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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.
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