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Seeing the Forest for the Trees  by Lindelea

Chapter 1. Gathering Storm

The situation seemed to fit the head forester's warning. As Pippin stood, a few steps to the Forest side of the Gate, it seemed clear to him as well that the line of trees had advanced since the last time he'd been there. He turned back to the other hobbit. 'Let's go a little way in.'

They mounted their ponies and set a slow pace towards the break that outlined the start of the path to the Bonfire Glade. As they reached the edge of the trees, the ponies balked. Pippin was surprised when his bold pony halted, tossing his head, prancing backwards with snorts and whickers. The forester's pony stopped still, planting his front hoofs on the ground as if he hoped them to take root there.

The forest stood darker than ever in the bright morning sunshine, the usual brooding intensified to sullen anger. Even though they had not ridden under the canopy of trees, Pippin's breath came shorter, and his chest felt tight. 'Well, well,' he said. 'Something's got them stirred up, that's for sure.'

He turned to the forester. 'Have hobbits been going in to cut firewood?'

The other shook his head. 'I'd hope none would be so foolish. We've kept close watch lately. Something's brewing.'

The young Steward reached down to soothe his pony's trembling neck. 'D'you think they might attack the Hedge again?'

'They are creeping closer,' the forester said, doubt in his voice.

Pippin made a sudden decision. 'Instead of your foresters making rounds, I want watchers here at the gate, and along the Hedge. The Hall will provide extra hobbits to support you.' He thought further. 'And put up quarantine signs.' The Bucklanders were more likely to pay heed to signs warning of deadly disease than to one of the Hall's periodic warnings against entering the Forest.

'For how long?' the head forester asked.

'Until we get to the bottom of this,' Pippin said grimly.

****

The Master had decided to send his son to see Tom Bombadil. Surely that being, if anyone, would have insight into what was happening in the Old Forest.

Pippin regretfully turned down Merry's request to join him. 'I can't get away just now,' he said, 'You know it's the middle of spring planting.'

Merry smiled. 'I'm glad to see the Hall's new Steward is conscientious,' he replied.

'Why don't you take one of the foresters with you?' Pippin suggested. 'After all, they're the ones most familiar with the Old Forest, among Bucklanders.'

'You're right, Pip, I should have thought of it myself,' Merry agreed. The head forester's deputy, Eldric, was chosen, and preparations made for the journey.

'It only takes a day to get to Tom's,' Merry told Estella as he prepared to mount Jewel. Eldric had already said his farewells, and waited astride his own pony. 'We'll stay overnight and be back tomorrow in time for supper.'

'Be careful,' Estella said softly.

'I've been in the Old Forest hundreds of times,' Merry said. 'As long as you respect them, the trees will leave you alone.'

'Right,' his wife said drily. 'It's as safe as boating on the Brandywine.'

'Exactly!' Merry answered, and they both laughed. He gave her a last kiss and swung into the saddle. 'See you tomorrow!' he called, and they headed from the yard.

****

Pippin was in the great room, going over maps of the Hall's fields with some of the farmers, making suggestions and listening to their advice, when a breathless stable lad ran in. 'Sir!'

He rose from the table. 'What is it, lad?' he said calmly. 'Get your breath, take your time, get the message right the first time and you won't have to repeat it.'

'Eldric's mount has come in riderless,' the lad gasped. 'The forester watching at the Gate brought him in.'

'Any sign of the young master's pony?' Pippin asked sharply.

'Nay,' the lad answered. 'Master Berilac's putting together a search party to go into the Old Forest to see what may be found.'

Pippin strode to the window, checking the angle of the sun. It was not yet time for elevenses. The travellers had left only a few hours before; they hadn't time to get too far into the Forest.

'Right,' he told the lad. 'Tell Berilac to saddle my pony, then tell the Master the news.'

'Yes, Sir,' the boy said, and hurried away.

Pippin went in search of his wife. 'Diamond, I want you to go sit with Estella.'

'What's happened to Merry?' she asked.

'I don't know yet. You know he was to go visit Bombadil with Eldric?' She nodded. 'The forester's pony has come back riderless. A group is going out now to trace their route.'

'Be careful,' she said.

'I'm not planning to chop down any trees today,' he answered.

****

The ponies were uneasy, refusing to go under the trees. The riders finally had to dismount and lead them into the Forest with much coaxing. Pippin figured rightly that once the sunny meadow disappeared from the ponies' sight, they would be able to mount and proceed.

He felt the same black anger, building to fury, as the other day, and noticed that he was not the only hobbit gasping for air. A heavy branch was dropped just before them across the path. 'Keep going!' he called. 'It just wants to frighten us.' The forest was still, sullen, giving the feeling of thunder building on a sultry day.

They proceeded cautiously in two columns, each scouring the brush to their side of the path. Merry and Eldric wouldn't have left the path, but the path might have moved itself since they went in. Pippin, however, didn't think there was much difference since the last time when he'd entered the Forest in search of two lost hobbit lads.

They'd gone an hour's journey into the Forest, when Pippin raised his arm to halt the party. About twenty pony lengths from the path the bushes were shaking. He gave the hobbits the signal to draw their bows and wait, then he kneed Socks towards the disturbance. As he approached, the bushes quivered and stopped, then shook violently, and were still again. All the tales of the bogeys in the Forest came back to him, and he fought down momentary, irrational fear.

Pippin watched his pony's ears, but they were pricked forward more in curiosity than worry. Just short of the copse he stopped the smoke-coloured pony. The bushes quivered again, he heard a thrashing sound, stillness fell. He slowly eased himself from the saddle and tossed his reins around a low branch. The Forest seemed to hold its breath.

Pippin cursed his imagination, how could a Forest have breath? ...and forced himself to tread softly closer. He parted the bushes, to find a bright chestnut pony panting on the ground before him. As he entered the copse the pony thrashed again, and Pippin could see that its bridle was caught, the poor beast was slowly strangling despite its struggles.

'Easy, Jewel,' he breathed. 'Steady, lad, we'll have you out of here in no time.' The pony stilled, and Pippin reached out for the throat latch. The pony struggled again when it felt the bridle tighten, and Pippin spoke soothingly while he undid the buckle and freed the fine head.

Jewel lay gasping, great gulps of air, then shakily climbed to his feet. He stumbled over to Pippin and nudged him. Stroking the soft nose, Pippin murmured under his breath, 'You're more than welcome, lad. Now where's your master?' The pony rubbed his face against Pippin's chest, and he scratched the flame-coloured jaw in the comforting way he'd seen Merry use.

Stepping back out of the copse, he waved an arm sharply downward to the waiting hobbits on the path, and they lowered their bows, but still held them ready. Pippin then gave two circling waves, and two riders, Merry's Brandybuck cousins Merimas and Berilac, broke from the rest to join him. They had worked out these signals before entering the Forest, not wanting to antagonize the silent trees further with audible speech.

Pippin freed the bridle and buckled it back onto Jewel, hitching him properly to the same branch as Socks. When the riders arrived, he gestured that they do the same, and signalled Berilac to stay with the ponies. The other, Merimas, he motioned into the copse. Putting his lips close to the other's ear, he breathed, 'If Jewel is here, then we can hope Merry's not far.' Merimas nodded and they began to search the thick underbrush.

Pippin's breathing eased somewhat, and he got the notion that the Forest was waiting, somehow. The feeling of imminent attack had eased, for which he was grateful. He didn't need the distraction. He caught the wave of an arm from the corner of his eye, and went to see what Merimas had found.

Merry lay unmoving, under a tree, a great bruise on his forehead. Unable to shake the bizarre notion that the tree was standing guard over his cousin, Pippin gently lifted him. Sticky blood coated his fingers, from a wound on the back of Merry's head. He gestured to Merimas to bring up his pony, and together they got the limp hobbit onto its back. Merimas climbed up behind his cousin, riding with care back to the silent group on the path.

Pippin looked closely about the little copse but could see no sign of what had befallen his cousin, and no sign of the missing forester. Mounting his own pony, he took Jewel's reins, and he and Berilac kneed their mounts back to the path. They turned the column around and headed back to the Hall as quickly as they could manage.

The sense of waiting intensified as they rode, the building fury returned double-fold, and it was with great relief that they broke from the trees to gallop towards the waiting figures at the Forest Gate.

Chapter 2. Approaching Thunder

Pippin rose as the old healer entered the Master's study.

'How is he, Ossilan?' Saradoc asked.

'He's delirious, raving,' Ossilan said. 'He keeps talking about an attack, claims the trees hemmed them in and dropped branches on them. I can't make any more sense of what he's saying than that.'

'Does he know what happened to Eldric?' Pippin asked.

'He said something about the forester breaking out of the circle of trees, then something hit him and he remembers no more.'

'Maybe I can get more sense out of him,' Pippin suggested.

The healer shook his head. 'I can scarce keep him abed. I had to send his wife away, it's taking two hobbits to keep him down.' He locked gazes with Pippin. 'I know you say he must not be bound, but...'

Pippin rose immediately. 'Take me to him. We'll hold him down for as long as need be, but you're right. You must never bind his wrists.' Saradoc backed his Steward, and the healer nodded. He had been present when Merry and Pippin had recounted their capture by orcs and the long run towards Isengard. Binding Merry to keep him abed while he was delirious to protect him might do more harm than good.

His cousin was muttering, 'Trees! Trees all about! There's an opening, Eldric, I'm right behind you!' as Pippin entered. He nodded to the Brandybuck cousins who held him down, then moved to the side of the bed. Placing a hand on either side of Merry's face, he said as calmly as he could, 'Wake up, Merry! It's time to leave the darkness behind. See the light, Merry, open your eyes.' His cousin calmed somewhat, and he continued, 'Open your eyes and look at me, Merry!'

'Dark,' his cousin pleaded. 'So dark under the trees.'

'Merry, remember what Frodo said,' Pippin encouraged. 'You remember, don't you?'

His cousin stilled, and the hands holding him down were able to relax slightly. 'Light,' he said.

'That's right, Merry. Open your eyes. Walk in darkness no longer,' Pippin whispered.

Merry's eyes opened. His breath still came in gasps, but he was rapidly calming. A puzzled expression crossed his face. 'Where?' he asked.

'You're back at the Hall, Merry,' Pippin soothed.

His cousin nodded, eyes moving from face to face, then his eyes closed. The healer stepped up quickly to check him over. 'He's asleep,' Ossilan said. 'With that blow to the head, we'll have to keep a close eye on him until tomorrow.'

'Right,' Pippin said, rising from the bedside. 'Let me know if he says aught else.'

***

'If the Forest has become so much more dangerous...' the Master was saying.

Pippin broke in. 'I'm not sure that's the case.'

'What do you mean?' Saradoc asked.

'I felt no menace from the trees this time, at least, not directed at us. There was an urgency, yes, a sense of waiting, and black fury as we were leaving. But...' Pippin sought for words to describe the feeling under the trees.

'What?'

'It's almost like the Forest allowed us to find Merry and take him out again. It warned us off when we first entered, but there were no more attacks after that. And the air became easier somehow, not so stuffy.' He shook his head. 'I don't know quite how to express it.'

'The others have said much the same,' the Master mused. 'Well, we'll keep up the watches along the Hedge until we know better what's going on.' Pippin nodded.

***

Merry improved, but remembered little after awakening the next day. 'I said the trees attacked us?' he asked Pippin soberly.

'Aye, don't you remember?' Pippin asked.

Merry started to shake his head, but it hurt too much, so he contented himself with saying, 'No, I don't remember much after we left the yard. You say Eldric's pony came back?'

'That's how we knew to look for you.'

'But you found no sign of him?' Merry asked, worried.

'None. I searched for marks on the ground, but I'm no Strider.'

'Do you think a search party...?'

'The Master's ruled against it. He says no one's to go into the Forest. Besides, it's a big place. How are we to find one forester among all those trees?'

Merry sighed. 'I hate to face his wife and children.' Pippin nodded soberly. It rankled to give up without a proper search, kind of like quitting before you start. The young Steward was no quitter.

***

Livestock began disappearing from the fields near the Hedge. More disquieting, hobbit children began to have screaming nightmares. Shirriff Hob Hayward, putting two and two together, came to the Hall, asking to see the Master and Steward. In the Master's study, he put his feathered hat on his knee and sat forward.

'There's systematic looting going on,' he maintained. 'It seemed random, at first, kind of hit or miss, but too many animals have disappeared now.'

'How many?' Saradoc asked, and the Shirriff took a folded piece of paper from a pocket and shoved it across the desk. The Master gave a low whistle, and Pippin came to look over his shoulder.

'You're sure of this?' he demanded.

'Yes, I started keeping track of dates as well as numbers and location, once I got suspicious.'

Pippin went to the great map of Buckland that hung on the wall, touching several spots with a finger tip. 'All near the Hedge,' he murmured. 'Something's coming out of the Forest?'

'Nightmares are coming over the Hedge, too,' Hob said seriously. He joined Pippin at the map. 'Here...' he moved his finger, 'here, and here, same places as missing livestock, wee hobbits have had screaming nightmares, horrid things looking in at the windows, they say. And one farmer found scratches on the outside of the window, as if something had been trying to get in.' He raised troubled eyes to Pippin's. 'Trying to get in at the children,' he said.

Pippin felt as if someone had put a fist into his stomach. Something trying to get in at the children. Diamond was expecting their first.

Chapter 3. Lightning Bolt 'I don't like it,' the Master said. 'I don't like it at all.'

'It'll be just a quick and quiet survey,' Pippin repeated. 'Duram, the head forester, and I will ride a little way into the Forest, then along the edge, see if we can find any signs of what's coming out of there. We found some tracks inside the Hedge, but they're not clear. Something's climbing over and back again, but that's all we know at this point.'

'I don't like it,' the Master said again.

'Well, I don't like it either, but if someone else doesn't go first you know your son will, as soon as his double vision clears up.'

'When do you want to go?'

'At first light. I want as much daylight we can get; I want to ride from the top of the Forest to the bottom and back to the Gate.'

'All right,' the Master agreed, grudgingly. 'But at the first sign of trouble I want you to turn your ponies' faces out of the Forest and kick them into a gallop.'

'You don't have to tell me what to do. Socks will probably take it into his own head to get us out of there,' Pippin answered.

'And the forester, too?' Saradoc asked wryly.

'O aye,' Pippin responded. 'And his pony as well, all on his back, if need be. He's a wonder.'

'That's not the half of it,' Saradoc muttered.

***

Pippin slipped out while Diamond was still asleep. It was less awkward that way, though he hesitated a moment to gaze upon her sleeping face. It was for her... and their child... that he was doing this.

A stable lad was holding Pippin's Socks and Duram's pony, a sturdy dun, when he and the assistant forester walked out to the yard. Pippin double-checked all his gear and stashed the bags of food, enough for them both, in his saddle bags. He loosened his sword in its sheath, then looked over to the forester with a nod.

Duram had been finishing his own preparations, and together the two sprang into their saddles and turned their ponies' heads to the path leading to the Gate. After going through the Gate they would ride northward along the Hedge, then over to the Forest. They would enter the Forest at its northernmost point in Buckland and work their way southward.

The guard at the Forest Gate, partway down the Hedge from the northernmost tip, would be watching for them; should he see them galloping towards the Gate from the Forest or along the Hedge he would swing it open to facilitate their escape.

At the moment, though, all he had to do was to let them through the Gate, and stare after them as they rode northwards along the Hedge.

***

Merry awoke feeling better this morning; the double vision was almost totally gone and his head no longer gave a twinge if he moved suddenly. He whistled on his way to the Master's study and greeted his father cheerfully.

'Glad to see you feeling better,' Saradoc returned.

'Thanks,' Merry returned. They got down to the business of the day, and it wasn't until elevenses that Merry looked up to ask, 'Where's Pippin?'

His father hesitated, then answered, 'He rode into the Forest today. He and Forester Duram wanted to make a survey of the edge, see if they could find any tracks that might reveal who or what is raiding livestock.'

'Rode into the Forest? Just two of them?' Merry demanded. 'I don't like this. I don't like it at all!'

'You took the words right out of my mouth,' the Master admitted. 'He argued me into letting him go.'

'He could argue a farmer into calling the sky green and the grass blue,' Merry said in frustration.

His father chuckled. 'That he could.' He sobered. 'Perhaps he can argue the trees into helping us catch whatever's hiding in the Forest.'

There was a clatter of hoofs in the yard. Merry looked out to see a lathered pony dancing on the stones. A rider flung himself from its back and ran to the Hall.

'This doesn't look good,' he muttered. The Master and his son did not wait for bad news to come to them, but strode down the corridor to meet the messenger.

He was standing in the entry hall, panting, and at the Master's step he looked up in mingled relief and dread. 'I've sent for the healer already,' he said, '...and they're saddling your ponies as we speak, and preparing a wagon.'

'What is it?' the Master said.

'Forester Duram's pony galloped to the Gate,' the messenger said. 'He'd been shot with several arrows. I came as quickly as I could for the healer; he was still breathing when I left.'

'Arrows?' Merry asked. 'Could there be outlaws living in the Forest? Have the ruffians returned?'

'That's what we're going to find out,' his father said grimly. He turned back to the messenger. 'And what of the Steward?' he demanded.

The hobbit shook his head. 'No sign of him, I'm afraid. Only the one came back.'

'Right,' the Master said. He raised his voice to a bellow. 'Merimac!'

His brother came quickly at the call, wiping his mouth; he'd been enjoying elevenses in the great room.

'Arm as many hobbits as know how to use a sword, bow, or pike, mount them on ponies and meet me at the Forest Gate.'

'Right,' the other said calmly, and was off with remarkable speed for all his bulk.

Merry saw Jewel and Lightfoot led out into the yard, and touched his father's arm. His father nodded, grimly, and they strode to the ponies, mounted, and were off to the Gate at a gallop.

They found one of the Gate guard cradling the forester in his lap, face down, partly covered with a blanket. As Saradoc and Merry dismounted, the guard lifted the blanket away, to reveal the black-feathered arrows protruding from the back.

Merry staggered, reeling back. He might have fallen had his father not caught his arm to steady him.

'What is it, Merry?' he asked, staring intently into his son's face. He had never seen such a terrible look, not even when his son had described the charge of the Rohirrim and destruction of the Dark Captain of the Nazgul.

'What is it?' he repeated.

Breathing hard, Merry shook his head.

'Merry?'

'There are orcs,' his son said slowly, 'orcs in the Shire!' Moving as a sleepwalker, he fumbled his silver horn from his saddle pad, brought it to his lips, began to blow the horn-cry of Buckland.

AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE!

Chapter 4. The Breaking of the Storm

The horn-call lent speed to the armed hobbits racing for the Forest Gate. They dismounted, to gather in an ever-growing crowd about the Master and his son.

'We don't know that the orcs have taken Peregrin,' Saradoc said reasonably.

'We can't take the chance!' Merry shouted in a panic. At his father's dumbfounded look, he took hold of himself, and his next words were pleading. 'You don't understand...' he half sobbed. 'These orcs have no fearsome master who's commanded them to keep him safe even a little while.' He looked about the grim faces surrounding him. 'To them he's naught but fine sport and fresh meat!' The listeners' eyes began to reflect his own horror.

Merry continued brokenly, 'And if he screams or begs, they'll just kill him slower, for their own pleasure...' He shook his head in despair. '...but he won't beg... he won't...'

Fat old Merimac stepped forward to lay a hand on his shoulder. 'Then we'll just have to rescue him quicker, lad, won't we?' He had donned a black hood to ride against the ruffians more times than even his brother the Master knew. Merimac was a hobbit of action, and he could see action was needed now, and quickly.

He gave his nephew a shake. 'Come, lad,' he said urgently to Merry. 'How do we fight them? How do these monsters fight?'

Merry took a steadying breath and lifted his eyes to his uncle's. 'They like to attack from ambush.'

'So tell us what to do, you know them better than we do.'

Merry nodded suddenly. 'Right,' he said, and looked around at the throng. 'We split into five parts. One part rides down the path...' he met his father's eyes questioningly. 'They're bait...'

Saradoc nodded. 'Aye,' he said, 'Can't catch a fish without it.'

Merry took strength from his father's nod. '...and two parts ride either side of the path, about fifty paces to the side and fifty back from the last hobbits in the column.'

'Go on,' Merimac encouraged.

'The orcs will have heard the horn-call. They'll be lying in wait ten or maybe fifteen paces from the path some ways into the Forest; just after our lads pass them they'll rise to take them from the sides and behind.'

'And that's when we give them their surprise!' his uncle said almost gleefully, rubbing his hands together. 'Just like old times!' He turned away to shout, 'All right! Call off numbers! By fives!'

The time-honoured method for forming sports teams worked just as quickly to create battle formations.

The hobbits formed quickly into a long double column and marched down the path into the wood. They had decided it would be safer for the decoys to march rather than ride; it would make them less of a target and they could drop quickly under cover when the black feathered arrows started to fly. After passing under the shadow of the trees, some of the column started to break off and move to either side, hobbits on ponyback and on foot. Soon only a portion of the marchers were left on the path, but any orc scouts at the edge of the Forest would not have seen the division of force.

The Forest was full of unleashed lightnings, trembling with unspoken thunder, fury hanging in the very air they breathed. Yet somehow fear of the trees did not trouble the hobbits, and they marched along, one in their grim purpose, waiting for the screams and arrows that would signal the start of the battle.

***

'Go, Duram, ride!' Pippin shouted even as the orcs dragged him from the saddle. He had hope until he saw the black feathered arrows find their mark. Somehow the forester hung on to his pony which never faltered in its desperate race away from Fear and Death.

He saw the foul creatures clinging to Sock's mane and bridle, trying to bring the pony down. Maddened with fear and rage, the pony plunged and shook off half the orcs that held him, reared to bring his sharp hoofs down upon the rest. Breaking free with a furious kick of his heels, he fled. Several black feathered arrows followed him, but a crashing tree limb deflected the shots and the pony was safely away.

Laughing orcs poked and prodded Pippin; before he could get to his sword it was slapped away and fists and feet landed with devastating accuracy until he lay unresisting on the damp forest floor. He was only half aware of his hands being jerked behind him, tied together with cruelly tight bonds, his head jerked up by the hair to slip a noose about his neck.

Jeering orcs kicked him until he moaned, then lifted him to his feet, slapping him until he showed he understood he was to walk where he was led. He stumbled along blindly. Orcs laughed whenever he fell upon his unprotected face, and he'd be hauled back to his feet, slapped on the back, and made to walk again. All the while his captors chattered and growled cheerily back and forth at each other.

He'd thought orcs avoided daylight, but of course in the thick Forest they didn't have to worry much about the Sun making their heads weak. These orcs seemed strong and jolly enough.

Unlike the orcs who had captured him earlier, these shared a common tongue, and so there was no need for them to communicate in a language that Pippin might be able to understand as well. It didn't matter; he had a pretty good idea what they were talking about.

He didn't know how far they walked. The stumbling and shoving made it difficult to judge the distance. They brought him to a little clearing where trees had been recently felled to make a sort of encampment. Several orcs started building up a fire in the firepit, and he was shoved down, his lead rope tied to a nearby tree while his ankles were securely bound by a leering orc.

He must show no fear, no awareness of pain. If he could just hold out long enough, they might be frustrated enough to kill him quickly.

An orc, slightly larger than the others, crouched before him to gabble in his face. When he made no sign of hearing, the creature dealt him a heavy slap and gabbled again. Pippin shook his head, and satisfied, the chieftain orc smiled and laughed heartily, making a comment aside that set half the orcs in the clearing to laughing.

'I could use a good joke, myself,' Pippin muttered to himself. The orc grinned, pulling out its knife, cleaning the grime from its filthy nails while staring into Pippin's eyes. Suddenly one claw lashed out to grasp the hobbit's ear, while the other claw waved the knife lazily beside his head. Pippin forced himself not to follow the knife, but to stare straight ahead, not moving, not reacting, just enduring.

Grinning more widely, the orc brought the knife closer to Pippin's ear, only to be interrupted by the call of a silver horn. The orc chieftain jerked erect, slid its knife into its sheath, and called out harshly. All the orcs melted away in the direction of the horn call, save the one tending the fire.

This one laid the wood carefully, arranging every piece just so until the resulting fire met its satisfaction. Though it burned merrily now, Pippin could see it had been skillfully laid to burn down to even coals, a fine roasting fire.

This task done, the orc guard came over to entertain its unwilling guest until the party could properly begin.

The orc pointed to the spit above the fire, to Pippin and back to the spit again in horrid pantomime. Pippin did not allow himself to show shock or any other emotion. In truth, he had suspected as much. These orcs were under no orders from a master, compelling them to deliver hostages alive and unspoilt.

Disappointed by its captive's lack of response, the orc pulled out a sharp blade, licked it, drew it along Pippin's arm to make a long slice. It gathered up the blood that welled from the wound on a dirty finger, brought it to its mouth, and smacked its lips.

'Didn't your mother ever teach you not to play with your food?' Pippin muttered. He had only two wishes: one, that this would be over sooner than later, and the second, that Diamond would never learn any of the details.

The orc grinned evilly, then put the blade to the hobbit's throat. Pippin sat stoically as the blade tickled his neck from ear to ear.

Disgruntled by the lack of response, the orc turned away, then suddenly turned back to bury a fist in the hobbit's midriff. Pippin doubled over, expecting to see the orc draw back a blade dripping with his blood, but the creature had switched the blade to its other hand and it drew back only an empty fist.

Restored to good humour by this bit of playfulness, the orc went back to the fire, took out a whetting stone, and slowly and pleasurably sharpened his blade.

Far off, Pippin heard screams and harsh yells erupt. His host's head jerked upright, it gave an evil grin, looked at Pippin, put its knife away and rubbed its hands together. As the orc got up to check on the fire, Pippin could see that it had burned down nicely to coals. The orc evidently thought so, too, for it pulled out its knife again and returned to the hobbit.

Crouching before him, it repeated the tickling game, but Pippin wasn't playing. He stared straight ahead, willing this to be over. Tiring of the game, the orc started to turn away, suddenly whirling back to seize the hobbit's hair and draw his head back, aiming the knife with deadly intent.

At that moment there was a crack above them, and a heavy tree limb fell atop the orc, crushing its skull and knocking it flat.

***

When the yells erupted and arrows started to fly, the hobbits were ready, dropping in the path to present less of a target for the orcs... and for their own archers, now closing in behind the ambushing orcs. There was a confusion of screams, yells, blades clashing, tree limbs crashing.

When the fight was over, all the orcs lay dead, even the few that had started to flee the battle, only to be felled by hobbit arrows or falling limbs. The hobbits stared in wonder at the carnage about them. Not a hobbit had been touched by falling branch, but that could not be said of the orcs.

The sulfurous smell was dissipating, the hidden lightnings spent, the thunder silenced. The Forest stood as quiet as the hobbits, all breathing together. 'That's done, then,' Merry said softly. There was the soft sound of swords being wiped clean and sheathed, bows unstrung, pikes laid down. Ropes were tied about the carcases of the dead orcs, and ponies dragged them in long lines down the path to the meadow, where the hobbits threw them on a great pile for burning.

Several hobbits had been wounded, but astonishingly, there were no dead, and the wounds were slight. Somehow the orc arrows had been deflected by tree branches that had swayed without wind. The hobbits who fought sword-to-sword with their foul opponents had fought with grim determination, not the soft and easy mark the orcs had expected from spying out this fat, rich, and sleepy land.

A planning session was taking place. 'As long as the Forest's in this good mood, we can search as much as we like, I think,' Merry was saying. 'When we find their camp, for sure we'll find...' his voice trailed off. He was none too easy about what they might find. He straightened his shoulders. 'Ah, well,' he sighed. 'We have to make sure.'

Saradoc sent back to the Hall for maps of the Old Forest, for all the good they would do. Shifting paths and watercourses made any map a questionable tool at best. Still, it was a starting place.

***

Pippin sat, stunned by the sudden demise of his host. He could still hear confused sounds of battle; he wondered who would be the victors, and whether he might soon have company in his misery. He'd rather not.

Though he was tied hand and foot, he thought he might be able to bring his arms around in front of him, and with a great deal of trouble he finally succeeded. He raised his hands to try to loosen the noose about his neck, but they had been tied so tightly that he merely fumbled with limp fingers, unable even to feel the rope. He had to cut the bindings about his wrists, restore the circulation, before he could do anything more.

He inched along towards the dead orc on his belly; he could see the knife still clutched in its stiffening claw. He came to the end of his tether a frustrating foot or two short. Closing his eyes, he rested his forehead on the ground. The trees whispered to him in soft leaf rustlings and he felt sudden sleepiness steal over him. Reaction, he figured. He'd come to the end of his endurance. He'd just close his eyes for a minute, try to regather his strength.

When he awakened, he thought he'd try one more time; perhaps he could hold his breath long enough as the noose tightened to free his hands, then pull the noose away from his throat again before he strangled. He was surprised at how much give there was left in the rope; he thought he'd pulled as hard as he dared before, but now he was able to get his wrists to the knife. By dint of concentration and much patient sawing, the tight bonds finally fell away. Now he must endure the agonies of returning circulation, but he welcomed the sensation as another step on the road to freedom.

Finally he could move his fingers enough to pry loose the rope about his neck, then it was a relatively simple matter to wrest the knife from the dead orc's claw and cut the bonds around his ankles. This was progress.

He could hear a trickle of water nearby, which grew in his mind to become another kind of torment, until he could no longer lie but had to crawl in search of the sound. He soaked his raw wrists in the icy spring, then brought handfuls of lifegiving water to his mouth.

He fancied the trees were whispering to each other, and to him; surely his overwrought brain was fevered, but he found a fallen orc helmet, filled it with water, staggered to the firepit, repeated the motion until the coals were saturated. He stirred the ashes with a stick for good measure; the fire was out. The sense of relief in the Forest was probably just a reflection of his feelings on escaping becoming the main attraction at an orc feast.

Exhausted, he staggered against a conveniently placed tree, slid down, came to rest with his back against a cradling trunk. He'd just close his eyes for a few minutes, then he really needed to be on his way before those other orcs came back...

***

Pippin's pony Socks fled in mindless panic until he heard no sound of his pursuers. A grove of trees rose suddenly before him, planted so closely together that he would not be able to squeeze through. He stopped, sides heaving, indecisive.

Turning to one side, the pony saw a shaft of sunlight piercing the forest canopy. Drawn by the light, he meandered into a little clearing that for a wonder was filled with lush green grass. A little spring bubbled in the middle. Unthinking, the pony dipped his head to drink, then pulled a delicious mouthful of green. Relaxing, his breathing coming easier, forgetting the peril behind him, he grazed.

His head jerked up at the sound of distant screams and shouts, but the clamour of battle soon died away and he went back to grazing. When he was satisfied, he had a glorious roll in the long grass, standing to shake himself in delight. The leaves rustled above him, whispering. He stood a long moment listening, then turned to slowly amble back the way he had come.

When Pippin awoke, he thought he was still dreaming. Socks stood before him, head down, nuzzling for a treat. Somehow he managed to haul himself up into the saddle, using a convenient stump for help. He turned loose the reins, trusting the pony to find the way home.

The trees swayed and whispered as they rode along, making sweet music. Branches rubbed together with a soothing sound. Pippin wondered how he could have ever found the noise of the trees ominous.

He was aware that Socks had stopped, and looked up to see something bright ahead. Socks took a step or two closer, and Pippin could make out his sword, of a wonder tangled in hanging vines. He merely had to reach out a hand to take it. It was probably just a fancy of his fevered brain, but he muttered, 'Thank ye kindly,' aloud, and the leaves rustled in reply.

***

The first squares in the grid they laid out on the map had been searched, and now a new search was being set up. The pile of orcs had been soaked with oil and set ablaze, sending much smoke into the golden sky of late afternoon.

Saradoc said, 'D'you think we dare continue the search? The Sun will soon be seeking her bed... The Forest is always more awake at night.'

His brother said thoughtfully, 'I know, but I think as long as we cut no living wood we'll be safe. The Forest is calm, calmer than I've ever felt it before. Haven't you noticed?'

Saradoc answered, 'I was afraid it might be wishful thinking. The Hall has been at odds with the Forest for so long...' His eyes went to his son, sitting on Jewel, waiting for the next search to start, staring at the path leading into the Forest. Abruptly he said, 'We'll search all night if we have to.'

'Right,' Merimac answered. 'I've sent to the Hall for lanterns. I don't think the Forest would care for torches, but it mightn't mind lanterns too much.' He turned to the map, put a finger down on the grid and was about to speak when a shout came from the waiting Merry.

The hobbits looked up to see him kicking Jewel into a gallop across the hollow to the start of the Forest path, where a wavering figure upon a smoke coloured pony could be seen emerging from under the trees.

Chapter 5. A Glimmer of Sunlight

Diamond steamed and fretted, looking out onto the yard. Armed hobbits stood at all the entrances to Hall and outbuildings. No one yet knew what was going on, only that a forester had been shot full of arrows and Buckland had been called to arms. She figured Pippin would be in the thick of things.

'Sit down, you worry me,' Estella, Merry's wife said. She'd miscarried their first child and her constant attendance on Diamond was touching, but sometimes aggravating as well.

'I'm fine,' Diamond snapped. She softened her voice. 'I'm sorry, Estella. I will sit down soon, I just thought I heard ponies' hoofs in the courtyard.'

'I'm worried about them, too,' Estella said gently. 'Now sit. Let me take a turn by the window; I'll tell you the minute I see something.'

Diamond allowed herself to be eased into a comfortable chair. 'You know I'll never be able to get up from here again without help,' she laughed.

Estella gave an evil grin. 'I know!' she said smugly. 'Here, put your feet up,' she said, pushing a stool into place. 'Now I have you just where I want you!'

She took Diamond's place by the window. The brilliant sunset light was fading, and Estella reported, 'They're lighting torches in the yard.'

'That'll make a fine target for ruffians,' Diamond commented.

'We don't know yet that they are ruffians,' said Estella.

'I hope that they are,' Diamond said.

'What do you mean?' Estella asked, her eyes narrowing.

'Hobbits drove out the ruffians once before, we can drive them out again,' Diamond said equably.

'What if it's something worse than ruffians?' Estella said slowly, with an uncharacteristic show of anxiety.

Diamond looked hard at her. 'You're supposed to be comforting me, remember?' she said sharply.

Estella laughed and came to give her a quick hug. 'I forgot,' she said. 'I'll try to do better. I shall return to the window and report the arrival of our husbands, safe and sound...'

Ponies' feet were heard on the stones and she whirled and ran to the window. Diamond tried her best to get out of the chair but could not. Frustrated, she called, 'What do you see?'

'Riders. Not as many as went out. Wait!' Diamond waited. Estella continued, 'Wagons, now... there are wounded.'

'Help me up!' Diamond insisted. Estella didn't answer. 'Estella, so help me, if you don't get me out of this chair, I'll...' she managed by a great effort to haul herself upright and over to the window. Looking down into the yard, she saw Pippin's Socks being led by another hobbit. The pony's saddle was empty.

Diamond gasped, and at the same moment a stabbing pain assailed her. Estella instantly grabbed her by the arms. 'Diamond, this won't help Pippin! You must think of the child, you have to take care of yourself.'

'I'm all right, it was one of those false pains I've been having,' Diamond said faintly. 'I've got to know, Estella... It's the waiting and not knowing that is tearing me apart...'

Unexpectedly, Estella agreed. 'All, right, we'll go to the entrance,' she said. 'Those husbands of ours are probably too busy to be thinking of us right now.'

***

In the yard, Merry was overseeing the unloading of the wounded. Most would be able to walk into the Hall on their own legs, a few would need to be carried, even though none was badly wounded, thanks to the unexpected help of the Forest in the fight against the orcs. He guessed the Forest hated orcs more than it hated hobbits, now.

The sounds of argument came to his ears. 'Master Steward, you must let us take you to the great room. The healer's there with his assistants, and he said he didn't want you to walk until he'd had a chance to look you over.'

'I'm fine,' Pippin answered patiently. 'I just have a few scratches. No need to carry me anywhere.'

He looked up as Merry approached and swung down from Jewel. 'Merry, Diamond will be beside herself if she sees me carried into the Hall.'

'It's all right, Benlac,' Merry said to the servant. 'I'll take him from here.' He reached up his arms. 'Come on, Pip, let me at least help you down.' He ignored Pippin's grimace as he climbed out of the wagon, caught him as he staggered, pulled Pippin's arm around his own shoulders, careful not to touch the chafed wrist. 'All right, then,' he said. 'You're not being carried into the Hall. You're walking. Sort of.'

Pippin tried to laugh. As the Hall door swung wide, he said out of the corner of his mouth, 'See?' Both their wives hovered at the entrance.

'You look terrible,' Merry answered him from the corner of his own mouth. 'We ought to have carried you in, covered with a sheet!'

'Ah, well, it was quite a party,' Pippin said. 'You know how those orcs can be, quite wild when they've been at the orc draughts.'

'Did they give you any?' Merry wanted to know.

'No, I think they'd run out by the time I got there,' Pippin answered. 'All they had to offer me was the dregs.'

Merry laughed, and the waiting wives found reassurance in the sound.

Diamond tried to hide her shock as Merry brought Pippin into the light of the Hall. 'Hello, my love, I'm home,' her husband said jauntily. 'What's for supper?'

'Supper's over and done,' she tried to say pertly. 'That's what you get for coming in late.'

'Perhaps you can scare up some of the scraps you'd saved for the cat,' Pippin answered.

Diamond reached to hug him, then, but he gasped and she drew back. 'Sorry, love,' he said, 'you caught me in one of my ticklish spots.'

They had reached the great room by now, and hobbits came forward to take Pippin from either side and lift him to a table.

Merry tried to escort Diamond away, but she pushed at him, saying, 'I have the right to be here.'

'You shouldn't see this,' Merry said, his eyes dark with concern for her.

'I've seen worse,' she said. 'He's alive, and that's what's important.' She turned to the healer, who had come over from another table. 'Ossilan, what can I do to help?'

'You can sit down,' the old healer said gravely, then met Merry's gaze. 'Bring a chair over, she can sit next to her husband.' He walked with Merry a few steps away, and added under his breath, 'She'll be more upset if we keep her away. We must tread carefully.' Merry nodded, brought a comfortable chair, eased Diamond into it, then placed a stool for her feet.

'All comfy, my love?' Pippin asked lightly.

'Perfectly, my dear,' she answered.

'Good, just tell me if you want anything, I'll hop up and get it for you,' her husband said.

'I'll let you know,' was Diamond's reply. Thoughout their banter Ossilan made his investigation. From where she sat, Diamond could see bruises covering every exposed spot on her husband; there were probably more bruises yet to be revealed. A long, shallow slice decorated one forearm, and his face was cut and bruised as if he'd fallen repeatedly upon it. Then there were the marks on wrist and ankle, and the mark of a rope about his neck.

'Orcs?' she whispered. The healer's low-voiced comments to Merry and his assistant stopped, and they turned to her. From the look on Merry's face she knew her guess was accurate. 'There are orcs in the Shire?'

Merry moved to her side. 'There were orcs in the Forest,' he said. 'They're all dead now. We don't know that there were any more than these.'

'How did they get here?' she gasped.

'We think they were survivors of the battle of Mirkwood, looking for greener pastures. They had set up camp in the Old Forest, were making themselves quite at home,' Pippin said, as if he were recounting that day's weather.

'How do we know they are all gone?' she said.

'We don't,' Merry answered. 'That's why we will continue to mount a guard on Buckland, and messengers are going out in pairs to alert the other communities. The word will spread from there to the rest of the Shire.'

'I think it's just an isolated incident,' Pippin said, his words slurring from exhaustion and pain. 'We'd have heard if other areas were losing livestock.'

'Yes, but we'll have to act as if it's not isolated, until we prove that it is,' Merry answered. 'I want to get word to the Rangers, find out what they think of this invasion.'

'Yes, and be sure to chide them for letting this menace through their defences,' Pippin added. 'I think we ought to dock their wages.'

'We don't pay them any wages,' Merry said.

'O aye, then it should cut them to the quick if we pay them half what they've been getting up until now.' Pippin sucked in his breath as Ossilan began to wash the slice on his arm.

'I'm sorry, Master Steward, but I'm told that this type of wound is often contaminated. We must make sure we get it thoroughly clean.'

'Right, be sure you grind a little harder against it, then; you've hardly scratched the surface,' Pippin answered between his teeth.

'Be assured that I will,' Ossilan said. He shook his head. 'Master Peregrin, we might as well just fill a tub with arnica and dip you in it, you're one great bruise from head to foot.'

'Tell me about it,' Pippin said.

The healer gestured to a helper and soon he had a steaming cup in his hand. 'I want you to drink this, it's tea with plenty of honey,' he said.

Merry helped his cousin sit up, but Pippin insisted on holding the cup himself despite his bandaged wrists and arm. 'You'd think I'd've learned to like honey a bit better by now, the way people keep pouring it into me,' he muttered in between sips.

'Well, if you'd just stop being so clumsy and falling down all over the place, we wouldn't need to pour it into you,' Merry answered.

'Perhaps if I don't drink quite so much brandy, I won't fall down so often,' Pippin said.

'There's a thought,' Merry answered. 'On the other hand, some brandy would be welcome right now.' His wife took the hint, and soon Estella had brought a glass of brandy for Pippin. 'Don't I get any?' Merry asked.

'Ask your cousin if he'll share his; I understand he has plans to cut down,' Estella answered.

The healer had finished his ministrations, and looked sternly at Pippin. 'You walked into the Hall on your own legs,' he said.

'O aye, I thought that's what they were there for,' Pippin replied.

'Your wife has seen that you are fine... well, that you are alive, at least, so there is no more reassuring needed to be done by you.'

'Very kind of you to say so,' Pippin murmured.

'You will let us carry you to your bed,' Ossilan said.

'Will you read me a bedtime story, as well?' Pippin asked.

The healer nearly smiled. 'I think I'll leave that to your wife,' he answered.

****

Diamond stared down at her husband as they settled him gently on the pillows; the silent hobbits pulled up the covers, nodded to her, and stepped softly from the room.

Pippin opened his eyes just then. 'What is it?' he asked. 'Did I dribble when I drank? Is there tea still on my chin?'

'I am trying to figure out where to kiss you good night,' she returned.

'I think the tip of my right ear is still intact,' he said.

She bent awkwardly to kiss the spot, then slid into her own spot on the bed. 'I'm almost afraid to touch you,' she said.

He chuckled. 'I won't break,' he said. She felt him gently encompassing her and their unborn child in his embrace, and then she felt him sigh. 'It's good to be home,' he said. She lay without moving as his breathing quickly became deep and even.

Sometime after the middle night, she awakened to feel the bed shaking. She no longer lay within her husband's embrace. Reaching out carefully, she found Pippin moved away from her. She rolled over with difficulty and sat up. By the light of the turned-down lamp, she saw that he was curled in a tight ball, hugging his knees, shaking.

'What is it, love?' she said anxiously. He did not answer, and she could see the glisten of tears on his face.

Slowly and gently, she lay back down on the bed and wrapped herself around him, holding him close as she could. 'I'm here,' she soothed. 'You're safe now.' She stroked his hair. 'They're all gone.'

Gradually she felt him begin to relax. As he uncurled, she guided his hand to rest upon her distended abdomen. 'Come, feel our son,' she said. 'He's dancing.' Their hands lay together for a long while, feeling the promise of joy to come.

After awhile, Diamond said gently, 'Sleep now, you need to rest.'

Pippin answered low. 'I cannot. The dreams...' She was shocked to hear him admit to any weakness, her laughing husband who always scoffed at danger.

'Come, love.' She eased his head against her breast. 'Let me help.'

He lay without moving for a long time, and eventually the rhythm of her heartbeat lulled him back to sleep. She held him thus until the morning light stole through the window.

Chapter 6. Storm's End

The Master of Buckland stopped mid-sentence to look at his son, who was staring blankly into space, pen at rest.

'Meriadoc?'

Merry shook his head, dipped the pen once more in the inkwell, looked up. 'Where were we?'

'I think we're about finished, just put in how many orcs we counted and a description of their gear,' Saradoc said. 'Then I'd like you to copy it all out again, for the Hall records.'

'Yes, Sir,' Merry answered absently.

Saradoc cleared his throat to command his son's attention. 'How long do you think our messengers will have to wait at Bree before they can contact a Ranger?'

'A few days at most,' Merry answered. 'Strider said they have regular patrols.'

'Good,' Saradoc nodded. 'I want you to go to the Bridge to meet the Ranger when he comes.' He rose from his chair. 'He can take that account you're writing and send it along to the King in Gondor.' After stretching, Saradoc said, 'I'm going to check on your cousin. Have that finished before I get back.' Merry nodded and turned back to his scribing.

Saradoc looked in on Pippin, who was asleep, then sought out Merry's wife.

'Estella, did your husband sleep at all last night?' he asked.

'He came to bed later than I did,' she said slowly. 'I thought he slept... but he was gone when I awoke.' She could see that this news worried her father in law. 'You think it's the old trouble, coming back?'

In the months after their return to the Shire, Merry's days had been spent riding gaily about the Shire with his cousin Pippin. His nights had been haunted by nightmare. Healing had been slow, and those who loved him grieved to see his hard-won peace threatened.

'Orcs in the Shire,' she mused. 'His worst nightmare, come true.'

'Let's hope the nightmare is over,' Saradoc answered.

Estella met her father in law's eyes and raised her chin defiantly. 'It had better be,' she said. 'If any orcs dare to show themselves around here again, to disturb my husband's peace, they'll have me to deal with!'

Saradoc had seen one of her rare displays of temper, and he smiled. He was certainly glad not to be an orc.

****

The messengers returned a few days later with the news that a Ranger would meet the Master of Buckland at Brandywine Bridge the following day, as requested.

Merry rode out with a small contingent of armed Bucklanders. Although the hobbits arrived before the designated time, the Ranger was waiting.

Merry gave the signal to halt and swung down from his pony, taking up a bag he'd had tied to his saddle. The Ranger came forward, pushing back his hood. It was a face Merry didn't know, though he could see a resemblance to Strider and the other Dunedain who had fought beside him in the War.

Merry bowed. 'Dunadan,' he said, 'I thank you for responding so quickly to our summons.'

'Master of Buckland?' the Ranger said.

'No, I am his son,' Merry replied.

'Ah, then you are Meriadoc, the King's friend!' The Ranger made a deep bow. 'At your service.'

'And your family's service,' Merry answered. 'Come, let us walk.' He and the Ranger walked to the center of the Bridge and stood staring out at the River.

'Our watchers report that the farmers of Buckland wear swords to do their plowing and are guarded by archers,' the Ranger said. 'Your messengers warned the Breelanders to watch out for orcs.'

'We'd been losing livestock for a week or two, then a forester was murdered, we barely gathered enough bones for a burial, and another forester was badly wounded.'

'How did you know it was orcs?'

'They invited our Steward to dine with them,' Merry said grimly. 'He declined, of course, and there was a falling out. We slaughtered fifty of the creatures in the Old Forest a few days ago.'

The Ranger straightened up in shock. 'Fifty!' he said.

Merry reached into the bag he held, taking out a battered helmet. 'Fifty,' he repeated.

The ranger examined the helmet closely. 'Mirkwood,' he muttered. 'But we thought we'd got them all.'

Merry smiled grimly. 'Not quite all.' He pulled out the paper he'd so carefully scribed. 'Here's a full report; inform the Dunedain and then send it along to the King.'

The Ranger took the paper, scanned it quickly, folded it and tucked it away.

'Has there been any further sign?'

'Our messengers have gone throughout the Shire. Nobody else has been missing livestock, but we're not taking any chances.'

The Ranger nodded. 'We will tighten our guard, as well.'

'If you would have your watchers check in at the guardhouse at the Bridge as they make their rounds, we could get news to you faster,' Merry said. 'It's a bit awkward to have to ride to Bree and wait for a Ranger to show up at the Prancing Pony, no matter how good Barliman's beer is.'

The Ranger smiled. 'I think we can arrange something of the sort,' he said.

***

When Merry returned that evening, he found Mayor Samwise in the Master's study. They greeted one another warmly. 'You didn't ride over from Hobbiton alone, did you?' he asked.

'No, a couple of the Cottons came with me,' Sam said. He shook his head. 'It doesn't feel like the Shire, somehow, to have to go armed and in numbers.'

'No, it doesn't,' Merry said. 'Well, it's just for awhile. The Rangers didn't think any orcs got out of Mirkwood, so there may be no more to disturb us.'

Sam smiled grimly. 'Then the swords can go back up over the mantels, and the bows be used for hunting for the pot again, until the next time they're needed.' He slapped Merry's back. 'Mr Frodo was always saying that we must never forget. This'll be a nice reminder for everyone.'

'Even the Thain has learned some kind of lesson,' Saradoc put in. 'He actually offered to send armed hobbits to our support.'

'What did you say?' Merry asked.

'I told him to use them to patrol the Southern borders, that we had the Eastern side covered.'

'I suppose that leaves the North for the Mayor,' Samwise said. 'I'll get right on it.' He smiled. 'If the Shire needs another scouring, we've got to get it done quickly. I'll never be able to live with my family if we can't make our annual visit to Buckland next month.'

'Do you think we can get this over with that quickly?' Merry asked.

Sam smiled at him. 'There have been no other reports of livestock missing, or hobbits, for that matter, save the old gaffer who had a pint too much and fell in a ditch on the way home. Good thing it wasn't raining at the time, he'll be fine.' He put a reassuring hand on Merry's arm. 'The War is over, Merry. We have to be on our guard, for there will always be evil in this world. But we don't have to live in fear.'

***

Pippin felt worse before he started to feel better. He was unable to get up for several days, stiff and sore, but also feverish. Ossilan reassured him that it was a normal reaction, his body's effort to heal, and not infection from the orc blade.

The first time he awoke, Diamond was sitting next to the bed, smiling at him. 'Hello, my love, are you hungry?' she asked.

'Somehow I will never look at food in quite the same way,' he answered.

'Well, you still need to eat. Ossilan says you should stick to soft foods for a few days, as long as your jaw is sore.'

Pippin reached up slowly to rub at his bruised and aching chin. 'Yes, I think some porridge would go well, about now.'

'I thought you hated porridge!' Diamond said.

'I do. I thought I'd get it out of the way, first thing, so that you won't push it on me when I tire of broth and custard,' he replied.

Diamond laughed. 'I don't think there's anything at all wrong with you,' she said.

'Who said there was?' he demanded. Chuckling, his wife kissed the tip of his right ear and went to find him some breakfast.

When Pippin had improved enough to sit his pony again, a large group of Bucklanders met at the Forest Gate. Led by the Master and his son, they walked slowly across the meadow to the edge of the Forest, and a little way down the path. The Forest was watchful.

When they halted, Saradoc raised his voice so that all could hear, including the trees.

'For years, Hall and Forest have been at odds,' he shouted. 'Since the time when the Forest hung over the Hedge and Bucklanders made a great bonfire, there has been no peace. Hobbits have feared the Forest, and the Forest has feared the hobbits.'

The trees rustled slightly in the still air.

'Now we have united against a common foe,' Saradoc continued. 'I wish to proclaim a truce between the Forest and the hobbits of Buckland.' He nodded to Merry, who stepped forward, raising a large axe above his head. The feeling of tension and breathlessness increased, but Merry swung the axe high and brought it down, to bury the head in the path.

'We hereby swear that the hobbits of Buckland will cut no more living wood from this Forest,' Saradoc said. 'We ask only the right to collect fallen branches, to clear out underbrush to lessen the risk of fire, and to have safe passage through the Forest at need.'

The air became fresh again, and sunlight pierced the canopy to dance along the axe handle. Merry turned to his father. 'I think we have an agreement,' he said.


Note to Readers:

This story is set in S.R. 1430, so the "battle of Mirkwood" mentioned is not the one that took place during the War of the Ring about a decade earlier. It is conceivable that any surviving orcs that were driven out of Mirkwood by Thranduil fled back into the mountains, where they lived on slim pickings for some time, licking their wounds. Meanwhile, after the war, Rangers came back to the North and resumed their patrols. The orcs could have come out of the mountains again, angry and desperate, to be repelled from Mirkwood a second time, some years later, and some Rangers might have been involved in the fight, you never know... This group of half a hundred orcs are intended to be the survivors of that debacle. Scorning the mountains, they have headed westward, looking for easier pickings...





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