27. Eldest, Smallest and Strongest
Much, much older than the Old Forest, Merry thought. And a lot shabbier. He followed carefully after Legolas, who was a dozen feet ahead of him, as the Elf led their borrowed steed through the dim, ancient woods. The ground was littered with what appeared to be centuries of mouldering leaves and debris. The massive trees stood like twisted columns in a ruined temple of some lost race of giants, and the canopy above was so thick that only a few dust-filled beams of sunlight filtered through. The undergrowth was scarce and every branch was draped with filmy strands of grey-green moss. Since entering the forest they had seen no living thing—barring an occasional ordinary spider--except for endless silent trees that showed no signs of requiring a Shepherd.
They parted from Aragorn and Gimli two days earlier, and entered the northernmost part of the Forest of Fangorn, penetrating what to Merry appeared to be a solid wall of interlacing branches, thick vines, and last year's dried leaves. But Legolas slipped through, and reported that just on the other side of the apparently impervious wall, the forest opened up and was easily passable for their horse—and for a hobbit.
Merry was doing his best to walk quietly through the duff on the forest floor. He had known for months how silent Legolas could be, but he'd not had the opportunity to be alone with him, and thus to hear—or rather, not hear--the Elf's movements without the distracting noises of seven other companions. He shook his head and sighed, and immediately wished he had held his breath. Be still! he scolded himself. I never thought I'd feel noisy in comparison to any person bigger than myself; but that's just how I feel: like a clumsy, loud Dwarf next to him. Even the Elvish mare was quiet, carefully placing each hoof, hardly disturbing the leaves as she plodded behind Legolas at the end of her loosely tied tether.
Slowly the hours passed. Merry had never felt quite so out of place—or so lonely. The Elf seemed content to search in total silence. After a brief conversation during which Legolas explained his theory of the purpose of their search for Ents, they moved on with hardly a pause. They stopped for a few bites to eat, and Merry was certain that the meal was entirely for his benefit—that left to himself, Legolas would have carried on, moving through the shadows beneath the great trees without rest. Every so often he would halt, gesture for Merry to do the same, and lean forward as if listening intently. But there was nothing to hear but the sad rustle of wind through dead leaves. No birds, no chatter of squirrels, not even the buzz of insects. Fangorn Forest seemed utterly deserted of life, save such life as was rooted to the ground.
Merry yawned as his thoughts wandered. The others must have floated quite a ways down the Great River by now. I hope Pip hasn't driven poor Gandalf to distraction yet, or if he has, that the old wizard hasn't tossed him over the side of the boat. He had a general sense of the lands about them, nearly as good a grasp as Frodo, for he had always loved maps. That old map of Bilbo's, he mused. It was my favorite, even if I never really believed that Smaug was real until I started to see some strange things myself… He had happily accepted Frodo's suggestion that he accompany him to the library in Rivendell and help him study the great leather-bound books of maps. He remembered that the land of Rohan lay in a broad band north of the White Mountains of Gondor, bounded by rivers: the Isen on the West, and Anduin in the East, and divided by the Entwash in the middle. The Entwash! he chuckled to himself. Of course… How odd, that I'd be here, in the land of the Ents! The source of that river must be nearby…
He looked at the contours of the land beneath the trees. He appeared to be walking up the gentle slope of a low ridge. Where might a stream run? Certainly it would come down from the Mountains, and then generally south, and east. But now that he thought of it, he wondered which way was south and east?
He stopped. Merry gazed about, his heart suddenly racing. Legolas was gone! The horse was nowhere in sight. He was alone!
He spun quickly, looking back and to either side. But all he saw were the grey-green boles of enormously tall, very old trees. His breath came in sharp, shallow pants as he ran a few steps forward, then he spun on his heel and went in the opposite direction. No! I can't have been so stupid as to get lost in another Forest!
He fought to control his rising panic. He looked around again. Strange, he thought, the trees—they're different. He recalled walking beneath great twisted, thick-barked trees. He'd bruised the bottoms of his feet by walking on a carpet of acorns, as hard as pebbles. He looked down. No acorns, but here and there on the thick mat of grey-brown leaves he saw spiny husks and a few triangular-shaped nuts. These trees were straighter and taller. At their broad bases—six feet or more in diameter—the bark was a fine meshwork of grey lines and narrow grooves, quite different that the trees he'd seen for their first day inside Fangorn, and most of today. Those earlier trees—clearly oaks—had deeply rutted, gnarled bark, overgrown with mosses and lichens. He looked up, and saw that above his head, where the first branches appeared, the boles of these new trees became smooth and grey.
"Beech, I suppose," he muttered aloud. His words fell flat, absorbed by the thick vegetation and the heavy, still air. "Though certainly the biggest, oldest beeches in all of Middle Earth…"
I need to get to higher ground, he thought, as he hurried to the top of the ridge. He tried to see from the top of the rise; but it was no use. In every direction was nothing but more trees: solemn grey columns marching away in haphazard rows for miles and miles.
"Legolas!" he shouted as loudly as he could. "Legolas!"
Merry's heart sank, for the sound of his own voice seemed muffled and insignificant. No one can hear me, he thought. It's useless. I'm lost. Only two days since he'd demanded a say in his own fortunes, and now this! Proof enough that you don't belong out here in the Wilds, without the protection of Big People! Elrond was right. Hobbits had no business in such great and dark matters as wars and the struggle against the Darkness. But that can't be right, for then Frodo would have no business out here either, nor Bilbo…
"Oh, Gandalf," he whispered. "What on earth were you thinking?"
* * *
Legolas, having lived in another great Forest all his long life, had marked the gradual transition of trees from hoary oaks to smooth-boled beeches. Now, as the land rose and the foothills of the Mountains of Mist drew nearer, he noted how the towering straight trunks began to diminish. Here and there his attentive nose caught the scent of cedars. A few tall firs appeared, and at the edge of a rocky glade where he glimpsed the clouded sky, several clumps of rowan stood. In late winter, the dark grey trees had but a hint of rosy buds at the tips of their slender branches. Ah, to be here in the spring, when these are laden with fragrant white blossoms…
The horse tugged on her tether—the third time in an hour. The Elf endeavored to ignore the mare, having already discovered that she was of rather slow and contented temperament, prone to stand dozing at the first suggestion of a halt. But she tugged again, and snorted. When the beast stamped her hoof, Legolas turned at last to gaze into her solemn brown eyes.
"Yes? What is it, my Lady?" he asked gently. "Have you caught a stone, lazy one?"
He approached the mare with the intention of checking her hooves, when he halted in his tracks. No one was behind her. The Perian! Where had Merry got to? Legolas quickly circled behind the horse, searching beneath the canopy. He could see nothing but trees.
A flash of anger rose up in the Elf, followed by a pang of guilt. All the young hobbit had to do was follow! Yet, such was the word: young. The Perian was hardly more than a child! He was the experienced one; he should have been more watchful. Was Meriadoc simply lost, having fallen behind, or had something more ominous occurred? He groaned at the thought of meeting up with his other companions—which he certainly intended to do, once this task, whatever it was, had been fulfilled. What would Mithrandir, or Aragorn say? And Gimli—he could not abide the image of the Dwarf clucking his tongue and shaking his head at the Elf's irresponsibility. And the Ringbearer! If ever I see Frodo again, it would be more distressing than almost anything to confess that I lost his kinsman!
"And therefore I must find him," he muttered aloud. "Come, Brennilroch!* Back the way we came is, after all, as good a direction as forward, since the elusive Onodrim are not rooted in place, and might as well be behind us as before us!"
* * *
Merry had not felt quite so miserable since the Old Forest. He'd felt responsible there, as it had been his suggestion to cut through it. He'd led his fellows to disaster, and had only survived because of the intervention of yet another Big Person. Bombadil. He hadn't thought about old Tom in a long while. He reminded me of a much sillier sort of Gandalf. I wonder who he really is. Bombadil was quite possibly the most cheerful of any of the friendly folk they'd met on their journey, and certainly the queerest.
A series of ridges rolled up and down across his forward path. Of course he had no idea which way Legolas had gone, and wondered if it might not be wiser to just hold still and wait. For surely by now he's discovered I'm missing, and he would come back for me, wouldn't he? But the thought of staying in one place in this increasingly depressing forest was more than Merry could bear. I have to do something!
And so he kept walking, pausing only to jump up as high as he could when he reached a ridge top, trying his best to see as far as he could. If he had been able to climb one of the great beeches, he would have; but the lowest branches of the enormous trees were well over his head, out of reach of his most vigorous leap. Every few minutes he called again.
"Legolas! Over here! Where are you?"
No one answered. Merry's mood drooped. If only Tom were here, he thought. The nicest thing about him was that he didn't scold us for being foolish enough to get lost and be caught by Old Man Willow. He felt certain that once he found Legolas—if he found Legolas—the Elf might not prove so lenient.
"Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!" The hobbit found himself muttering the nonsensical song to himself as he walked. "By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow!" His voice rose and he quickened his pace. Completely absurd, of course. Pip would have a good laugh at me, singing Tom's song of danger five hundred miles and a Mountain range out of hearing… But the song cheered him somehow. And perhaps Legolas will hear me. Elves are great singers, after all… He raised his voice and marched in time to the beat.
"By fire, sun and moon, harken now and hear…"
Merry stopped. "What was that?" he whispered. He had heard a deep, throaty rumble, as though some giant bear had cleared its throat. Then, again: a thrumming, low-pitched hum—not animal-like after all, but like no voice Merry had ever heard, either. It seemed to be coming from behind him. He spun about, but saw nothing but tall grey beeches, still in the late afternoon. The breeze had dropped, and even the lacy wisps of faded moss hung limp.
"Hullo?" he peeped. "Is anyone there?"
Suddenly Merry felt himself rising into the air. Something—someone—was lifting him up into the trees! He cried out. "Hi! What's going on! What…!"
He was turning, and the trees whirled about as he spun. Then he stopped, and hung suspended, twelve feet up, before a face. It was clearly a face: there, in the center, was a long narrow nose, and below it a thick-lipped ruddy mouth, and its (his? Merry thought) hair and beard were filmy grey with a greenish tinge, very like the draping strands of moss. But Merry only saw all those details later. At that first moment, all he noticed were the eyes: bright, sparkling green, as deep as the deepest well, and full of inquisitive regard.
"Rhmmm… Here is the tiny singer!" The creature let out a gentle chortle. "I thought you might be a large, squeaking bird, ho ho!… But no, not a feather on you… Rhmmm… Yet just who…or what…are you, my impling?"
The voice of the creature was low and musical. Merry thought of a very low-pitched pipe or horn. Is this an Ent?
"Excuse me, sir," he said, wincing to hear the tremor in his voice. "I am Meriadoc Brandybuck, and I'm a hobbit. A Halfling, as men call us."
Its gaze narrowed as the creature frowned slightly. Merry felt himself studied, but the gaze didn't feel unfriendly. "The Elves call us Pheriannath, I believe," he went on. "Yes, that's the word, I'm quite certain." He cleared his throat anxiously. "Excuse me, but… Are you…are you an Ent?"
The thick grey skin around the eyes wrinkled slightly, and one hoary brow rose. "What do you know of Ents, impling?"
"Very little, sir," he said. "Only the bit that Legolas told me… He's an Elf. We were traveling together, you see, and… well, I lost him. I wasn't paying attention, and I must have walked in the wrong direction, and the next thing I knew he was gone, and who knows how far he's gone on ahead of me... " Merry heard his words speeding onward in a rush, and saw the creature frowning. You're babbling! Slow down! Merry drew in a deep breath and began again more slowly. "You see, sir, we were looking for Ents. We came here to search for them…"
The look of amused curiosity returned. "Oho! Rhmmm… Looking for Ents! Why, I wonder? No one looks for Ents… Such a thing has not happened in many a year… Indeed… Rhmmm… I cannot recall such a thing. Oh, once in every few centuries, a wandering wizard might come to call, to hear our news… Radagast the Brown used to visit often enough, and the …Rhmmm… impatient one, they call him the Grey… Quicksilver, more likely… He has come to the Forest on occasion to call upon the Eldest…"
Merry smiled eagerly. "Then you are an Ent! And you must mean Gandalf the Grey! I was traveling with him, until just recently. He is a friend of mine… I mean, I am a friend of his… Well, I know him, at any rate…"
The Ent smiled, and a series of resonant hoots emerged as if from deep in his chest. Merry realized he was laughing. "Yes, yes… One does not call a wizard a friend without… Rhmmm… exercising great caution, for they can be as unpredictable as dragons… " Then the Ent's features twisted into a scowl, and his already low-pitched voice dropped into a deep growl. "Take this… gruhmmm … this Saruman, the one they call the White… He is surely a wizard, though what wisdom he once possessed he must have discarded… He once befriended Ents, and we gave him our trust, for he is, they say, one of the Five Messengers… But he is no friend to Ents!" The low rumble became a booming shout. "He is a destroyer of trees, good trees, lovely trees! My trees!"
Merry felt his midsection, clutched in the fist of the Ent, being squeezed. He struggled and pushed at the long, root-like fingers that gripped him. "Sir… I beg your pardon… You're squeezing me…" His breath began to get short.
But the Ent ignored him, and began to stride away, his other hand swinging in the air, as though he pounded an imaginary foe. "Yes! He has become a foul enemy, and is too near to ignore! We should do something… We must do something, else all our trees will fall to the axes of his vile… Rhmmm… Orc-servants! That a wizard would allow such to serve him is nearly vile enough!"
Suddenly, with a flash of green, a figure dropped from the branches above and landed gracefully directly in front of the Ent. The creature stopped moving immediately and stared.
"Legolas!" Merry gasped. "Help…"
"Master Onod, if you please," Legolas said politely but firmly, as he craned his neck to look up. "Loosen your grip on my friend. I believe you are hurting him."
The Ent's eyes flew open, and the pressure let up instantly on Merry. "Ah! I am so sorry, young impling! You should have said something, little Half-one…"
Slowly and carefully, the Ent placed Merry on the ground next to Legolas. The hobbit placed his palms on his bruised ribs and drew in a breath.
"Are you injured?" Legolas whispered.
"No, I don't think so," Merry replied softly. "Just squashed a little. Legolas, I'm so sorry I lost you, I…"
"Nay, I should have paid closer attention. We will speak of it later..."
Legolas looked up, and Merry followed his eyes. The Ent was gazing down at them with a bemused half-grin on his lips, and one mossy brow had lifted.
The Elf bowed formally. "Greetings, Master Onod! Never would I have imagined that my years would be graced with such a meeting! I am Legolas Greenleaf, and I am of the People of Mirkwood. My father is Lord Thranduil. I am at your service, eldest!"
The thick grey skin about the Ent's green eyes wrinkled, and he slowly swayed forward and back, as if tossed by a great wind: an Entish bow.
"It is my pleasure to meet you….Rhmmm… Too many years have passed since I have conversed with one of your race. We miss the sounds of your music and laughter. And you misname me, Master Legolas! I am old enough, as these things are counted, but hardly eldest. Only one of my kin may claim that title…Rhmmm…. I am called Bregalad, but in the Common Speech my name is Quickbeam, named for my habit of coming to the point too quickly for most of my kind." He peered intently at Legolas. "Rhmmm… Interesting… One of the Eldar…Rhmmm… and he travels with someone of a race altogether new to me, and so young, so small…. I understand from this youngster--er, Master er…"
"Brandybuck," Merry interjected. "But please, sir, call me Merry. Everyone does!"
Legolas colored slightly and held himself more stiffly at Merry's seemingly impolite interruption, but Quickbeam gave out a guttural rumble as he nodded with a twinkle in his eyes to the hobbit.
"Very well, Master Merry…" He turned back to Legolas, and his gaze was intent. Merry had the feeling that the Ent had not yet decided if his visitors were trustworthy. I suppose he could flatten us in a moment, if he wished. The Ent continued. "I understand that you come to our Forest in these troubled times to seek for the company of the Onodrim. Rhmmm… Strange, very strange! That an Elf of the Great Forest of Greenwood would travel with none of his own kin, but in the company of something…someone that I have never seen, nor heard of… a half-sized imp who claims friendship with the Grey Wizard! Rhmmm… And now, when smoke and fire gather on our borders, and thunder and lightning and rumor of war travel north and south… Why, I must ask, Master Legolas? Why do you seek for the Onodrim?"
Legolas gave Merry a look that clearly read, 'let me do the talking.' Very well, Merry thought. You spoke to Gandalf; you explain it. This ought to be interesting.
The Elf bowed again, even lower. "Master Bregalad, perhaps we could converse more easily if I were to fetch my horse. I will ride, and if you are willing, you could continue to bear Master Brandybuck… if he is not too burdensome, that is…"
Quickbeam reached down and lifted Merry again. He looked at the hobbit he held lightly in his leathery, long-fingered hand. "Burdensome?" he said with a deep throaty laugh. "Rhmmm… He is as a leaf to me!" He nodded. "Fetch your horse, and ride beside me, and I shall listen as we walk. We shall journey toward my home, which is not far, and when night falls you shall stay with me there… Rhmmm… And on the morrow, we shall see… We shall see..."
Legolas was soon astride the grey mare, trotting to keep pace with the long strides of the Ent. "Master Bregalad," Legolas began, "Dire events are unfolding in the world beyond the borders of your Forest…"
Quickbeam rumbled deeply again, and this time the noise was not one of amusement. "We Onodrim are not children, nor are we blind and deaf, Master Elf… Rhmmm…"
"Of course…" Legolas bowed his head. "I am certain you know much that transpires in the wide world…"
"We do! Though none but Wind and Winged Kelvari regularly bring news to us, we know… We smell… Rhmmm… We taste the poison that seeps into the waters of Arda."
Legolas nodded grimly. "Then you know of the Shadow in the East…"
"Rhmmm… Well, of course we do!" Quickbeam bristled. Merry braced himself to be squeezed again; but the Ent held him carefully and gently. "This Shadow is the same as of old. We Onodrim have seen him before. Rhmmm…We thought he was gone, as his Master before him. But so it seemed in days past, and ever, evil returns, and its strength grows. And where, in these late days of the fading of the Eldar and of the dwindling of the nobility of the Edain, shall come the strength to turn the evil back, I wonder..."
The Elf sighed. "Indeed, there is no longer such strength, even if all the faithful Edain and all that remain of the Eldar were to join together as of old." Legolas looked up. "And yet, hope remains. Meriadoc and I were but two of a Fellowship who were bound together by a quest to overcome the Shadow. Not by means of arms, though the bearing of arms and facing the war to come—war that may well come to every realm—cannot be avoided. But through secret means of which I may not speak, others of our Company even now press forward to complete a task which, if successful, will result in the fall of that Enemy, to the long-lasting benefit of all free peoples and races—even the Onodrim."
Quickbeam regarded the Elf with a long and quizzical look. "Rhmmm… Secrets and quests… I know little of such things… And I do not yet understand your reasons for seeking out the Onodrim, Master Elf…" He chuckled, and Merry felt the deep vibration of the sound in the hand that held him. "For if one desires secrecy… Rhmmm… I am afraid one would be foolish to ask for the aid of an Ent! Ha hah! Rhmmm… A single step outside of our woods and we Onodrim are rather… conspicuous, you must admit! Ho-ho!"
Merry noted that their path was now climbing fairly quickly. The Elven horse was working harder to keep up with Quickbeam's pace. The trees changed to a mixture of firs, smaller beeches, and shapely white birches. The light, which had been fading toward late afternoon, suddenly increased as they approached an open glade.
Legolas continued as he spurred the grey mare onward. "You speak wisely, Master Bregalad, and we do not turn to you for aid in secret tasks. But I also spoke of war. War approaches, whether one wishes it or not. And if I am not mistaken, war has already encroached upon the borders of Fangorn Forest…" The Elf's eyes gleamed. "I hear the voices of lamentation in your woods, Master Bregalad. Trees have died here, slain by cruel hands—the hands of enemies! They cry out in their grief and rage. Do I not speak the truth, Bregalad?"
Quickbeam halted at the verge of the glade, and he began to sway back and forth. His deep voice welled up in sorrow as he looked at the scene illuminated by the slanting light. All about the clearing, the vegetation had been trampled and crushed. In the center, four venerable rowan trees lay dead upon the ground, their bare branches withered and their grey trunks marred by the ugly slash wounds of axes. Their wood had not been taken; the trees had been felled not for the feeding of fires, or to be dragged away to the mill. They had been killed for sport—simply because they were beautiful, and because those who felled them hated all things of beauty.
"Orcs did this," Legolas whispered. "Orcs in the service of Isengard—the servants of Curunir. Saruman the White." He paused. "He was once a great wizard, the chief of them, it was said," the Elf went on softly. "But he has fallen. He is now allied with the Shadow. Mithrandir exposed his treachery, at great risk to himself…"
Merry shuddered at the sight before him. I've never felt so deeply for a downed tree, he thought. But with Quickbeam so near, it is as though I can feel his sorrow. They are like his children! Quickbeam's mournful song continued in his slow language that Merry could not understand, except to hear the depths of his grief in its low tones.
Legolas spoke again. "War is already upon you. The Onodrim can either face it together, or watch as their children fall to the axes of Isengard… and later, to the smoke and fires of Mordor." The Ent's song began to rumble and rise, and sorrow was replaced by a deep growl of anger. "One should not look to the Ents for secret quests, you say, and you are right. But as Mithrandir said, when one has need to tear down a traitorous wizard's fortress of stone, who better to ask for aid, than the strongest of all races: the Onodrim!"
Quickbeam ceased swaying, and he began to stamp his great feet upon the ground with thunderous booms. He clenched his left hand into a fist and swung it up and down. He frowned at Merry, and paused for a moment to place the hobbit on the ground; then he began to slam his left fist into his right palm. His song grew to a roar of anger as the Sun sank behind the shield of the Mountains, and the open glade was stained red.
"To war! To war!" he cried. "We must stop this slaughter!"
As the light faded, Quickbeam's stamping slowed to a stop, and his fist loosened. His thick grey features sagged with a troubled look. "Alas! It is easy to shout 'war,' and very difficult to carry it out. I am but one Ent. I cannot lay siege to Isengard. Rhmmm… "
He looked down at the Elf and Hobbit who now both sat astride the grey horse. "Master Legolas, Master Merry…" The Ent's solemn face was suddenly creased with a hundred crinkling lines as a smile broke over his features. "There is someone I think you should meet… Rhmmm… provided we can wake him from his winter slumber!"
*Brennilroch: Lady Horse
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.