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Eggs By the Fire, A Ranger and the Hobbit Tale  by Cairistiona

Chapter 1: A dodge and a ducking...

31 August, T.A. 3012

Aragorn slipped and skidded down the muddy bank of the Withywindle.  He'd been traveling hard... all right, admit it, he scolded himself: running hard, putting as many miles between himself and the Barrow Downs as he could after a stray pack of orcs had drawn him into those dark lands.  Where they'd come from, he could only guess, for usually the only evil haunting the Downs were wights, but somehow orcs had slipped past the Rangers into the area and were sneaking along the river to the east of Tom Bombadil's house.  Aragorn had literally stumbled upon them as he traveled a secret path known only to the Rangers and old Tom.  He'd given chase, up into the hills above the Withywindle. The good news was that he'd banished the orcs on the edge of his blade, all three of them. But the chase and the fight had taken place perilously close to sunset and fog had already started gathering in the hollow places. Getting out of the Downs before the fog completely swallowed the path and him along with it had been a near thing. He'd never been so relieved to see the Withywindle's lily-strewn waters.

He splashed into the river, then waded into the deeper middle. The current was strong here, but it was relatively shallow and he hoped to reach the other side without incident. As luck, or clumsiness, would have it, in his haste his foot slipped on a mossy rock, and he plunged completely under. He tumbled along below the surface for well over a hundred yards before he finally fought choking and spitting to the surface. Struggling against the current, his sodden clothes, and ever-growing fatigue, he floundered to the opposite side, cursing the clumsiness that had soaked his belongings and ruined his plans. He had figured to make his way to Tom Bombadil's house for the night before continuing on to the Greenway and then north to Bree, but as he clawed his way up the southern bank and threw himself down on a tussock of soft grass that grew there, he knew he didn't have the stamina left to make it all the way to Tom's. Breathing hard, he shut his eyes.

That had been far too close.

With an effort, he rolled onto his side and sat up. Water fell from him in streams and drips. He shoved wet hair out of his eyes and ran his hands through the sodden locks, wringing as he went. He needed to cut it. It had gotten far too long, but this summer--nay, the entire year--had been one of the worst he'd seen for evil things stirring in the wild places, and there'd been no chance to rest and take care of niceties like haircuts. He had started fighting at the snowdrops' first bloom in January with hardly a pause until August's mellow warmth, and it was telling on his body. He ached with fatigue and a slew of minor ailments, from a blister on his right heel to a cut on his knee to a left shoulder still stiff from a blow from an orc's cudgel some two weeks ago. Worse at the moment than any of those injuries was his left thumb, which he'd jammed when he tripped during his mad dash from the Barrow Downs. He'd landed awkwardly, bracing all his falling weight on that hand, and now the joint was swollen and sore. Still, he was alive to feel the aches and pains and twinges, so best not wallow in self pity. He could easily be sailing across the Dark Sea, after all.

He pushed slowly to his feet, still out of breath. He didn't want to camp so close to the river. He needed a quiet, dry place, preferably in a copse of trees, where he could light a small fire and dry himself out without being seen, plus tend to his thumb and whatever other new aches presented themselves as the evening wore on. He looked around in the fading light and took his bearings. Yes, the spot he needed was just beyond the hill to his left, a carefully hidden tiny refuge the Rangers had used for generations. The Shire lay not many more miles to the west, but he didn't plan on going so far. His path tomorrow headed to Bree and then northward to the lands beyond Deadman's Dike. After so many years spent chasing down Gollum, it was time he visited the Dúnedain villages hidden in those hills. Maybe it was fatigue from the long months of fighting, but he had suffered the pangs of homesickness for some weeks now, and it was time for a visit, maybe even for the entire winter if Gandalf didn't come shoo him away from his hearth and back to the hunt.

He blushed a little as he realized he would, in effect, be hiding from Gandalf. Shameful, that, but he did truly need some time to rest and heal. He had become more and more prone to attacks of exceedingly dark moods, and he had always found that the best remedy for them was to immerse himself in the company of friends and loved ones. "And that is exactly what I will tell the old wizard, should he fuss," he said to the crickets chirping in the grass.

He stumbled along, collecting a few more scratches and bruises when his ankle rolled harmlessly on a loose stone but sent him staggering into a thornbush. He slowed down after that until he eventually arrived, with great relief, at the very center of the copse of chestnut trees.  Loamy soil gave way to stone and a rocky indentation in the hillside. Too shallow to be called a true cave, it still offered an overhang to keep off rain and three sides to narrow the chance of unwelcome visitors approaching unobserved. He was glad to see the ring of fire-blackened stones and the small stack of firewood was undisturbed. The haven was intact and undefiled.

With a barely stifled groan, he let his pack fall from his shoulders and then stretched, wincing as he tried to raise his left arm above his head. The fall and impromptu swim had done his shoulder no favors. He kneaded the joint, then knelt down and gathered a pile of dried leaves and a few small sticks of kindling from the stack against the wall. He pulled his flint from his pocket and struck it, but dropped it as pain shot through his thumb joint. He grabbed his thumb and massaged it, then gingerly took up the flint again, this time holding it braced under one knee. He'd be lucky not to set himself afire, but it was the only way he could manage. It took a few more strikes than normal to coax a small fire, but since he only needed to slap once at a stray spark on his pant leg, he counted it a success.

He fed ever-larger pieces of wood into the pile and soon had a nice little blaze going. He held his hands out briefly, then wasted no time peeling off his jacket, vest, and tunic. Fortunately, it was a fairly warm evening and he was comfortable enough sitting bare-chested by the fire with his clothing strewn about to dry. A few weeks from now and he'd be huddled under a blanket, wondering what sort of fool swims across the river when winter is knocking on the door. Still, as the sun set, the evening grew chilly enough that his back, away from the fire, broke out in goosebumps. A blanket would be welcome, but his was as sodden as the rest of his belongings. He tugged it out of his pack and draped it across a rock, where it would do him no good at all this night but come morning would be dry.

He scooted a little closer to the fire. His stomach growled. Food. What to eat? He didn't feel like hunting nor setting snares, and trudging back to the river to dip his hook and string in the waters held all the appeal of storming Dol Goldur. He dug again into his pack and pulled out a handful of dried venison. That and water would have to do until he got a full night's sleep. He popped a small piece in his mouth and took a swig from his waterskin. As soup it was poor fodder, but it would keep body and soul together for one more night.

The fire was cheerful company, but he found himself wishing Halbarad or Denlad were with him. Dark mood notwithstanding, he could do with some quiet conversation on normal things after the fright the Barrow Downs had given him. He shivered a little just thinking about the dark shadows that had crept along the mounds as the afternoon sun had waned. It had been far too early for the wights to be stirring, but as he had stood amidst the ruin of his enemies, he had imagined all manner of furtive shiftings and quiet whispers behind the silent stones.

"Enough," he said to himself, shaking off the memories. He had escaped the morrowless, darkling doors after all, so no point in dwelling on them now. Instead, he started softly singing a song he had heard Nob singing as he cleared away tables in the Prancing Pony. "There is an inn, a merry old inn, beneath an old grey hill..." The rest of the lyric escaped him, so he simply hummed what he recalled of the melody. It calmed him considerably, and he stretched out on the hard ground, imagining himself at the Pony, tucking into Butterbur's hobbit-in-a-hole. He propped his head on his hand and smiled at the whimsical name. It was merely a poached egg placed in a hole in a slice of toast, but Butterbur had been inordinately proud of the name. Aragorn wasn't so sure that Nob appreciated the appellation, though. The idea of someone eating hobbit was a little unsettling, after all, even if the actual dish simply held a chicken egg. But the name had stuck, as had the dish, and it was one of the more popular breakfast offerings.

He tore off another chunk of venison. Very poor substitute for hobbit-in-a-

A sudden rustle in the bushes brought him leaping to his feet, sword in hand. Away from the fire, the wind cut sharply against his bare chest. "Who goes there?" he hissed, ashamed that he had allowed someone to get so close without his notice.

The bushes rattled again, and a voice, unmistakably hobbit, called, "'Tis a friend, Strider. Put away your shiny sharp stick, and I'll share my dinner if you'll share your fire."

TBC

Note: "Morrowless, darkling doors" and "There is an inn, a merry old inn, beneath an old grey hill..." both belong to Tolkien.

Also, I wrote this well before Denny's came out with their Middle-earth menu, so any resemblance of hobbit-in-a-hole to anything they offer is purely coincidental.

Chapter 2: An Unexpected Guest

Aragorn smiled. He knew that voice, though it had been nearly ten years since he last heard it. "If you are who I think you are, you're more than welcome at my fire, Ferdinand Took."

A merry laugh and the little hobbit popped into the clearing, smiling and chuckling. His hair was still the same curly not-quite-brown, not-quite-blonde, and his blue eyes as bold and merry as Aragorn remembered. "You seem far more spry than last we met unexpectedly. Unless, of course, you're about to keel over from some wound I don't see, which, considering your state of undress, could only be on your bum?"

He laughed. "Nay. My only wound at the moment is a sprained thumb. Come and sit."

Ferdinand tugged a small log closer to the fire, then settled himself down on the ground to lean against it. "So how do you fare, young Strider? Aside from apparently losing the top half of your wardrobe."

"Not lost. Merely wet. I had to take an unexpected swim in the Withywindle late this afternoon."

"I should be grateful the lower half isn't drying with them, I suppose. What would drive you to swim the river so late in the day?"

"Running from wights, or my imagination more likely. I nearly got caught in the Barrow Downs after chasing some orcs."

"Oh my. Orcs along the Withywindle! Now that is sore news. I wonder what they were doing here. You know, I was just in the East Farthing not long back and of course, that's on the other side of the Brandywine so not likely to appeal to orcs. I don't think they swim, do they? No, I've never heard that they do. From what I've seen of them--don't look so surprised. You should know by now that I wander quite a lot and see a lot of things most hobbits haven't. But as I was saying, they look as though they'd sink like stones should they find themselves in the river. So you swam the Withywindle! That must have been a lively footrace to get there all the way from the Downs."

Aragorn gave him a wry smile and opened his mouth to say that it was indeed, but Ferdinand, just as before, barely gave him a moment to draw breath.

"Do you know Tom Bombadil? He lives near here. You really ought to consider going to his house for the night. Be far safer than tucked in these trees, after all, where orcs or plain old wolves or even rats could get at you while you slept unawares."

"I think I'll be safe enough here. Not much can get past the thicket of gorse around this copse."

"I did."

Aragorn smiled. "So you did. But few have the ability to move as stealthily through the wilds as a hobbit."

"Humph, now you're just handing out empty flattery!"

"Not empty at all. I doubt even Rangers can hide so well as a hobbit, nor throw a stone at his enemies to such good effect."

"Nor can they cook! Speaking of, I fail to see any sort of evidence that you cooked a meal over that paltry fire you have going."

Aragorn lifted his piece of dried meat.

"Good heavens, what is that? A handful of tree bark?"

"Venison."

"So it's meat, at least. Cooked to a crisp no doubt months and moths ago. It may keep for a long time, collecting lint in the bottom of your pack, but it's no kind of meal. Put that away for some future dire need." He went to his pack and pulled out his iron spider and a well-wrapped bundle that when carefully unfolded revealed at least six eggs and over a dozen sausages. "This is how one eats while on wild and woolly trails through haunted barrows and raging rivers!"

"It was hardly raging. I was nearly able to walk across. If I hadn't slipped on a stone, I wouldn't have gotten a ducking."

"Still, you will allow me to fix you a proper meal. Just like last time, you look as though you could use one. You're far too thin, all those muscles showing like that. It's a wonder I can't count your ribs."

Aragorn glanced down at himself. He had actually been eating well of late, despite the constant chasing down of orcs and other dark things, and he was quite fit. Patrolling around Bree and the Shire meant regular meals and a good flow of supplies, after all. Still, to a hobbit whose folk considered a well-padded frame a sign of glowing good health, he supposed he did look emaciated. "I will be more than happy to eat your wonderful cooking, Master Ferdinand, and flesh out my bones. But tell me, as you fix this meal, what have you been doing with yourself all these years?"

"Doing? Oh, the usual, I suppose. Wandering about, poking my nose in where it ought not be poked and having a grand old time confounding my many relations, although not the Buckland branch. They understand me better than most, though that's not saying much because of course they're hobbits, after all! But they do understand traveling, and danger, and the need to know what's about. They didn't grow the High Hay for nothing, you know. They know the dangers of the Old Forest and know they can't just lounge about eating and farming like the western Shire folk."

"Do you call Buckland your home?"

"These days, yes. I tried settling around Michel Delving, then when that grew too tedious, I moved into a very nice hole near Hobbiton, where I have some cousins, but those places proved too tame for my Fallohidish soul. All they did was eat and gossip about my cousin Bilbo, which regularly brought my blood to a boil, so to avoid actual fisticuffs, I took myself off to Buckland and the cousins and nieces and nephews there. Brandybucks, all of them. Good family. Keep good heads on their shoulders, not putting up with foolishness and folderol. I've a great deal of respect for the Brandybucks, and of course, Saradoc is the Master of the Brandy Hall now."

"What happened to Rorimac?"

"Old Rory passed on about five years ago. Saradoc's been in charge for all this time and is doing quite well. He's a planner, that one, and always watchful. He's been pushing the Buckland folk to practice at fighting, did you know that? He's set about forming a militia of sorts and has regular bounders prowling the High Hay and the surrounds. He says he feels in his foot hair that something's stirring out there in the world that might not be friendly to hobbits. Of course, it probably helps him that I've told him of the things I've seen on my adventures out and about. They don't like to travel much, just like hobbits in that way, but at the same time, Saradoc understands the need to know what's out there, so he's more than happy to send a reckless adventurer like me to spy on the world beyond the Hay. So I bring him back regular reports and he keeps the Horn of Buckland polished and at the ready."

"May there never be need to blow it," Aragorn said quietly. He stared into the fire, wondering if someday, despite the bounders' vigilance within and the Rangers' without, the Horn of Buckland would sound in the dark watches of the night. He had a sudden vision of flames over hobbit holes and the little folk running in terror. He rubbed his eyes, scrubbing the evil sight away. Such a thing must not happen, not while Rangers drew breath and swords...

"I say, do you have a headache?  You didn't catch a chill, did you?"

Not that sort of chill, anyway. "No, I'm all right. Smoke blew in my eyes, that's all." It wasn't a complete lie. The soft breeze was blowing in his direction, across the fire. "Tell me of Buckland. I've heard grand tales about Brandy Hall. Is it as vast as some say?"

"Oh yes. It goes on and on. Easy to get lost in, if you've no sense of direction, which of course has never been a problem for me. I've walked the length and breadth of its tunneling hallways, but I live on the very edge, with my own door to the outside. Saradoc's been very generous that way. He says someone needs to live near that door, to keep the riffraff from sneaking in. Nice to know that he doesn't consider me riffraff!" He let out a laugh, then peered through the smoke. "What of you, Strider? Where have the years taken you?"

"Here and there. Mostly there."

"And 'there' being...?"

"Beyond the Wilds, beyond the known lands. Much like you, seeing what there is to see."

"And what was there to see?"

Too much evil to tell. "A lot of trees and rocks and rivers and orcs, and very few hobbits."

A deep, rich voice came from the shadows, "And no Elves, either."

TBC

Author's Notes: My regular readers will recognize Ferdinand Took from "The Ranger and the Hobbit". If you've not read that story, I invite you to, to find out more about this Fallohidish soul. But in the meantime... one more chapter left to go in this tale!



Chapter 3: Yet More Unexpected Guests

Ferdinand leapt to his feet, but Aragorn simply rolled onto his back and put his arm behind his head and crossed his ankles. "No, not many Elves. And the ones I did spy were cowering up in the trees, afraid to come down for fear of getting their boots muddy."

A laugh, then another from the opposite side of the fire, and in a wink, there stood two tall, dark-haired Elves, smiling down at them. "I see you're lazing about as usual, brother," Elrohir said. Elladan merely shook his head, but his eyes were dancing. "Who's your little friend?"

Ferdinand blinked a few times, then bowed. "Ferdinand Took, at your service."

"I am Elrohir, and this is my brother, Elladan. And we are at yours." The brothers bowed, in the manner of hobbits.

Aragorn thought Ferdinand's eyes might pop from their sockets, they were stretched so wide with wonder. "Have you never met any of the fair folk, Master Took?"

He shook his head. Then nodded. Then shook his head again. Aragorn raised his eyebrows, and Ferdinand finally pulled himself together. "I've met them, yes. That is to say, I've met Gildor, a time or two, and spoken with him. But..." He actually seemed at a loss for words.

"But you've never seen any as ugly as these two?" Aragorn supplied.

"No!" Then he blushed. "Oh dear, that came out wrong. I mean to say, no, I've never met any like them, but not that they're ugly! Good heavens. No, no. Quite the opposite, if you two don't mind my saying. You're both quite... well, you're very handsome, both of you, and so much alike! I feel I'm seeing double. Twins, I take it?" And then Ferdinand was back to himself. "Yes, you must be, else I've knocked my head and am seeing double. It must be wonderful, having a twin. I often wish I did, for then I'd finally have someone around who I felt knew me and understood me, as I'm sure you two must. Two halves of a whole, you might say. Strider," he said as he turned away from the twins to peer at him, "he called you brother! I distinctly recall you telling me once that you were Númenorean--do you remember that conversation? It's been many years, of course, but you saved me having to eat my own hat, if you recall.  So I still have my hat and you are definitely not an Elf, and yet here stand two Elves, one of whom called you a brother. How do you explain that?"

"Yes, Estel, how do you explain that?" Elladan asked, his eyes glinting. He lowered himself to the ground and held his hands out to the fire. Elrohir followed suit.

"Oh, look at that, they even move in identical ways. Isn't that something!" Ferdinand said.

"He did call me brother," Aragorn allowed. "But it is in affection only, not blood."

"Oh, so you're good friends, then. I can certainly understand that. I do have one or two friends I would say are very near to brothers, though of course we don't call each other that. But we grew up together, played in the same lanes and climbed the same trees, were in and out of each others' hobbit holes so much that it almost seemed as though our parents quite forgot whose child was whose. Well, then! Two more guests at the table! Or at the fire, as it were. Do you like eggs, young men?"

"Eggs! We would love some, yes," Elladan was quick to reply.

Aragorn rolled his eyes. Far be it that Elladan ever turned away the offer of an egg. He regularly wiped out Ivorwen's supply when he happened upon their village. He sat up, wincing a little as he tweaked his injured thumb pushing himself up.

"Are you injured?" Elrohir asked.

He shook his head. "Not really, no. I sprained my thumb in a fall this afternoon."

Elrohir scooted over and took his hand. "It's definitely swollen," he murmured, then he placed Aragorn's hand between his own. His eyes lost their focus, as though he were looking at some far distant vista, and Aragorn felt warmth suffuse the joint. Elrohir blinked, then released Aragorn's hand. He patted him on the shoulder, then frowned. "And your shoulder as well?"

Aragorn simply gave him a rueful look.

Elrohir scowled. "Honestly, Estel. Can you not keep yourself in one piece?" Nonetheless, he put his hand on Aragorn's shoulder and started lightly kneading the joint. It hurt, at first, but then the muscles and tendons seemed to warm and loosen. He raised his arm and put it through all the motions and then nodded.

"Thank you, brother."

Elrohir scooted back beside Elladan. "Give him one of your shirts."

"Why mine?"

"Because you've broader shoulders."

Elladan pulled a face, but he dug a spare shirt out of his pack and tossed it to Aragorn. "I may have wider shoulders than Elrohir, but not by much and definitely not as wide as yours. Do not rip the seams."

"I'll treat it as if it were my own."

"Valar, it'll be ruined by dawn," Elladan muttered.

As he pulled it over his head, he noticed Ferdinand gaping at them, still holding two dripping halves of eggshell. "I say..." He gulped. "I say, what did you just do? Why, his thumb was swollen nearly half again its size and now... how did... you... Good heavens. Was that... was that magic?"

"I am no sorcerer, Master Took. Healing power is in my bloodline, and I merely used it to heal Strider's thumb and shoulder."

Aragorn waggled it back and forth, as proof.

Ferdinand again seemed utterly at a loss. He blinked a few times, then nodded, and suddenly became very interested in cooking the eggs. Aragorn laughed softly. "Fear not, Ferdinand. It is no more magical, in its way, than bandages and medicine. It's just... a different way of dealing with injuries and illness."

Ferdinand gave all three of them a long look, then nodded. "I suppose I should not be surprised. There are, after all, wizards wandering about, and then of course there's old Tom Bombadil and all of his mysterious ways. Say, do any of the three of you know just who he is? Is he a wizard? An Elf? He seems so ageless, yet when you look in his eyes, he's as old as time or older, if that makes any sense at all."

"Tom is who he is," Elladan murmured.

"Well, there's an answer for you," Ferdinand snorted. "You're no better than Gildor."

"Have you asked him about Tom Bombadil?" Aragorn asked.

"Several times. He gives me the same drivel for an answer. 'Tom has always been and always will be.'" He hauled out a plate. "Now what sort of an answer is that?"

"It's an answer to a question that has no answer," Elrohir said. "No one but Tom knows who Tom is, and there's no getting an explanation from him on the subject. I've tried."

Aragorn kept his own counsel on Tom Bombadil. He too had his questions about the man, but knowing that he was on the side of good was enough for him. He had a hard enough time dealing with the obviously evil things of the world to worry about solving the mysteries of an undisputed ally. He changed the subject. "Elrohir, why are you and Elladan here?"

"Looking for you. Looking for your kinsmen. Rivendell is more or less secure, despite deepening troubles to the east, so Father gave us leave to find you, as he was anxious for word of you."

"Tell him all is as well as it can be here, but you're sure nothing more is amiss?"

His eyebrow quirked. "Asks the man who was chased out of the hills by orcs."

"It wasn't orcs that chased me. I killed them. It was wights and an overwrought imagination that set me running."

"Ah. Thank you for clarifying."

"So return the favor. Surely Father didn't send you just to enquire after my health. What are you and Elladan really doing here?"

"Truly, that is the reason. Although..."

His eyes darkened as he stared into the gathering shadows but he said no more, nor did he need to. Aragorn knew his thoughts. The never-ending drive to avenge their mother, Celebrían, who had suffered terribly at the hands of the foul creatures. He sighed. "You do not have to--"

"We do." Elrohir's voice was harsh, but he took a deep breath. "We do. Until..."

Until evil was vanquished. Until Celebrían's wounds were repaid upon the likes of those that committed the atrocities. Aragorn nodded, understanding, even if the look in Elrohir's eyes chilled and saddened him. He held a deep fear that the bitterness would consume his brothers until they no longer knew themselves.

Elrohir suddenly smiled, which was almost as unnerving as the grim fire that burned in his eyes a moment before. "Tonight, though, we will feast on this good hobbit's meal, and be reminded that life is not all dark."

Aragorn glanced at Elladan, who merely gave him the smallest shrug, as if to say that he understood the capricious winds of emotion that battered his brother little more than Aragorn did. "Where are you headed, once you've dried out and got some sleep?" Elladan asked.

"Home. To my people's village beyond Fornost," he added, lest they think he was heading back to Rivendell.

"Would you like company? I fancy some of Ivorwen's eggs."

Aragorn smiled. "I would like that, and I'm certain Ivorwen will be glad to see you both." That he hoped her gentle wisdom would calm Elrohir's demons, he left unsaid. She had a way of knowing just the right words to say when memories tormented either brother.

"It's settled, then." He looked to Elrohir for agreement, and Elrohir nodded, but not without giving Aragorn a rueful smile. "It will be good to talk to her."

Aragorn merely nodded, then they fell quiet, each keeping his own thoughts. Aragorn listened to the fire pop and smelled the homey aroma of eggs and sausage, but despite his hunger, his eyelids drooped. He opened them wide, then blinked a few times, but when his head suddenly nodded, he gave up any pretense of staying awake. He stretched out on the ground and pillowed his head on his bent arm.

"Estel, are you sure you're well?" Elladan asked.

His reply was interrupted by a yawn so huge it made his eyes water and his shoulders shake. "Just tired," he murmured. "Long day." He shut his eyes, prepared to leave them shut for the next week. He heard a soft footstop, then felt a blanket drop across him.

A hand rested on his forehead, and Elladan spoke. "You're not hiding any wound or illness?"

"No. Not this time."

"He said he fought a band of orcs, then ran all the way from the Barrow Downs to the river, then swam across," Ferdinand interjected. "I would expect any one of those things would tire a man."

Aragorn pulled the blanket under his chin. "He's right. I'm just tired."

"Not too tired to eat before you sleep, I hope." Ferdinand set a plateful of eggs and sausage on the ground beside him. "I wish I had some tomatoes, but I haven't been into Bree for some time, and I ate the last of the ones I picked up in the East Farthing the day before yesterday."

Aragorn thought he was too weary to eat, but his stomach had other ideas. He cast off the blanket as he propped himself up on an elbow. "This looks so good I can't possibly sleep, and I'm sure I won't miss the tomatoes."

Ferdinand beamed, and then hurried to fetch the same for Elladan and Elrohir. Elrohir accepted his bowl with an amused smile. "Do you always carry along extra dishes for guests, Master Hobbit?"

"Please, call me Ferdinand, and yes, as a matter of fact, I carry three plates and a bowl, always. Usually I'm alone, so I have one for eating, one put by if the first is dirty, and a third for a candle. The bowl you're eating out of is for collecting berries."

"Which makes perfect sense," Elladan said. He shoved a spoonful of eggs in his mouth and smirked at his brother. "Silly of you, Elrohir, for having to ask."

Aragorn hid a smile. Ferdinand really was a wonder. He ate slowly, relishing every bite while keeping an eye on Elrohir, who seemed to slowly unwind with each mouthful. He saw that Ferdinand also watched Elrohir carefully. Nothing much slipped by the wily little hobbit. It was certain that he'd overheard their quiet conversation earlier, and even if he didn't understand the details, Ferdinand was sure to have seen the concern in Aragorn's eyes.  Poor Ferdinand. Someday he was owed a very long explanation of all the secrets Aragorn could not share at present. He smiled again, picturing some future day when he was king and Ferdinand was... well, what would he be? Such a skilled hobbit could be a valuable asset to a king. As clever as he was at cooking, he could very well see himself appointing Ferdinand as the head chef in his northern castle. Or if he ever had need of spies--and what king didn't--Ferdinand seemed eminently suited for such a life.

Then he sighed and stared down at his plate. There was no point in weaving such fantasies. If he ever became king and rebuilt the north, Ferdinand would likely be in his dotage. It often took him by cruel surprise, the realization that all of his friends outside of the Dúnedain would age so much faster than he. The Elves wouldn't, of course, but who knew how many of them would remain? He didn't yet know what choice Elladan and Elrohir would make. They might well sail and thus be lost to him. Barliman Butterbur, Bowen Rushlight, Denlad... all the Men and Hobbits would be long gone. He could not be sure that even Halbarad would be left to him. He swallowed hard. The eggs stuck in his throat, refusing to go past the lump that had lodged there.

"Strider," Ferdinand asked. "Is there something wrong with the eggs?"

Aragorn blinked and shoved more into his mouth. There was nothing to be gained in wallowing in self pity. Who knew what the future held? He might become king next year, and have long years of peace ahead, in which to enjoy the company of friends no matter how long or short their lives. And in the meantime, there was today, when peace and good fellowship sat round him by this fire. The fey mood that had been hovering him these past weeks lifted ever so slightly. "The eggs are..." He paused, then gave him a broad smile.

"Ferdinand, they're fit for a king."

- Fini -








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