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Tenderfoot

(HAVE IN MIND THAT THIS IS UNFINISHED)

“Are we there yet?”

Aragorn fought to resist rolling his eyes at the umpteenth time the question was voiced from somewhere behind him. A shared wild look with Boromir told him the other Man felt the same way. Boromir’s hand clutched a small, semi-bare, broken-off branch he had picked up when they first heard the question, and with each time it was asked, he would grind his teeth and peel off a piece of bark in silence. Were they to continue on this rate, he would soon have to find himself another stick, Aragorn thought.

He wondered if he should just continue the way he had since they started walking again, and simply ignore the annoying, endlessly repeated question, or just pelt an apple at the hobbit. Maybe if he pretended not to have heard the question, it would go away? It would be futile around hobbits, he knew, but it had oft proved to work when he roamed the wilds as a ranger. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder at the rest of the group and found Gimli trailing right behind them and staring straight ahead.

The dwarf was stalking after them with longer strides than necessary that did little to increase his pace, but was great for making his short legs seem even shorter. In his right hand he gripped his trustworthy axe, sharpened this very morning in an almost touchable irritated silence. Add the dark looks thrown in the hobbits’ way, and one needed not wonder for long why there were twin twitches of the dwarf’s eye and axe as soon as the question rose from behind. His jaw muscles seemed to work furiously under the thick mass of beard and he refused to look Aragorn in the eye, choosing instead to stalk onward and tighten his grip on the axe with each word that left the hobbit’s mouth.

After Gimli came Gandalf, who had gathered the hobbits around him like a mother duck would her ducklings. And taking up the rear of their group was Legolas the Elf who, with his sharp eyes and keen senses, was so high above the rest according to everyone else but himself, though for the moment he looked sorely tempted to trade eardrums with any other being in their company. He winced as the question once again drifted past his sensitive ears and when Aragorn raised his eyebrows in an asking manner, Legolas threw a helpless glance in the human’s direction. Aragorn could only shrug sympathetically as he turned his attention forward again, hoping against hope that anything, be it orcs or spiders or wargs or simply anything would interrupt the constant chattering from behind. He would gladly take a cave troll over this any day!

One other in their company seemed to have tired too, for once the question had been repeated three times in one exhalation, the fourth attempt was interrupted by a heaving sigh and a grumbling harrumph. “Pippin,” Gandalf’s voice sounded from behind, and Aragorn could easily picture him grip his knotty staff tighter in annoyance, as he had done so many times when Aragorn himself had been younger, and offer said hobbit a hard glance as they walked. “If I have told you once, I have told you countless times; we will stop once we find a place safe enough for stopping.”

Aragorn cast another glance over his shoulder to see Pippin slump his shoulders in defeat and pocket his hands and slow down enough to allow Merry to pass him and take the front right spot next to the wizard. For long the hobbit was silent, eyes trailing the ground they walked on before gradually moving upwards to the many bushes, the rocks, the trees off the trail. Something in his mind clicked and Pippin almost stopped, but when Frodo nearly walked right into him and Sam indignantly started on one of his you-do-not-help-Mr.-Frodo-by-doing-this-or-that speeches, he was forced to move forward again, though his eyes never left the trees. Trees meant shelter. Shelter meant safety. Safety meant… a stop? He chanced it.

“Are we there yet?”

This time it was Merry who wore the wild look on his face. He stopped and turned to wait for his cousin and once Pippin reached his side, he softened his voice to the manner with which one spoke to a very small child. “Pippin, let me try and put it differently for you,” he said, and Pippin gazed at him with wondering eyes that a moment later clamped shut at the loud and surprisingly harsh “No!” from Merry. “We’re not there yet,” the older hobbit spat and Pippin’s shoulders sagged. With another hard look, Merry turned to resume walking, but found himself pausing as something came to mind. When he started walking again he added, as an afterthought, “Wherever there is”.

That brought the smile back to Pippin’s face, along with the mischievous glint in his eyes he was so known for. He stifled a giggle and jogged up to Merry’s left side, leaning forward and whispering into his ear. “Are we there yet?”

Aragorn could no longer fight the urge to roll his eyes when the youngest hobbit yowled in pain.

~*~

They had been going on for another hour or so, thankfully in silence as Frodo had volunteered to walk with Pippin and the youngest hobbit dared not upset the older cousin he had hero-worshipped since birth.

Aragorn and Boromir were still at the front and the rest trailed behind in a neat line, Sam right behind Merry who was basically at Gimli’s heels, Gandalf a few steps behind the oldest and youngest hobbits, and Legolas at the back and scouting behind and around them. They had descended a steep, winding hill and just ascended another and were walking on a stony path when Aragorn next turned to look over the group and found the Elf lagging behind.

Probably just taking his time with scouting, he decided. He continued on alongside Boromir for another hundred meters before he turned again, finding the Elf to have stopped completely a few yards back and staring intently at the trees at their right. Aragorn paused then and called to him, in Elven. “What is it?”

Boromir had ceased to walk the moment Aragorn disappeared from his side and the humans’ stop, along with Aragorn’s question in the Elven tongue, brought the entire Fellowship to a halt. The ranger ignored the questioning look Boromir sent him, waiting for the Elf to answer. Gimli and the hobbits were unaware of the cause of his question and kept their eyes on him, save Frodo and Gandalf, who with their knowledge of the Elven tongue also turned to look at the Elf behind them.

There had only been a vague breeze following them, but now the wind picked up and took on an icy chill. Legolas’ golden hair whipped about his head as he turned to the Fellowship and gazed intently at Aragorn with a confuzzled expression on his face. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it and glanced at the forest once more.

Pippin, being who he was, did not sense the tension that had seeped in between the trees and shrouded the Fellowship in a cloak of uncertainty. He only felt the wind grow steadily colder and knew he was hungry, and as he glanced up at the tall members of the group and looked to and fro between them, he also remembered what Gandalf earlier had said about stopping. “Are we there yet?”

Something in Aragorn’s mind snapped. So did Boromir’s now bark free branch and both men whirled on the hobbit to shout at him and tell him to cease his pestering, when a sudden scream rent the air. A moment later found the hobbits cowering by Gandalf’s side and the wizard, Gimli, Aragorn and Boromir eying their surroundings with badly hidden fear. Legolas’ sight was set on the trees to their right, one delicate hand flexing its slender fingers at his side as he debated whether to reach for his bow or not.

Pippin peeked out from behind the grey robes of Gandalf, hands still clutching the wizard and one of the other hobbits, he was not sure who he had grabbed when they bolted to safety. “What… was that?” he squeaked.

Silence stretched between them and blood ran cold in Aragorn’s veins as Legolas turned to him with large eyes, and he saw a spark of unwanted understanding, a flash of worry go through them. A flicker of terror.

The horrifying scream was soon followed by another, one that ended far too abruptly. Legolas’ head whipped towards the sound, back to Aragorn, to the forest and to Aragorn again. For a fraction of a second, blue eyes locked with grey. Then the Elf dashed to the side and disappeared between the trees.

Aragorn swore, but was off at an instant later. Cries erupted from behind, but he cared not for them as he dived in between the slim tree trunks. They would follow, he knew.