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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://budgielover.com.
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.
“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 *
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