9. Of Fish and Forest
'You've turned into quite the resourceful lad,' Saradoc mused.
'Oh, aye, there's no end to the things I can do!' Pippin answered with a chuckle. 'You need a fire started, fish cooked, tree climbed --'
'Troll killed,' Merry broke in. He and Pippin laughed. Saradoc looked at them sharply. They hadn't said much about their Travels when they got home, just enough for him to gather there'd been more danger than they'd let on. He had seen the scars on wrist and ankle, and once he had entered without knocking when his son was bathing and been shocked to see healed slashes reminiscent of whip marks on Merry's back.
'Ooooo, just smell that fish!' Pippin crooned. He bent closer to give it a poke, then pulled it from the fire. 'Perfect!'
They fell to with an appetite sharpened by the ride, the sunlight sparkling on the stream, the fresh air, the exercise of fishing. Adding the fish to the picnic in the basket, they made a fine meal. Then while Pippin scoured the pan with sand and packed everything away, Merry went to check the ponies.
'He sets great store by that pony of his,' Saradoc remarked conversationally to his nephew. He was surprised to see Pippin give a start, but no explanation was forthcoming, only a murmur of agreement. Then his nephew turned to him with an amusing story of how an elf and a Ranger had tickled fish out of a stream to feed their companions on the trip South, how a dwarf had tried the trick, lost his footing and nearly been carried away by the stream. How the dwarf had shook off his rescuers' hands with dignity, claiming that it was all part of his fishing technique, before stalking away to dry himself in the sunshine. Saradoc's hearty laughter greeted his son, returning from the ponies.
'Must have been a good story,' Merry commented, taking up his line.
Pippin chortled, 'Just a fishing story...'
Merry raised an eyebrow, 'Oh, aye. The dwarf?'
Convulsed with laughter, Pippin nodded. Merry grinned, 'Yes, it was quite a sight. Unique method of fishing, that!'
'But let us get back to our own fishing, if we are to have any to take back for supper,' Saradoc reminded his son and nephew.
The fish were not biting quite so well as earlier. It took longer to put together a decent string of fish, but Saradoc decided they had nearly enough. 'One more good sized one, I think, and we will head back. Cannot spare the whole day for fishing, you know.'
'Then let us see who can catch the biggest!' Pippin challenged. All set to their fishing again. Merry had the first nibble, but the fish took the bait without taking the hook. Then Saradoc felt something nudging his line. He played the line skillfully and suddenly a great weight hit the line and pulled him a step or two towards the stream.
'Oh, Uncle, I think you have the big one on your line! It looks to be the biggest of the day!' Pippin shouted with excitement. Saradoc grinned acknowledgement and set himself to fight the fish ashore, cheered on by the others.
The fish put up a fine fight, but the Master of Buckland was winning... when sudden pain seized his left arm and he staggered. Pippin jumped to seize the line, but Merry grabbed his father, concern etching his face. 'What is it?'
'I am all right, Son,' he gasped, 'It is just a cramp,' but then a great band squeezed his chest and he could not get a breath. He sagged but Merry was there to steady him.
'Leave the fish!' he said shortly to Pippin.
'But...' Pippin started to protest, then looked around and dropped the line to help Merry ease Saradoc to the ground.
'Pippin, go! Get the healer, quick!' Merry said urgently, holding tight to his father. Saradoc could not get enough breath to speak, but grasped his son's arm with a desperate hand.
Pippin ran to his pony, leaped to its back without bothering about a saddle, and went galloping up the path.
Merry held his father close. 'Hold on,' he encouraged. 'Help will be here soon.'
Saradoc could neither move nor speak. All the world contracted to the pain in his chest.
'Breathe, Father,' Merry urged. 'Just keep breathing.'
Huh. Easy enough for him to say. He didn't have this great band about his chest squeezing all the air out. His hold on Merry's arm tightened, but his son showed no sign of discomfort.
'Hold on, Father,' he said again. He was silent a moment, and then began to croon softly, an old song, one that Saradoc had sung to him in times of illness or injury, like the time he'd had to have stitches after stepping on a sharp stick while chasing young Peregrin across a stream.
[A/N: For the tune, click here: Music]
'The water runs free, laddie, laddie,
'Comes now Mistress Spring,
'Lifting up her pretty flowered skirts
'To dance in the stream...
'Laddie, come sing now, come sing...'
Saradoc wondered how long a hobbit could last without air. Darkness swam before his eyes.
'The water runs low, laddie, laddie,
'Comes now Mistress Summer
'With her skirts sky blue and grassy green,
'To wander quite slow...
'Laddie, come sing now, come sing...'
Somehow the music was helping. He found he could draw one gasping breath, then another.
'The water runs chill, laddie, laddie,
'Comes now Mistress Autumn
'Turning leaves to gold and scarlet flame,
'As she wends her sweet will...
'Laddie, come sing now, come sing...'
'The water stands still, laddie, sparkling
'Jewels for Mistress Winter
'With her bright skirts of snowy white,
'Sweeping over the hill...
'Laddie, come sing now, come sing...'
'That's better,' he tried to say.
'Don't try to talk, Bahbah. Save your strength.' Bahbah. The old name that had fallen so sweetly from a small son's lips.
'You are my strength,' he gasped. 'My strong right arm.' He fought for another breath. 'I thought I'd lost you...'
He felt his son's arms tighten around him. 'I'm harder to lose than you think,' Merry murmured. He sat silent for a moment, and a faraway look came into his eyes. 'Though I thought I had lost myself, for awhile.' He came back from wherever his thoughts had wandered, to meet his father's anguished gaze. 'I am here now. I won't leave you that way again.'
The Dark hovered so close he could almost taste it. He looked up at the sparkling stream, then further to the sky, the sunshine pouring down through the canopy of the trees, and when he looked back to Saradoc, his father's eyes were closed.
'Father!' Saradoc's eyes opened again. 'Stay with me. Don't go to sleep now.' It seemed to him as if the best thing to do at the moment was to keep his father from sleeping.
'I'll... try.' Merry tried to sing again but his throat closed down. He coughed to clear it, felt his father squeeze his arm, looked down into understanding eyes.
'It is... so good to hear you sing again,' his father murmured. 'I've missed it.' Merry nodded, not trusting himself to answer. He had to get control of himself. He forced himself to take deep breaths, and smiled.
'We never seem to have much time to talk,' he said softly.
His father's eyes stayed fixed on his face. 'Tell me...'
'What happened after... you went into the Old Forest?'
Merry smiled wryly. No one had shown much interest in their adventures in foreign parts, and in truth he'd not had the heart to talk about their travels. Too much had been lost, too much nightmare remained and the bright spots were mere specks of gold glinting in a dark background. Still, he could play at being a dwarf and mine the gold for his father's sake.
He told of going through the Forest Gate, the oddly changed path, the picnic on the hilltop, the unexpected nap.
'Foolish thing to do!' Saradoc roused enough to say.
'I know. You warned us enough times...' Merry continued his story: How the trees seemed to herd them towards the Withywindle, from where all the queerness in the Forest appeared to seep, and Old Man Willow.
A thin cloud floated across the sun and Merry shook off a chill. He met his father's eyes, smiled, and continued.
'And then Frodo and Sam ran up the path calling for help, and what do you think happened?' A smile touched his father's lips as Merry fell back into the singsong of the storyteller fully involved in his tale. 'Who should come along but Tom in his blue coat and boots of yellow...'
'Bombadil,' his father murmured.
Merry stopped short in surprise. 'You know him?'
His father smiled again. 'I used to have time to wander the paths like... any other young hobbit.' He squeezed Merry's arm. 'Tom and I are... old friends.' He tried to speak further but a spasm of pain seized him.
'Hold on, Father. I can hear them coming.' The water rushing by had covered the riders' approach until they were nearly upon the waiting pair.
Pippin came first, jumping from his pony before it had stopped and running to crouch by them. 'The healer is right behind me,' he gasped, 'and more help is on the way.'
Saradoc reached a trembling hand to touch his nephew's arm. Merry saw his lips form the words "young scamp" but no sound came. Pippin jumped up to hide his tears and began to coax the coals of the fire into burning again, and put a pot of water to boil.
Another pony appeared on the path, not quite so precipitously ridden. The healer pulled his mount to a stop, swung down, threw the reins around a branch. Taking his saddlebags from the pony, he strode over to Saradoc and Merry.
'No, stay here, keep him propped up,' he said to Merry as he began his examination. He took the Master's wrist in his hand, unobtrusively watching the rise and fall of the chest as he catalogued the grey face, gasping breaths, cold sweat and the pain-filled eyes. 'I think first we will give you something for the pain, Master,' he said finally.
He took a small flask from his bag and poured out a small cupful of clear liquid. 'Willow bark tea,' he said shortly. 'I have sweetened it with some honey, but it will be bitter.' Saradoc nodded, sipped obediently, unusually cooperative. After he had got the entire cupful down, Ossilan poured from another flask, a clear amber liquid with a heady aroma. 'And now a little brandy to help you relax.'
'Only fitting for the Master of Brandy Hall,' Merry added.
Pippin came back from the fire. 'The water's boiling,' he informed the healer.
'Good.' Ossilan extended a small bag to him. 'Pour all of this -- don't spill any of the herbs, mind you, they've been carefully measured -- into the pot. Take it from the fire, cover it, and let it sit.'
'I will tell you when we are ready for it.' The healer turned his attention back to Saradoc. 'There's a litter coming. By the time it reaches us you ought to be feeling more comfortable.'
Merry met the healer's eye. 'What is it?' he asked. Ossilan shook his head with a "will talk to you later" expression in his eyes, then looked back down at Saradoc.
'All the troubles of the past year or so have put a strain on your heart, Master. You are going to have to take my advice this time, not like the time you broke your leg,' his expression became stern, 'and have a good rest.' Saradoc tried to shake his head in protest, but the healer overruled him cheerfully, 'it is a good thing you have a fine son who can act as Master until we have you back on your feet again.'
He gave Merry a meaningful look and Merry looked down at his father and grinned. 'Oh, aye, I promise that Peregrin and I will try out best not to run the place down into the ground.' His father managed a weak chuckle. The healer squeezed his arm and went to check on Pippin's pot of steeping herbs.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.