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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."
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?"
"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."
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!
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