2. Approaching Thunder
'How is he, Ossilan?' Saradoc asked.
'He's delirious, raving,' Ossilan said. 'He keeps talking about an attack, claims the trees hemmed them in and dropped branches on them. I can't make any more sense of what he's saying than that.'
'Does he know what happened to Eldric?' Pippin asked.
'He said something about the forester breaking out of the circle of trees, then something hit him and he remembers no more.'
'Maybe I can get more sense out of him,' Pippin suggested.
The healer shook his head. 'I can scarce keep him abed. I had to send his wife away, it's taking two hobbits to keep him down.' He locked gazes with Pippin. 'I know you say he must not be bound, but...'
Pippin rose immediately. 'Take me to him. We'll hold him down for as long as need be, but you're right. You must never bind his wrists.' Saradoc backed his Steward, and the healer nodded. He had been present when Merry and Pippin had recounted their capture by orcs and the long run towards Isengard. Binding Merry to keep him abed while he was delirious to protect him might do more harm than good.
His cousin was muttering, 'Trees! Trees all about! There's an opening, Eldric, I'm right behind you!' as Pippin entered. He nodded to the Brandybuck cousins who held him down, then moved to the side of the bed. Placing a hand on either side of Merry's face, he said as calmly as he could, 'Wake up, Merry! It's time to leave the darkness behind. See the light, Merry, open your eyes.' His cousin calmed somewhat, and he continued, 'Open your eyes and look at me, Merry!'
'Dark,' his cousin pleaded. 'So dark under the trees.'
'Merry, remember what Frodo said,' Pippin encouraged. 'You remember, don't you?'
His cousin stilled, and the hands holding him down were able to relax slightly. 'Light,' he said.
'That's right, Merry. Open your eyes. Walk in darkness no longer,' Pippin whispered.
Merry's eyes opened. His breath still came in gasps, but he was rapidly calming. A puzzled expression crossed his face. 'Where?' he asked.
'You're back at the Hall, Merry,' Pippin soothed.
His cousin nodded, eyes moving from face to face, then his eyes closed. The healer stepped up quickly to check him over. 'He's asleep,' Ossilan said. 'With that blow to the head, we'll have to keep a close eye on him until tomorrow.'
'Right,' Pippin said, rising from the bedside. 'Let me know if he says aught else.'
'If the Forest has become so much more dangerous...' the Master was saying.
Pippin broke in. 'I'm not sure that's the case.'
'What do you mean?' Saradoc asked.
'I felt no menace from the trees this time, at least, not directed at us. There was an urgency, yes, a sense of waiting, and black fury as we were leaving. But...' Pippin sought for words to describe the feeling under the trees.
'It's almost like the Forest allowed us to find Merry and take him out again. It warned us off when we first entered, but there were no more attacks after that. And the air became easier somehow, not so stuffy.' He shook his head. 'I don't know quite how to express it.'
'The others have said much the same,' the Master mused. 'Well, we'll keep up the watches along the Hedge until we know better what's going on.' Pippin nodded.
Merry improved, but remembered little after awakening the next day. 'I said the trees attacked us?' he asked Pippin soberly.
'Aye, don't you remember?' Pippin asked.
Merry started to shake his head, but it hurt too much, so he contented himself with saying, 'No, I don't remember much after we left the yard. You say Eldric's pony came back?'
'That's how we knew to look for you.'
'But you found no sign of him?' Merry asked, worried.
'None. I searched for marks on the ground, but I'm no Strider.'
'Do you think a search party...?'
'The Master's ruled against it. He says no one's to go into the Forest. Besides, it's a big place. How are we to find one forester among all those trees?'
Merry sighed. 'I hate to face his wife and children.' Pippin nodded soberly. It rankled to give up without a proper search, kind of like quitting before you start. The young Steward was no quitter.
Livestock began disappearing from the fields near the Hedge. More disquieting, hobbit children began to have screaming nightmares. Shirriff Hob Hayward, putting two and two together, came to the Hall, asking to see the Master and Steward. In the Master's study, he put his feathered hat on his knee and sat forward.
'There's systematic looting going on,' he maintained. 'It seemed random, at first, kind of hit or miss, but too many animals have disappeared now.'
'How many?' Saradoc asked, and the Shirriff took a folded piece of paper from a pocket and shoved it across the desk. The Master gave a low whistle, and Pippin came to look over his shoulder.
'You're sure of this?' he demanded.
'Yes, I started keeping track of dates as well as numbers and location, once I got suspicious.'
Pippin went to the great map of Buckland that hung on the wall, touching several spots with a finger tip. 'All near the Hedge,' he murmured. 'Something's coming out of the Forest?'
'Nightmares are coming over the Hedge, too,' Hob said seriously. He joined Pippin at the map. 'Here...' he moved his finger, 'here, and here, same places as missing livestock, wee hobbits have had screaming nightmares, horrid things looking in at the windows, they say. And one farmer found scratches on the outside of the window, as if something had been trying to get in.' He raised troubled eyes to Pippin's. 'Trying to get in at the children,' he said.
Pippin felt as if someone had put a fist into his stomach. Something trying to get in at the children. Diamond was expecting their first.
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