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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.
* * *
“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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