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A Lesson on Hobbits  by Budgielover

A/N: This fic takes place very early in the Quest, and is the first of the "Lessons" chronologically. Aragorn still has a lot to learn about hobbits, including something very important he will need to teach the other Big People of the Fellowship.

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, http://www.geocities.com/budgieloverfanfiction/index.html.  My thanks to my dear Marigold for the beta.

 A Lesson on Hobbits IV - Aragorn

The Ranger knew he was being watched. He had spent too many years in the Wild to be unaware when piercing eyes followed his every movement. He knew the feeling as a tingle at the base of his spine, a prickling of the hair at the nape of his neck. It was a sad testament to these troubled times that rarely had the spying eyes been friendly. For a moment, his thoughts returned to his home and his kin, now several days’ march behind them, and he regretted that the Fellowship was too far from Imladris to count on the protection of the Elves.

Without seeming to raise his head from his work, his gaze swept the marsh in which the Fellowship camped this day. The rising sun was casting confusing and deceptive shadows on the moss and vines that hung from low-growing, spreading trees, many of them half-rotted. The ground was thick with grasses and water-tolerant plants that could live in such mire, and the air was filled with the fetid smell of decomposing plant-life. Despite the time of year, this area had an odd, clinging humidity that made perspiration glisten on the skin and clothes stick uncomfortably. The thick vegetation was perfect cover—he could see none of the Fellowship even though wisps of conversation drifted to him; the light music of the elf’s laugh, the deep rumble of the dwarf’s reply. Splashing from the other side of him indicated that the halflings were bathing, not all of them voluntarily. At least the muffled accusations of mutual attempted drownings had tapered off. Boromir was with them, so Aragorn did not worry for the Ring-bearer’s safety.

He dropped the last morsel into the little gardener’s largest cookpot and reached for a rag to scrub his hands. Digging their meal out of their shells had been tedious but small as their entree was, there would be plenty, even for prodigious hobbit-appetites. Though not as acutely miserable as the Midgewater Marshes, this soggy piece of land swarmed with nutritious fare and the harvesting had been both plentiful and easy. He had borrowed two of Sam’s pots, which now sat simmering and bubbling on the fire. Aragorn smiled faintly as he remembered the stocky hobbit’s apprehension at lending him the pots, as if the man had asked if he might borrow the Ring for an evening. Casting aside the rag, he rose to his feet and stared into the tangled stand of trees at the edge of camp.

"Well?" he asked the watching eyes.

"When will you admit defeat?" Gandalf asked, emerging from the trees to settle himself on a log near to the fire. The wizard held out his hands to the flames, savoring their warmth against the bitter wind. Propping his staff between his knees, Gandalf removed his pipe from its storage place amongst the convoluted branches of the tip. A small flame lit the bowl, appearing as if by magicand Gandalf inhaled deeply, savoring the sweet pipe-weed.

"Never," Aragorn replied grimly. "I will teach those hobbits to live off the land or die in the attempt."

"They are perfectly willing to live off the land," the wizard disputed with a puff of smoke. "They have shown you a new trick or two, as I recall. They are just not willing to eat insects and grubs and the truly disgusting things you seem to consider nourishment."

"Insects have more protein than beef," Aragorn began hotly, "and such creatures as … grasshoppers, for instance—"

Gandalf waved a negligent hand. "Peace, Aragorn. You do not need to convince me. I respect your beliefs. And I agree that our friends should learn to take advantage of every food source available to them. There may indeed come a time when our Fellowship might have nothing else, despite the skill of our hunters." The wizard smiled at his old friend, enjoying the gentle teasing. "Such fare would help to keep those bottomless bellies filled, if nothing else."

Aragorn’s stern face lit with enthusiasm and he gave the nearest cookpot a stir. Gandalf sniffed appreciatively as the aromas of garlic and salted butter drifted past his nose. "But if Frodo sees a single segmented leg or one antenna in what you are cooking," the wizard continued, "you are on your own. I would keep your sword close as we sup this morning."

"I can match that hobbit for stubbornness," Aragorn began but fell silent when Gandalf abruptly choked on his pipe, a laugh emerging from his mouth as smoke drifted from his nostrils.

"You cannot," Gandalf stated simply. "Frodo is a Baggins."

Aragorn eyed him. "I know that. Frodo is Bilbo’s nephew and cousin. What is your point?"

The old wizard leaned back comfortably. "My point, Aragorn, is that though you have guarded the borders of the Shire for many years, you have not interacted closely with many hobbits—other than our dear Bilbo, of course. Watching them from a distance is not the same as living among them and being friends with them."

Seeing that the cookpots were coming along well, Aragorn set aside the spoon and sank down next to the wizard, stretching out his long legs before him. "I know Hobbits are different from Men—or Elves or Dwarves—but you are saying they are different from each other?"

Gandalf nodded, pleased with his pupil’s aptness. "Oh, indeed. Each of the gentlehobbit families has … certain highly identifiable traits, shall we say. For example, Peregrin’s family is known for its adventurousness. Which, I might add, is not considered a desirable trait among hobbits. I was great friends with Pippin’s great-great-grandfather, the Old Took. Great friends. We had many good times together..." The wizard fell silent and Aragorn was startled to see his old friend’s eyes fill suddenly with tears. Sitting next to him, Aragorn wondered what it would be like to watch those most dear age and wither and finally succumb to death, and if the joys each new generation brought ever filled that black void … or if it merely grew and grew. His adoptive folk did not suffer such pain—Elves rarely mingled with the mortal races and so death was a mystery to them. A mystery he would one day experience. Yet Aragorn thought he would prefer that to the grief of seeing those dearly loved pass from life, while he stayed forever the same.

"Gandalf?" Aragorn said softly, laying a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

"Yes, well." The wizard swallowed, then cleared his throat. He reached up to pat Aragorn’s hand and the Ranger pressed his shoulder gently before releasing him. "As I was saying…" Gandalf continued, "Meriadoc is a sterling example of the Brandybuck line, for instance."

"I am glad that Merry is a sterling example of something," Aragorn growled. "I swear that that hobbit managed to cause more trouble in Imladris since … since…"

"Since you were a child there?" Gandalf asked with a twinkle. The Ranger flushed, knowing that Elrond had filled the wizard in on many of Aragorn’s own adolescent adventures.

"How is Merry such a paragon?" Aragorn asked, hoping to turn his friend back to his explanation of hobbits.

"That quicksilver mind," Gandalf explained. "Brandybucks are known for being both very bright and somewhat mercenary. No, I do not mean rapacious," Gandalf added when Aragorn would have protested, "though I would not suggest standing between Merry and an apple pie." The wizard snorted, his eyes twinkling. Then he sobered. "I mean when Merry sees something he wants, he goes for it, through whatever obstacles are in his path. Not always considering the consequences, I fear … but then, he is young."

"Merry is thirty-six years old," Aragorn commented wryly.

"Which is barely past coming-of-age for a hobbit," Gandalf replied with a faint smile. Aragorn was relieved to see the glimmering dampness in his friend’s eyes had faded.

"Well, Samwise is only two years older, and he is great deal more mature," Aragorn grumbled, not willing to give up his grievance quite yet. He had lost count of the number of times he had been summoned to Elrond’s study to find his foster father slumped over his desk, rubbing that high brow and muttering "hobbits" to himself.

Gandalf pointed wordlessly at the pots and Aragorn reached over to give them a quick stir. Wouldn’t do to let their dinner burn, after promising Samwise he would care for the cookware as if it were made from the finest mithril. "Sam Gamgee is a different story," the wizard continued. "He comes from good working stock and is proud of it. His family has taken care of the Bagginses all Sam’s life, and his father’s before him." Gandalf paused and puffed, his eyes contemplative. "I have a great deal of respect for the Gaffer. He is a hobbit that may be depended upon. As is his son."

"I am glad that someone takes care of Frodo," Aragorn muttered. "Someone certainly needs to."

Gandalf laughed outright, then. "Frodo," he said, affection coloring his voice, "is a Baggins, but also half a Brandybuck with a very strong Tookish strain. You have no doubt noted the physical resemblance between he and Pippin. Pippin is a full-blooded Took. May the Valar have mercy on us," the wizard added under his breath.

Gandalf leaned back and shifted his weight comfortably upon the log. "I named Frodo the finest hobbit in the Shire, and his actions since have only confirmed my opinion," he continued, his mien serious now. "I have known him since he was a lad, barely a tweenager first come to Bilbo. He needed a place of his own, and unbounded love, and Bilbo gave him that. Bilbo has told me that Frodo has repaid him tenfold. He has never regretted taking the boy in.

"Frodo is … special. He has always been special, and not just because of his looks. I agree he can be exasperating, stubborn, absent-minded, melodramatic, and disrespectful. He can also be courageous, steadfast, compassionate, indulgent, and generous to a fault. He would face down a dragon for those cousins of his, or Sam, or any of us. There is a light that shines in Frodo … a purity of spirit, a…" The wizard withdrew the pipe from his mouth and waved it about vaguely. "An elvish air, as I have said before. I do not have words to quite describe it. He has an adamant soul." Gandalf returned the pipe to his mouth, his brow furrowed. "He did not bow before the Witch-king of Angmar and I have never seen him bow to any evil thing or deed."

Gandalf was quiet, puffs of smoke drifting free of his pipe to dissipate in the breeze. "Our entire Quest depends on the strength of the Ring-bearer. As dearly as I love Frodo and fear what this mission may cost him, I cannot think of another pair of hands, however large or small, in which I would rather place the fate of Middle-earth."

"I have not known him as long, or as well," Aragorn replied slowly, "but with each day that passes, I begin to understand." He stared into the fire for some moments, automatically checking that it did not smoke and betray their location. Then he sighed and straightened. "All right," Aragorn said with a wave of his hand. "I acknowledge that they are each of them different, and each their own hobbits. But must they indulge in such mischief? Not an hour ago I caught Frodo trying to switch the labels on Sam’s spice pouches. Sam very respectfully told him to keep his hands to himself, unless he wanted black pepper on everything he ate. They are not children!"

"They are not children," Gandalf agreed. "But they are more innocent than Men, more light-hearted and more interested in the ‘now’ than what might be tomorrow. Men mistake this for childishness. Hobbits know something many Big Folk have forgotten."

"And that is?" the Ranger asked.

"How to delight in life," Gandalf answered simply.

"Oi!" something small and quick bounded into camp and bounced to a stop before the two. "That smells wonderful!" Pippin exclaimed. "What is it? Are we ready to eat yet?" He was wrapped up in one of the Fellowship’s blankets, rubbing himself dry as he spoke, his clothes rolled into an untidy bundle and tucked under an arm. With a quick shake of his head he managed to splatter water on both wizard and Ranger then grinned at them, defying them to reprimand him.

"Where are Frodo and Merry and Sam?" Aragorn replied, answering none of the young one’s questions.

"They are coming," Pippin replied dismissively. "They are very slow. I hope I am not so slow when I am old."

"You don’t have to worry about that," Merry growled, emerging from the direction of the pond, "because I am going to strangle you in your sleep if you ever drop a frog down my breeches again."

"Just ignore him," Pippin advised. "The water was cold and the bottom of the pond was squishy and Merry isn’t very good at living in the Wild, anyway." He leaned forward to gather up the hem of his drooping blanket and whispered in Aragorn’s ear, "Wait till he finds out I filled his water bottle with tadpoles." The he was diving into his pack, clothes flying everywhere.

"At least we are clean," Merry sighed, "despite it being a thoroughly horrible experience." He shivered, then looked at the simmering pots with interest. "When do we eat?"

"Not—not until you are dry and dressed," called Frodo from behind him, stuttering a little with cold. He was similarly cocooned in blankets, as was Sam. The ends of their blankets trailed on the ground, leaving a track of water that made Aragorn lift his eyebrows in inquiry. "And you can just hang these blankets out to dry," Frodo continued to Pippin when he noticed the direction of Aragorn’s gaze, "since you used them to swing into the center of the pond."

Pippin paused in donning his shirt, one arm in the air. "Boromir tied the knot. It’s not my fault the blankets came off the branch."

Boromir brought up the rear and exchanged a nod with Aragorn, his watch over. "You tied the blankets on a tree limb so Pippin could swing over the water?" Aragorn asked. The Ranger noted that the soldier’s surcoat was dark with water and his boots squeaked.

Boromir grimaced. "Not ever again. They splashed me at every opportunity. All of them. The water will have to settle before anyone else can bathe. Is dinner ready?"

"Ah, Boromir," Merry said fondly, "We will teach you to think like a hobbit yet."

* * *

"Excellent, Aragorn," Legolas commented easily, lowering his spoon to nod approvingly. "I have never tasted better, not even in my royal father’s feast-hall. We should have you spell good Master Samwise more often, if you cook like this." Sitting across the fire from the elf, Gimli, already on his second bowl, grunted accord but did not pause to compliment the chef.

The four hobbits were the only members of the Company who had not dived into the evening’s fare with delight. Obviously hungry, they sat with their bowls held in their laps and spoons lax in their fingers, staring at the small, pale bits of meat floating in the rich broth with suspicion. Frodo raised his spoon cautiously and sipped at the broth, avoiding the small lumps of rubbery meat. Aragorn had watched him poke his dinner, turn it over, try to pry the tiny morsels apart, and unobtrusively sniff them. Gentlehobbit manners were all that prevented the hobbit from licking it before actually putting it in his mouth.

"This is good," Frodo commented with obvious mistrust as he swallowed the liquid cautiously.

"Aye, it is." Sam eyed the lumps in his bowl with a professional eye. With three sets of hobbit eyes upon him, he maneuvered one into his spoon and gingerly slid it into his mouth. The other hobbits watched him attentively. Sam blinked, then an expression of bliss spread across his broad face.

Merry and Pippin dove in but still Frodo held out. "It’s not grubs, is it?" he asked, poking one of the lumps. Pippin paused with his mouth full, turning green. Merry made a choking sound beside him and clamped his hand across his mouth.

"No," Aragorn hastened to say, "I promise you it is not insects."

"Worms?"

"No," Aragorn replied, ignoring the whispered conversation ("Aren’t worms insects?" "No, Pip, worms are worms." "What are caterpillars, then?" "Not worms!") taking place to the side of him.

"Well, what is it?"

Aragorn hesitated. Frodo’s eyes narrowed and he put down his bowl. Sam eyed his sorrowfully but followed his master’s lead, setting his dinner on the ground. The other two hesitated, looking from Frodo to Aragorn. Boromir smiled and bit down on a morsel, stretching it out to let it snap against his teeth.

"Escargots," Aragorn said at last.

There was a silence among the four smallest members of the Company. "Oh," Pippin said blankly. "That’s all right, then. May I have some more?"

Aragorn graciously poured more of the cookpot’s contents into the tweenager’s bowl, where it disappeared in short order. "What’s escotgots, Merry?" Pippin leaned over and hissed when he had breathing space.

"Goat?" Merry whispered back. He wracked his memory, not willing to be caught uninformed before his little cousin. "Hill goats, which live on the sides of cliffs. That is why they’re called escarp goats. The meat’s a bit tough because they’re wild. Delicious, isn’t it?"

"Mummm!" Pippin agreed, chewing industriously.

Frodo ate with more decorum, still staring suspiciously at the Ranger. But even he had to admit their supper was excellent. "I didn’t see you or Legolas go hunting," Frodo remarked, eyeing one of the small lumps on his spoon.


"You were bathing, Frodo," Legolas supplied, as Aragorn had just taken a big bite. The Ranger stared at his friend in astonishment. Elves do not lie but Legolas’ response, while factually correct, was a blatant omission of certain truths. Aragorn smiled and wiped broth from his chin.

"Yes, all right," Frodo pursued, reluctantly conceding the point. "But we weren’t gone long enough for you to go hunting, skin the game and cook it. And I haven’t seen any offal—have you cleaned it all up already?"

"All taken care of, Frodo," Aragorn said easily (and in perfect truth). "However, as you astutely pointed out, I have done all the work so far so it will be up to you and the others to wash up."

"All right, that’s fair," agreed Frodo. "But—"

"Mushrooms," Boromir interrupted loudly, seemingly in an aside to Gimli, "sliced thin and fried in butter, then added to the broth." The soldier pretended to be unaware of the four sets of hobbit-ears that had riveted on him upon hearing the word "mushrooms." Frodo frowned at the interruption, then turned back to Aragorn. "I want to know—"

"Served with garlic-toasted bread, it is considered a rare delicacy in Minas Tirith," Boromir continued in that overly loud voice. "I like roasted potatoes with mine, dripping butter, and perhaps grilled tomatoes dipped in breadcrumbs and sprinkled with rosemary." Frodo’s gaze was dragged unwillingly back to the speaker, and he unconsciously licked his lips. The other hobbits were staring at the soldier fixedly. Gimli smiled into his beard, then returned his attention to his bowl. "Then for dessert, we have baked apples seeped in honey and cinnamon."

"Baked apples…" breathed Pippin, a blissful expression on his face.

"With currants?" asked Merry.

"If you wish," Boromir answered magnanimously. "You may have anything you like." Boromir had the hobbits’ full, enraptured attention, now. "Many people like them topped with sweet cream and sprinkled with nuts. Or perhaps instead a bowl of iced raspberry sherbets with sweet biscuits." He glanced up and Aragorn caught his eye, nodding his thanks for the rescue. The soldier returned the nod, then turned to address Sam’s eager questions on Gondorian cooking, the hobbits crowding around Boromir to listen intently.

"When are you going to tell them?" Gandalf asked as the hobbits set to washing up.

Aragorn checked that they would not be overheard; Merry and Pippin were up to their elbows in a bucket of soapy water while Sam and Frodo were drying the bowls and packing them in the pony’s panniers. "Sometime after we leave this marsh, and there are no more snails to be had. And after this meal has been well digested and will make no undesirable re-appearances." The Ranger allowed himself a little smile of self-congratulation. "After our friends find out they ate and enjoyed snails, can insects be far behind?"

"Actually, yes," Gandalf commented. "Frodo will not let this go, Aragorn. Hobbits may be alike in being easily distracted by food, but a Baggins will pursue an answer until he obtains it. No amount of misdirection will change that."

Aragorn’s eyes gleamed and a rare smile lit his stern face. "I look forward to the challenge."

The End





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