodo glowered at the medicine, then the sweetest smile spread over his face. Aragorn’s heart sank. He wouldn’t. “Strengthen me…” the Ring-bearer murmured, no doubt recognizing the foul concoction. “You were hurt, too. I will share the bounty.” He held out the phial to the man. “You first.” He would.
“No, I -”
“Then we shall sit here until we starve,” announced Frodo grandly. “Beautiful place for it.”
Hobbit and human stared at each other. Frodo leaned back and crossed his arms, gaze narrowed and dark eyebrows curving into a gentle “s” above his eyes. Aragorn looked at him back, his expression slack as he ransacked his mind desperately for an escape.
“One of you has to give in,” pointed out Merry diplomatically after some time had passed. “What if you take it together?” He gingerly removed another phial from the wooden case and held it out towards Aragorn.
Pippin was assigned the task of counting to three, which he enjoyed entirely too much. After the coughing and choking and frantic sipping from water skins had ceased, the walking party was finally on its way. Pippin looked up into Aragorn’s grimacing face and fought to stifle his mirth while Merry hissed, “Pippin, behave yourself!” but set no better example. Sam suddenly found it necessary to check his pans, back to them, but his shoulders were shaking with suppressed laugher. Accepting that Frodo had had his revenge, Aragorn did not push them hard. He was in discomfort, as was Frodo, they were within a day’s trek of their destination, and did fate not intervene again, they would reach their destination by twilight. And tomorrow… A smile formed on the Ranger’s lips as he pictured the little ones’ reactions.
They were walking quietly, enjoying themselves, when Pippin pulled up even with the Ranger. Aragorn glanced down at him in surprise. Usually Pip walked with Merry, singing under his breath when Merry wasn’t singing along with him, or playing riddle-games with whomever he could coerce into it or listening to his older cousins and Sam. Aragorn had kept an idle ear on the hobbits conversations since Bree and had learned more than he cared to know about the different ways to distract a dog from guarding a vegetable patch, the planning and design of flower-beds, and ways to blot ink from precious books when an absorbed elbow had knocked over the ink-well, among other words of wisdom.
Today’s topics had ranged from exactly how Buckland’s apple trees could benefit from grafts that Lord Elrond would (hopefully) provide from his own orchard, to the least painful way to remove prickle bush thorns from one’s foot hair, and whether the sky today was the same blue as the pool in Bywater or more the shade of someone named Estella Bolger’s eyes, a discussion which seemed to embarrass Merry quite a bit.
Then their voices had dropped. Glancing back, he had seen Pippin describing something to Frodo and Sam, his quick hands gesturing animatedly. Frodo was shaking his head. Sam looked apprehensive and Merry, eager. All four broke off when they saw him looking at them and became very busy paying attention to the ground. Aragorn made a mental note to himself to be certain he found out what mischief was afoot when suddenly Pippin was there beside him tugging at his coat, looking up at him with the most innocent expression imaginable. Aragorn immediately raised his guard to its highest alertness.
“I’ve thought of a way for you to signal Lord Elrond that we’ve had some trouble, Strider,” the young one offered. The Ranger eyed him silently, eyes narrowed in suspicion. Not in the least discouraged, Pippin edged over closer and whispered, “The fireworks in your pack.”
“Pippin! Did you search my pack?” Outrage was difficult to convey in a whisper, but Aragorn managed it.
“No! No, I would never do that,” the tweenager assured him, eyes wide and guileless. “I smelled them first - Gandalf’s fireworks smell like sulfur and spices. And then maybe felt for them in the pack … just a little … when I was carrying it last night. Are you going to set them off, Aragorn?”
“They are for emergencies only, Pippin. Not to entertain young hobbits.”
“Wasn’t last night an emergency?”
“Yes, but help would not have reached us for hours. They will not be used unless the need is dire and circumstances permit it.”
“All right, all right…” Pippin trailed off and sighed heavily. “Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get into some real trouble.” Pippin happily scuttled back to Merry, thus missing the Ranger’s look of strangled disbelief.
Aragorn was in the lead when they crested the top of a steep hill. Seeing the man stand rigid and motionless, the hobbits hurried to catch up. Before they could speak, the Ranger made a minimal gesture and the hobbits closed their mouths and looked down into the small hollow at the base of the hill.
A wild pig rooted there, young and well-fleshed. “Roast pork,” murmured Sam. “Pork chops. Pork ribs with wild onions an’ parsnips…”
“Nice crispy bacon,” moaned Merry, next to him. “Pork cracklings. Pork with chestnut stuffing…”
“Aragorn,” whispered Frodo, “if you don’t shoot that pig for us, I am going to gnaw on your leg tonight for dinner.”
“Threats of cannibalism do not move me, Frodo,” the Ranger whispered back. “I told you that you were to provide the food for this trip. Pretend that I am not here. What would you do?”
The four hobbits exchanged glances. Pippin pulled out his sling but returned it to his pocket with a sigh; he knew he had no hope of downing such a large creature. “Merry,” he whispered, “throw your knife.”
“That probably won’t take it down, Pip,” Merry replied after a long moment.
“But it would slow it, and maybe cripple it. We could get down there and finish it off, then. Roast pork! What are you waiting for, Merry?”
Merry’s hand tightened on the small, sharp dagger but he did not draw it. “My wrist isn’t up to such a hard cast, Pippin.”
“You can use it to well enough to nearly part my hair, but not to put supper on the table? Or blanket, to be more accurate... Merry, I’m hungry!”
Aragorn had been looking from one small face to another and now he put his hands on Frodo’s and Sam’s shoulders. “Come, sirs,” he said quietly, “let us see if we can find any grasshoppers under those logs.”
Frodo looked up at him warily. “Grasshoppers.”
“Very crunchy,” enthused the Ranger, guiding them away from the younger hobbits. “Or termites…”
Pippin waited until they were out of earshot, uncharacteristically patient. Then he turned to his older cousin. “All right, Merry,” he said in his most reasonable tone of voice, “What is this about?”
Merry was silent, his eyes on the pig. The animal was peering up the hill, its poor eyesight trying to isolate them while its snout snuffled energetically. They could hear it grunting faintly. It had found something tasty at the base of a tree and was reluctant to abandon it.
Suddenly the older hobbit made a choking sound and Pippin was horrified to see tears gathering in the blue eyes. “I didn’t mean it, Merry,” he rushed on, “it’s probably a horrible pig, all stringy and tough - Merry, don’t cry, don’t, I’m sorry!”
Instead of obeying, Merry sank down and fought to control himself, failing miserably. Pippin dropped next to him, his sharp face contrite and anxious. Half a year ago, he would have badgered his cousin mercilessly until Merry confessed whatever was on his mind. Now, Pippin sat back quietly and waited for his loved and admired cousin to order his thoughts and speak to him.
Finally though, when Merry did not cease his weeping, Pippin inched around in front of him and placed his hands on his cousin’s upraised knees, squinting into his face. “This is about that nightmare you had, isn’t it? That you wouldn’t tell me about.”
Merry nodded once, struggling still to control himself. It seemed a ball of guilt and terror and fear of his own inadequacy had taken up residence in his stomach and was now bouncing about in his chest. When Pippin had asked him to throw his knife – the knife that could have killed his cousin – Merry’s hand had gone numb and his arm wooden. The thought of drawing it with Pippin anywhere around petrified him.
Pippin eyed him warily and yet with fond disgust. “You won’t tell me, but I can guess what that nightmare was about. I’ve seen you practically jump out of your skin every time you think I might get hurt, Merry. You haven’t truly relaxed since the day you cast that knife in Rivendell.”
Pippin leaned forward until his pointed nose was inches from his cousin’s. “Ridiculous Brandybuck,” he muttered. Then louder, “Merry, what makes you think you have the right to be responsible for me?”
Merry finally met his gaze, startled by that. “Pip! I have always taken care of you! Ever since you were a little lad -”
Pippin sat back on his heels but kept his hands on his cousin’s knees. “But I’m not anymore, Merry. Not a little lad. I’m twenty-eight … will be of age in five years. I am old enough to make my own decisions.”
“I’m not saying that you aren’t -” Merry tried, but Pippin interrupted him.
“Yes, you are. By feeling that you ought to be able to control everything. To keep everything bad from happening. You can’t, Merry. Nobody can. You couldn’t keep those Black Riders off Frodo on Weathertop, and you couldn’t get us to Rivendell any faster, and you’re not going to be able to dictate what happens when we leave here.”
“And until you admit that to yourself, you can’t even throw a knife at a stupid wild pig.”
Merry found that his hands were clenching Pippin’s. He bowed his head forward and took a deep breath, squeezing his cousin’s hands once before releasing them. “When did you grow up to be so clever?”
Pippin grinned at him, all tweenager again. “When you weren’t looking. Probably when you were nose-deep in a mug of ale. Or snoring in a hay-loft when you should have been baling. Or teaching me to sneak into vegetable patches. Or -”
“Thank you, I think I understand.”
Pippin searched his cousin’s face. “Are we all right, then?”
Merry thought about it. “I think so.”
“Good.” Pippin rocked back and stood up, extending a hand down to his cousin. “I don’t want to hear any more nonsense about this, Merry. It’s over and done with. I want you to concentrate on what’s real and in front of us. Because if my pork dinner down there gets away, I won’t ever forgive you.”
Merry wiped the tears from his eyes and grasped Pippin’s hand, pulling himself to his feet and into Pippin’s embrace. “Well, I couldn’t live with that,” Merry sniffed and gave Pippin another quick hug. They turned back toward the wild pig. The two had kept their voices low and their proposed dinner had not been frightened off. Merry drew the dagger and carefully estimated the angle and distance. He could not help but check that Pippin was well behind him, then he drew a deep breath and threw.
The pig squealed and went down, the small dagger protruding from its short throat. “Good job, Merry!” yelped Pippin, starting down the hill. Then another, louder squeal drowned out what he said next. Both hobbits ploughed to a stop, suddenly apprehensive.
“You don’t think…” Pippin murmured.
The sow appeared between two trees, squealing shrilly. She was huge, larger than both of the young hobbits together, sharply tusked, and filled with all the blind fury of thwarted maternal instinct. Her razor-sharp hooves churned the earth as she launched herself up the hill, ten-score pounds of infuriated piscine rage. Tiny, beady eyes struggled to fix on them as she hurtled herself forward with a speed they could scarcely register, plowing out great clods of earth behind her as she dug into the ground.
For a moment both hobbits stood frozen in horrified disbelief. Merry caught Pippin’s shoulder and whirled him around. “Run!”
* 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.