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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.
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.
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