20. Swift Riding and Swift Waters
The stretched-out form of the sleeping Man seemed enormous to the small figure, and for a moment, it hesitated. Then it inched closer and gently prodded the Man in the shoulder. “Arag - uhh -”
The rest was lost in a choked gasp as the still figure erupted into movement, crushing the small figure in its arms and pinning it, rolling over it with a knife glinting at its throat. Moonlight reflected in the suddenly terrified wide eyes of the hobbit, and Aragorn allowed himself a brief, sub-vocalized curse as he eased up his hold and carefully moved the gleaming knife away from the unprotected throat.
“Pippin,” the Ranger whispered harshly, fighting to keep his voice low, “how many times have I told you to never, never sneak up on me? I have lived too long in the Wild, in places where a touch in the night might mean death, to wake gently.” The small form beneath him stared up at him, eyes still huge. The Ranger released him and sat up, drawing the smaller figure with him.
Past them, Elladan had turned at their movement and would have started towards them, but Aragorn raised a hand and shook his head. The Elf regarded them doubtfully for a moment, then nodded and returned to his watch, dark eyes scanning the monochrome landscape. This sheltered hollow was the best cover they could find in the largely flat terrain, spare of trees and cluttered with smooth grey boulders. The small scouting party had ridden past many great crumbling ruins, roofless halls and tumbled stone giving silent testament to more auspicious days. They might have been better sheltered among the old ruins that dotted the area, but none wanted to rest among the remembrances of Men and Elves that had died here long ago.
Aragorn sighed into the cold night and returned his attention to the hobbit. “All right, Pippin. I’m awake now. What is it?”
The young hobbit’s wide eyes met his for a moment, then traveled to the long knife the Ranger still held raised in his hand. Moonlight glittered along its razor-sharp edge. Following the youngster’s gaze, Aragorn sheathed the blade then leaned forward to wrap one of his blankets around the stiff form. Pippin at last relaxed, beginning to tremble slightly in reaction.
“I’m sorry I frightened you,” Aragorn said softly. “But I did warn you, Pippin. Don’t ever do that again.”
The young hobbit nodded, his wide eyes on the Ranger’s moon-lit face. “I’m sorry, Strider. I forgot.”
‘I imagine you will not forget again,’ thought the Ranger. ‘A good scare seems to be the best way of making you remember something, my young friend.’ Aloud, Aragorn said gently, “Why did you wake me, Pippin?”
“Oh.” The tweenager visibly gathered himself. “I was wondering if Merry and I could ride with you and one of the twins tomorrow instead of sharing Inmara.”
Aragorn regarded what he could see of Pippin’s shadowed face with surprise. The two hobbits had been more reserved than their usual wont around the tall sons of Elrond, addressing the twins formally and on their best and most courteous behavior. The Ranger had attributed this to shyness and the hobbits’ confusion over which twin was which. Long used to being mistaken for each other, Elladan and Elrohir had returned the courtesies with amusement. Having had less contact with the little ones than their father, the twins found the halflings entirely winning, and by early afternoon, the hobbits were chatting with the Elves like old friends.
The mare, Inmara, was another story. Despite Aragorn’s assurances that the elderly mare would carry them safely, the two hobbits were hard-put to ride the elven steed. This was not due to Inmara’s temperament; she was gentle and careful of her small riders. But the hobbits’ legs stuck out absurdly and uncomfortably around her great barrel, and nothing the Ranger or Elves could do could lessen the discomfort of the hobbits trying to ride a horse that was too big for them.
After a full day’s ride with only short breaks, Aragorn had lifted Merry and Pippin down from the mare’s back and set them on their feet. The two had both promptly collapsed, tears gathering in their eyes as they fought the agony of abused muscles and abraded skin. Accustomed to ponies less than half Inmara’s size, they had labored to grasp her barrel with their short legs and this unendurable pain was the result. Elladan and Elrohir would have massaged the knotted muscles and eased their pain but the two could not bear pressure on their abraded skin. Aragorn had chosen a campsite by a small, swift river and the two had spent most of the evening sitting in the shallows of the flow, numbing their lower halves to such a point that the Elves had had to carry them back to camp for the dinner Aragorn had prepared.
That it was Merry and Pippin’s job to cook dinner only increased their misery. Merry had eaten very little then curled up into a tight a ball as he could, a blanket rolled between his knees, and sought escape in sleep. Pippin, being younger and more flexible, had suffered less. Pippin also had a more active imagination than his cousin, and thoughts of the riding on the morrow had kept him awake, then spurred him to seek out the Ranger and beg, if he had to.
“Do you think that you could keep your seats better riding with us?” Aragorn asked.
Pippin nodded eagerly. “We could turn sideways for a while if we need to, and we wouldn’t have to hold on so hard with our legs. You don’t think Inmara would mind, do you?”
Aragorn shook his head and swallowed a laugh. “No, I think not. She is a wise old mare. In fact, we will remove her tack tomorrow and send her back with a note explaining that she is not needed. She knows her way home. I think she will be more than happy to return to her warm stall.”
Pippin’s sigh of overwhelming relief was unmistakable, even if Aragorn could not see his face in the dim light. With a final, whispered, “thank you,” the tweenager crawled back to his blankets, scuttling sideways like a crab to avoid his sore thighs rubbing together.
Now awake, Aragorn did not find sleep again so easily. He was not tired; a day’s fast ride was of little import to a Ranger. Seeing no need for two to be awake, he hissed at Elladan and the Elf’s head turned immediately towards him. He motioned to Elladan (knowing his foster brother had overheard every word of his and Pippin’s soft-voiced conversation) and rose, taking his watch early. Wordlessly, Elladan nodded and sank silently down by his brother to rest the remainder of the night.
Back to the others, Aragorn seated himself cross-legged on the blanket and reflected on the wisdom of Elrond and Gandalf’s decision not to use horses on the first part of their journey. He had objected, arguing that the speed the horses would give them would compensate for the additional burden of feeding and caring for them. Now he was glad he had been overruled; after seeing the little ones’ suffering on just one day’s ride, he could not imagine subjecting four hobbits and most likely the dwarf to such pain. Nine Walkers, he mused. Much better than the Four Riders and the Five Crawlers.
* * * * *
Merry woke abruptly when he tried to roll over onto his side and aching muscles screamed at him. Stifling a cry, he dug his hands into his blankets and managed to turn the groan into a gasp. Next to him, Pippin murmured something in his sleep and shifted, pulling the blankets up over the top of his curly head. Relieved that he had not awoken his cousin, Merry grimaced and pulled himself up into a seated position, looking about him.
Elrohir, on watch, inclined his head gracefully at the hobbit and Merry returned the nod. He still was not certain how he could tell Elrohir from Elladan, so alike were they, but now he had no difficulty in distinguishing between them. The merest breath of dawn was breaking over the eastern mountains and with a surge of humiliation, Merry realized that he and Pippin had been allowed to sleep all night instead of taking their turn at watch.
Well, he was through being coddled. Gritting his teeth, Merry dragged himself from his blankets and struggled to his feet. His backside and legs felt like the skin was too small to hold the painfully swollen flesh within. Elrohir watched him with one dark eyebrow raised, looking so like his lord father that Merry grinned at him. The Elf returned the smile and made no move to stop him as Merry gestured towards the stream, then himself, and picked up one of his blankets.
The others he tucked around Pippin, all of whom he could see was a few stray curls peeking out of the bedroll. The blanket-covered lump muttered again and returned to deep sleep, savoring the additional warmth.
Carefully, Merry pointed his toes outward and waddled the short distance to the water, kneeling on the blanket to perform his ablutions in record time. Despite the soreness, much of the damage had already healed, thanks to the soothing aspect of the cold waters and his own hobbit resilience. It was while he was giving his face a final rinse that he saw the dark shape slip underneath the rippling water. A flash of fin, the shine of the rising sun on iridescent scales. Trout … and a large one. Several more glided underneath the cold waters, sleek bodies undulating against the sandy river bottom. Merry’s mouth began to water.
If he could just catch a few for breakfast, he might partially make up for inconveniencing the Big Folk and missing his watch. Trout, fresh from the stream … pan-fried with a coating of flour and breadcrumbs … maybe he could get Pip to donate his bread sculpture – put the stupid thing to good use. The flesh expertly filleted so that the backbone and small rib-bones peeled off, leaving only the succulent, tender meat in a crunchy wrapping of oil-browned skin…
The fish were beginning to rise for the flies that skimmed over the water’s surface. Moving very slowly and carefully, Merry retreated from the water’s edge and cast about for a means of catching them. Standing in the cold water and capturing them with his hands was out of the question; only a fool pitted his speed against that of the lightening-swift fish. No fishing rod, no fishing line, no hooks…It was hopeless.
Fish-spear. Nothing to make one with – no sturdy straight branches within easy reach and no forged spear-points, either. A fish-trap – impossible to construct in the seconds in which he had to act. A net … a net… Still moving very slowly, and keeping back from the water, Merry unfastened his cloak and shook it out. He filled the hood and pockets with the many small stones that lay about then tried casting it onto the ground. The cloak spun easily into the air then dropped heavily in a horizontal sheet, pulling down at the weighted corners. Were he quick enough…
Holding the rolled-up cloak, Merry eased himself onto a fallen log that extended out into the water. The water was swifter in the middle of the river, a narrow band of frothy white, and he was careful in turning himself around and positioning himself. He now stood beyond the where the trout were feeding, marking the water with small ever-widening circles that expanded into ever-fainter rings.
The log shifted slightly as he leaned forward, but Merry did not take note of it as his furry toes dug into the rotting wood for purchase. He was wholly intent upon his cast, small body focused as he crouched and readied the cloak. In one burst of effort, the hobbit swung the heavy cloth into the air and watched as it sailed gracefully over the feeding area and dropped directly onto the trout.
Silvered forms darted from beneath the trap but the rocks in the pocket and hood pulled the cloth down over several more, and Merry could see the cloak tent as small forms leaped from the water against the imprisoning cloth.
With a shout of triumph, Merry pushed off the log and leaped down into frigid water. Unbalanced by the momentum of the hobbit’s leap, the log pivoted from its unstable perch on the sandy shore and swung, catching Merry along the side as he waded towards the cloak. Caught off-guard, Merry threw out both arms and managed one cry before the log knocked him down into the freezing water and rolled over him.
* TBC *
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.