50. And Out of the Fire
Aragorn was crouching before a log he had rolled aside, one hand holding it back as Frodo and Sam peered underneath it, faces tight with distaste. “See,” the Ranger was explaining earnestly, “these grubs, pan-fried with a little flour -” All three jerked their heads up as the two younger hobbits flew past them. “Runrunrunrun!” shouted Merry, as they streaked past.
Frodo straightened and glared after them, hands on hips in disapproval at this undignified behavior. “Meriadoc Brandybuck! What -?”
Without a word, Aragorn snatched up both Frodo and Sam, tucking a startled hobbit under each arm, and ran. Frodo struggled against this indignity. “Aragorn! What are … Oh!”
As Aragorn turned sideways to dodge a tree, Frodo caught sight of the wild sow. Over two hundred pounds of infuriated pig, tusks gleaming, little bulging eyes red with rage. Frodo abruptly quit struggling and clutched the Ranger’s arm. “Run run run!” he shouted in unconscious imitation of Merry.
Aragorn ran. But for all their size, there are few beasts faster than wild pigs, and few greater provocations to a mother than harm to her young. Spurred on by protective instinct and unreasoning fury, the beast was gaining on them.
“Hold tight!” Aragorn grunted to the hobbits. Sam and Frodo frantically looped their arms about the Man’s neck and locked their legs around his waist. Aragorn dashed under an enormous oak and caught a strong branch with both hands, using his momentum to swing himself off his feet and around the branch. Twisting his body lithely, he spun up over the branch and readied himself to release it at exactly the right moment to land seated upon it. Such games he had often played with his foster brothers while growing up in Imladris. Unfortunately, childhood games did not account for the weight of two small but strong hobbits clinging to him like limpets. Off balance, his intended nimble stop atop the branch ended abruptly when the deep bruise on his back stabbed agonizingly. He released the branch too soon and came down hard on the branch with Frodo on his open side and Sam between himself and the trunk. The Ranger heard a choked, agonized, “Whufff!” from Sam as the hobbit impacted both branch and trunk.
The sow knew only that the creature that had harmed her young had simply disappeared. But the unfathomable disappearance of the larger creature revealed to her once again the two smaller ones. With a wild squeal of pure rage, she redoubled her efforts to reach Merry and Pippin, her pinkish-brown body a blurred streak.
The two younger hobbits did not have the option of swinging themselves up on a branch – all were out of reach. But ahead of them loomed a rocky outcropping, small boulders tumbled down from a decaying wall of stone. Merry reached it first and scrambled up, making sure that Pippin was right behind him, both pulling themselves up by their fingers and toes. The sow was so close that her tusks actually grazed Pippin’s backside. Encouraged to even greater speed, the tweenager squeaked, his small cry nearly lost in the animal’s outraged squeals.
Atop the highest point, the two clutched at each other and stared down in abject terror. The massive pig was struggling to reach them, her sharp hooves scarring the rock in her efforts. Rock broke free and crumbled under her weight and seething rage. She squealed again, tusked mouth opening impossibly as she sought to get at them and rip them to shreds.
“Are you hurt? Are you hurt?” cried Merry, pulling Pippin against him, his hands already exploring the long gash in Pippin’s cloak and patting him down for injuries. Too frightened to speak, Pippin merely clung to Merry, his gaze never wavering from the ten-score pounds of infuriated pig beneath them.
Other voices finally penetrated their petrified haze. Aragorn, Frodo and Sam were all shouting at them, Aragorn and Frodo waving frantically. Sam had one hand clenched in Frodo’s cloak and the other a death-grip on the bark. Aragorn had crawled out as far as the branch would support his weight, clamped his legs around it and was waving with both arms to attract their attention. Over the wild pig’s enraged squeals, they could barely make out his words. “Merry! Pippin! Are you all right?”
Getting a little of his breath back, Merry stood up carefully on the boulder and waved back, causing the sow to lunge upwards, her hooves scrabbling on the loose rock. Pippin cowered against his knees and Merry hastily sat down again. “We’re not hurt!” he shouted back. He stared down into the pig’s eyes as she strained again to reach them, showing her yellow chisel-sized teeth in a snarl as ferocious as any wolf’s.
Back in the oak tree, Aragorn easily caught another of the huge branches, one slightly higher and to the side of the treed hobbits, and swung himself over to it. Once there, he eased back along the tree limb to the safety of the trunk, settled himself comfortably and drew his long legs up on the branch, oblivious to Frodo’s and Sam’s white-rimmed stares at the distant (to them) ground. After ascertaining that the younger hobbits were not in immediate danger, Aragorn stretched carefully and rolled the muscles of his back. “Never,” he remarked in a conversational tone to the hobbits below him, “have I been chased by a wild pig.” Seeing their eyes drawn to him, he elaborated. “I have walked the Wilds since I was a child, and hunted since I was large enough to draw a bow. I have never been chased by a pig. Until this day.” To the hobbits’ horror, the Ranger stood easily on the branch and took a few steps along it, one hand bracing himself slightly on a higher branch to better see their young ones. “A simple walking party with hobbits…” he sighed deeply and continued to himself. “Why can’t it be simple? Is it this group of hobbits, or all hobbits? Or perhaps –“
“I should invite another group of hobbits on a walking party and see what disasters occur then -”
The Ranger sighed again then seemed to become aware of Frodo. He pivoted smoothly on the branch, drawing a horrified gasp from Sam, and walked back to them. He crouched down and stared into the hobbits’ eyes. “Why?” he asked rhetorically. “Is our whole journey going to be like this? Just warn me now.”
“Aragorn,” returned Frodo, somewhat impatient with the Man’s wool-gathering now that the initial terror had worn off, “What are we… Sam – you’re choking me… What are we going to do? Merry and Pippin are in dreadful trouble.”
“We could leave them there,” suggested Sam, regaining enough breath to rub his side where he had involuntarily cushioned Aragorn’s ascent into the tree. Frodo’s dark brows drew down and Sam sighed and kept any further opinions to himself.
The Ranger turned himself around and settled himself against the trunk, dangling his legs over the branch. Wincing as the bruise twinged again, he rubbed it absently then folded his arms and returned the hobbit’s stare. “I don’t know, Frodo. What are you going to do?”
Frodo’s so-blue eyes narrowed dangerously. “Shoot it,” he commanded, gesturing at the great bow slung over the Man’s back.
Aragorn shook his head. “She is just protecting her young, Frodo. I will not shoot her for following her instincts. Even if I did, there is too much food to waste. We would have to smoke the meat, and that would take days. No, my friend. I am not here, remember? The solution is up to you.”
Frodo started to stand up, recalled where he was and sat down again, clutching at the rough bark. Seeing that the Ranger would not be budged, he closed his eyes for a moment, thinking. “Right, then.” Very carefully, he inched to his feet, holding on to twigs and smaller branches within his reach. Sam watched him for a moment then shut his eyes, bracing himself against the trunk as if he wished he could crawl inside it.
“Merry!” The bright head turned at the hail. “Merry! Can you and Pippin drive her off with your slings?”
Cautiously Merry stood again, steadying himself with a hand on Pippin’s head. A moment of fumbling in their pockets then both were armed. “Maybe. If you help,” Merry called back.
“Ready, Sam?” Frodo asked, testing the angle with his own weapon. Sam gulped and aimed his sling, holding himself with his back pushed against the trunk, held there by his broad, furry feet. Aragorn watched silently, hand on the hilt of his sword. He had spoken truly to Frodo – he would not aid them, but if the Ring-bearer or the other hobbits were in actual danger, he would certainly intervene.
Frodo glanced back at Sam then met his cousins’ eyes, his sling already in motion. “Now!” he shouted.
Four small, sharp stones struck the sow with painful accuracy, peppering her flanks hard enough to draw blood. The sow squealed and leaped straight into the air, bucking and thrashing as she came down. Pain and startlement drove her further up the rock pile and some of the supporting stones tore loose and rolled down under her churning hooves, shaking the entire outcropping. Merry swayed dangerously and Pippin grabbed at his breeches, pulling him back to safety. Merry thanked his cousin with a grimace and grimly fitted another stone to his sling. “Keep at it!” called Frodo, his own sling already delivering a second missile.
The sow shrieked, her voice almost human in her pain and fury and indignation. A stone from Pippin’s sling impacted on her sensitive snout and the enormous pig shook her head like a dog, wincing away from the confusing barrage that came at her from two sides. Ducking her head, she backed down off the tumbled stones and in confusion took herself off, still squealing.
The silence that followed was broken only by hobbits panting in relief, then the soft laughter of a Man. “Oh, well done!” commented Aragorn. Then more soberly, “Are you two all right?”
“No thanks to you,” grumbled Frodo, stowing his sling.
“Will you get us down now?” asked Sam, not quite pleading.
Aragorn caged the branch loosely in his hands and swung himself agilely down. Frodo allowed himself to be picked up and set gently on the ground, and Sam after him. The stocky hobbit sat down and patted the earth in relief.
Merry and Pippin were slower to leave their place of safety. Merry kept watch as Pippin inched himself down, not scrambling down to join them until the other four were standing at the base of the rocks. “I have never had to work so hard for a pork dinner,” he complained. “Let us hope that this young pig was worth all the trouble.”
“Better than grubs and termites, any road,” replied Sam.
* * * * *
It was. Quartered and with the leftover meat sliced thinly and set to smoke, the four hobbits and the Ranger consumed their meal in dedicated silence. In a flash of inspiration, Pippin wondered what the young pig had been rooting at and looking amongst the rocks at the base of the tree, was delighted to find a small stand of mushrooms. These were added to the meat and under Sam’s expert hand, resulted in a most delectable luncheon.
At last the walking party sat back and sighed, wiping greasy hands on the grass and resting for a bit before bestirring themselves to wash in another of the small streams that flowed so bountifully through these lands.
“What do you say to a nap?” asked Pippin with a yawn. The tweenager had wolfed his food as if he had not eaten in days and now sat back, too full even to enjoy his pipe. Aragorn and Frodo already had theirs in use, but Merry was helping Sam finish up the pots and retie their packs. Sam yawned hugely then put his hand over his mouth, embarrassed.
Seeing Merry and Frodo answer Sam with more yawns, Aragorn fought off one of his own. They were not so far from their goal now, and Elrond had instructed him to keep the hobbits out for “for several days at least” while the Elf-lord undertook some tasks without the interference of hobbity curiosity. They could well afford to idle away a few more hours. “I say that is an admirable idea, Pippin. Not here, though. We’ll leave what’s left of the meat to cure but I would feel safer away from the smoke.” His gaze roved lazily over the landscape. “There … under those fir trees. Their drooping branches will hide us.”
Soon the only sounds were soft breaths and gentle snores as the hobbits slept. Aragorn took the watch and managed to stay awake only by the discipline of years spent in the Wild, where danger and death waited for the unwary and the weary. The Ranger leaned back against a trunk and puffed at his pipe, contrasting the present ease with what he feared was to come. ‘Best to let them relax,’ he thought. ‘Frodo did well. They all did well.’ He removed the pipe for a moment to tap the bowl. ‘It will be a most interesting Quest, at any rate.’ Stretching his long legs before him, the Ranger crossed them at the ankles and tilted his head back to enjoy the fat white clouds as they sailed the sky over his head, the soft breeze a benediction on his face.
It was nearly two hours before the halflings awoke, confirming to Aragorn that they had indeed needed the rest. He had risen twice and drifted on silent feet over to Frodo, checking the hobbit’s breathing as he slept. That blow on the head still concerned him, as did the blow Sam had taken when Aragorn had swung them up into the tree to escape the sow. He had tried to examine Sam but the gardener had put him off, claiming it was just a scrape and he’d had worse before rolling down a slope. When Aragorn had asked him when he had done that, Sam had flushed brightly and muttered something about “vegetables” and “old Maggot” and “twern’t my fault” and edged away, claiming the spit wanted turning.
As the day moved into afternoon, the shadows lengthened and the day cooled. Aragorn had long since finished his pipe and had sat merely enjoying the day, at peace with himself and the world. For a moment the Ranger indulged himself in the temptation to let the world pass him by, to let Middle-earth edge towards its fate without him. Such trials ahead, such danger and deprivation … and it all depended on the slim shoulders of one small hobbit...
Said hobbit shifted and sat up, yawning. Frodo smiled sleepily at the silent Ranger, then nudged the softly snoring body next to him. “Wake up, Sam.” A nudge to the other side. “Come on, Pip. Wake Merry up. Get up, you slugabeds! Don’t you want to see this marvel Aragorn keeps on about?”
Pippin groaned and murmured something that earned him another, harder poke. “That was very disrespectful, Cousin,” replied Frodo cheerfully, seemingly not greatly insulted. “I for one wish to see this thing which is there but not there, and only at certain times.”
Food and curiosity and a strong bond, Aragorn mused. And ale. And good pipe-weed. These little folk seemed so simple, so … innocent. Until you looked into the Ring-bearer’s eyes and saw the memory of unimaginable pain and terror. And the certain knowledge that more was to come, as unalterable as the turning of the world. The Ranger rose and assisted them in gathering up their packs and the smoked meat, then guided their steps once again to the South Road.
* 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.