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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.





        

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