1. Come Back to Me
Anticipates characters and events in book-canon The Two Towers. Follows my story "Heat Wave," in which there was a drought in the Shire.
"Entwives?" said Pippin. "Are they like you at all?"
"Yes, hm, well no: I really do not know now," said Treebeard thoughtfully. "But they would like your country, so I just wondered."
-- The Two Towers
East of Brandy Hall the fertile soil of Buckland is heavy with sunflowers and corn. It was not always so, for the land had been reclaimed from the Old Forest. Where now the sunflowers wave in the wind there once stood trees whose roots stretched east and knotted and grafted with others of their kind. This chain of immovable life joined young alders along the Brandywine to the ancient bearded willows that drank from the slow-flowing Withywindle at the Forest's black heart.
The Brandybucks broke the chain. They cut the outlying trees; they carved the hills into well-ordered fields; they raised a great hedge to fence off that part of the Forest to which they did not lay claim. Now this work was over and done. Few remembered that their little land had once been dangerous to creatures who walk on two legs. But danger there had been, and not so very long ago in the lifetimes of the trees that still sat by the Withywindle and nursed their old grudges. Something of their hatred still whispered from tree to tree when the wind was in the east. But the Brandybucks either did not hear or refused to listen, most of them only half-believing their grandmothers' tales of the trees' relentless cruelty. Buckland prospered, for its new inhabitants loved their land and worked hard to preserve it. And although few remembered it, they had an ally, one that had kept watch and ward over them long before they had thought to take Buckland for their own.
She half-slept now at the edge of an apple orchard, one that had bloomed on this ground since Buckland was founded, though the trees themselves were very young. The land was well situated, for it sloped gently downward, sheltering the trees from the worst of the north wind and leaving them open to the south so the sun could warm the fruit to ripeness. But in other ways the orchard was not so ideally placed. It lay hard by the Old Forest, and at dawn the long shadow of the High Hay covered more than a quarter of the field between the Forest and the orchard's easternmost branches.
Between the orchard and the Forest she had stood for many years, listening. From the orchard came the sighing of gentle leaf and sweet blossom in the wind. From the Forest came a muted chorus of frustrated jealousy and rage, led by the worst of the old trees to remain standing so close to the border: a great oak grown old in his malice. And so they stood, the oak and she, on opposite sides of the High Hay. Through the long years they watched the orchard and the strange little creatures who tended it: she to protect them, the oak for dark purposes of his own.
For the orchard was not tended by Men or Dwarves or Elves. Long ago, when the Sun and the Moon were young, she had had much to do with the Free Peoples of the old songs. But one by one they had betrayed her. The Elves' ways were not her ways. The Dwarves cared little for living things. As for Men, they were too easily seduced by the Enemy's lies.
Her new creatures -- hobbits -- had not appeared in the old songs, but they alone had given her no cause for grief. They had the hardiness of the Dwarves without their greed, the courage of Men without their anger, the curiosity of the Elves without their alien coldness. From her had they learned to plow and to plant, to reap and to sow. They nourished the life around them and were nourished by it in turn.
And so she had guarded them for many of their generations, though she could not quite say that she never thought of her own people. At times down the long years she had paused in her labor and fancied she heard the voices of her lost men-folk echoing on the wind: Come back to me, come back to me. But she had not answered and had not gone back, so much did she care for her creatures. And her men-folk differed from her greatly. They were wild and careless and would let a creature go its own way, even to its ruin, but she never left a flawed creature as she found it. If a vine grew wayward, should it not be trained and straightened? If a fruit was bitter, should it not be made sweet?
So she had not listened to the voices that called her back, and now they called to her no more. On long winter nights she wondered what had become of them. But she had her creatures still, the children of her mind and labor and craft. They pleased her well.
Most of them did.
Her dreams were interrupted by the sound of pounding feet. A young hobbit-boy ran between two rows of trees, leaving a glittering wet trail behind him in the dew-covered grass. He leapt over a rock in his path, brandishing a stick half his own height.
"Take that, you old troll!" he said to the nearest tree. With a hoarse shout he jumped at the lowest branch and swung the stick, putting the full weight of his body behind the blow. His makeshift sword broke in two, but the branch shook and three almost-ripe apples trembled and fell down around his head.
"I won!" he crowed gleefully, and dropped to his knees to gather his booty. He rolled onto his back, wet furry feet in the air, and sank his teeth into an apple with a crunch audible from one end of the orchard to the other.
"Ugh," he said, between bites. "Sour." But he ate anyway.
She watched him critically. Three apples fallen before their time, and in the year of a scant harvest. Such wastefulness did not surprise her, for the boy had visited this orchard every summer since he was born. He did not live in this country, but he had close kin nearby. He was of good stock. But a good creature? Perhaps not. Trouble seemed to follow him wherever he went, and she wasn't sure whether to think of him as rose or a weed.
The little one abandoned two of the apples to rot. She stirred unhappily.
Oblivious, he wandered aimlessly up the row of trees toward her corner of the orchard. He still ate and half-sang to himself with his mouth full. When he reached the last tree he tossed his apple core aside and wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve. Then he reached for the lowest branch and pulled himself upward.
He climbed as high as he could. The tree swayed beneath his weight, and she could hear its wordless sigh of protest. It had not been made for such a purpose. For all the trees in this orchard were indeed made things, some of the finest creatures of her craft and proof that hobbit-kind had learned her lessons well. The orchard trees did not grow wild as the trees of the forest did, the chance products of a fallen seed. No, they were grafts, sweet fruit-bearing cuttings bound to a hardier rootstock. In each of the young trees the bond between stock and scion had become strong, almost strong enough now to hold in the worst storm. But there was still a limit to what they could bear, particularly so soon after the harsh drought this summer.
That limit was being approached by an eleven-year old hobbit jumping about in a tree's upper branches like an overgrown squirrel. She peered at him suspiciously through her half-shut eyes. He was no more than twenty feet from her now, and she could see his pale face dappled with green and gold where the morning light shone through the trembling leaves.
The boy poked his head above the leaves and turned to look about him, now west and south over the orchard, now east toward the Forest, now above his head to the cloudless sky. Clinging to a slender and unstable branch, he threw his head back and shut his eyes, his brown curls stirring in the breeze. Then he took a deep breath, as deep as if he were trying to draw the all the air of morning into his lungs.
Just when it seemed as if he might burst, the breath came out at once into a single mighty shout. "MERRY!"
The sound echoed across the orchard and up to Old Forest beyond. But there was no answer. The silence that fell as the echo died away was as deep as if every tree in the Forest had stilled its leaves to listen.
"Merry," he said again, much more quietly this time, like one that knows he has no hope of being heard. And she knew that he did not. He was calling to an older hobbit who usually came with him, but that hobbit was far away. She could feel it, as she could feel the comings and goings of all creatures in her little land. The Merry-hobbit had passed the eastern borders almost two weeks ago.
The little one stood in the tree, frowning, his lower lip trembling. But he did not cry. Instead, he dragged a dirty hand through his hair to brush the curls away from his eyes. He reached deep into one of his pockets and withdrew a small knife, and with great concentration proceeded to carve letters into the bark before him.
P. I. P. The tree twitched with discomfort, and the hobbit almost lost his balance. But he recovered himself and finished: P. I. N. Pippin; the Merry-hobbit called him that. She stirred with anger. A knife that small could not really hurt the tree, but the knife in the hands of a child might be an axe when he was full grown.
Still unaware of her and unperturbed, the hobbit put the knife away and continued to look about him. South to the orchard. West to the distant silver gleam of the Brandywine. East to the Forest.
East to the Forest.
He leaned forward against the upper branches, his face and hair half-buried in green leaves. His lips parted slightly and his eyes went wide.
Now she shifted again, but with unease and fear for the young trees. For deep and strong on a wind that had unaccountably shifted to the east came the song of the oak. The little one could hear it, she could tell, although no doubt he did not understand what he was hearing. From his perch the little one could probably see the oak's topmost branches, waving not quite with the wind just beyond the High Hay.
Oh, but he was a clever one, that oak: never coming too close, never going too far; never raising his voice too loud, but never stilling it either. An old voice and powerful, he sang at the bidding of his evil master by the Withywindle. Hundreds of trees were in thrall to him, and he could even work wind and storm to his will. He called the creatures of the Shire, beckoned them with promises, and lured them to groves where they would be smothered in waxen leaves and tangled vines that sucked the very breath from their bodies.
Innocent young leaves fluttered around the hobbit's head. A moan of fear swelled and passed from one apple tree to the next until the entire orchard seemed to quiver in the still-bright sunshine. But the hobbit did not heed this warning. He stared rapt toward the east, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. And then like one dazed he lifted a foot and made as if to take a step, one single step toward the oak's song. A step that could take him to nothing but fifteen feet of empty air.
Daft creature. She was disappointed; a hobbit of such good stock should not have succumbed so easily.
He let go of the branch he was holding and took the step.
It was the voice of one known to her, one of her trusted ones. A hobbit woman hurried up the orchard slope, picking up her thick homespun skirts that dragged in the wet grass. A basket swung from one arm as she ran, panting.
The little one did not answer.
This time the little one moved his head in response. At some level he understood that his name was being called. But still he did not speak. No.
He was too interested in something else. "A tree," he said. "A tree that moves." For she had revealed herself to him. Moving with the slow and deliberate care of her kind, she had closed the twenty feet of space between them in two giant steps and caught him as he fell.
He stood before her now, his head tilted to one side and his eyes wide with wonder. He was not afraid, or at least not much. Good. He had at least courage. That was a thing often worth the saving, though not always. For she could see other qualities flickering in the green eyes that looked at her so searchingly.
Curiosity, for one. It allowed him to overcome his fear of her. But it could consume him, like others of his near kin. The curiosity of the Tooks: it needed common sense and judgment to tie it to the good things of the earth, and of those she could see very little in the sparkling eyes below her. He would feel the pull of unknown things like a compulsion. If some dark tool of the Enemy were to fall at his feet, he would not have the plain sense to cast it aside. He would not rest until he held it tight in his hands and had his fill of it.
He sidled toward her and reached forward with one arm, trembling just a little. With the tip of his index finger he touched her. He was sticky with apples and the sap of the tree he had hurt, and she could feel the warm blood rushing beneath his skin.
Perhaps she had done wrong in saving him. He was of good stock, and she hated to see anything go to waste, but she might have been too hasty. Perhaps it was time after all to do some weeding in this orchard of hers. She regarded him solemnly, and curled her gnarled fingers into a great fist.
"Master Pippin!" The hobbit woman flung her arms around the little one and pulled him away, dropping her basket in her haste. He struggled half-heartedly, obviously not entirely sorry at being interrupted. "Per -e - grin -- Took!" she gasped, out of breath at having run up most of the slope. "What in Middle-earth are you doing here?"
"Hullo, Mrs. Maggot," he said dreamily. "That tree just picked me up. It held me in its hand."
The hobbit woman glanced up fearfully, and gave a quick bobbing curtsey behind Pippin's back while he wasn't looking. "Don't be silly, Master Pippin," she said, dragging him further away. "Trees don't have hands."
"This one does," he insisted. He squirmed in Mrs. Maggot's arms to get a better look, despite her best efforts to hold him fast. "Look! I don't think it's a tree at all! It's . . . it's like an old woman, all bent over. That's her hair . . . and those are her hands . . . and . . ."
"Sweet Lady, Master Pippin, what an imagination you have!" Mrs. Maggot said. "Why, those are nothing but vines and branches."
"But it's true! I was falling out of the apple tree and it caught me!"
"Bless me, little master, but you've been dreaming! And I'd very much like to know just what your business is in this orchard," she added, turning his head to force him to look at her, and away from the thing that might or might not be a tree.
Pippin blushed and suddenly found the bow of Mrs. Maggot's bonnet deeply interesting.
"Now you look at me, Master Pippin. You're not here to steal apples, are you?"
"N-no," said Pippin, turning as red as the Hallingbury Russets dangling from a branch above his head. "Not exactly . . ." he added.
She looked at him and waited.
"Only a few," he finished lamely.
"Master Pippin. You should know better than that, a great big boy like you. And this year of all years to be pulling such pranks, with no apples nor aught else to spare after such a bad season." Pippin was now looking sullenly at the ground, so Mrs. Maggot turned to her most formidable weapon. "And what," she said, "would Mr. Merry say?"
"Merry!" he said angrily, and wrenched away from her grasp to stomp off and take a fine sulking position with his face against the nearest tree. "Merry doesn't care," he said, picking at the bark.
"Now you're talking nonsense again. Never in my all my days have I seen two cousins so close as you and Mr. Merry."
"He doesn't care," Pippin repeated. He spun around and sat on his heels with his back to the tree. "Merry went off to Bree with his Da," he said to the grass between his feet, "and no one knows when they'll be back. They wouldn't let me come with them. They said I'm too young. And that's not true, Mrs. Maggot." He looked up at her, his big green eyes suspiciously bright. " I'm eleven. Going on twelve," he declared fiercely, as if he feared she might contradict him.
"Aye, you're getting to be a big boy now, to be sure," she said, but her thoughts were plainly elsewhere. She looked down the slope of the orchard as if she were counting the scant crop in the morning sun. "So the Master of the Hall himself is gone to Bree, and his son too," she said, half to herself. "What business have they there, I wonder?"
"Oh, something about trading supplies for the winter," Pippin said. "I don't see why I couldn't come." He picked up a stick and stabbed at the grass.
"Now, then, Master Pippin, there's no need to take it out on green growing things as have done you no harm," Mrs. Maggot said hastily. She snatched the stick from his fingers with a worried glance at the not-tree, which was taking that moment to pick up its great stalk-like feet and settle back in its original place. "Your Mr. Merry will be back sooner than you think. And I fancy he misses you just as much as you miss him."
"Never said I missed him," Pippin muttered.
"I see," she said. He crouched there beneath her, his shoulders slumped over his knees, his fingers tracing vicious little circles in the grass. He was not crying, and if he had to not-cry for much longer with nothing to distract him, she thought he might keel over from pure exhaustion. "Well then," she said briskly, "if you're not missing your cousin, and you're not stealing apples, then you can make yourself useful and help me with these garlands."
"Garlands are for girls," he said reflexively, but his heart wasn't in it.
She ignored this, and retrieved her basket.
"What garlands?" he said, glancing at her sideways.
"Why these," she said. She opened the basket, showing a colorful riot of flowers within: the yellow of goldenrod, deep purple asters, cream-colored ladylace, and crowning them all a profusion of scarlet sunsblood.
He reached instinctively to touch them, but frowned and paused. "Merry says I'm not to pick wildflowers this year. Not after the drought."
"Well, you didn't pick them, did you?" she said, taking him by the hand before he had a chance to think. But he pulled back a bit when she saw where she was leading him: straight to the foot of the not-tree.
"Oh, Mrs. Maggot, what are you doing?" he said, his voice rising in panic.
"You're not afraid of this tree, are you, just because you've had that dream?"
"Course not. I'm not afraid of some old tree."
"That's good, then, Master Pippin, because I'm going to tell you a secret about this tree, and you must promise not to tell anyone."
"Not even Merry?"
She would not ask him to make a promise that he could not keep. "Well, Mr. Merry if you'd like. Here, take this garland." Pippin looked mildly affronted at finding his hands suddenly full of flowers. "They don't make you sneeze, lad, do they?"
"No. What do I do with them?"
"Be a good lad and drape them around the roots in the back."
He looked up at the possible tree. The shadows of what seemed to be its branches fell on them both, waving lazily in the wind. Something was odd about that, but Pippin took a deep breath and walked somewhat jerkily to the tree's base. Mrs. Maggot wasn't afraid, and she was only a girl. A grown-up girl, but that still counted as a girl. He knelt by the gnarled roots, which were gray and somehow smoother than they had a right to be, and they smelled of -- Pippin didn't quite know what, but he found himself thinking of long afternoons with Merry in the orchards last year, when they had lain in the warm September sun and eaten so many sweet juicy apples that Pippin had slept for hours afterwards.
"Go ahead," Mrs. Maggot said gently from behind him.
He hastily arranged the garlands, crawling on his hands and knees all the way around the trunk. Thick red pollen from the sunsblood dusted his fingers. When he was done he stood quickly and backed away, never taking his eyes off the tree and not stopping until he collided with Mrs. Maggot. She put her hands on his shoulders to steady him, and he glanced back at her expectantly.
"Now then," she said, holding him tight and looking at the tree over his shoulder, "You mustn't be afraid of this tree. She's been here keeping us safe and sound for years and years. She's the oldest living thing in the Shire, that's what she is."
"Older than Gammer Bolger?"
"Much," said Mrs. Maggot, her voice rich with suppressed laughter.
"Is that why you give it flowers?"
"Give her flowers."
"It's a girl tree?"
Aye, she is. And I give her flowers. And my mother did before me, and her mother before her, and her mother before that."
Pippin looked at the not-tree, considering. "What does she do?" he asked.
"Well," said Mrs. Maggot. "I don't rightly know everything she does, you understand. But mostly I'd say she helps things grow."
"Don't things grow by themselves?"
She sighed. "Yes, little master, that they do. Most of the time. But sometimes they need a little help."
Pippin slowly raised his eyes from what he had been telling himself were the roots to what was surely the trunk, draped in trailing vines like long hair -- no, he thought, not like hair, trees don't have hair. And perhaps it was only the memory of his dream that made him see something beneath the vines, something that glittered . . . Without thinking he pushed even closer to Mrs. Maggot, solid and familiar and comforting against his back. He looked harder, certain that it was just a tree. And then he gasped.
"What do you see?" Mrs. Maggot whispered in his ear.
He opened his mouth but no words came.
"Breathe, little master," she said, and again he could hear amusement in her voice.
He swallowed hard and forced himself to breathe evenly. "Eyes," he said at last. "I saw eyes."
"Hush," she murmured. Her voice was low and soft as she held him, like the voice of his nurse singing him to sleep by the fire on a cold winter's night. "Don't you go saying that to anyone, sweeting. You know that trees don't have eyes."
Pippin yawned mightily, fighting a strange drowsiness. He supposed he felt tired because of the lullaby Mrs. Maggot was singing. Or was it she? Someone was singing, like a soothing whisper at the back of his brain. Her song spoke of home and bed and rest. He looked at the branches waving in the wind, and then he looked back at the orchard through half-closed eyes. Every leaf was still. "No," he said. "I suppose they don't."
A thin layer of clouds blurred the waxing moon, and she could feel moist air close in on the orchard, the herald of an approaching storm. Good. The trees still needed rain, and if the storm came quickly enough it would be far away by dawn. The sun would burn through the morning mist and warm the fruit in these last crucial days before harvest.
But the dawn was hours away. There was the storm to be gotten through first. The leaves of the orchard fluttered expectantly. The night-songs of insects filled the air. In the Forest the great oak rumbled low, calling to the power of the storm, for such power was meat and drink to him.
And there was another sound, a much quieter one. Ah. The young hobbit from this morning, only this time he was doing his best to move as silently as the wind, something that all hobbits, even this one, could do if they wished.
He moved cautiously up the slope, a shadow flitting from tree to tree as if he feared being seen. As he should; it was far too late for a hobbit this young to leave his home and hearth and the kin who cared for him. He reached the tree he had attacked earlier and for several minutes scrambled about beneath it. He appeared to be looking for something.
Whatever it was, he found it, for he stood up and set his shoulders deliberately. Then he walked toward her.
She could not harm him even if she wished to. The hobbit-woman had been clever, finding a way to protect the young one even though he was not her kin. Now that he had cast the harvest garlands at her feet she was bound by old agreements, agreements made with other hobbit-women many generations ago by the banks of a river far from here. She was a great believer in keeping her word, even to her own creatures. But she was all the more willing to do so because of her respect for the hobbit-woman who asked it of her. The woman was wise in the ways of growing things and of the young of her own kind. The judgment of such a one should be respected, at least for a time.
The little one came to her feet and carefully placed there the things that he had carried up the slope. Wildflowers, clearly picked much earlier in the day and slightly crushed from being in his pockets for so long. A few mashed berries he had culled from bushes nearly withered by the drought. And finally, in the center of his offering, the two apples he had knocked from the tree earlier. Birds had been at them since; he noticed this and his shoulders slumped. But he left them there for her and did not back away this time. Instead he knelt at her feet and looked up. His eyes were dark in the moonlight but sparkled just as much as they had in the morning. They were Took eyes, the warm brownish green of moss, of old leaves slowly turning into soil on the forest floor. Eyes in their way like the eyes of her own people.
"I know you're there," he said. "I saw you."
He paused and licked his lips and shivered: his only protection from the cool evening air was a tattered scarf wrapped carelessly around his neck.
"I'm sorry about the apples," he said. "I didn't mean to. Or I did, but, well . . . " He looked down and absently picked at the grass before him, then caught himself at it and played with the ends of the scarf instead. One of the threads began to unravel and he hastily folded his hands in his lap. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I was so hungry. They're hardly giving us anything for breakfast this year, and I thought the apples would be ripe, and it seemed like there were so many. There are at least a few apples on every tree. That's a lot of apples, isn't it?" He looked up again, and now there was no mistaking it; his eyes were full of tears.
"Everything's different now!" he said brokenly. "All the grown-ups are so worried. And everything looks different. There was a little tree Merry planted for me outside my window last year. All its leaves fell off, and Merry says it's dead. And Merry --" He picked at the grass again, not paying attention this time. He reduced several plants to shreds in a very few seconds. A vine flicked warningly at his hand and he held still, but he was too preoccupied to be frightened.
"I hardly see Merry any more," he said. "He's had so much to do, and he thinks I'm too young to help. He thinks I'm a baby." He sniffed and wiped his nose with his shirt. "It's always, 'no, Pip, I can't come with you today.' 'No Pip, you can't help in the fields, that's for grownups.' 'No, Pip, you can't come to Bree, not till you're grown.' 'No, Pip, why don't you run outside and play?'"
He took a deep hiccoughing breath. "I don't want to play," he said. "So please . . ." he looked up again, searching for some sign from her that she was listening. "Mrs. Maggot says you help things grow," he burst out desperately. Well, I want to grow. If I'm grown he'll let me help, and I want to help."
His neck and shoulders drooped as if he were wilting with grief. "Please," he whispered. "I miss him. And I'm so scared."
They sat together under the darkening moon. After a while he curled at her feet, exhausted, and cried so hard that he seemed to be trying to shake his soul from his body so he could send it flying off to Merry, far away. A vine trailed softly through his curls, but he did not feel it.
She waited for the storm as the little one slept, and as she waited she dreamed of another little one: not a hobbit.
Long ago she had not labored alone. A girl-child worked beside her and sang in the long slow words of their kind. With her mother the girl-child had tended crop-laden fields, but she loved best to make things bloom. The flowers that Men called roses were the creatures of her craft. Her garden had been the wonder and envy of the world of Men.
And the world of Men destroyed it, for there had been war. Men joined with foul creatures of the Enemy and for a time no power could withstand them. Fire came again and again and would not be quenched, burning until the very bones of the earth were scorched and dead. Alone of their kind they escaped, with marks of the fire upon them. They fled to the north and stood by the bank of a river for a long cold season. The little one called to the creatures she had lost: come back to me, come back to me. But as the snows of winter melted, her voice faltered and grew silent. And when spring came at last, passing Elves saw a great tree standing by the river where none had been before, and a little dead sapling stood by its side.
The storm broke across her field in sheets of blinding rain. Such storms had come to the Shire regularly since the end of the drought, as if the Lord of Waters was determined to make up for his previous neglect. She watched as the young trees' branches tossed wildly in the wind. Had she the governance of wind and rain, it would have been otherwise. The drenching rains filled spring and stream and river, and that was well for next season, but for growing things and for the creatures who depended on them, too much water could be just as deadly as too little.
She shifted her body low and bent close to the earth to protect herself from lightning and to keep the rain from the little one at her feet. He had been wakened by the wind and now he looked about him with bright eyes. She could feel his heart pound faster at each roll of thunder, pound with fear and excitement and something else.
For the wind and rain were not the only sounds in the air that night. The oak thrived in such weather and his song grew strong. He saw the shadows in the little one's heart as well as she did, and he wove into his song promises of secret things and unknown treasures. Listening intently, the hobbit-boy peered around the frail curtain of vines between him and the storm. At first he could see nothing but darkness. Then for a white frozen instant the High Hay and the Forest beyond appeared in a glittering shroud of rain. Thunder crashed almost immediately. The storm was nearly above them.
The hobbit-boy listened and looked, but he did not follow. Not this time.
But the oak changed his song, and the little one's pale face lit up as if bathed in a lightening all his own. He strained to listen. "Merry?" he whispered. "Merry?" For it seemed to him that Merry was calling through the storm. Pippin. Pippin.
She watched the little figure vanishing toward the hedge. But in the middle of the empty field he stopped and stood, hardly knowing that he was getting drenched by the rain. "Merry?" he said. Then he began to back away. "You're not Merry," he said in a high clear voice that carried above the wind and rain. "You're not. You're not. Merry would never call me into the Forest. He would never do that."
He was right, but perhaps too late. For the oak was calling again, not to the little one, but to the storm itself. The oak and the Lord of Waters were nothing akin: they were to each other like fire and ice. But the oak had some affinity with the fires of the sky that she had long feared.
She shook her feet free of the earth and sprang like some great fanged creature leaping toward the pack of whining curs that has her cub at bay. The little one cried out and clung to her gnarled hand as it closed around him. Then the world went white in perfect silence.
A dark-haired hobbit of no more than nineteen walked wearily up the orchard slope in the gray pre-dawn light. There were circles under his eyes and his voice was hoarse, as if he had been calling for hours.
"Pippin! Pip!" He paused halfway up the slope to look about him. He saw nothing but row on row of trees, their branches still bowed down by the weight of rain. He reached up to run a hand through wet leaves, trailing his fingers across the too-small and unripened fruit. Like Mrs. Maggot he counted the scattered crop, and for a moment he rubbed his eyes with his hand.
But his fear for Buckland's crops had been with him so long that it was hardening into despair. He had another problem now. He lowered his arms very deliberately into clenched fists at his sides. "PIPPIN!" he shouted. The orchard was still.
"I'm going to find you, you miserable little Took," the hobbit remarked to the air, "and when I do, I'm going to kill you."
In the field beyond the orchard, something caught his eye. He left the trees and walked toward it. His bare toes sank into muddy places wherever there was a hollow in the rain-soaked grass.
Something black and twisted lay at his feet. He crouched to examine it. Through the scent of wet grass he could smell something else, the smell of something burnt. He touched the black thing; like everything else it was soaked through. At the ends were twisted pieces of yarn in a familiar pattern darkened by the water. It was a scarf, or the burnt remains of one. He had seen this scarf many times before. He had wrapped it around Pippin's neck more times than he could count.
The hobbit's mind stopped working. His hands clutched something black and wet. The field before him was twisted and scarred as if by fire; it had exploded into a confused mass of earth and brambles and other things he could not identify. From the Forest came the first lone bird-cry of morning.
No. It could not be. He had just seen Pippin less than two weeks ago, happy and healthy and well. He could still remember exactly what it felt like to kiss him goodbye.
"Pip?" he whispered. "Pip?" It was the hardest thing he had ever done, but he forced himself to look more closely at the blackened earth. Surely that lump there could not be --
He turned. Through eyes blurred with tears he saw a small bedraggled figure scramble out from under an old tree and walk slowly toward him. His clothes were filthy beyond repair and he was covered with leaves and bits of grass. There could be no doubt, then: it was Pippin. With a strangled sob Merry staggered to his feet and hugged the younger hobbit to his chest as if he did not ever intend to let him go.
"Ow!" Pippin said after a while. "Merry, you're hurting me."
"I'll hurt you a great deal more than that, fool of a Took," Merry said. He relaxed his grip but still held Pippin by the shoulders. "Where in the Shire have you been all night?"
"Under this tree. Merry, it -- "
But Merry was too relieved to listen. "Under a tree? In this weather? All of Brandy Hall is looking for you, and when I get you back you'll be in more trouble than you've ever been in your life, and that's saying something."
"Is Uncle Saradoc going to beat me?" Pippin said in a quavering voice. He clearly was thinking of running away again. But Merry was too strong, and clung to him as if they had been grafted together.
"I wouldn't be half surprised," Merry said. "And not only that. My mother . . ." He paused significantly.
Pippin quailed. He had some suspicion of what was coming, and he did not like it one bit.
"Is most definitely going to want to have a talk with you. A very long talk."
Unable to escape, Pippin took the opposite course of clinging to his cousin. "Oh, Merry," he said in a small voice, "do we have to go back?"
"Yes," Merry said pitilessly. He sighed. "Look at what a mess you are." He brushed wet curls off Pippin's forehead and out of his eyes, and stared at what was left of his clothes in dismay. They looked as if Pippin had been living in the orchard for weeks. The shirt was more dirt than linen; grass-stains were all over his breeches, and Pippin's feet --
"Pippin," said Merry.
"What?" his cousin sniffed.
"The hair on your feet." Merry touched it. "It's burnt off."
"Oh," said Pippin. "That was the lightning, I expect." He examined his feet. "Do you think it will grow back?"
Merry said nothing.
"Freddy Bolger will laugh at me." Pippin said. "Merry, I can't go back! Not until my hair grows. I look like . . . a Big Person."
Merry remembered what his lungs were for and inhaled for the first time in a minute or so. "Don't be silly," he said. "You'll never look like the Big People, they're too ugly."
Pippin looked skeptical.
"Now," Merry said, with the slightly too perfect control of someone who is working hard not to scream, "tell me about this lightning."
"Oh, Merry," Pippin said, green eyes glowing, "it was so exciting! I was running across the field because the big tree was calling me, and the other tree picked me up, but before we could get back to the orchard there was this tingling in the air, but she jumped, Merry! She jumped all the way across the field."
"Who jumped?" said Merry, confused.
"The tree. And then oh, Merry, she said the most amazing thing. She said . . . Hoy!"
Merry was pressing his lips to Pippin's forehead.
"I'm not a baby," Pippin said, blushing.
"No," said Merry, "but I think you have a fever. You weren't struck by lightning, Pip, but I think you came close enough to make you . . . confused. Come on, we're getting you back to Brandy Hall."
Pippin dragged his feet. "How do you know I wasn’t struck by lightning?"
"Because . . ." Merry knelt suddenly, telling himself that it was because he wished to emphasize a point. It was fortunate that he wished to emphasize a point at this particular moment, because as a matter of fact he could no longer stand. He took the small hands in his own. "Because," he said, his voice sounding high and strange, "if you'd been struck by lightening, you'd be dead."
Pippin looked at him, his mouth a rosy O of astonishment.
"Do you hear me?" Merry said. "Do you understand that?"
"Yes, Merry," Pippin said in a small voice.
Merry sagged slightly toward his cousin. "Pip," he said. "You can't do this to me. All the way back from Bree I knew that something was wrong. I knew it, I don't know how. I was so worried I could hardly breathe."
"I wanted to come with you," Pippin pointed out. "You wouldn't have worried if I'd been with you."
"We left you behind so you'd be safe, you ridiculous little Took. So you'd come to no harm with all those Big People about; so I'd always, always know where you were; so I'd come back and find you safe and sound and give you a present from Bree. Sweet Lady, Pippin, I have enough troubles without having you run off all the time!"
"I'm sorry," Pippin said. He freed his hands to rub something wet off Merry's face.
Merry sighed. "You are a menace, Peregrin Took." He stood and took back Pippin's hand. "Come on, then. My mother is waiting for the moment when she can stop crying and give you that talk."
Pippin reverted to looking terrified. "Do I have to see her? I'd rather stay here, or go to Tuckborough . . ."
"No," said Merry firmly. "You're coming back to Brandy Hall this minute. We do love you, pipsqueak, though I sometimes wonder why. If you don't come back to us, you'll . . . you'll . . . " He paused to think of an appropriate threat, but nothing sufficiently dire would come to mind. "Well, you'll always be sorry, afterwards," he said at last.
"That's what the tree said. She said she was always sorry, even though there was no other way to . . . "
Merry looked down at him with grave concern and put his hand to Pippin's forehead. "You're scaring me," he said. And for the first time in Pippin's life, Merry looked to him like someone who does not have the slightest idea what to do.
Pippin looked up at his cousin's worried face, at the little crease between his eyes that hadn't been there last year. More than anything else Pippin wanted to make that crease go away. And from the direction of the not-tree he once again heard a song: no lullaby this time, but a warning: some secrets, little one, are not yours to reveal.
I'm sorry," he said meekly. "I -- I must have been dreaming." Pippin knew perfectly well that this was not true. But someone had trusted him, and whatever he thought of her reasons, he did not mean to betray her. Not now, and not ever.
Merry smiled at him encouragingly. "You'll feel better after you've had some breakfast."
"Yes. Yes, I will. Oh, Merry, let's go home."
And as they walked down the orchard slope together, the morning light glittered on the rain-spattered leaves of the orchard and turned the wet grass to a sparkling path of diamonds at their feet.
"Merry," said Pippin when they were half-way down. "What did you bring me from Bree?"
She watched them disappear into the golden mist rising from the bottom of the slope, and settled herself to listen. From the orchard came the contented sounds of the young trees, glad to drink their fill once more. From the Forest came the usual malice, tempered now by the oak's discontented murmurings at having lost what he regarded as his natural prey.
He resented her interference, but more troubling to his dark heart was the resistance the hobbit-boy had shown to his song. The little one was not the best hobbit of his blood by any measure, but he had fought the oak much more effectually than a Man would have done in a like case. She permitted herself to feel some hope. Hope, and the natural pride of a craftsman in a job well-done. For it was to create such resilience that she had labored over the little one's kin through all these long years.
No, there had been nothing like hobbits in the old songs. She had not let that stop her, for to leave flawed creatures as she found them had never been her way. Never again would the creatures of Middle-earth be left in their long battle with the Enemy to depend entirely on the weaknesses of the Free Peoples.
Hobbits: the flower of her craft, a grafting not of root and twig but of flesh and bone and blood. In them she had combined the best of Dwarves and Elves and Men. And of one more thing. Long ago, further back than the hobbits' earliest memories of themselves, she had grafted into the line a twig from the sapling that had once stood by her side.
Breeding, she thought, would always tell, in hobbits as in other creatures. These deep bonds of love between them, though, were a new thing. As even good creatures will, they had in some ways strayed from her original thought. Or perhaps surpassed it. But still they were the children of her mind and heart and craft, and on the whole, they pleased her well.
Note on the Entwives
The Entwives of course appear (or fail to appear) in The Two Towers (the book, not the movie, or at least not in the theatrical version). Entwives are (or were) the female Ents who went off to make gardens and were lost in the wars at the end of the Second Age.
Tolkien does not seem to have liked the Entwives much. In his Letters he compares them unfavorably not only to the Ents but to Tom Bombadil, who unlike the Entwives has, Tolkien says, "renounced control": "[he] takes [his] delight in things for themselves without reference to [himself], watching, observing, and to some extent knowing. . . . He has no connexion in my mind with the Entwives. What had happened to them is not resolved in this book. He is in a way the answer to them in the sense that he is almost the opposite, being say, Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality." (Letter to Naomi Mitchison, 25 April 1954)
Tolkien goes on to say that the Entwives probably were indeed destroyed with their gardens, and "survived only in the 'agriculture' transmitted to Men (and Hobbits)." He speculates that a few may have fled. This story is an extension of such a speculation, though my attitude toward cattle-breeding and agriculture and practicality is perhaps more sympathetic than Tolkien's.