Title: Eating Habits (MC Prompt # 69 Food)
Disclaimer: I own nothing that has to do with The Lord of the Rings. I make no money with this story.
Summary: Aragorn guides the Hobbits to Imladris, and has to answer more question than only the ones about the enemy.
A/N: Written for the MC prompt # 69 Food. Sorry, not chapter 29 of The Roots of Evil, but 29 is finished and should be out next week.
Glancing behind him, Aragorn could just make out the dark shapes of his four companions trailing through the mud behind him. The heavy rain that had fallen through the night and the whole day had turned the nearly non existent path into a quagmire. Even for him, a seasoned ranger, walking in this weather and under these conditions was exhausting…how hard had it to be for the four Hobbits then?
Drawing his hood deeper over his weathered face, Aragorn let his eyes roam over the wilderness surrounding them. It would be a few days at least until they reached Weathertop, and he knew there was no shelter between the here and the there. That was, no shelter besides a small cave that was used infrequently by the rangers.
Slipping in the mud and catching his balance almost instantly again, Aragorn readjusted his heavy pack on his back. He had no wish to stop and wait out this storm, but on the other hand, the Hobbits were not used to trotting through weather like this, for days on end with little rest.
When he heard a silent curse coming from behind him, and then the unmistakable sound of a Hobbit splashing into a puddle, following by another curse, Aragorn sighed inwardly. It would not do to keep going; more likely than not the small beings would get ill or injure themselves, and that was not something Aragorn wanted to happen.
Turning around just in time to see Frodo and Merry help a mud covered Pippin to his feet after slipping and falling, while Sam spoke soothingly to the pony that carried most of the Hobbits gear, Aragorn raised his voice over the drumming of the rain, "Not much further is a cave, we will stop there and wait out this storm."
The Hobbits gaped at him for a moment, and then happiness entered their eyes. Pippin, hair wet and plastered to his head, wiped a hand across his face to get rid of the sludge, and then marched on, a wide grin on his face. The other Hobbits followed him, and soon they reached the cave.
It truly was more a rock outcropping, barely deep enough for them all to enter. The pony Bill had to stay outside, but after Sam's disapproving look, Aragorn had led the pony a bit further around the rocks and found an overhang that would shelter the animal from the worst of the wind and rain.
Upon returning to the cave, two Hobbit packs in his hands, Aragorn entered the cave, deposited the packs upon the ground, removed his hood and shook the water out of his hair like a dog would do. Moving his hand through his hair to keep it out of his face, he could not suppress the relieved sigh that escaped him. The cave, small as it was, was at least partially dry. Given, the wind drove the water into the cave and small rivulets were making their way here and there, and the entrance was sprayed in rain, but the back of the cave was dry, and they had escaped the wind.
Gazing outside to make sure that there was no danger that he had overlooked, Aragorn heard one of the Hobbits approach him, his large feet making small wet noises on the ground, "Uh, Mr. Strider, Sir?"
Without turning around, Aragorn replied, "Aye, Master Pippin?"
"I was just wondering, Mr. Strider, Sir, if we could kindle a fire?"
Aragorn pondered this for a moment; he had not allowed the Halflings to lit a fire for the last few days, fearing that the light would attract the enemy to their presence. But the rain and the wind, the gloom that seemed to have swallowed the rest of the world, and the coldness that slowly but surely affected even him, made him agree.
"Aye, Master Hobbit. I think a fire is a good idea."
"Really? Fine!" And with a small whoop of joy, Pippin returned to his friends, who had of course heard every word, due to the size of their shelter. The fire was quickly kindled, the food unpacked, the tea brewed.
"Turn that bread, Sam, it already turns black."
"Here, Pip, add some chives."
"The tomatoes look fine, what do you think, Merry?"
"Sam, please, turn that bread!"
The chatter that filled the cave made Aragorn smile. Not for the first time he wondered how the Hobbits could think of food all the time. To him it seemed as if they were always hungry. Two days ago, Pippin had stopped near some trees to collect some mushrooms; that in itself would not have been a problem…but the time the Hobbit had taken do so had been. Pippin had examined every single mushroom for signs of rottenness, had then brushed the sand from them, had cleaned them with his small knife, had then stared them it for another minute, before storing them away in his pockets. Needless to say that the Hobbit had not been pleased to be hauled to his feet and shoved away from the mushrooms in an attempt to get him going. No, he had not been pleased at all.
The rain drummed onto the roof of the cave and the world outside grew darker by the minute. Leaning against the wall close to the entrance, Aragorn felt his own stomach growl softly in hunger. Reaching inside his pack without much thought, he took out a leather satchel, opened it, and began to nibble on the sunflower seeds it contained.
Staring out at the rain, he let his mind wander to friendlier places, places full of warm laughter, sunshine and green meadows. The voice of Merry made him turn, though, "Oi, Mr. Strider! Are you not hungry? There is enough for all of us ."
Inclining his head, Aragorn gave the rainy land one last look, before he joined the four Hobbits near the smoking fire. Luckily, the wind was blowing the smoke out of the cave. Sam handed him a plate laden with hot tomatoes, crisp bread, an undistinguishable mush that turned out to be taters with chives, and even two brown mushrooms.
Smiling his thanks, Aragorn began to clean his plate methodically, eating the delicious mushrooms first, then the mush, followed by the tomatoes and then the bread, which he used to soak up as much of the tomato and mushroom juice as he could. And all that time, he was unaware of the irritated looks the Hobbits gave him.
After the meal, which took the Halflings much longer to finish than Aragorn, they sat around the fire, letting their clothing dry and their bodies warm. Aragorn leaned against the wall in his back, keeping a look at the rain outside to make sure that they were not in any danger from foes that hid in the dark.
Absently, he began to eat some of the sunflower seeds. Until…
"Mr. Strider?" Pippin asked sheepishly. While Frodo had begun to trust their guide, Sam and Merry were still weary around him, and Pippin had not yet overcome his initial fear, making his voice quiver slightly. Aragorn had tried to make the Halflings trust him, but of course that was easier said than done.
"Yes, Master Hobbit?"
"What is it you eat there?"
Gazing at the satchel in his left hand, Aragorn held it out for Pippin to see. "Sunflower seeds."
Frowning, Pippin looked first at the seeds and then at Aragorn. The other Hobbits in the cave were listening to the conversation, but none of them seemed too willing to participate; feeling sated and warm and quite contend.
"Why do you eat them? They do not taste good. Sunflower seeds are for the birds and the smaller animals."
Aragorn thought to hear Merry groan and saw Sam's eyes widen; obviously the gardener thought Pippin had just offended Aragorn. But he had not.
Nodding, Aragorn explained, "I eat them because they are good for the body. They sustain me and give me strength. They fill the stomach and are easy to carry. And should I let some of them fall while I walk, no enemy will look at them twice, because they could have been left behind by a bird or a small animal."
"Oh." Was all Pippin could say to that, and when Aragorn offered him some of the sunflower seeds, he shook his head, "No thanks, but they taste horrible."
Aragorn shrugged, "I like them."
Eyes widening, Pippin asked in a tone someone would use when speaking with a small child, "Yes, but do you like them because you like them, or do you like them because you have to like them?"
Aragorn blinked. Then blinked again. Somewhere along that line of reasoning the Hobbit had lost him.
"Is there a difference?"
"Of course!" And then Pippin launched into an explanation about the difference between liking something because one liked it, and liking something because someone had to eat it and had grown so accustomed to it that the one did not realize he only liked it because he had to like it.
"See? That is the difference." Pippin smiled, happy with his explanation.
"Well, thank you for that explanation, Master Pippin. I will remember it." Aragorn nodded, then turned his gaze towards the cave entrance once more, now and then eating one of the sunflower seeds.
Silence settled in the cave; Sam and Frodo had lain down to get some sleep, and Merry and Pippin followed their lead. But despite the drumming of the rain onto the cave roof, Aragorn had no problem hearing Merry's whisper, "Pip, you do realize that he gave you no answer?"
"But he did, Merry."
"No, he did not."
"Surely, he said that…oh."
Aragorn had to suppress a grin; he had a feeling that the youngest Hobbit would not forget about the topic and sooner or later ask for an answer.
The next few days passed similar to the days prior. They headed out before sunrise and marched until after sunset. The weather improved only marginally; the heavy rain reduced to a drizzle, the cold wind lessened somewhat, and for a few glory hours the rain stopped altogether.
And one more thing changed: Pippin would not let Aragorn out of his sight. Whatever the ranger did, Pippin was watching. Well, not everything, but mainly what Aragorn ate and drank. Every night, when they sat around the fire, eating their meal, he would follow Aragorn's every movement.
After some days, when Aragorn walked in the lead, eating some seed or another, Pippin could no longer contain his curiosity. Quickening his steps, he sidled up to the ranger, and looked up at him. Aragorn nodded in greeting and stretched out his left hand, showing Pippin a pouch full of what looked like pumpkin seeds.
Aragorn lifted the hand with the pouch out of the Hobbit's reach and continued eating. For nearly half an hour Pippin walked beside Aragorn, before he suddenly asked,
"Why in the name of the Great Cabbage do you eat that?" Pippin pointed at the pumpkin seeds, his face scrunched up in dislike.
Raising his eyebrows and giving Pippin an amused and at the same time surprised look, Aragorn weighted the pouch of seeds in his hand, "They are good for my body. They sustain me and…" But before he could finish, Pippin interrupted him,
"And they give you strength, and should you let some fall, they will not look suspicious."
"Well, yes." Aragorn put another pumpkin seed into his mouth, wondering where this conversation was going.
Scratching his curly head, Pippin looked up at Aragorn, "And I guess you like them?"
"As you have told me, there is a difference between 'like' and 'like', Master Hobbit. Which 'like' do you refer to?"
"Oh, forget it." Pippin murmured, irritated by Aragorn's behaviour. But not for long. They only walked in silence for a short while, Aragorn, meanwhile, having put away the pouch into his pack.
"Uhm, you…you can cook, can't you?" Pippin blushed, and from the tone of the question Aragorn could tell that that had not been the question the Hobbit had wanted to ask.
Aragorn shot a quick look at the Hobbit who walked alongside him. Pippin was gazing at the road, his eyes fixed straight ahead. Sighing inwardly, Aragorn said without rebuke,
"You have watched me, Master Hobbit. Every night. What is it you want to know?"
"Just…why? I don't understand why you eat sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds, or why you always eat the treats first, when everyone else eats them last, or why you eat your food almost methodically. First the colder things, then the hot tomatoes, leaving the bread to be eaten last. You never eat first a tomato, then a mushroom and then a tomato again. No, it is mushroom, taters, tomato. Why?"
Aragorn sighed; he had expected something like this, but he did not know how to explain the habits he had gotten into during his many years as a ranger. Tilting his head to the side and watching Pippin out of the corner of his eye, he tried to explain.
"You were right, Master Pippin. I think I do not like sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds, at all. They taste horrible."
Pippin's eyes flew upwards, meeting his, and when Aragorn smiled slightly, the Hobbit's face relaxed and he smiled back.
"You see, as a ranger, I am seldom in one place for more than a few weeks. I travel hither and yonder, live in the wilds, never return to the same place twice. There are dangers everywhere, and I have to keep a step ahead of them if I want to survive. And to do that, I cannot always light a fire in the night, or lose time cooking. During my life among the rangers, I have come to value every warm meal, and I have quickly learned that a meal can be interrupted.
"I have learned to eat first that which I cherish and then that which my body needs. Cold food stays cold, even if I have to stop eating because I have heard a sound in the bushes surrounding me and need to go investigating. But hot food grows cold, so I eat it first.
"I have to admit that I sometimes forget to eat at all, because I have no time or am too weary. So I developed the habit of eating while I walk. Mostly seeds and nuts, for they contain things that are especially good for the body, can be stored over long periods of time, are hardy and, as you rightly pointed out, they are unsuspicious if found on the road."
Smiling at Pippin, who eyed him with wide eyes, Aragorn added, "Does that answer your question?"
"Yes." Pippin nodded, but a frown stole over his features. Aragorn knew that what he had said had probably confused the Hobbit, but there was nothing he could do to change that now. They walked in silence for a while, but then suddenly Pippin's voice floated up to Aragorn,
"Mr. Strider, Sir, no offence meant, but I think you rangers are strange."
Before he could stop himself, Aragorn let out a barking laugh and clasped the startled Pippin on the shoulder, "That we are, Master Hobbit, indeed, that we are."
But that night, when Sam handed him a plate full of food, Aragorn smiled at Pippin and ate first a hot tomato, then a mushroom, followed by a bite of crisp bread. Pippin smiled brightly and then dug into his food, while Frodo, Sam and Merry exchanged confused glances, vowing to riddle Pippin with questions as soon as Aragorn was out of earshot.
A/N: Actually, I like sunflower and pumpkin seeds. ;-) So, what do you think? Any comments? Please?