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Old Man Willow: 1. Old Man Willow
They were his from the moment they entered his forest. All he had to do was call them to him. Normally, he wouldn't have bothered. His soil was still rich enough that it didn't need fertilising. And on the whole, hobbits were fairly good neighbours. They mostly left the forest alone, just as he respected – for now at least, for trees are nothing if not patient – the Hedge and the boundary it represented.
But this group was different. They carried something with them, something that sang of power. It reminded him of the treeless hills towards the sunrise, only much, much stronger. He had felt that power as soon as the four hobbits had entered his forest, and he did everything he could to call them, and they came.
He trapped two of them, but the one that bore the power he lured to the river. Then, when he knew his chance, all it took was a quick twist of his roots and the creature was held down in the water and he had a root through the object that carried the power. It was round – a... ring? – and made of gold. He recognized the slightly bitter taste of the metal, and he knew of rings from the long years that trees had observed the ones on two legs.
He rejoiced in the tingling feeling of the ring around his root. Yes, there was strength there, and a promise of dreams fulfilled. He would have to examine this closer.
What was this? The hobbit that was still free was running around, beating at his bark with a stick, then trying to force open with his bare hands the cleft that held the two that he had caught. Now, he felt the hobbit dash to the riverside, and try to pull out the one his root had pushed under water. He didn't let go, and the last hobbit fell in the river. The hobbit soon stopped thrashing about and the forest was quiet again, only the warm sun, the rich earth, the cool water, and that golden strength grasped in his root.
He wrapped his root tighter around the ring, and slowly moved it towards the land. It wouldn't do to lose this in the water, for already it was precious to him. It was not long before the ring was more securely in his grasp within the earth. He let the roots that lay around it grow and thicken and merge until the ring was completely inside him. Now, it was safely his. Forever.
First, he turned his thoughts to those trees in his forest that thought they could challenge him. They soon found that they were no match for him, and it did not take long before the forest was almost his. Almost... All too near him there still dwelt one who had always resisted him, who had always challenged his rule of the forest, and who, he now found, could not be brought under the dominance of his will. He had tried, and now the other was aware of him, and of his new strength. He held back then, considering this problem carefully. If he could not defeat his opponent, maybe he could imprison him and the one with him? Soon, fast-growing weeds advanced on the hill where the other dwelt, and when he stepped outside his door, he was soon entangled and held down. It was not too long before the whole hill was covered in high weeds and a wall of trees grew around it and ever upwards and inwards.
But there was another one, one far away, one who claimed the power of the ring, one who lived in a treeless waste. He felt that, while the other was strong, he could not go against his own will, not while he possessed the ring. The other sent servants against him, dark ones of shadow, and he laughed. What could these shadowy ones do against him? Trees do not fear night, or shadow, and when he found that he could command them, he sent them against their old master. It might not work, but what else could he do with them?
All trees are connected through the earth in which they stand, and so the news spread quickly.
The trees in the great dark wood far beyond the mountains and the river rejoiced, for their forest would be theirs again at last. They would serve him, even though he was far away, and as long as they obeyed him, he would let them free in other matters.
Many years it had been, even by the long slow count of the trees that the bright ones had moved into that wood; it had not been as long since the dark ones followed, and while the many-legged dark ones that spun their threads between the branches harmed no trees, the dark ones that walked on the earth and carried iron did, and they would find that there was going to be a reckoning. The bright ones, too. Even if they were not as destructive, still they had taken trees, and that would no longer be tolerated.
The small forest beyond the mountains resisted his call, its trees devoted to the bright ones who dwelt among their branches. At first, he thought he would leave them for later and move on for now. Then he sensed the power one of the bright ones wielded, a power that, no matter how great it was, was still subject to the power he himself now held.
The bright one fought him, refusing to yield to his will, and calling upon a Name he remembered from the first awakening of the first trees. At first he drew back, but then the bright one rejected the power she carried, and he sensed fear of being brought under his will. That fear gave him the opening he needed, and it was not long until he had seduced the trees that stood in her forest to do his bidding. The great golden trees resisted him longest, but after several of them were strangled and choked off from the light of the sun by fast growing vines eager to obey him, the others submitted. The bright ones fled, and the forest was his.
He sensed that there were others who carried similar power, but they could wait. He would deal with them later.
It took many years, years of bending all to his will, years of trees growing, years of forests spreading, years waiting for strong, slow roots to crumble stone, years of outwaiting all others, but in the end, as it had been in the beginning, the trees ruled Middle-earth, and he ruled the trees.
For a long time it was enough. The land was his, the sunlight was warm, and at last the ones that for so long had crawled among the trees knew their place. Those that had not learned the lesson, died, and served their masters by fertilising the earth. As indeed did all that lived, even trees, and that was as it should be. Yet he knew that he himself would not return to the earth. The golden ring held in his root ensured that he would grow and prosper, forever undying. And that was good, too.
Then, he wondered what lay beyond the Sea. How far would the mangrove forests, so far sunwards, that pushed towards the Sea be able to take his Will?
Perhaps, he should start with the humble seaweeds that grew near the coasts...
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