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Getting to Know You...  by Budgielover

Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, New Line Cinemas, and their licensees. These works were produced with admiration and respect, as fan fiction for entertainment purposes only, not for sale or profit. This story and all my others may be found on my website,  

Getting to Know You...

I  A Moment in the Morning in Bree

Ringwraiths, the Ranger recounted to himself silently. Goblins. Orcs. Trolls. Demons of the Deep. Anything. His hand trembled and he steadied it with iron will. He would rather pit his sword against any of the aforementioned than endure the spellbound stares of the four halflings now busily preparing their packs about the small, dingy room of The Prancing Pony. Not that they meant to stare … but Aragorn was well aware that his every action was being followed by fascinated hobbit eyes, and in Pippin’s case, an astonished, open mouth.

Despite undoubtedly saving all of their lives last night, Aragorn was aware that he was still on probation. He was careful to keep his expression benign and do nothing to alarm the hobbits, moving a little more slowly than usual around them and keeping his hands in sight. Meriadoc and Samwise watched his every move, especially when he came close to Frodo. Peregrin seemed willing to be friendly, but the others kept a close eye on the tweenager and called him back to their sides if they thought his constant questions were annoying this huge, forbidding stranger.

It was Frodo’s trust he had to earn. Aragorn knew that Sam, Merry, and Pippin would follow Frodo’s lead. It was hard to remember that Frodo was the leader of this little group – he looked scarcely older than Pippin. But it was unquestionably Master Baggins who was in charge. When Frodo had lain himself length-wise across the man-sized bed instead of joining the others to sleep, Aragorn had taken no offence, understanding Frodo’s wariness. The hobbit placing his body between Aragorn and the others was a noble gesture, if ultimately useless. As he had told them, had he wanted the Ring, he could have taken it. Frodo knew that, too. Aragorn had watched the torches from the street glitter in the hobbit’s watchful eyes long after the others had dropped into exhausted sleep.

They looked the better for what sleep they had managed to snatch before the shrieks of the Ringwraiths had awakened them. Aragorn’s gaze travelled to the window, where the churned hoof prints of the Nazgûl mounts were plainly visible in the brown mud of the street. Five of them. Aragorn did not doubt the Wraiths had attempted the Inn, and wondered what news old Butterbur would have for him this morning.

Frodo had noticed the direction of his gaze. He handed the last of the folded clothes to Sam and joined Aragorn. “Will they try again today?” Frodo asked quietly, glancing over his shoulder at the window.

Aragorn shook his head. “Too many people about. We’ll not see them in the day lit streets, Master Baggins. They will wait until we are alone upon the road, with no help in sight.”

Frodo sighed and scrubbed at his face wearily. Aragorn sympathized; these folk were not accustomed to long marches in foul weather, fearing pursuit from behind and dreading the road ahead. Despite their night of interrupted sleep, they were in need of further rest. He almost wished he could blame his trembling hand on lack of rest, but knew it was not so. He, and Rangers in general, could go without sleep for long periods of time; a night spent awake in the cold darkness was of little import.

Well, such ruminations were not addressing the task at hand. He leaned forward and raised his hand. Frodo’s eyes widened. The other hobbits left off their activities and turned to watch, mesmerized.

“Ouch! ”

“I shouldn’t like to shave,” remarked the youngest one with wide eyes as a bright scarlet bead ran down Aragorn’s jaw, “if you must bleed when you do it.”

Aragorn swallowed the pained invective that rose to his lips. He could discern neither amusement nor sarcasm in Peregrin’s voice. It seemed a totally innocent comment. Groping for a small plaster from his shaving kit, he met the smallest hobbit’s eyes in the mirror.

“No, Pippin,” he assured the tweenager, taking care to keep his irritation out of his voice. “That was an accident. Haven’t any of you seen a man shave before?”

Shaking his head, Pippin took his reply as an invitation to join him. Frodo shifted to the side, making room for his cousin. Merry drifted to the other side of the washbasin, his blue eyes lit with curiosity.

“No, sir,” Samwise replied for them all. Frodo nodded in agreement. “That is, I never did,” Sam continued. “Only Men we’ve seen much would be Mr. Gandalf. And he don’t ever shave.” Sam screwed up his face, thinking. “That is, I never saw him. Did you, sir?”

“No, I didn’t,” Frodo said reflectively. “Bilbo suggested it a few times. Usually at meals.” Frodo took a step closer, and Aragorn could see the top of his curly head in the mirror. “Doesn’t all that hair get in the way of eating? And washing?”

The middle cousin, Meriadoc, snorted and Aragorn looked down at him with a quirked eyebrow, remembering the apprehensive looks on the hobbits’ faces as he introduced himself to them. Well, Butterbur’s slander aside, he would be suspicious of tall, dangerous strangers nearly twice their size, too, who entered uninvited to their cosy hobbit-room. No doubt his looks were against him.

Merry stared back, an expression of polite attention on his face. “Isn’t it dangerous, smearing all that soap on your face? You can barely see your nose. You might cut it off a nostril.”

Aragorn’s hand wobbled again and a fresh droplet welled on his chin and began to course down his throat. He grimaced into the black-flecked mirror. “Here,” said Pippin helpfully, holding up another plaster.

“Thank you,” Aragorn said, applying it to the cut gingerly. He glanced into the mirror just in time to see Merry wipe an expression of amusement from his face. “Normally, I do not shave while out in the Wild,” Aragorn explained with as much dignity as he could muster. “There is no reason for it. But as we are in an abode of civilized people—”

“Bree?” interrupted Merry sceptically.

“Civilized people,” Aragorn continued, “I thought I might draw less attention—”

As one the hobbits’ gazes fastened on the great sword at his side, moved to the long knives he wore at his belt, those in his arm sheaths, and the two stuck into each boot. From there, their stares travelled to the bow propped in the corner behind the door, and the quiver of deadly arrows with it. Unlike himself, his weapons gleamed. A quick wash had taken off some of the grime of living in the Wild, but Aragorn knew he needed a haircut and his clothes could use a good brushing, if not a thorough washing. He stood in unfavourable contrast to the washed, brushed, and impeccably neat Frodo, who was regarding him with a jaundiced eye.

He would not allow himself to be intimidated by a hobbit, especially one that had managed to make such a spectacular ass of himself the night before. He put the memory of Frodo’s tumble in his face and hid a smile as the hobbit flushed. How much damage would result from Frodo’s unfortunate ‘accident’ was yet to be determined. The Ranger feared what news might have already been carried to interested ears. There was nothing for it—the best course of action would be to quit Bree and lose themselves on the road. Aragorn turned resolutely back to the mirror and managed a successful stroke from the top of his cheek to his jaw. A great dollop of soap peeled off his knife and slopped into the basin. The hobbits watched it fall attentively. Pippin strained up on his tiptoes to peer into the bowl, his pointed nose inches from the water.

“You have to do this every morning?” Pippin asked. “It seems a great deal of trouble.” He looked from Aragorn to the soapy water. “Can you imagine shaving our foot hair like that, Merry?” he giggled, oblivious to the older hobbits’ horrified expressions.

“The hair on Men’s faces keeps us warm, Pippin,” Aragorn explained, feeling obscurely he needed to defend the practice. “In winter, a heavy beard filters out the cold before it enters the lungs. In summer, it can do the same for dust. And—”

“Why do you shave it off, then?” asked Meriadoc.

Aragorn’s hand tightened on the hilt of his knife. He completed the stroke carefully, racking his brain for a reply. Clever Brandybuck. “Because, if left unchecked,” he answered slowly, “it can become unsightly.”

Silence greeted this statement. Frodo and Merry looked at him appraisingly. He straightened his tunic, then realized what he was doing and stared back at them in the mirror.

“Like the Dwarves,” Pippin nodded. “Though they braid their beards. Sometimes you can’t tell which is hair and which is beard. Do Men get that hairy?”

“Pippin!” said Frodo repressively, worried that Aragorn might consider this an insult.

He finished one side of his face and tipped his head back to work on his throat. Heads tilting back to follow his every movement, the hobbits watched anxiously as the razor-sharp knife scraped along delicate skin. “Dwarves do not shave, ever,” Aragorn replied at length, smiling at the tweenager to let Pippin know he had not found the question offensive. “A full and luxurious beard is considered a mark of great virility amongst them. I am told that lady Dwarves find it most attractive.”

Pippin wrinkled his nose doubtfully. Aragorn kept his attention on the knife, feeling another nick would lose him whatever authority he had gained in the last few minutes. “Of course,” he continued thoughtfully, “some of the most full and luxurious beards I have seen belong to lady Dwarves…”

Frodo and Merry looked shocked and Pippin giggled again.

“Do Elves shave?” asked Sam.

Ah, here was a subject he could explain better than the dubious value of facial hair. “No. Elves rarely need to shave. Some culture small beards, but the Valar gifted them with smooth faces.” Aragorn spared a moment to remember his foster brothers’ gentle teasing as his first downy beard appeared. He thought of trying to explain that long-distant moment of pride to the hobbits, then gave it up. Perhaps Gandalf would do a better job of justifying beards than he was doing, when they joined the wizard.

“So you stroke downwards when you are shaving your face,” Merry commented, brow furrowed in concentration, “and up when you are shaving your throat.” Aragorn nodded. “So it is rather like petting a cat? It hurts if you do it the wrong way?”

He had never thought of it like that but the comparison seemed apt. “It can. You want to lift the hairs up to cut them, so you stroke one way, then go back and do it the other. Usually.”

With a glance at Aragorn for permission, Pippin dipped his hand into the basin and caught a few of the stubby black hairs on his fingertip. “They’re bristly!” he said in surprise.

Aragorn shaved over his throat apple, very carefully, before replying. “Beard hair is coarser than hair-head. I don’t know why.”

“Our foot hair is just as soft as our head-hair,” Pippin declared proudly, raising a thickly-furred foot up for inspection.

“Don’t brag, Pippin,” Frodo ordered. “Men can’t help the strange places they grow hair in. I am sure Aragorn feels bad enough about having to shave his face every day.”

“I do not—” Aragorn began.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel bad!” Pippin interrupted him, distressed. “I mean, Men already have so many things against them—”

“Peregrin!” said Frodo in a strangled voice.

“How do you mean, Pippin?” Aragorn asked, careful not to alarm the young one.

Pippin shuffled his feet and looked at his elders before replying. “Well … it just must be inconvenient to be so large. You need such big clothes and such big things, and … though I must say, ale served in pints instead of half-pints is very nice.”

“We haven’t had much experience with Men,” Merry hastened to explain, “but … well, some of them seem … er, a bit clumsy to tell you the truth. And not very bright.”

“Not many of them can sing,” Pippin said sadly. “Did you hear the Men in the pub last night? Most of them couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

“And they don’t know much about cooking,” Sam added with a disapproving sniff. “Meaning no disrespect to Mr. Butterbur and all, but he’d be better off with hobbit-folk in the kitchen.”

Aragorn wiped his face with a towel, wincing as the plasters pulled off. The hobbits watched, wide-eyed. Reflecting that even without the threat of pursuit by Ringwraiths, the unexplained absence of Gandalf, and the very real possibility of the hordes of Mordor descending upon them, this might be a long journey.

* TBC *

His morning, the Ranger reflected, had started out badly and was growing steadily worse. His face no longer stung from the cuts accidentally given himself shaving under the weight of fascinated hobbit-eyes, but the angry silence behind him made him long for that minor discomfort. The four sets of hobbit-feet following were entirely inaudible; only the jingling of the pack pony’s harness and panniers confirmed that they had not deserted him.

One half-starved, mistreated pony, not the five healthy beasts the young Brandybuck had brought along for the purpose. He could scarcely fault the hobbits for their dismay; having to walk to Rivendell with heavy packs on their backs was much less pleasant than riding in comfort. As Frodo had pointed out (loudly), it was entirely possible that a more thorough search of the Bree hostelries would have produced more ponies, but Aragorn would not grant the hobbits the additional time. Instead of the quiet, early exodus from Bree he had planned, their small party had not been able to depart until nearly ten o’clock, under the enthralled gaze of every idler in the town. He half-fancied he could feel malevolent, unseen eyes on his back … aside from the ones now burning holes into his cloak.

“Stay close!” he cautioned the hobbits over his shoulder. “The ground is uneven and the mud is getting worse.” Last night’s rain had left the path treacherous; rocks slid under his boots and he envied the little folk their sure-footedness. Glancing back, he saw Samwise carefully guiding the pack-pony around a patch of untrustworthy ground. He felt a surge of gratitude that the little gardener was along—Sam seemed one of those rare souls who could calm and comfort by his mere presence. Frodo stumbled at that moment, and Aragorn saw Sam’s sturdy arm shoot out and steady his master. Yes … Samwise Gamgee was a most welcome addition.

Aragorn was less certain about the inclusion of the younger hobbits. He was familiar enough with Shire gentlehobbitry to be on his guard upon hearing the names Brandybuck and Took, and entirely displeased upon hearing which members of those illustrious families had decided to accompany his charge. The Shire-folk would be astonished to learn how much Rangers knew of their society; many an overheard mutter had concerned these two, usually accompanied by earthy expletives and impolite gestures. Farmers especially seemed to regard Masters Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took with the same sense of fatality as they bemoaned the weather and swarms of locusts.

That Frodo was easier with his kin near could not be denied—Aragorn could see his charge felt more comfortable when dealing with a huge, unknown Man instead of the old friend he had expected to meet at The Prancing Pony. Aragorn had tried to be reassuring but he knew he had not yet earned Frodo’s trust. Aragorn wondered yet again why Gandalf had not met them, and wished the old wizard was here to deal with this unexpectedly enlarged party.

Their first serious row had occurred when he denied their request to stop for their ‘second breakfast.’ The hobbits had been unhappy but obedient, eating their meal while walking, but his refusal to allow them to sing, play riddle-games, or converse above a whisper had nearly caused a parting of the ways.

“There’s no one within miles of us,” Merry had argued.

“We do not know that,” Aragorn replied patiently. “Any of those layabouts in Bree could be tracking us. Too many eyes watch us leave. We must be silent to listen for signs we are being followed.”

The hobbits looked about them disdainfully at the empty landscape but chose to forego further argument. The ground was rising, becoming steeper, funnelling them towards a small pass that would save them hours of walking, once they crested the last hill and passed down between the sheer slopes.

Aragorn saw no point in warning them of what he feared—the pass would either be negotiable, or it would not. Perhaps the rain had not been so heavy here. That faint hope evaporated as the five gathered at the crest and stared down into the narrow way. Perhaps twenty feet of dark, viscous mud stretched before them, completely engulfing the ground to the opposite bank, climbing up the steep stone sides of the pass, roiling and falling back on itself with faint ‘plops’ as more run-off from the surrounding countryside filled it. Aragorn sighed in resignation and started down. The hobbits did not follow.

“How deep is it?” Pippin asked apprehensively.

Aragorn paused and looked over his shoulder at them, then frowned thoughtfully at the half-obscured walls. “It will come up to my chest.”

Pippin pressed back against Merry, his eyes wide. “That is over Pippin’s head,” Merry said. “Can’t we go around?”

“Such a detour would take us leagues out of our way,” Aragorn said with a shake of his head. “The ground rises past this short stretch of ground; after we have traversed it, our path will be clear.”

The hobbits took a step back and looked at each other. “We could ride the pony through it,” Frodo suggested.

“While carrying your packs and supplies? That would sink you farther into the mud. And think of the poor creature. Carrying you all back and forth through all the mud would exhaust him.” Sam sucked his lower lip between his teeth and looked anxiously at his master. Frodo nodded and stroked the little animal’s neck comfortingly, giving Sam a wry half-smile of apology for the thought.

“There is no help for it,” Aragorn told them. He held out his arms. “Who shall be first?”

Frodo flushed. “You may be much larger than we, Aragorn, but we are not children. We do not need to be carried.”

Aragorn resisted the impulse to roll his eyes. “Frodo,” he began patiently, “the mud is too deep. You would be covered in mud, if you managed not to drown in it.”

Frodo looked at the mud distastefully, but more clear was his distaste at the thought of being carried. “Thank you, but I will go carefully,” Frodo said firmly. “The ground will be higher at the sides. I will take a bath afterwards.”

“In what?” Aragorn asked, less patiently. “Bree is behind us and there are no streams for leagues.” Frodo firmed his jaw. “Think of that mud drying,” Aragorn continued, “drying on your skin. Itching and flaking off. Drying into little balls of rock in your foothair. You would most probably have to pull the hair out by the roots, or cut it off.”

“Cut off our beautiful foothair?” Merry repeated, horrified, unconsciously hiding one foot behind the other.

“I suppose it will grow back, eventually,” the Ranger said judiciously. A slight smile crossed his features. “Pity Hobbits can’t help the strange places they grow hair in,” he told them straight-faced.

Pippin giggled at hearing Frodo’s earlier words thrown back at them so adroitly. Frodo scowled at him and the youngster looked at the ground repentantly, but little riffs of laughter betrayed his amusement.

“Come now,” Aragorn said. “Who will be first?”

The hobbits shuffled uneasily, watching each other from the corners of their eyes. After a moment, Pippin looked at the others and stepped forward. He held up his arms hesitantly. Aragorn’s face remained impassive but his heart warmed at the young hobbit’s expression of trust. He knelt and wrapped his arms around the tweenager’s waist, and lifted him carefully. Pippin squeaked as his feet left the ground and his hands tightened on Aragorn’s arms.

“Careful!” Merry ordered. “Are you all right, Pip?”

Aragorn thought Merry’s concern should rightfully be for him, for he felt a squirrel had been set loose upon him. The young one was twisting and turning, trying to see in every direction at once. Aragorn clutched him tighter as Pippin almost wiggled out of his hold in excitement.

“Oh!” Pippin exclaimed, “You can see so much from up here! I’m as high up as if I were in Bag End’s roof tree!” Oblivious to Aragorn’s grunt of pain as a toe caught him in the ribs, the young hobbit hiked himself higher in Aragorn’s arms, then pulled himself up on the Ranger’s shoulders. He draped his legs over the man’s chest and looked around proudly, delighted with his achievement.

“Pippin,” Aragorn said, reaching up to steady him as the hobbit wrapped his arms around Aragorn’s head, “I am not a tree! Would you please settle down?”

“Doesn’t it make you dizzy, being so high up?” exclaimed the little hobbit. “Are all Big People so strong? If I jumped off, do you think you could catch me?”

No!” shouted the three adults together. Pippin gave them a hurt look, leaning over Aragorn’s head to peer at his friends. Aragorn hastily stepped sideways to balance him. “Your hair looks like a rat’s nest, Frodo,” the tweenager observed with interest.

“Thank you, Pippin,” Frodo returned tightly.

“Twigs sticking out everywhere,” Pippin continued happily. “Aunt Esmie would—eeeep!” Aragorn fought not to smile as his deliberately rough plunge into the mud silenced the young hobbit before Frodo could bridle the more. Pushing a foot forward, he felt carefully before him, moving only when he was certain the ground would support his weight and that of his chattering burden. Pippin kept up a steady commentary, occasionally bouncing on Aragorn’s shoulders in excitement, enjoying himself hugely.

As he pulled onto solid ground and lifted Pippin from his perch, Pippin caught his ear and put his mouth against it. Aragorn stilled. “Merry is afraid of heights,” Pippin whispered. “He won’t say so, but it’s true. Will you be very careful of him?”

Aragorn lowered Pippin to the ground and bent solicitously over him, allowing Pippin to cling to his arm for a moment while he found his feet. “I will,” Aragorn murmured. Pippin hugged him quickly then stepped back. Aragorn took a deep breath and forced himself into the mud.

It was more difficult this time. His worn, weather-stained clothes effectively kept out the mud, but it caked against him, adding to the weight he must carry. Gaining the opposite bank, he brushed at his clothing, knocking off great slimy clods of it. With a sigh, he rubbed his filthy hands together and straightened.

“Ready, Master Brandybuck?” he asked Merry. Merry gulped and nodded stiffly, allowing himself to be swept up into Aragorn’s arms.

Aragorn carried Merry in silence, the hobbit's head turned into Aragorn’s shoulder and his body rigid. Aragorn saw that Merry’s eyes were tightly closed and he was very pale. Aragorn walked more slowly than he had with his first passenger, careful not to slip and give the young hobbit cause for alarm. “Almost there, Merry,” he whispered, and felt the hobbit nod his head against his chest. Merry clung tightly, his breathing rapid, until he felt grass between his toes. He swayed and Pippin at once flung his arms around his cousin and hugged him. Merry’s face began to regain some colour. Aragorn laid a hand on his shoulder in silent praise.

“Who shall be next?” he asked after rejoining the remaining hobbits. The caking mud was beginning to harden and his boots were covered with it, making each step seem a greater and greater effort. He felt as if great weights had been tied to his feet. The two remaining hobbits looked at the thick mud coating him apprehensively.

“I don’t mind a bit of mud, sir,” Sam said. “Been up to my eyebrows in it before.” Sam was rubbing the pony’s muzzle absently, and Aragorn wondered which one of them the hobbit was reassuring. “And I need to keep a hand on this fellow’s lead—he’ll have a rough go of it.” Perhaps catching the nervousness in Sam’s voice, the pony snorted and bobbed his head, jerking at the rein.

“You must lead the pony, but I cannot walk backwards, or sideways,” Aragorn said consideringly. “It is likely all three of us would wind up in the mud. I will have to carry you backwards over my shoulder.” Sam’s round face paled and he started to shake his head in refusal. Surprisingly, Frodo put a hand on Sam’s arm, but when the hobbit spoke, he was looking at Aragorn.

“He is right, Sam. You need to guide the pony or he’ll founder in this mess. Let Aragorn carry you.”

“Mr. Frodo,” Sam began unhappily, but Frodo shook his head. Seeing the matter apparently decided, Aragorn knelt and Sam hoisted himself over the Man’s shoulder. Aragorn locked one arm around the back of Sam’s knees and rose to his feet, keeping the other arm free for his own balance. Sam submitted to this indignity with silence, aside from one mutter about ‘bony’ Men. Aragorn ignored the comment, glad to have won the battle with so little bloodshed.

“Ready, Sam?” he asked when the hobbit seemed to have found his balance.

“Suppose,” Sam answered dubiously. “Let me see if he’ll follow. Come on, my lad,” Sam crooned over Aragorn’s shoulder, “There’s a fine fellow.” The little animal’s ears perked forward and it took a hesitant step forward, its eyes locked on Sam. Another few steps and it sank up to its knees. The pony began to tremble and its eyes were white-rimmed.

“Poor fellow,” Sam murmured, “Just give him a moment.” Aragorn did not hurry either of them, waiting patiently until Sam would instruct him forward. Step by step, the three progressed. The poor creature struggled after them, sunk in mud up to his barrel, plunging and puffing at the end of the lead. Reaching the opposite bank, Aragorn heaved himself out of the mud and knelt, and at once the other two helped Sam down. Sam sat down on the ground and rubbed his stomach.

“Well done, Master Samwise,” Aragorn told him. Sam smiled shakily, then struggled to his feet to feed the pony a lump of sugar. Aragorn stretched, feeling the strain in his back. I deserve a lump of sugar, he thought. Well, one more to go.

“Won’t you take a bit of a rest?” Pippin asked as he turned back to the morass.

“I think it unwise for us to be separated, Pippin,” Aragorn replied. He wished he had demanded Frodo go second, or third – at least one of the others would be with him instead of leaving his charge unguarded on the bank. For the thankfully last time, he plunged back into the mud and dragged himself to the opposite shore.

Frodo stepped back when Aragorn reached for him. “Come on, Frodo!” Merry shouted from the opposite shore, “We made it. You will too!”

“Frodo?” Aragorn asked, gazing at him levelly. Frodo paled, then flushed. “I am doing this under protest,” he growled as the Man lifted him.

“Better under protest than under mud,” Aragorn replied. “Stop squirming.”

“I am not ‘squirming,’ Frodo retorted. “It is very uncomfortable, being carried like this. You are choking me.” Aragorn obediently shifted his hold, easing the pull of Frodo’s cloak around the hobbit’s throat. Frodo pulled his cloak fretfully above the mud, obviously unhappy about carried like a faunt.

Six trips slogging through thick mud must have wearied him more than he realized. Aragorn did not notice his arms were sagging under Frodo’s weight until the hobbit tugged at him halfway through the mud. “Aragorn,” Frodo began, as at the same moment, Merry shouted, “Hoy! Look out there!”

Alarmed, fearing attack when he could defend neither himself nor the hobbits, Aragorn spun around to look behind him, his free hand seeking his knife. Frodo clutched at him, startled, tightening his hold around Aragorn’s neck with astonishing strength. His boot rolled on a rock and began to slide. He tried to pull himself upright and over-compensated. Off-balance, Aragorn tried to lift Frodo higher as he started to fall backwards. With quickness Aragorn was only beginning to appreciate, Frodo planted his feet on Aragorn’s mid-section and leaped, launching himself into the air. That final push slammed Aragorn into the mud.

* * *
“That was unfortunate,” Merry observed.

“Right into a prickle-bush,” Pippin agreed, capturing a brown-clad thrashing arm and bracing his feet to pull. “Are you all right, Frodo?”

Frodo spat out a mouthful of leaves. “He did that deliberately!”

“I was trying to toss you free,” Aragorn gasped as he dragged himself to the edge of the mud-pit. Little dollops of mud rolled down his head and slid into his clothes. “You kicked me!”

“Here, sir, let you help you,” Sam said anxiously, shoving the pony’s rein into Merry’s hands. Aragorn extended a hand but Sam had already latched onto Frodo’s jacket and was helping Pippin drag him out of the thorns. Stifling a groan, Aragorn heaved himself out of the mud and rolled over onto his back.

“Ow! Ow! Ow!”

“You did kick him,” Pippin remarked, pulling out a large thorn from Frodo’s backside.

“OW! There was one thorn-bush on the whole bank! Couldn’t he have ‘helped’ me anywhere else?!”

Aragorn sat up, wincing. “I was trying to save you from the mud—”

“By throwing me into a thorn-bush! If this is your idea of ‘saving’ me—”

“Do you really think this is the best place to discuss this?” Merry intervened diplomatically. “If any of those men from Bree did follow us, standing here and arguing about it probably isn’t the best idea.”

The five travelers looked about uncomfortably. “Merry is right,” Aragorn agreed through gritted teeth. “We have made too much noise. Let us be gone from this place. Give me a moment to change my boots. I will change my clothes when we have put a few leagues behind us.”

“Sad state of affairs when I have to be the voice of reason,” Merry whispered to Pippin as they shouldered their packs. “Doesn’t bode well for the rest of the way.” Frodo stalked past Sam, who exchanged a grimace with the cousins then fell in behind them with the pony. Ahead of them all, Aragorn’s mud-caked back was straight and angry.

Pippin nodded. “This might be a long journey,” he remarked to Merry.

* TBC *

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