"We’ll be setting a watch..." began the Man.
"Setting a what?" Pippin asked him.
"Do you have one in your pocket?" Pippin asked. "Frodo didn’t bring his, you see, but sometimes he’d have to set it."
Merry sighed. "He doesn’t mean a pocket watch, Pip," he explained. "He means one of us will stay up for a while to make certain no enemies try to attack us while we’re camped."
Pippin thought about it. "Oh," he said softly. "Then, how long does the person have to stay awake?"
Strider answered, "For about three hours, and then the next person will take over."
"How does the next person know it’s his turn?"
"The one who has the first watch wakes him up and tells him it’s now his turn."
"But how does the one who stayed up first know it’s been about three hours if he doesn’t have a watch? Now, my Cousin Bard has a watch--well, he’s my third cousin, actually, for he’s----"
"Pippin! He’s a Man--they don’t care what degree of cousin you are to a cousin he’s not even met! Honestly!" Merry’s voice was becoming very annoyed. "You’ll have to pardon him, Mr. Strider," he explained, apparently deciding the honorific was necessary to counter the bother Pippin must be becoming. "He’s overtired and nervous and hungry, for he’s not had more than one proper meal today and he’s not certain how to deal with it all. And then, to be traveling with a Man, and one who speaks as little as you do, and to have worried over whether or not those Black Riders are maybe coming after us--well, anyway, put all that together and he’ll start blathering."
"I do not blather, Meriadoc Brandybuck!"
"You most certainly do, Pippin, and you’re blathering right now."
"I do not! Take it back!"
"Pippin! Merry! That’s enough, do you hear? Be quiet and let Strider talk, and listen to what he says, for he knows what he’s talking about. And stop talking so much anyway--I have a headache." Frodo’s voice was pitched softly, but nevertheless carried sufficient authority that both his companions immediately complied.
The Man felt his lip twitch, and he knew a moment’s admiration for his primary charge. Well, Bilbo had told him Frodo Baggins had a very natural authority to him--a couple times during the day’s stops he’d looked at Strider himself and said something along the lines of "Will you please get me five sausages from the roll Sam’s carrying?" and he’d automatically complied. Obviously he was as vulnerable to that natural authority as these three.
Pippin had turned back to him. He wasn’t asking questions now, but those eyes Strider had already learned were as vibrant a green as Frodo’s were blue were fixed on him, apparently waiting to hear the answer to his question. The Ranger was glad he’d not forgotten it through all the talk that had followed. "You’ll need to do some watching of the stars to know during night watches, although after a time you’ll just know. Do you see that star there?"
"Ancalimaë?" Pippin asked.
Strider was impressed. "You know the names of the stars?"
"Yes--well, actually, I know a lot of them, for Frodo’s told us their names when we’ve stayed with him and slept out up on top of the Hill or we’ve been out----"
"Pippin!" Merry confined himself just to the one word this time.
"Sorry," Pippin sighed, and went obediently quiet.
"Yes," Strider said, again feeling his lip twitch at the sight of the Hobbit’s contrite expression. "Ancalimaë will do for now. You see how now she shines above that tree? When she’s moved in her travels across the night sky over that one there that will be about three hours, and it will be time to awaken the next watcher. Then when she disappears behind that hill it will be another three hours, and it will be time for the next change in watch."
"And after that? Do we look at a different star then?"
"No, for then we’ll be all awakening and preparing whatever we’ll have to eat for the dawn meal, and then as soon as all are ready we’ll be starting tomorrow’s march."
"Who goes first?"
"Tonight it’s going to be between you, Merry, or Samwise, for I’ve had no sleep for three nights already, and your Master had less than an hour last night."
"He’s not our Master--he’s our cousin. He’s Merry’s first cousin once removed and my second cousin once removed----"
"Pippin." Frodo’s tone was enough to restore quiet.
"Shall we draw straws?" Merry asked at last.
"I’ll go first," Pippin sighed. "I know how to tell now, and I’m already awake anyway."
"But you’re tired."
"And you aren’t? And I bet Sam’s even more so, for he’s been carrying the heaviest pack of all--probably has lots of things Frodo didn’t think he’d need that Sam knew he would anyway, just as he always does when we go for a tramp."
Again the Man was impressed, and this time with Pippin. It was an astute observation and displayed a good deal of understanding of those with him as well as compassion for what they must be feeling. He wasn’t completely certain of the relationships here, for although Bilbo had described them often enough, only Frodo apparently had been a full adult then and hadn’t changed appreciably in the seventeen years since his older cousin left the Shire. The other three all looked much of an age with Frodo, perhaps even a bit older, although Strider knew from his conversations with the old Hobbit that the other three had been still youngsters when he’d left the Shire while Frodo had that day become of adult status.
Sam and Frodo had been setting up the camp as though this was common enough between them. Sam had efficiently cleared a space for a fire and already had tinder gathered; Frodo had unfastened bedrolls from the pony’s back and had set out two, and was now tossing the other three to Strider and his two cousins. "Here," he said as Sam got the fire going and set three rocks at the right distance around the small blaze to support pans and kettles. He pointed to the two saucepans. "Pippin, make yourself useful and fill these."
Pippin looked around the space where they’d spend the night, dropped his bedroll just this side of where Frodo had set his and Sam’s, then picked up the pans, briefly stood still listening, then turned instantly toward the small rill Strider knew ran nearby.
It was mostly a cold supper with only tea to warm the belly, and all four Hobbits were remarkably subdued throughout it. Sam immediately had the tin plates and spoons and mugs washed, and at a look from Frodo the other three Hobbits slipped into their bedrolls. Strider came over to check them out, and could see a line was visible between Frodo’s brows even in the dim light of the stars and the small fire. "Your head still aches?" the Man asked softly.
"I’ll prepare a draught for it," Strider offered, and immediately returned to the fire. Merry had brought some more fuel earlier and set it to hand, so it took little enough to stir up the blaze a bit and set a pan of water over it.
Merry, he realized, was sitting up on his elbow watching. "You know about draughts?" the Hobbit asked in a low voice.
"Anyone who must spend as much time in the wild as I do had best know something about at least simple draughts," Strider replied. He found his satchel where Frodo and Sam had set it while unloading the pony, and opened it to remove a smaller red bag with an elaborate knot about its throat. In moments he’d found the willow bark, slippery elm, and chamomile and had measured out what he believed was needed into his palm and poured them into a clean bit of cheesecloth he’d also brought out of the red bag. Then he restored all else and set the red bag aside, bringing the twist of cheesecloth and a cup back to the fire to wait on the water to boil.
Pippin was watching him curiously. "You carry healing herbs with you?" At the Man’s nod he continued in a whisper, "Merry will be interested for he’s always liked puttering about with herbs, and Sam will be interested because he’s a gardener and just loves plants, and Frodo will be interested just because he’s interested in about everything."
After a moment’s silence Pippin asked, "Since getting supper took so long, shouldn’t I watch a bit longer than when Ancalimaë reaches the tree?"
The Man felt himself smiling. "If you wish, but not far beyond it."
He saw the small nod of understanding.
Once the water was boiling and he’d poured it into the mug, he dipped the twist of fabric carrying the herbs into it until he felt it had steeped enough, then crossed quietly to where Frodo lay. The taller Hobbit sat up and accepted the warm mug, and made a face as he drank the draught. "We have no honey, apparently," he sighed.
"I’m sorry, but I’d thought to save what I purchased in Bree in case it was needed for wounds, what we don’t use in our meals. I hope you can bring yourself to drink it all. You’ll sleep the better if you’re not in pain."
Grimacing, Frodo finished the cup and lay back down. "It’s probably mostly due to not sleeping well last night and the worry of the day," he said softly.
"Undoubtedly," agreed the Ranger. "Sleep now, and waken refreshed."
"As refreshed," Sam grumbled half under his breath, "as one can be havin’ to sleep out in the wild, no tent, no time to gather bracken for beddin’...."
The Man returned to the fire and found the young Hobbit still watching him. "Sam doesn’t mean anything by the grumbling," he said quietly. "He always grumbles the first couple nights."
"I see." He noted that Pippin had the long knife he carried as a sword out and was twisting it between his hands. "Do you know how to wield that?" he asked.
He realized the Hobbit was flushing a bit. "Wield this? You mean know how to use it properly? Well, no, of course not. I’ve only had it two days, you see. Tom Bombadil gave these to us after he rescued us from the barrow where we lost our lighter clothes we’d been wearing. Now we have to wear our clothes for winter, and it’s not that cold yet...." His voice trailed off. "I suppose I’m blathering again."
Strider was staring at his small companion. "Barrow?" he asked.
"Oh, yes, we got caught by a barrow wight, and Frodo did something to keep it from killing us and then sang the song that called Tom Bombadil and he tore the top off the barrow and got us out and had us take off the grave cloths the wight had dressed us in and we ran around naked for a time to warm up until the ponies came back when Tom sang a call for them, and then we got our other clothes out of our baggage and put them on." How the Hobbit got that all out in one breath Strider couldn’t say, but he was even more amazed by what he’d just been told.
The Man looked back toward where the three Hobbits lay side by side across from him. No wonder Frodo had a headache! These four hadn’t been out of the Shire for more than a few days and had already met Tom Bombadil and had managed to survive the attentions of a barrow wight. He felt his skin crawling just at the thought of it, and he was one who in his life had walked through more dark and shadowed lands than most people knew existed! He’d been through the Barrowdowns but the once and had faced down several wights and commanded them, and reluctantly they’d obeyed him and withdrawn. Then he’d realized he was being observed by Bombadil, who, uncharacteristically silent, had given him a bow of deep respect and withdrawn.
Frodo had bested a barrow wight!
Strider shook his head in amazement. Then he turned back to Pippin, remembered he’d chosen to take the first watch. He focused on that fact. "First lesson--don’t blunt the point of your blade twisting it against the ground or a stone." Again he realized Pippin was flushing. "Second, sit facing away from the fire--and it’s usually best to sit just outside the light of the fire so you don’t show up as a target for anyone approaching with a throwing knife or bow. If you have to get up and walk about to keep yourself awake, do it, but move as quietly as you can, and move from shadow into shadow. Let the light illuminate your enemy, not yourself."
Again the quiet nod. This Peregrin Took, Strider was realizing, was a remarkably quick study. Grateful for that, he straightened and stretched. "Remember--the point for stabbing, the blade for slashing--that’s all there’s time for now if we’re to move far tomorrow. Now I must rest."
He unrolled his blankets opposite the Hobbits, unfastened his swordbelt and set it near at hand, laid himself down, set his knife where his hand could lie on its handle as he rested, and slipped gratefully into sleep, feeling surprisingly certain that Pippin would be true to his watch.
He came awake enough to realize the watch should change, looked about and saw that Merry was now sitting with his own blade across his knees on a pack just outside the firelight, easily enough seen from inside the camp but not from outside it, and slept again. He didn’t waken when Sam took Merry’s place but slept through it all, much more deeply asleep than he’d been able to know for months.
"Mister Strider--it’s time as----"
It was as well the gardener had spoken before he touched the Ranger’s shoulder, for the Man was instantly upright, half on his knees, knifeblade ready for instant defense.
Sam stood looking at him, his mouth agape and his face white, and beyond him stood the other three engaged in folding and rolling their blankets, their movements arrested as they stared at him. Strider looked around as his mind cleared and fastened on the fact that all three of those Hobbits who ought to have been sleeping were awake and obviously preparing to break camp, and he’d not heard a sound.
Frodo thrust his neatly rolled blankets at Merry and came to examine the two of them. "What’s wrong?" he demanded. "Why do you have a drawn knife aimed at Sam?"
"I sleep with a drawn knife," the Ranger explained as he sheathed it. "It’s saved my life more than once." He looked at each of the Hobbits in turn, then looked back to Frodo. "Usually I hear when there’s a movement in the camp and I come awake instantly--but other than the pony I’ve heard nothing! To allow someone to come that close before hearing him--I was startled and came up instantly ready to defend myself."
Sam took a deep breath and appeared to be making certain he’d not lost any buttons. "Well, that move more’n startled me, it did," he said. "Thought as I was goin’ to be skewered any second there."
"You almost were," Frodo agreed dryly. "I’d never have dreamed a Man could move so quickly." He examined Strider somewhat warily. "Obviously we’re all going to have to make adjustments if we’re going to travel with you."
"I don’t understand how Sam came so close. True, he’s nowhere as tall or heavy as a Man or even many children of Men I’ve known; but he’s substantial enough I ought to have felt the vibration of his footsteps."
Merry, having accepted the bedroll Pippin had just finished with, moved toward the stack of other items being readied to be put back on Bill, and the Ranger made a startling realization--there was no real sound there other than the rub of one trouser leg on the other. He took a deep breath. "Oh, I see. It’s to be like traveling with Elves."
"You travel with Elves?" Sam asked, his eyes widening, not as usually was true with distrust, but with delight. "You truly know Elves, do you?"
"I’m taking you to Rivendell, am I not?" the Man said. "Yes, I’ve traveled with Elves. We’ll have to do as they do, then. Don’t come any closer than say, there," and he pointed to a place some five feet from him, "and make some kind of noise. I’ll wake up and you won’t be in danger of having a knifeblade run through you. If you’re reasonably certain it’s safe, you can talk; but it might be better if you did a cough or some other sound that doesn’t identify you immediately as people of one sort or another."
All four Hobbits indicated their understanding.
Strider soon had his own blanketroll fastened with the rest on the pony’s back. This was his first chance to actually travel with Hobbits. That he’d never noted Bilbo didn’t have a discernible tread surprised him, but then, usually when he was walking with Bilbo it was on carpeted surfaces or they were talking as they walked and his attention was on their discussion and not on how the old Hobbit sounded as he moved. As for in Bree--when in Bree had he had a chance to observe a Hobbit moving on his own?
He thought to what Gandalf had warned him: Hobbits--you can learn all about their ways in a month, and yet in a hundred years they’ll still find ways to surprise you. Obviously the Wizard knew the subject well.
He smiled as he accepted a plate of the breakfast Sam had prepared before he’d awakened the others. It appeared he would be properly fed along the way, although he was certain the Hobbits would be complaining about no elevenses soon enough; and he was certain to learn a good deal more about Hobbits in general before they reached Rivendell. He set himself to enjoy the meal, anticipating the most diverting journey through the wild he’d had since he himself was young.