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Size isn’t Everything
‘Stay here,’ Strider commanded, ‘and keep out of sight.’ His gaze met Gandalf’s briefly before he jerked his head towards the looming trees. The warriors slipped into the shadows, heading towards the river, in search of a place where they could cross.
Merry and Pippin both looked at Frodo, who responded with a small shake of the head. They subsided, taking the small pieces of evidence that gave away their brief occupation of the brightening glade and tucking them away beneath a riot of brambles that reached over the little rill. Sam unstrapped the blanket from his pack and shook it out to wrap protectively round the shoulders of the oldest hobbit.
‘They do not mean anything by it,’ Gandalf murmured, his deep voice understanding.
‘They look on us as children,’ Merry said resentfully, refusing to accept reassurance. ‘Incompetent children at that.’
‘I suppose it’s understandable.’ Pippin huddled closer to Frodo, taking practical comfort from the warmth of the wool and the shared body heat. ‘We haven’t exactly been much help so far.’ His bright eyes fixed on his cousin. ‘Except for Sam. I reckon they’d be pretty fed up if Sam were to disappear – they’d have to start cooking their own meals.’
‘If you can call cold sausage and stale bread a meal,’ Sam muttered.
‘We are safe enough here, I think,’ the wizard said, ‘to have a fire – later, when the others have returned. We are trying to pass unnoticed – and that also means unsmelled.’
Frodo sighed and dropped his forehead on his knees wearily. ‘They are trying to spare us,’ he said. ‘Like it or not, we are smaller – for every step they take, we take two. And we are far less aware of what dangers face us out here in the wild – and far less prepared to defend ourselves from whatever we encounter.’
Merry met Sam’s eyes with alarm – this was not the Frodo who had spent weeks cheerfully tramping the Shire in all weathers: this was too close a reminder of the faded hobbit who had barely survived his arrival in Elrond’s Last Homely House.
‘Here,’ Sam said, rummaging in his carefully-hoarded stores, ‘there’s not much point waiting for them to come back – not when we’re eating picnic food, anyway.’ He added some nuts and dried fruit to the hard sausage and old bread. ‘I’ve got some cold tea in a bottle,’ he added. ‘Saved it for a time like this – even cold, tea’s more cheering than water.’
‘I suppose,’ Pippin mused, once he had consumed the final crumb, ‘that there is something to be said for this sort of food – it takes a lot of chewing, and that makes your stomach feel that there’s rather more than there actually is.’
‘They’re taking a long time.’ Merry watched the trees warily. They might have been left in Gandalf’s care, but, as far as he was concerned, that didn’t mean that they should count on the wizard. Two pairs of eyes were better than one – and five were better than two.
‘They will want to check out the area.’ Gandalf bit wistfully on the stem of his pipe. No fire meant no weed – the one being as easy to smell as the other. ‘It seems deserted enough, but you can never be sure.’
Sam looked at the wizard, but said nothing. It wasn’t, after all, his place to point out that nowhere – short, perhaps, of a snowfield in the depths of a bitter winter, and he wasn’t sure of that – was ever deserted.
‘This isn’t a good time of year to travel,’ Pippin complained. ‘At least – it isn’t when there aren’t any inns where you can warm up at the end of the day. It’s hardly surprising that there aren’t more people out.’
‘There’s not a lot to harvest, either,’ Sam commented. ‘At least, when we were on our way to Rivendell, before …’ He shot a quick glance at Frodo and cleared his throat. ‘Anyway,’ he said awkwardly, ‘there was food we could glean along the way – some greens and berries and a few nuts.’
‘And mushrooms,’ Pippin said dreamily. ‘It was a good month for mushrooms.’
‘It’s truffle season now,’ Merry sighed. ‘I expect Berilac will be taking Patch to the woods this year to see what they can unearth.’
‘I can smell them, you know,’ Pippin declared. He nudged Frodo, rousing him briefly from his half-doze. ‘Can’t I, cousin?’
‘Your nose is remarkably talented at picking up the faintest odour of food,’ Merry told him. ‘And leave Frodo be – he needs the rest.’ He frowned at the young Took. ‘I suppose if dogs and pigs can act as truffle-hunters, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be the first truffle-Took.’
The youngest hobbit preened himself, too accustomed to his cousin’s tongue to pay any heed to its sharpness. ‘These are the right kind of woods, too,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I should go looking for some – if anything were likely to brighten Frodo up, it would be a plate of truffles.’
‘You remain nearby,’ Gandalf rumbled. ‘The last thing we need is to have to set up a hunt for a wandering Took.’
‘We wouldn’t have to go far,’ Pippin protested. ‘There are plenty of places to investigate, even here – and Merry would help, wouldn’t you, Merry?’ He smiled his best innocent smile at the bright eyes beneath the bushy brows, but Gandalf continued to hold his stare until the youngest of the party dropped his gaze to his foot and began to brush it back and forth over the leaf mould sheepishly.
‘Stay close enough to hear my voice,’ the wizard decided. ‘At least your absence will give Frodo a chance to rest his ears as well as his body, and that will do him some good, even if you fail to find any food.’
Pippin’s chest expanded as he drew a deep breath, but Merry grabbed his cousin’s arm and pulled him back the way they had come. ‘Tell me you weren’t just about to give Gandalf a ticking-off,’ he pleaded. ‘You have no more sense now than you did as a little lad!’
The young hobbit made a good show of offended dignity. As one with three older sisters, not to mention a natural attraction for trouble, he had had plenty of practice. ‘Would I, Merry?’ he complained. ‘I am not stupid!’ He grinned. ‘But it persuaded Gandalf that he could spare our company for a while – and that can’t but be a good thing.’
‘Do you really think we’ll find truffles?’ Merry asked, as they wandered to the edge of – and beyond – the boundaries set by the wizard. ‘What makes you think there’ll be any here?’
An overdramatically-pointed finger combined with a sigh impelled his older cousin to give Pippin a warning cuff to the back of his head to remind him of his place in the hierarchy. ‘You were too busy looking for danger, Merry,’ he said, ‘while I was watching the ground for something other than orcs. Prints, Merry,’ he pointed out. ‘Wild boar – not fresh enough to mean they’re a danger, but they’ve been rooting under the trees. They’re either after acorns – a squirrel’s hoard, perhaps – or they’re digging for other treasure. And … I don’t know,’ the young hobbit’s eyes took on a dreamy look, ‘it just … feels right.’
‘Let’s get some digging sticks,’ his cousin said practically. ‘You dig, while I keep watch.’
‘How about you dig, while I …’ Pippin’s voice trailed away as his older cousin glared at him. There were moments – sometimes whole hours – when the young hobbit found himself able to forget the serious purpose of their journey and the dangers they might face along the way, but he should be glad, he supposed, that the others were not so distractible. ‘I’ll dig,’ he agreed.
Nothing, Merry thought, compared to his cousin’s seriousness when in pursuit of food. Within a couple of minutes, Pippin’s face was red and he had shed his coat to lie, belly-down, on the dried leaves. He enlarged the hole with a dogged persistence, looking up only to insist that he could smell his quarry. He stiffened like a hunting dog when, finally, he began to unearth a sizable lump, and Merry was unable to resist the urge to join the hunt, using his longer reach to move the earth away from the fungus so that they could extract it in one piece.
‘Beautiful,’ Merry breathed. ‘I can’t wait to eat it. Do you think there are more?’
‘Undoubtedly.’ Pippin’s grin was wide enough for a giddy lad on Yule morning. ‘If you’re in the right place, you’re in the right place!’
Merry wrapped the treasure in his coat before grabbing a pointed stick and seeking out his own place to excavate. Fortunately – or maybe not – before he had time to half-bury himself in a hole in the ground, a furious squeal made him turn. A half-grown wild pig – not as big as a boar, he noted, but big enough to cause damage – was clearly less than pleased to find two hobbits helping themselves to its own supply of truffles.
‘Get yourself out of here, Pip,’ Merry said, surprising himself with the calmness of his voice. He reached slowly to loosen the blade he wore and slipped it from its leather scabbard to hold it ready.
‘Don’t be daft. I’m not leaving you.’
Merry kept his eyes on the pig, even as it glared right back at him. ‘Do as you’re told for once, Pip,’ he said. ‘Get Gandalf here.’
‘If we’re both here, he’s distracted,’ the young Took insisted. ‘If I leave, he’ll go for you.’
‘Perhaps if we threw him the truffle,’ Merry suggested.
‘Oh no, you don’t.’ Pippin sidled away from his cousin, armed with nothing more dangerous than his digging stick. ‘I’m not giving that away.’ He paused for a moment. ‘I wish I had my bow here.’
‘I wish I had your bow here – with Pervinca wielding it.’
‘Oh, thank you very much,’ Pippin complained.
The half-grown boar shifted its feet, swaying his head uncertainly between its two opponents. The smell of truffle, however, was too tantalising to give up without a trial of strength. It grunted, pawing at the ground in challenge.
‘I would really appreciate it if you were to get out of here now,’ Merry said.
‘Because if you don’t and we survive this,’ the older cousin added, ‘I will be forced to make you sorry for ignoring me.’
The boar had tired of the conversation and, deciding that the smaller hobbit was the better target, it began its charge. Merry didn’t pause to think. The training Boromir had been drilling into the cousins took over and he stepped forward, his short sword held firmly in both hands as he jumped between his cousin and the boar, bracing himself for the impact. The blade sank, with surprising ease, between the animal’s ribs before its weight and the force of its impetus sent him flying backwards to land on top of the young Took. For a long moment, the powerful muscles continued to work and then the creature became limp, sagging over the two hobbits.
‘Do you mind getting off me?’ Pippin demanded in a slightly muffled voice. ‘You’re too heavy.’
Merry winced. ‘It’s not just me,’ he said. ‘Our visitor has decided to play ‘Who’s the King of the Mountain’, too.’
‘Is it dead?’
‘I do hope so.’
‘It didn’t land on my truffle, did it?’
‘I don’t know.’ Merry paused for a moment and then squirmed away from the surprisingly unwieldy body of the young boar. The blood on his shirt was unnervingly warm and decidedly sticky – not to mention making him stink like a slaughterhouse – but at least none of it seemed to be his. ‘We’d better get back to the others, before they come looking for us.’
‘Too late,’ the younger hobbit said philosophically.
‘What have you been doing?’ thundered the decidedly disgruntled voice of the wizard. Gandalf held his staff at the ready, as if he had been prepared to defeat a horde of enemies and was less than pleased to find himself confronting nothing more threatening than a dead pig and a couple of blood-and-dirt-stained hobbits.
‘Nothing much.’ Pippin started to brush off his shirt, scattering leaf mould to the ground like dandruff. ‘Getting dinner, that’s all.’
‘Roast boar with truffles,’ Merry said, meeting the wizard’s eyes defiantly. ‘A simple meal – but one I think that we will all enjoy.’
The wizard’s robes settled round him, making him look taller and more dangerous. ‘You are fortunate, Meriadoc Brandybuck,’ he said, ‘that I am in a good mood.’ Merry stiffened, determined not to squirm, as the sharp eyes considered him. ‘You may finish butchering the beast, since you managed to avoid it returning the compliment – and Sam will prepare a firepit suitable for the task of cooking it. And,’ he added, ‘strip off the shirt and put it to soak – you have not enough clothes with you to dispose of it and you are too much of a dandy to wear it bloodstained.’ He sniffed. ‘Although you will have worse to endure before you are done.’
The two hobbits watched him stalk away. ‘I think the prospect of dinner is pleasing him,’ Pippin remarked. ‘There’s more bounce to his step than usual.’
His cousin shivered. ‘We have work to do,’ he said. ‘The sooner we get the spit turning, the sooner we can eat.’
The short winter day was fading when the warriors approached the break in the trees where they had left their companions, but, instead of cold hobbits huddled together under the supervision of a bad-tempered wizard, they found a camp to equal any they had experienced in their years of living rough. The firepit – dug deep in the wet ground by the stream and stone-lined – let out little light, but the smell of wood-smoke and roasted meat was unmistakable.
Gimli put up his nose and sniffed appreciatively. ‘It would seem our lack of luck in the hunt has ceased to matter,’ he said.
Between the trees hung a line of thin rope, drying clothes suspended from it by freshly-cut hazel pegs, while hobbit fingers were wrapped round steaming cups of what smelled, Strider decided happily, like peppermint tea.
‘You’re back,’ Frodo observed pleasantly. ‘Just in time.’
The wizard leaned back against his tree and watched. The warriors looked – amusingly disconcerted. As if they had found a group of babbling infants suddenly spouting fluent Quenya. As if they had discovered a litter of gambolling puppies bringing down a rabid wolf. As if they had ended up in the middle of farmyard to find the poultry taking charge. It was about time the larger members of the Fellowship realised something – something they had, perhaps, overlooked. For some things – picking apples from high branches, probably, or leaping over a chasm – it was useful to be tall, but, when it came to managing to provide for yourself and your friends, size was not everything.
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