Written for the LOTR Community "Bunny Hutch" challenge. For Aliana for her birthday.
“If you step on me, I shall be most upset.”
The words were so unexpected that Gimli jumped slightly sideways, scanning the ground rapidly for the speaker.
Frodo lay alongside the stream near which they were camping, one arm thrust into the water, searching for those sheltered places where fish might be found even in the cold of January. Frodo had the ability to remain sufficiently still that he could be easily overlooked by others. Of course, Hobbits could be difficult to spot when they didn’t wish to be seen, a fact his father had remarked upon when remembering his own travels with Bilbo so long ago. Frodo Baggins, however, had raised this natural skill to an art form, from what Gimli could tell. Certainly until he spoke Gimli hadn’t noticed him at all.
The Dwarf had to admit that the Hobbits had proved far more capable traveling companions than any of the others appeared to have anticipated. Merry and Pippin were always finding edible plants even in the depths of winter, and could be counted upon to brighten the moods of the others when the dreariness of their journey seemed likely to lead to frayed tempers and arguments. Sam had a remarkable talent for taking the most ordinary foodstuffs and making of them meals that were not only filling but also remarkably tasty. And Frodo could be counted upon to provide them with fish if the streams they camped near could support them, using either a line or, as today, his bare hand.
The Dwarf considered the supine Hobbit with interest. “Your arm must be nearly frozen stiff,” he grunted quietly so as not to frighten any fish that might be lying under the banks.
“It’s worth it if it means a change from jerked meats,” Frodo murmured, then suddenly he pulled his hand from the water, flipping a fish onto the bank sufficiently far from the water that in it’s fright it could not flop back into it and so escape. In a trice he was upon his feet and stringing the fish upon a line he pulled from the water on which four fish were already secured. He considered his catch so far. “At least two more,” he decided before returning his string below the surface to keep the fish cold and fresh. He then walked, as soft-footedly as only Hobbits (and Elves, the Dwarf admitted to himself) could, further down the bank, looking for still another place that his experience had taught him could provide similar cover for a lurking fish, drying his arm with folds from his cloak as he searched. At last he made a soft, wordless grunt and laid himself carefully down so as to disturb his quarry as little as possible.
Gimli sat himself upon a fallen log some distance from the creek to watch. “Who taught you how to do this?” he asked.
It took a moment before the Hobbit answered. At last he said, still in a soft voice, “Mac taught me. My cousin Merimac Brandybuck, Merry’s uncle. Mac’s the younger brother of Merry’s father.” He went still for a moment before continuing, “I was fifteen, if I recall correctly. We were on a visit in the Southfarthing, Aunt Esme, Merry, and me, and Mac had driven us. One of my Hornblower aunts had decided to have a house party for the teens who were cousins of various sorts to her granddaughter Phlox. She wanted the lass to get to know her widespread family ties more closely, or so she told us. We spent a good part of the hottest weeks of the summer together. It was the first time I’d ever been—popular—amongst young Hobbits near my own age. In Brandy Hall I tended to be belittled a good deal as an orphan, as if having lost my parents was seen as somehow suspect. I had a few friends, but more enemies led by Cousin Gomez. Both Aunt Esme and Bilbo were concerned, but they wisely allowed me to work things out on my own.
“Anyway, there on the second Hornblower leaf plantation we teens were allowed to have free run of the place, and one day we scrumped some food out of the gardens, and someone suggested that the meal in the orchard we planned would be better still if we had some fish as well. There was an ornamental pond with a creek running out of it. Several of us let lines down into the water, but the fish weren’t biting that day.
“When I told Mac about it that evening he suggested that perhaps tickling the fish might work better on such hot days, and he took me down early the next morning and taught me how to recognize where the overhangs in the banks were so I could tell where fish were most likely to be sheltering. I became even more popular, once it was recognized I could be counted upon to add a fish or two to our impromptu picnics.”
Gimli gave a delighted chuckle. “And did Merry help as well?”
Frodo gave the slightest of shakes to his head. “He was but a bairn at the time, not even officially a faunt as yet. Oh, I’m almost fourteen years older than Merry, you must remember.”
He stopped, and his expression grew more focused. A sudden twitch to his cheek, and he lunged, flipping another fish onto the bank, quite a large one this time. The Dwarf was on his feet in an instant and on the creature even as Frodo was flipping still another fish out of the water. “There were two of them down there!” Frodo said with satisfaction as he got to his feet and used one to kick the second fish further away from the stream. “Oh, but I’m so glad! I don’t know that I could have taken much more of the cold at this point!” He was vigorously drying his right hand with his cloak, although it seemed to Gimli his movements appeared rather clumsy with both hands.
“Were you using your left hand earlier?” the Dwarf asked, concerned.
Frodo was shaking his head. “No, I’m decidedly right-handed at it, I fear. But since I was wounded by the—the Black Riders, my shoulder grows cold easily and can cause me a good deal of pain.”
Gimli considered the Baggins thoughtfully. “So, tickling fish in such weather as this is perhaps not the best way for you to spend your time,” he said. “I’ll string these two for you, but I suspect that Aragorn would suggest you use a line from now on.”
“Nonsense!” Frodo objected as best he might, although he was now decidedly shivering.
Once he had the last two fish on the string and settled the string back into the stream for the nonce, Gimli guided Frodo to a stone and settled him there, wrapping his own cloak around the Hobbit. He quickly gathered some wood and set up a ring of stones, and in moments had a fire started. “We’ll get you warmed up before we return to the others,” Gimli decided. “There’s no point moving until you can do so with some degree of comfort. I’m certain Gandalf will agree, as will Aragorn as well.” He settled back on his fallen log and examined the embarrassed looking Hobbit for a few moments. “I would never have thought you to be so much older than Merry and Pippin, really,” he commented.
Frodo shrugged, and huddled closer under the two cloaks he wore. “Gandalf and Elrond appear to be convinced this is due to the effects of the Ring,” he said, looking away from the Dwarf. “They say that this is probably why Bilbo also never seemed to age that much—how he was able to be so spry and active at the age of eleventy-one. Gandalf told me last spring, back in Hobbiton, that the Great Rings prolong life and energy, which was one reason he grew so concerned about Bilbo not apparently aging as is common to us Hobbits and so began to be worried as to just what Ring it was he might have found. He wasn’t all that surprised, I think, when he threw the Ring into the parlor fire and the fiery letters appeared as they did. His face grew pale, yes; but he wasn’t all that surprised—just more worried.”
He sighed and held his hands out to the growing flames to warm. “Yes, I’m a good deal older than Merry, and older still than Pippin. Pippin’s only just twenty-eight, you see. Definitely not of age yet, not as we Hobbits define it, at least. But he’s a game lad, Pippin is—game, and as Took stubborn as they come.” He looked back to meet Gimli’s eyes and gave a wry shrug. “Merry swears he did his best to convince him to stay home, but Pippin was having nothing to do with the idea. Pippin blackmailed him, I suspect, into keeping quiet about it and saying nothing to his parents or family.”
“And you didn’t know they were coming, too?” the Dwarf asked, fascinated.
Frodo shook his head. “Definitely not!” he said emphatically. “I didn’t want even Sam to come with me,” he insisted, “although Gandalf decided he was going to do so anyway. To find out that Merry, Pippin, and Freddy all knew about me leaving the Shire and that the former two were insisting on coming as well was quite the shock.”
Gimli shook his head with admiration for the youngest Hobbit’s insistence on being included in Frodo’s adventure. “I knew I liked that lad,” he commented, smiling. “Determined, young Pippin is! I wish I’d had the same determination when my father left the Blue Mountains with Thorin intent on returning to the Lonely Mountain. But my mother had refused to give me her permission to go, too, and Father would never go against her will in such a matter. After all, I wasn’t even seventy as yet.”
The two of them shared a smile. Frodo asked, “Were you jealous that Fili and Kili were allowed to go but not you?”
“Oh, yes, and deeply affronted as only a young Dwarf would be.” His face grew more serious. “But they didn’t return, and lie now near their uncle’s tomb. We were so young that it had never occurred to any of us that we might die. I was so shocked when they didn’t come back, and my mother made me spend a good deal of time adding to the decorations for their tombs once we arrived in Erebor. She wanted to impress upon me just how dangerous the whole enterprise had proved to be, I think.”
“But she didn’t forbid you this time.”
“No, but then I am a full adult now, and a proven warrior. Had I not accompanied Father to Rivendell to offer him what protection my training and skill could provide along the way she would have made my life miserable for me. And as one of Dúrin’s descendants it falls to me to stand for the dignity of all Dwarves in the quest. She may well worry for me, but had I not volunteered she would have berated me as a possible coward. And rightly so,” he added. He gestured widely. “I’m glad that I came, for I’m seeing more of the world than many of my people have, and it may well be that what I do to protect you will help to remove the threat of Mordor and Dol Guldur from all lands in Middle Earth, not just Erebor and the Blue Mountains. And perhaps I will be able to bear word of Balin and his party back to our kinsmen in Erebor, the Blue Mountains, and the Iron Hills. We’ve heard nothing for years, after all, and we worry that this might mean that they are yet besieged within the ancient halls of our people.”
Frodo nodded his understanding as he rubbed absently at his shoulder. “I thought of going with Bilbo when he left the Shire after the Party,” he said. “He told me of his visit to the Lonely Mountain and all, there while we tarried in Rivendell. But he’d not wished me to leave the Shire, not when I was only just come of age, you see. He hoped that I’d prove important, and perhaps end up elected Mayor or something. Funny—he’d not really wanted to be Mayor himself, but always told me that he hoped I’d come to it, and that he was certain I’d make an excellent Mayor, as responsible as he felt I was.” He shook his head. “Bilbo was disappointed when he learned I’d not agreed to run at least during the last election, five years back. But I didn’t feel I’d do that well as Mayor, considering….” His brow furrowed, and he murmured, “Perhaps all that was just the effects of the Ring.”
“What?” asked the Dwarf.
Frodo’s face paled, although his cheeks grew rather pinker. “It appears foolish now,” he said with a shrug. “But I would—sometimes, I’d have such strange thoughts. Unnatural thoughts—for a Hobbit, at least; or at least that’s how I saw it. Thoughts of how thick-headed so many Hobbits are, and how perhaps the world would be better off without a few Bracegirdles and Sackvilles I knew of. How perhaps all young Hobbits approaching their majority should be sent outside the Bounds to see a bit of the world before accepting them as Hobbits grown. And a few less savory considerations,” he muttered.
“Oh, I think most younglings approaching adulthood are convinced that our elders are far too stodgy and set in their ways for the good of the race,” agreed Gimli.
Frodo gave a weak smile. “So, it’s not so unusual for me to have had such thoughts?”
“I’d say not. How is your arm feeling?”
“Well, it’s not so cold now, and even my left shoulder is a bit warmer.”
“Perhaps we should be getting back to the others, then.”
Frodo sighed. “Yes, I suppose perhaps we should.” He rose to his feet, and removing Gimli’s cloak he offered it back to the Dwarf. “I think I can safely return this now. Thank you for the loan of it. But as cold as it is, I think you need it now more than I do. It is delightfully warm, by the way.”
Gimli smiled with satisfaction. “I’m happy to offer you any service at all, Frodo. I’d have done it gladly for the nephew of the Esteemed Burglar, but I find it even more gratifying to offer you its use for your own sake, Frodo Baggins. For you, too, have displayed that special quality of integrity that my father so admired in Bilbo. It’s a true honor to be one of your companions on this road we travel.”
Frodo’s cheeks were even more flushed. While Gimli saw the fire extinguished and its traces scattered, the Hobbit turned away and drew the string of fish from the stream, unfastened it from the sapling to which it had been tethered, and together the two of them set off up the path toward the camping spot, Gimli pleased to guard the back of the Ringbearer.