47. A Walk in the Woods
The time honoured words of challenge rang ominous on the still air.
Small clucking and baaing noises arose and gathered strength.
'Chicken! Chick, chick, chick, chick, chick-en!'
'Maladoc's scared, Maladoc's scared!' the sing-song taunt stung the lad to straighten, hands formed into fists.
'I double dare you!' The others suddenly fell silent at this ultimate challenge.
A smaller hand tugged. 'Mally?' a younger voice said. 'Mally, papa says dares are stupid.'
'You shut up!' the darer hissed in fury. 'What do you know, babe? Are you even out of diapers yet?'
'You leave my little brother alone!' Maladoc shouted.
The darer turned back to him with an obnoxious smile. 'You said you go into the Old Forest all the time... liar! Prove it!
Maladoc looked at the gate of thick set iron bars with relief. 'I can't,' he said. 'The gate's locked. Otherwise I would.'
He regretted these words as the other sneeringly produced from his pocket a key, unlocked the gate, and with an effort swung it open. The Old Forest looked more menacing, somehow, without the barrier between them.
'Problem solved,' the darer said softly. 'Now what do you say?'
Little Feledoc pulled at his brother's arm again. 'Mally...' he pleaded.
His big brother shook him free and stood tall. 'I'm not afraid!' he said defiantly.
The other hobbit lads gathered closer, breathing hard in excitement, to hear the challenge.
The bully nodded. 'All right, then,' he said. 'You walk five hundred paces into the woods. We'll count. Then you can turn around and walk back out. If you come out running...'
One of the other lads muttered uneasily. 'Doderas, this has gone far enough.'
The bully turned on him. 'Do you want to be next?' he said. The lad backed away, shaking his head. 'Don't do this!' he hissed. 'This is stupid!' He raised his voice. 'Mally, don't be a fool!'
Doderas advanced on him, fists at the ready. 'Go back to the nursery, Elberic, your diapers are showing!'
Elberic was wise enough to know when to retreat. Ignoring the other hobbit-lads' laughter he turned and fled back towards the Hall. He needed help, someone bigger, stronger, wiser. Somebody was going to get hurt if this didn't get stopped, and he was not big enough to stop it himself.
'All right,' Maladoc, cornered, said. Five hundred paces down the path didn't sound that dangerous. And then back again? Simple. He'd do it. He'd show them. He shook off his little brother's grasp, squared his shoulders. 'Five hundred paces.'
'Right!' Doderas grinned. 'You start walking, we'll start counting when you reach the edge of the trees!'
Maladoc nodded, walked across the wide hollow, hesitated where the first trees rose, took a deep breath, and started pacing off the distance. He heard the other lads counting in chorus. 'Seven! Eight! Nine! Ten!' Suddenly a little hand seized his again, and he looked down into the frightened eyes of his little brother. 'Feledoc,' he said. 'Go home. This is no place for you.'
'I'm coming with you,' the smaller hobbit maintained stoutly. 'Even the grownups never go in the Old Forest alone. Besides, five hundred paces isn't that far,' he added bravely.
His big brother smiled and tousled his dark curls. 'Okay, little brother,' he smiled. 'It's you and me again. Guess you can't tell on me if you're in on it too!'
Feledoc smiled up at him. 'Guess I can't!' he chuckled. They kept walking as the count continued behind them.
After a hundred paces, the path turned slightly and the group at the gate couldn't see them. Doderas the bully raised his voice, and the others followed suit. They counted loudly to five hundred, then the bully gave a shout. 'Okay! You can come out again!'
They waited in growing unease, watching the silent path.
Pippin pulled up Socks as the small figure raced up to him, waving its arms and shouting. He couldn't make out what the matter was, but the lad was scared. He jumped down from the pony, placed his hands on the lad's shoulders, gazed steadily into the frantic eyes.
'Easy, now, lad,' he gentled. 'Take a deep breath. Slow down and tell me. You're not making any sense.'
'Maladoc's gone into the Old Forest on a dare! You've got to stop him! You've got to save him before the goblins get him!'
Pippin smiled faintly at that bogey-tale; he'd seen real goblins, and wolves, too.
'Did he say he was going in, then?' he asked softly. 'Well, he's all right, he wouldn't get far. The gate's kept locked, you know.'
The lad almost sobbed. 'Doderas stole a key. He dared Mally to go in. They all did!'
Pippin remembered his own run-ins with bullies in his earlier days. 'Right,' he said. 'Come, let's take a look.' He lifted the lad up on Socks, swung up behind him, turned the pony's head down the path to the cutting that went through the lip of a little hollow. He stopped Socks at the little tunnel that went under the Hedge, dismounted, and lifted the lad down.
It was so quiet, he thought perhaps the fun was already over. Pippin extended his hand to the lad. 'Come, show me.' They walked together into the dark, damp tunnel.
The small, silent group came into view as they approached the open gate. From their taut silence, Pippin knew the worst; Maladoc had not yet come out. He turned to young Elberic.
'You ride to the Hall, raise the alarm.' The lad nodded, and Pippin tossed him up on Socks, working quickly to shorten the stirrups. With a quick slap to the rump the pony was off at a run.
Pippin turned back to the gate, walking up to the little group, his face grim. The hobbit lads were breathing shallowly in fear, and tears streaked several faces.
'What's going on?' Pippin asked quietly.
'Mally and his little brother walked in and they haven't walked out again!' one of the lads piped up.
'You shut up!' an older lad hissed.
Pippin turned to him. 'Doderas?' he asked mildly. 'Would you care to explain?'
'I had nothing to do with it!' the lad said defiantly.
Pippin looked down at the key, still clutched in Doderas' hand. 'Oh?' he asked. The other followed his gaze, dropped the key as if it burned him, tried to turn to run, but the young Steward's hand caught him, fingers like steel. 'I think we need to have a little talk...' he said.
The sound of galloping pony feet rang on the stones of the yard, and Merry looked up as Socks raced into the yard, stopping so suddenly that the hobbit lad on his back was nearly catapulted over his head. The lad saved himself by grabbing wildly at the neck, and Merry stepped up quickly to seize the dancing pony's bridle.
'What is it, lad?' he asked the panting rider. 'Where's the Steward?'
'Old Forest!' The hobbit lad managed to gasp out.
Merry soon had enough of the details, and he turned to shout across the yard. 'Merimas! Berilac!' The urgency in his voice caused them to drop their tools and jog over. 'Get a search party together and meet me at the Forest Gate.'
'Someone's lost himself in the Forest?' Berilac asked grimly.
'A lad went in on a dare. Alone.' Merimas shook his head while Berilac turned and ran to the stables. Their plans were laid by the time Berilac came out leading Jewel and his own pony.
'Old Nob is saddling up more, they'll be ready for you,' Berilac told Merimas.
'Right!' Merimas said, and long strides took him quickly to the Hall.
Merry glanced at the angle of the sun and muttered to his cousin, 'Just a quick hike into the Forest and be back in time for tea.' He looked to the lad. 'You'd better go tell his parents he's going to be late.' Merry and Berilac mounted and rode out of the yard at speed, Merry leading Socks beside him.
Pippin was not at the gate with the small group of frightened lads. One of the lads answered Merry's urgent query, 'He walked in after them.'
'More than one went in?'
The lad couldn't meet the young master's eyes. 'Aye,' he whispered.
Merry nodded to Berilac and they rode across the clearing to the edge of the woods. 'Pippin!' he shouted.
'D'you think that's a good idea?' Berilac asked. 'We don't want to rouse the trees.'
Merry returned his gaze grimly. 'I'm sure the trees already know.' Pippin appeared on the path before them, walking back.
When he got to them, he shook his head. 'I've been twice five hundred paces. There's no sign of them.'
'Could they have come out again?' Merry asked.
'The boys at the gate would have given a shout if they had. That's what I told them to do.' Pippin took Socks' reins and pulled himself up into the saddle.
Merry noted his pallor. 'Are you all right?'
Pippin nodded. 'Oh, aye. It's a little stuffy in here, is all.'
Merry turned to Berilac. 'Wait for the others by the gate. Send the lads home. We'll use the standard search pattern, in pairs. Watch the Sun. If they haven't been found when She's still an hour high, blow your horn to recall all the searchers to the gate. We don't want anybody else caught out by darkness.'
'Right.' Berilac rode back to the gate, dismounted, started talking to the frightened lads gathered in their tight flock. He made a shooing motion and the flock turned to head back to the Hall, keeping close together.
'Who's gone in?' Merry asked.
'Mally and Felly,' Pippin answered.
Merry felt dread clutch at the pit of his stomach. 'Little Feledoc's gone in too?' He'd imagined the lads who went in were both bigger. He didn't want to think of a five-year-old in the Old Forest.
Pippin smiled grimly. 'Oh, aye,' he said. 'A little brother is quite as valuable as a wee cousin when it comes to trouble.'
By the time the warning horn sounded, the searchers had found no trace. Pippin and Merry rode back to the gate, where a weeping mother and grim-faced father waited.
'It's too dangerous at night, even in pairs,' Merry said.
'You can't just leave them in there!' the mother gasped. She fell to her knees before Merry, grabbing at his hand. 'You can't. O please!' Her sobs broke out again, and Merry's eyes darkened with sorrow.
'We have an hour of light left,' Pippin broke in. 'We'll take lanterns with us. If we go on foot we can make a broad sweep, each searcher walk to the end of a rope.' He nodded to the wagon filled with supplies.
'Right, let's get started then. An hour's not a long time.' Willing hands took up lanterns as they were lit, coils of rope were settled onto shoulders.
'Blow the horn at sunset,' Merry instructed. 'Everyone must return to the gate at the call.' He gazed compassionately at the grieving parents. 'Even if we haven't found them. We'll keep a huge bonfire in the clearing going through the night, and start the search again at first light.'
Merry and Pippin started off side by side but soon lost sight of each other and the searchers on their other sides as the search fanned out. The shouted repetition of the lads' names seemed swallowed up by the brooding trees in the growing gloom.
Pippin's long legs took him swiftly deeper under the trees, his eyes searching the shadows as he paid out his line. He managed to avoid the tree roots and vines that came out of nowhere to try to trip him, and did not quail at the branches that fell across his path. He'd known much worse. He came to the end of his rope well before the horn call, but from the amount of light in the darkening Forest he knew the call must come soon. He looked into the shadows, unwilling just yet to turn back.
The Forest seemed to be trying to rob him of air, and in defiance he took a deep breath. 'Maladoc!' he shouted. 'Feledoc!' He listened, shouted once more, turned back to follow his line back, when a faint reply stopped him. He spun around, shouted, 'I'm here! Where are you?' He was encouraged to hear the voice again, ahead of him and slightly to the left.
He tied the lantern to the end of the rope and shouted again. 'Maladoc! Feledoc! Keep shouting! Help me to find you!' He followed the voice, counting his paces, the lantern light a shining anchor to lead them all back to safety.
Pippin found a forlorn little figure standing guard over his bigger brother. Tears streaked the dirty face, but the little voice shouted defiance. 'Go away, Goblin! Leave my brother alone!'
Pippin chuckled as he advanced. 'No hungry goblins here,' he called. 'Just a hungry hobbit who's overdue for his tea!' The lad ran at him to hug him fiercely, then led him back to his brother.
'I can't get Mally to wake up,' he sobbed. 'I tried and tried, but he won't answer me.'
'Let's take a look,' Pippin said, bending to the still form. One arm looked broken, and there was a dark bruise on the forehead. 'What happened?'
'We'd walked five hundred paces, and we turned around, and Mally said, "Let's run back, shall we? It'll be a race!" but he kept hold of my hand, and then something tripped him and he fell and I couldn't wake him up!' the lad said in a rush.
Pippin lifted the lad in his arms. 'He'll be fine when we get back to the Hall,' he reassured. 'Come on.' The sunset horn sounded far away, muffled by the trees. 'Good timing,' he grinned, and started towards the distant light of his lantern. 'We've missed tea, but we'll be back in time for supper.' Just then there was a puff of wind, and suddenly, the guiding light was gone.
Pippin stopped instantly. 'Feledoc? Take hold of my arm. We don't want to get separated.' He felt the little hand, heard a gulping sound.
'All right, then,' he said, holding on to the memory of where the light had last gleamed. 'Let's go.' When they had walked twice the number of paces needed to reach the lamp and its attached lifeline, he knew they were in trouble.
'Felly, lad,' Pippin said. 'We're going to take a little rest. Sit down here.' He folded his long legs, rested the limp body against his shoulder, took the younger lad's hand in his, forced himself to take deeper breaths of the stifling air.
'Would you like to hear a story about how an elf tried to teach a dwarf how to fish?'
'Everybody's back but Pippin,' Merimas reported.
Merry lifted his own silver horn, let its voice float into the Forest. They waited. Berilac gave a tug on the rope, but there was no answering tug.
'Right,' he said.
'We're not going to leave them in there all night!' Merimas protested.
'Light the bonfire,' Merry said. 'Build it up as big as you can. Set up a watch.'
'You can't go in alone,' Berilac said. 'Let me go with you.'
Merry nodded, grasped his cousin's shoulder in silent thanks. 'You're in charge here,' he told Merimas.
Old Uncle Merimac came up, shoving knapsacks at them. 'Food, water, medical supplies,' he said.
'Right,' Merry answered. They shouldered the packs, picked up fresh coils of rope in one hand, a lantern for each in the other. 'We'll follow his line to the end. If we don't find anything, we'll come back and start the search again at first light.'
Following the line was not as easy as it sounded. In several places the rope passed underneath a tree, and Berilac muttered, 'Now I wonder how he managed to do that?'
'Trees moved,' Merry muttered back. 'You've heard the stories.'
'Trees don't move,' his cousin protested.
Surprisingly, Merry laughed, a short, grim chuckle. 'O yes,' he said. 'You'd be amazed...' The trees creaked around them, whispering dark secrets; the branches groped and swayed in the breathless night. Berilac stopped, and Merry put his hand on his cousin's arm and squeezed gently. Taking a deep breath, Berilac met Merry's gaze and nodded. They started forward once again.
They came to the end of the rope with its burned out lantern. 'He must have found something,' Merry mused, 'Or he'd never have left the line.' He raised his voice. 'Pippin!' A faint shout answered him. Berilac saw Merry grin in the lantern light. 'Right!' He gave his lantern to Berilac, bending to tie one end of his rope to Pippin's rope. When he straightened again, he shouted, 'Pippin! Keep calling! Guide us!'
They followed Pippin's voice, and soon the light of their lanterns revealed the little group on the ground.
Merry jogged the last few paces. 'Are you hurt?' he asked his cousin.
Pippin grinned up at him. 'O no, just taking a breather,' he said easily. 'Feledoc and me have been swapping stories, i'nt that right, m'lad?'
The brave little face looked up at Merry, 'O yes,' the lad breathed solemnly. 'Pip sure knows some good ones!'
Merry reached a hand down to help his cousin up, and Berilac gave a hand to the hobbit lad. Merry noted Pippin's shortness of breath, and said, 'Here, give the lad to me, you take the lantern.' Pippin did not protest, which worried Merry still more. 'We'll be out of here soon,' he said.
'The sooner the better,' Pippin answered, as they began to retrace their way along the rope.
A cheer went up from the watchers at the bonfire as their lanterns were sighted at the edge of the Forest, and Merry found himself attacked by a near-frantic mother. 'Easy, Daisy,' he soothed. 'The lad's alright, just got knocked on the noggin and a broken wrist, I think.' He smiled down at Feledoc. 'You've got two brave lads here.' The lads' father reached out to take his younger son in a fierce, wordless embrace.
'Let's wrap up here,' Merry shouted as they reached the bonfire. 'Fun's over for the night.' He carefully guided Pippin away from the smoke.
'I'm all right, cousin,' Pippin said. 'The air's much better out here in the open.' They mounted their waiting ponies.
'D'you suppose Estella's made any of her famous stuffed mushrooms?' Pippin asked idly as they started back to the Hall.
'If she hasn't, I think she'd be happy to whip some up pretty quick,' Merry answered.
Pippin nodded. 'Good. I've worked up quite an appetite.'
'Well, it's about time!' he heard Merry mutter, and he laughed.
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.