For Belegcuthalion and Vistula for their birthdays, late and early. And a happy April Fools to all!
As they walked through the forest east of the Breelands their second afternoon after leaving the Prancing Pony, the party of four Hobbits and the pony halted at the glad cry of Sam Gamgee. “Mushrooms!” he said, hurrying off the path to examine the stand growing in a sheltered glade. He smiled with satisfaction. “Pearl mushrooms, Master,” he explained. “Those will go down right well with our supper, I’m thinkin’.”
The eyes of Frodo Baggins glowed with pleasure. “Pearl mushrooms? Ah, but Sam--I certainly do agree.”
The two younger Hobbits exchanged long-suffering glances before Merry said, “And we will get our share, won’t we, Frodo?”
Frodo appeared affronted. “Your share, eh? Well, I suppose so, if you insist!”
Pippin giggled, and Frodo shot him a reproving look.
Merry looked about as Sam began methodically gathering a number of them into a handkerchief he’d pulled from his pocket. “Oh, dear--that Strider’s got well ahead of us again. I have the distinct impression he’s not used to traveling with Hobbits--can’t seem to remember that we can’t keep up with him.”
Frodo shrugged. “Well, it’s not for lack of reminders from us. I’ve warned him at least four times this afternoon alone that our legs are nowhere as long as his.”
Pippin shrugged. “Well, there’s not much question about the path we’re to take--not at the moment, at least. Straight ahead at first, and then I see it’s veering to the right.” He turned to watch Sam.
After giving a look up the path they’d been following, Merry turned his own attention back to his older cousin. “I still cannot fathom why you appear to be trusting this Strider so blindly, Frodo Baggins.”
“We don’t have much choice, do we, Meriadoc Brandybuck? And after all, Gandalf said we could trust him.”
“And how do you know that letter really came from Gandalf? How do we know this Strider didn’t give it to Butterbur and threaten him to make him say it did come from Gandalf? How do we know this wasn’t a plot of some kind between the two of them?”
For a brief moment doubt showed on Frodo’s face as Sam picked the last of his mushrooms and tied the corners of the cloth together before fastening it to his braces strap under his cloak. The Baggins was saved answering when Strider reappeared from around that curve Pippin had noted, the furrows of concern on his brow smoothing some before being replaced by an expression of slight annoyance and exasperation. “Gentlemen--we do not stop before nightfall. Please try to keep up! There are some wolves and even a few wild dogs in these parts--you should not be wandering about without protection.”
Noting the expression of fear that had appeared on Frodo’s face, his own became somewhat softer. “Do not worry, Mr. Underhill. I will protect you. Did I not give you my oath that I would do so with my very life?” He gave a brief smile, one that they’d seen but rarely so far, one that transformed his face completely, making it appear far more noble.
As the Man turned away to again take the lead, Frodo watched after as he readjusted the lay of his pack on his shoulders, murmuring to Merry, “That smile--that smile I trust!”
The Brandybuck gave his cousin a disbelieving look in return that Frodo ignored as he started off after the Ranger. And with that they had no choice but to follow after him as rapidly as they could.
Sam, assisted by Pippin, saw to the cooking of dinner while Merry fetched more wood to last the night and Frodo saw to the laying out of the bedrolls. Strider watched after Pippin as he went to fetch still another pan of water from the stream just beyond the clump of trees that shielded their fire from view by any others in the area. “You need so much in the way of water tonight?” the Man asked.
“It’s for the mushrooms,” Sam explained. “Found a stand back there.”
“Oh--so that is why you stopped.”
Sam shrugged. Frodo answered instead. “Yes, that was part of why we stopped. But mostly we were exhausted from trying to keep up with your great pace. We are not tall Men as you are--we are merely Hobbits of the Shire barely half your height, I will remind you yet again. We cannot keep up with you forever.”
“Especially when we’re not getting anywhere near as much food as we’re accustomed to,” added Pippin. “Existing on a mere three meals a day is a distinct hardship for us Hobbits.”
“I am sorry about that, although I have been reassured that, given the need, Hobbits can make do with but three, or even less,” the Ranger said, rolling his shoulders to ease them some. “We do have a fair amount of supplies on the pony, but it will do us no good if we eat them all now and leave none in case of emergency later in our journey. We have entered the true wilds now, you must understand. I cannot predict all that we might encounter as we continue on our journey.” He looked about, and the Hobbits could tell he was listening intently. “And there are the Black Riders to be taken into account as well,” he said at last. “I hear and sense nothing to indicate they have managed to spy out the way I chose for us; but as we approach the Weather Hills we will be forced back closer to the Road or well south of it. Their chieftain may well remember that. We have not escaped them forever, I fear--merely are free of them for a time. We must enjoy the respite while we can and make what speed is possible, hoping we reach that narrowing of the way before they do.”
“But they have horses while we are afoot!” Merry objected, having returned to the camp with his arms filled with what wood he’d gathered. He dropped his load beside Sam.
The stouter Hobbit gave him a stern look. “Mind the bark, Mr. Merry, sir. You won’t want it in your food.”
Merry gave a soft, “Sorry” before stepping back and brushing himself off. “We’ll be wanting baths soon,” he muttered.
“Oh, we’ll have our fill of water about us soon,” the Ranger sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. With that he returned to his more normal quiet state, and after a few moments he rose to begin walking the perimeter of their camp, then slipped further out into the surrounding forest where he moved quietly from cover to cover, always pausing to look and listen closely before moving again.
“Him’s a caution, and no mistake!” Sam said, shaking his head and watching after the Man briefly before turning his attention back to the meal he was preparing.
When all was done, Sam served up the food onto the tin plates he carried in his pack. Strider had not returned, so he set the Man’s plate by the fire to keep warm while the four Hobbits ate hungrily. “I feel as if I hadn’t eaten in days!” Pippin noted around a mouth full of food. “Ah, but these mushrooms are excellent!” He eyed the small pan where a few more continued to bubble merrily by the fire.
“Those are for Mr. Frodo for later,” warned Sam. “Keep your fingers away from them if’n you don’t wish your head bit off.”
The young Took sighed, giving his older cousin a sidelong glance. “Oh, I know not to come between Frodo and his mushrooms,” he grumbled. “You spoil him terribly, Sam Gamgee!”
Sam merely shrugged and continued stolidly with his own meal.
Strider returned just as Frodo was heading for the stream with his plate and cup to clean them. “We’ll need to keep a watch about us,” he said quietly. “Mr. Baggins--if you will watch next, as you appear to be finished?”
“Good. There’s a sheltered place over there, behind a large rhododendron. You can easily watch from there without being seen.” He indicated the way they’d come.
“As soon as I have these clean,” Frodo said. Within moments he had the dishes returned to Sam and was loosening his long knife in its sheath as he headed for the shrubs the Man had indicated.
Sam was now rising. “Your plate is by the fire,” he said shortly to the Man. “You lot finished yet?” he asked the two cousins. “Let’s get them clean and sorted away afore we lie down.” Followed by Merry and Pippin, he headed toward the stream himself.
Strider found his plate, covered by the handkerchief in which Sam had gathered the mushrooms, and examined it with interest. He was not a bad cook, but there was no question that having Sam Gamgee along had distinctly improved the quality of the meals he’d had over the past day and a half. He’d not been told that the gardener was anywhere as good a cook as he’d proved. He’d have to mention that to Gandalf.
Then he realized that a pan still simmered by the fire, and realized it contained more mushrooms. He tasted one of those he’d been served--what pleasure! he realized. He gave a quick glance around, then spooned the remaining mushrooms onto his plate, and moved off to enjoy his supper. Ah--the sheer bliss of a good meal along the way!
He finished eating and was rising as Sam, Merry, and Pippin returned from the stream, obviously having done a quick wash of themselves as well as the dishes. “You goin’ to wash those?” Sam asked, setting one of the clean plates over the still bubbling pan as a lid. “Good, then I can stow’em all away.” He’d not realized that the pan contained only broth, and the Man had the distinct feeling it might not prove wise to so advise him. When he returned he noted the covered pan had been moved slightly further from the heat of the flames--close enough to keep warm but not to cook that much more. His lip twitched as he returned his plate and cup to Sam, but he kept his own council.
“I’ll take the next watch from Frodo,” Merry advised him, “and Sam will follow me.”
Strider nodded his understanding, and carefully removing his boots he rolled up in his blankets, setting his sword beside him and his belt knife at hand. Why he felt secure allowing these to watch he couldn’t say; but he did. Plus he knew it was wise to sleep as much as he could now, for once they were forced back toward the Rod he’d most likely need to be far more vigilant.
“There’s more mushrooms in the pot by the fire,” Merry advised Frodo as he headed off to take up the watch.
“Thanks,” Frodo breathed. “The thought of them has sustained me this past hour.”
Strider had awakened enough to hear the quiet interchange, then rolled on his side in hopes of returning to sleep. He heard the scrape of the plate being moved away, then a soft wordless exclamation of disappointment.
“What is it, Master?” asked Sam, immediately alert.
“The pan--there’s but one mushroom left!”
Strider was surprised to realize he’d managed to miss one.
“But I’d left several for you!” Sam was sitting up now.
“Did Pippin eat them?” Frodo asked.
“Mr. Pippin? No, Mr. Frodo, sir--he laid down same time as me and Mr. Merry did. And him knows what to expect should he eat what was set aside for you.”
“Merry wouldn’t take more--not unless I offered to share with him....”
The Man lay absolutely still, aware that the attention of the two wakeful Hobbits was fixed on himself.
“Him was alone for a time while the rest of us went to the stream t’wash the dishes and do as much of a bathe as we could,” Sam murmured consideringly. “And him wouldn’t know not t’touch what’d been set aside for you.”
There was quiet for a time while the two of them remained in contemplation of their Mannish companion.
At last Frodo said in soft tones, “He will regret it.”
Strider heard the pan emptied and one of the others stirring up the fire and adding some more wood. He shook his head briefly. He’d regret it? Hmmph! He allowed himself to return to sleep....
Frodo was decidedly cool the next morning, but the Man pretended not to notice. He and Sam saw to an insect bite Pippin had received during the night and saw to it that the pony, which Sam was addressing as Bill, was led to the stream and properly loaded.
It started with the small, hard pinecone he found in one boot, and the needles from a fir tree he found in the other. He gave Frodo a glance, but saw not a sign that the taller Hobbit was watching to see his reaction. Having thoroughly shaken out his boots he slipped them on and headed for the place where they’d been relieving themselves. He then took a quick loop by the stream to wash hands and face, only to find that he apparently had a good deal of pitch on his hand that wasn’t coming off easily.
The lacing on his trousers snapped in two when he went to tie it; one of the bootlaces did the same as he crouched by the stream.
The serving of porridge given him by Sam was decidedly smaller than what he’d been offered the day before, and it appeared to have had some rosemary mixed into it, which tasted decidedly strange.
The pin on his cloak brooch was bent when he went to fasten it. There was more pitch on the strap of his personal bag, and although he found his extra laces, they were in an almost impossible knot.
By now Pippin was watching him, his eyes wide. “You are having a bad morning,” the youngest Hobbit noted.
Strider cast a quick glance toward Frodo, who was heading for the stream with Sam. “I noticed,” he grunted.
Noting the glance, Pippin looked that way briefly, then looked back, his eyes suddenly wider. “Did you manage to irritate Frodo or something? Not a wise idea,” he advised. “He’s very good at retaliation, you’ll find.”
Frodo was not paying Strider the least bit of mind--or not that anyone could tell. But his mouth did have a bit of a set to it.
They’d been walking for about a good half hour when the Man became aware of a growing irritation on his ankle. Twice he stopped to remove his boot, but he couldn’t find a thing--not at first, at least. At last he found a very fine splinter protruding from the inner seam.
Then it was his other boot, and he found a coarse horsehair was caught in the seam of this one, this time irritating the arch of his foot.
He found a beetle in his luncheon, and some sour berries had been slipped into his water bottle. Then when he stood up from the fallen tree on which he’d been sitting, he heard a chuckling from Pippin that spread to Merry as he started walking away from them. He stopped, and found that he had squashed blackberries across the seat of his trousers.
He did his best to not complain, but now Sam, Merry, and Pippin were all watching him carefully.
It was when he found a slug had been slipped into his personal satchel, however, that he at last conceded defeat.
“All right!” he exclaimed. “I took the rest of the mushrooms! I had no idea they were being set aside for you, Frodo! I apologize!”
“Oh?” Frodo said, his brow arched. Then he gave a slight smile. “It’s nothing to apologize for, I suppose, although I do accept it.”
Then he added, “One thing--before you don your other set of small clothes I suggest you rinse them thoroughly.”
As he knelt by the stream by which they’d stopped, rinsing out his extra underthings, Strider could not see they’d been tampered with. Had Frodo done something to them, or was this rinsing the Hobbit’s final salvo of revenge? The Man wasn’t certain. He then slipped out of his trousers, glad their tight weave had kept the berry juice from soaking through to his skin. Before he pulled on his extra trousers he ran his fingers along the seams, and found a juniper needle had indeed been slipped through the cloth, and in a place where it would have caused a great deal of irritation as they walked or sat for any length of time. The Man was most glad he’d thought to check them before donning them.
At last they started off again, and Merry was amused to see Strider’s under garments and extra trousers flapping from the strap of his personal satchel that he wore over his shoulder. It was wise to do this, he knew, as they’d be unlikely to dry over night. He looked to his companions, and saw Pippin’s eyes sparkling with amusement, while Sam’s expression was most satisfied. Frodo, however, only showed that very small smile he permitted himself when his vengeance had managed to hit home.