Aragorn cautiously squeezed his lanky frame through the low door of the barn; it was surprisingly roomy within. A few goats were penned at the far side, while a ladder led up to a loft, where presumably grain and hay would be stored. More bales of hay were scattered around the ground floor. The Halflings seemingly required more food than Men, despite being but half their size. Aragorn was loth to trespass on Hobbit property, but could no longer withstand the fierce storm that raged outside. He would shelter and depart as soon as the rain had ceased.
He threw his pack down upon a nearby bale of hay, and then shook himself, the better to shed excess moisture from his hair. Then opening his pack, he took out his spare garments and started to divest himself of his dripping clothing.
A sudden rustle in the hay made him start and hastily cover himself. Then he laughed, seeing the watcher was a large ginger cat. The animal emerged from where it had been sleeping and started to wash its whiskers all the while eying him curiously.
“What strange creatures you must think us, Puss,” said Aragorn, pulling his dry shirt over his head. ”We must appear to you that we shed and re-grow our fur at will. Are you sheltering from the rain too? Or do you live here to keep the mice at bay?”
The cat mewed and came nearer.
“Are you hungry?” Aragorn asked the cat. “You are fortunate that I have just purchased provisions from Bree, and have fresh meat to spare.”
Finishing dressing, he rummaged in his pack and took out some fresh bread and bacon. He threw some scraps of meat in the cat’s direction. The ginger tom devoured them greedily. He then approached Aragorn and, rubbed his tawny head against the Ranger’s knee. Aragorn stroked the soft ginger fur and was rewarded by the sound and steady rhythm of the cat's contented purring.
The rain did not subside and Aragorn decided to spend the night in the barn. He pulled his blanket round himself and tried to vainly sleep. A dryness in his throat was worsening, and when he lifted his water bottle to drink, he was seized by a violent fit of coughing. He sighed in dismay, realising he had picked up an infection from the crowded common room of the Prancing Pony. Wishing to prevent the spread of infection to the Hobbits, Aragorn decided to leave the Shire. He rose, with the intention of leaving; but found he could hardly stand. It seemed he had caught the dreaded “Fever”, for which even Elves had no cure .It could be a deadly contagion, even for a strong man like Aragorn, but the most at risk were the very young and the very old. While common folk blamed it on the malign influence of the moon, the Wise believed it was carried in the breath. It was too late now to matter to Aragorn now how one might catch it. He was infected and would have to remain here, caring for his needs as best he may.
By dawn, Aragorn was shivering violently. He could not get enough warmth from even two borrowed blankets he had found in a corner.
Suddenly, something soft and warm landed against his chest. The cat stretched himself across the Ranger and settled to sleep.
“Thank you, Puss,” Aragorn croaked gratefully. Soothed by the animal’s presence, he fell asleep.
When Aragorn awoke it was bright daylight. A family of Hobbits surrounded him.
“It’s one of them Big Folk!” said one who appeared to be the father, though he would not even have reached to Aragorn’s waist had he been able to stand.
“Is it dangerous, Milo?” asked a tiny, stout female, obviously the mother.
“Marmalade likes him so he must be a good sort,” said a small Hobbit girl.
Aragorn was seized by a fierce coughing fit. Frightened, Marmalade fled to the far side of the barn. Aragorn then started to sneeze.
“Isn’t it noisy?” commented a little boy. He was about an inch shorter than his sister, with especially hairy feet.
“I think he has caught that fever we all had last month,” said the father.
“The poor thing looks quite ill, ”said the mother. ”That fever’s right dangerous. It killed poor Cousin Dora two months back. “Would you like some tea and hot broth, Master?” she asked addressing Aragorn timidly. “I am Mistress Peony Burrows, this is my husband, Milo and my two youngest Myrtle and Minto.”
“Thank you, Mistress,” Aragorn croaked. “I am Strider, a Ranger. I meant no harm. I was sheltering from the storm when the Fever laid me low.” Exhausted, he sank back against the hay.
The next few days passed in a blur of shivers and aches for Aragorn. The kindly Hobbits brought him warm drinks for which he was grateful and food, the sight of which turned his stomach. Marmalade stayed constantly at his side, a soothing presence. More than once, Aragorn buried his aching head in the cat's silky ginger fur.
On the fifth day, Aragorn awoke feeling much better. The Hobbit woman approached, carrying a bowl of something that smelled delicious. Aragorn devoured it greedily. Marmalade eyed him reproachfully, but was soon mollified when Aragorn shared some morsels of beef from the stew.
“Would you fancy a slice of my peach pie now?” enquired Mistress Peony. “I baked it only this morning.” She beamed approvingly at Aragorn’s empty bowl.
“That sounds delicious, Mistress,” said Aragorn, reaching out a hand to caress Marmalade. The ginger cat scrambled on to the man’s lap and purred contentedly.
“I’ve never known our cat to act like that before,” said Peony. ”Doesn’t like strangers, he don’t. I’ve often told my husband that even were the King to come back, our Marmalade would have none of him!”