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Hunted: 3. Argument in the Weather Hills
He still was rather amazed at the scolding cousin Frodo had given the man, as if Strider did not tower more than twice as tall as a hobbit. That showed him! Merry thought to himself. That let the ragged fellow know who was really in charge. Friend of Gandalf's or not, Strider had a nasty look to him and did not seem to mind a bit of bullying to get his way.
Laurë kept the Ranger on his toes. She had a real sword, not that broken thing, and a great big bow. Dragonheart was good, too. He liked all the hobbits, but would threaten to take a bite out of the Ranger whenever the man got within grabbing range. When they had made camp last night, Laurë had told Strider to take the horse and scout around if he wished.
'Just remember that he has got a soft mouth, and if you put your heels into him, you will be walking back to camp.'
Strider grunted and started swinging up on the horse.
'One other thing…'
Strider was in mid-mount when Dragonheart whipped his head around and missed biting the Ranger's rear by a fraction of an inch.
'He'll take a chunk out of your rump when you get on or off, if you are not careful.'
Strider had glared at her something fierce, and Laurë had just snickered. So had he and Sam. Frodo had tossed a pebble at Laurë and made a face. Pippin missed the whole thing, but had giggled when he had told Pippin about it later. Frodo scolded them all, even Laurë, about being polite and good companions, but Merry had noticed him smirking, too, when Strider rode back in an hour later, and was very careful when dismounting.
Merry like the horse a lot. After lunch yesterday, Laurë had suggested that the hobbits take turns sitting on the horse as they went along, so they could rest their legs. She also said whomever was on the horse would have the highest head in the group and would have to act as lookout. The thought of getting up on an animal that tall was frightening, especially since it was not so long before that Dragonheart had attacked Strider. Frodo said he would go first, and seemed to do just fine, so Merry volunteered to go next. He wanted to be sure it would be safe enough for Pippin to try. Uncle Paladin would skin him if he let anything happen to Pip on this adventure.
He was all right when he first sat up on the horse, but was scared silly when Dragonheart started to move. This was not like riding a little Shire pony. There was a sway to the horse's walk that Merry found difficult balance with, and the ground was very far away. He kept looking down at the ground and feeling sick and dizzy. Laurë walked next to him, holding on to his leg, and told him to watch between the horse's ears. That did make things better and after a while he was able to look around. When it came time to swap with Sam, he was actually enjoying riding a full-sized steed.
Poor Sam! Frodo really did not play fair. Sam was obviously terrified of riding such a monster, and Frodo would not move a foot until Sam let himself be boosted up there by Laurë. I actually thought he was going to start crying there at first, Merry reflected. Sam looked so miserable, but Laurë walked next to him like she did with me and by the end he wasn't so bad. Even so, Sam was off that horse like lightning when his turn was done. Pippin was about crazy with anticipation by that point, but was not so happy once he got up there. Merry knew Pip was afraid of heights, but he had never been afraid of riding ponies. The young hobbit sat really still and quiet for a while, until Laurë talked to him and got him singing some of his stupid drinking songs. Distracted from the distance to the ground, Pippin had cheered up immediately.
All this morning, Laurë had talked to Merry about the Shire and about hobbits. She did not know anything of the Shire to speak of, but did seem to like hearing it all. Strider kept turning and glaring at the two of them. Stupid Ranger! He just does not like it that we like her better than we like him! Well, served him right for being such a bully to begin with. Cousin Frodo might think Strider a good fellow, but that did not oblige Merry to agree.
Laurë wanted to know everything - when was the Shire founded, how big it was, how many hobbits there were, what people ate and drank, what songs they sang, what a mathom was, how hobbit holes were built - everything! She asked how old they were, if they had brothers and sisters, what they liked to eat, how they spent their time and so on. She especially wanted to know about how they dealt with Big People.
'So, Buckland is surrounded by fences? Why?'
'To keep out Big People.'
'Why? Big People are a problem?'
'They are almost the only problem in the Shire, especially in Buckland.'
'Well, Buckland is across the River from the rest of the Shire, and closest to the Big People. We get them in there all the time. They go tramping about where they ought not go. They steal fruit and crops and livestock. They rob people on the roads. They bother our women, and rough up our men. They just cannot be trusted.'
Strider turned a little ways around at that, and he and Merry glared, then the scruffy fellow went back to his business.
'But they are all around. There are more Big People than Hobbits.'
'Not in the Shire. We 'will take the Shire and they can have all this.' Merry gestured expansively to the wilderness surrounding them.
Laurë and Pippin had been quite a pair, too. He could see he would have to keep an eye on them or they would get into trouble. Pippin had asked her for songs about half an hour after she had joined them yesterday, and she had surprised them with a funny pub song that sounded quite a bit like something that was sung in the Shire. So Pippin had taught her the Shire version, and then she had asked to hear more songs like that, and pretty soon Pip had been cheerfully teaching her every one he knew. Frodo had scolded him when he started singing "The Needle in the Haystack" but Laurë did not seem the slightest bit embarrassed.
Merry broke out of his reverie when he bumped into Strider. Backing up quickly to get away from him, Merry saw Strider had not even noticed the bump. He was looking further back, an annoyed expression on his face.
'What are you doing?' Strider called. Merry looked back to see Sam stopped, holding Bill's lead line, Frodo sitting on Dragonheart a little ways behind, and Laurë and Pippin digging into a pack on Bill. Strider started walking back and Merry followed him.
Laurë straightened up. 'No, Pippin, not in here. I think it is in the pack on the other side.' She walked around the rump of the pony, reaching out to scratch the big horse on the forehead as she went by.
Sam craned his head to see what she was digging into, and nodded. 'Yes, that's probably it.'
Strider and Merry stood with the others and watched while Laurë dug a small cloth sack out of the bigger pack. 'Here it is!' Laurë and Pippin smiled.
'Be sure to share,' called out Frodo, 'and don't forget me!'
'What is this?' said Strider. Merry fought the urge to tell him it was none of his business and he should just go back to striding.
Laurë looked up as if noticing Strider for the first time. 'Oh, hallo! Nothing important. Just digging out some dried fruit to tide us over until noontide.' She held up the small sack and smiled, then handed it to Pippin, telling him to give a handful to everyone.
Strider growled and crossed his arms. 'We cannot get more provisions between here and Rivendell! We have to be sparing with them.' Pippin looked embarrassed and made as though to put the sack back.
'Leave him alone!' Merry snapped at Strider. 'Go on Pippin, it's all right.' Merry glared at Strider, feeling that Frodo was not the only cousin who could stand up to this Ranger.
Strider hardly spared a glance at Merry, which made Merry more incensed than ever. Addressing Laurë, he said, 'This is not the Shire. There is not more, and they have got to learn to march on three meals a day. We do not have time for stopping more often.'
'You are ignoring me! Stop talking about us as if we aren't here, or as if we're children who cannot understand!' Merry replied. He really was getting angry now. He looked over at Sam who was standing with his arms folded over his chest and was nodding in agreement. Pippin just stayed partly behind Laurë, looking sorry to have caused a row. Frodo moved Dragonheart up near Strider, and was watching the unfolding events carefully.
Strider was curt. 'I am not ignoring you, I was talking to Laurë.'
'But you are talking about us hobbits as if we are not here, or cannot speak for ourselves.' Frodo spoke in an amiable tone of voice, but Merry recognized a certain set to his mouth. No one won an argument with Frodo when he got into that mood. He remembered how even Bilbo would back down when Frodo was like this. Merry decided he was going to enjoy watching Frodo dress down the Ranger for the second time in two days.
Strider had to look up to look into Frodo's face. Frodo smiled. 'That is about the angle my head has to be at to talk to you anytime I am standing on my own feet.' His cousin paused for a moment and stopped smiling. 'Not very comfortable, is it?' Merry wondered if Dragonheart was close enough to try biting Strider, then saw Strider step a little ways back from the horse. Guess he was, thought Merry with a smirk.
Laurë was leaning against Bill's shoulder, cheerfully watching the proceedings, while Pippin looked upset by all of it. Sam just stood very squarely and stared at Strider.
Strider looked about him, then spread out his hands in a gesture of defeat. 'I am sorry, I cannot help our difference in height. But the fact remains, Frodo,…'
'I did not address you, Merry did. Talk to him.' Cousin Frodo definitely had the upper hand, though Merry was not so sure now that he wanted the Ranger's attention focused on himself. Not unless he could sit on the horse, too.
Strider exhaled heavily, then turned and looked down at Merry. Merry glared back. Strider tossed his hands up in the air and muttered, 'Forget it!' and started to walk off, 'Let's go, we are losing time.'
'No.' Frodo spoke quietly from his perch on the big horse. 'We need to finish this, so we will not stop for stupid reasons later. You think we hobbits eat too much and stop too often, do you not, Strider? You are worried, not without cause, that we will be without provisions and still short of our destination if we continue like this. Correct?'
Merry could scarcely believe Frodo taking Strider to task as though the tall man was a poorly behaved tween hobbit. Laurë looked impressed as well, and not at all inclined to come to the defense of the other Big Person.
'Well, first off, simply note that the amount of our food is limited by what a single pony and a single horse could carry. You said yourself when we set out that you feared we were under-provisioned for the trip. Unless you want to say we are wasting food, then it really is not a matter to argue over. Are we wasting food?' Frodo looked at Strider with a calm but determined expression.
'Very well, then the matter is wasting time, not wasting food. Merry, how much meal gets cooked up in the morning?' Frodo asked.
Merry thought for a bit. 'Three cups, dry.'
'And how much of the cooked amount do you serve to Laurë and to Strider, Sam?'
'About half,' was Sam's reply.
'Is that about how you serve up most meals?'
'Yes, Mister Frodo.'
'So, Strider, we hobbits between the four of us eat about the same amount at meals as the two of you, which means each hobbit eats about half as much as either of you. We are much smaller than you, and so have to take many more strides to cover the same ground. Yet we must cover ground as close to your pace as we can. We start after each meal with less in us, and then we have to take more steps to cover the same distance. We are going to have to eat something on the way between stops if you want us to keep up the pace.'
Frodo reminded Merry of the school mistress in Buckland, patiently explaining the glaringly obvious to the stupid Ranger. Merry thought Strider was getting fairly angry. His jaw was clenched, his eyes hard, and his neck was a bit flushed. Then Frodo turned his eyes to Merry.
'My dear Mister Brandybuck, you have a problem to solve.' Merry started a bit. He had a problem to solve? He looked at his cousin in consternation.
'Me? What problem is that?'
'The problem of how you are going to make sure we four hobbits have something to eat in between our regular stops that does not require coming to a halt, rummaging through the packs, and slowing down our pace. Strider is quite right to be worried that we are not moving fast enough. You will need to be responsible for our journey as much as Strider is. He has to worry about getting us safely to Rivendell, so it is only fair someone else worry about how to make the provisions last and how to keep everyone on their feet and moving swiftly. When you have figured it out, let Strider know what you are doing, and then make sure it gets done.'
Merry stood open-mouthed at that. Frodo did not seem to be jesting. He had best put some thought into this. He looked over at Strider, who was watching Frodo with a quizzical expression, no longer angry. Strider glanced down at Merry, then knelt down so his face would be at the same height. Strider looked him in the eye and said, 'When we stop for the night, tell me what you have come up with, and what you will need to make sure it works.'
Merry stood, not sure what to say, then simply nodded and said, 'Very well. I will do that.' Strider gave him a small smile, and reached out as if to ruffle Merry's hair, then stopped, and instead placed his hand on Merry's shoulder and gave a squeeze. Then the Ranger stood and started walking briskly down the path, calling for the others to move along.
Laurë reached into the sack Pippin held and scooped out a double handful of fruit, and told him to make sure everyone got some. She motioned Sam to get going with Bill, then handed part of her fruit up to Frodo, who smiled and said 'Thank you,' in a soft tone. She grinned and set off after Strider, whistling a jaunty tune.
Merry quickly sank into thought about how to do what Frodo asked. It took most of the day, but by the evening camp, he figured he pretty much had it worked out. After Strider came back from scouting the countryside on Dragonheart, he went to over to him.
'I think I have got an idea,' Merry began.
'Tell me,' replied Strider, squatting down by the fire, and patting the ground next to him, 'What shall we do?'
Merry sat and started talking about making up small sacks of food they could eat while they walked. The Ranger listened and asked a few things, suggested a few others, and then they called Sam over and asked about how much food there was, what of it needed cooking, and so on. Frodo and Pippin listened from the other side of the fire, and Laurë stood nearby, brushing down Dragonheart and checking his hooves for stones.
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