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Of Tooks and Brandybucks

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A/N: Hi! I started this little fic a couple of months ago in between writing my other much longer LotR story. Just felt the need for some Hobbit fun since that story is more intense! It's set in the Fourth Age about 20 years after the events of Return of the King. Frodo has already gone to the Grey Havens, Sam is the Mayor, Pippin is the Thain and Merry is the Master of Buckland. Faramir Took is Tolkien's creation, but Merry's children are entirely my own. Hope you enjoy!


Chapter 1- Parties and Pranks

The lights were bright in the Party Tree as scores of Hobbits danced and sang cheerful songs at its base. Though not yet as tall as the tree which had once stood here in days gone by, the young tree was by far more beautiful. It was the only mallorn tree anywhere in Middle Earth outside of the woods of Lórien; it's wood was smooth and silvery-grey and seemed to shimmer with moonlight itself. It's leaves, green on one side and silver on the other, fell during springtime and new ones were sprouting alongside beautiful golden flowers. It had been planted here by Samwise Gamgee after the Scouring of the Shire. The land of the Hobbits, which had been scarred and mutilated by Saruman's forces, was restored and brought to life under Sam's careful ministrations, aided in no small way by the earth he had been gifted from the garden of Lady Galadriel herself, and was thriving and as vibrant as ever. The mallorn tree was the envy of all those who came from far and wide to see it.

Faramir Took knew all of this, but he didn't care.

The party was in full swing, and, as in all Hobbit parties, there was a great deal of drink, food and song on offer for all. The Party Field was crammed with Hobbits of all ages and sizes; Tooks, Brandybucks, Bracegirdles, Proudfoots, Bolgers, Gardners and a whole host of others. Though not quite on the scale of the legendary eleventy-first birthday party of the esteemed Bilbo Baggins, there was sufficient merriment and enjoyment on display to make this a day worth discussing in the taverns of the Shire for a good couple of months. After all, it was their Mayor's 60th birthday, Samwise Gardner, formerly Gamgee, and if that was not an excuse for pipe-weed and beer then what was? Not of course that Hobbits needed any such excuses.

Faramir grinned as he surveyed the field of mismatched tents and half-drunken hobbits. The night was ripe for some good mischief. And mischief was what he was good at.

He ducked behind one tent as half a dozen Gardner children ran by, all shrieking with delight at their new toys, their father's birthday forgotten, and waited, making sure he was concealed from sight of most of the party-goers. Many hobbits had gathered in this tent for the story-telling portion of the evening, one of the highlights of any party in the Shire, but greater still because everyone knew that Sam Gardner's stories were the best on offer. It was here, once a year they could allow themselves to sit and listen to stories of Trolls and giant spiders, Elves and Dwarves and mountains of fire, before bidding everyone goodnight and wandering back to their own safe beds, the limits of their curiosity filled. After all, no one wanted stories like that every day. It would only encourage strange and un-Hobbitlike behaviour among the young.

Through the thick canvas, Faramir could just about hear Sam's voice, only a little slurred by the multitudes of beer he had consumed. He was speaking of the coronation of King Elessar, and his audience were in raptured silence, though they had heard the story multiple times. Some lucky hobbits had even seen the king from afar as he rode past the Shire on his way to Annúminas for his visits to his northern kingdom. Faramir knew without looking that his father was also there by Sam's side, perhaps hoping he would be called upon to give a story or two of his own. He never failed to wish to show off his Gondorion sword and mail.

Faramir crouched there for a while, his knees beginning to ache, impatience growing rapidly. Now, where was he? They were running out of time!

Just as Sam began to move onto talk of Elessar's wedding, Faramir heard a shuffling behind him and a hand clapped him on the shoulder. Gobby's face, red and sweaty, loomed into view through the dim light.

"Sorry!" he puffed, wiping his brow. "I couldn't find the right cart! And it was heavier than I thought!"

"Shh!" Faramir hissed, glancing at the tent, worried anyone had heard. "Did you get it?"

Gobby chuckled, and patted a small crate at his side. "I got it. Had to drag it here, but I got it."

Faramir's face split with glee. Finally, the mischief he had been planning for nearly a year was about to come to fruition. He stretched out and pulled the crate closer, hearing with pleasure the scuffling and squeaks of the creatures within. It had taken months of careful planning to gather all this together. Hours and hours he and Gobby had spent combing every inch of Brandy Hall and the Great Smials of Tuckborough searching for enough creatures for the task. They had been bitten, scratched, covered in filth but nothing had put them off. For weeks now the great crate had been squeezed under Faramir's bed, only coming out twice a day for some food to be thrown in and some of the mess to be removed. It all came down to this.

"Are you ready?" Faramir asked, and he saw Gobby's answering grin through the darkness.

Together, they slid off the lid of the crate and tipped it onto its side, Faramir simultaneously lifting up a flap of canvas on the tent. Immediately, four dozen large and filthy rats came swarming out from the crate, fleeing into the warmth of the tent where the delicious aroma of cakes and other sweet things still lingered.

Instantaneously there arose such a great clamour within the tent that it probably could have been heard as far as Buckland. Screams and shrieks filled the night air and there was a loud stomping of feet and knocking over of tables and chairs as chaos took over those inside the tent.

Faramir and Gobby cackled with glee as they listened and proudly shook hands, feeling thoroughly pleased with themselves. They stood up and edged around the tent and saw hobbits issuing from it and running in all directions, often pursued by little furry blobs on the ground, still smelling the remains of crumbs on their clothes and faces. Hobbits fell over tables and chairs and hobbit-children went flying, as did cups and plates and other crockery which smashed on the ground.

"The food! The food!" wailed one young Bolger, standing upon a barrel with his plate piled high with cakes, lifting them far out of reach of the little rodents.

"The beer!" cried a Proudfoot, standing in horror as he saw a tankard had been knocked over in the confusion and a small group of rats had broken off to lap at it with little pink tongues.

"The pipe-weed!" a Bracegirdle shouted, seeing some long pink tails dive into the barrels of leaf.

"The children!" one mother shrieked, dragging away a clutch of children from the rats as she ran across the Party Field

Faramir and Gobby watched the utter devastation and tried hard not to crease over in laughter. No one would forget this party in a while!

"Faramir Took! Gorbadoc Brandybuck! I might have known!"

Faramir and Gobby winced and tried to run, but two large, strong hands had seized them from behind. Faramir felt himself be propelled towards another (rat-free) tent and shoved in through the flaps. He wheeled around to see Mayor Sam looking severely down at both of them, arms folded across his chest. Gobby hung his head, but Faramir continued staring back, affecting a look of wide-eyed astonishment. Sam wasn't fooled.

"Don't give me that look, Master Faramir, I know this has something to do with the two of you."

"I don't know what you mean, Mayor, sir," Faramir said as innocently as he could, silently cursing the flushing face of his accomplice. "We're as shocked as you are!"

"And I'm a wizard," Sam said, shaking his head. "Just wait till your fathers hear about this."

"I think I saw them running down towards Bywater, sir," Gobby said, and Faramir could not help but snort with laughter. Sam just sighed.

"You've made a lot of people very upset by this, you know," he said, frowning. "They'll be talking about this for months."

"We were just trying to have some fun," Faramir said, trying to look remorseful, but inwardly delighting at Sam's comment. "We didn't mean any harm by it. I'm sorry."

"And I'm not daft enough to believe that one, not for one minute," Sam said. He shook his head again. "I should have expected something like this. Especially after what your own fathers used to get up to."

Gobby's head shot straight up and even Faramir blinked in surprise. The two exchanged a brief glance.

"What do you mean by that?"

Sam raised an eyebrow. "Oh, so Merry and Pippin haven't told you about their own youth?" He cast a glance towards the tent entrance where the sounds of panicked hobbits could still be heard rushing past. "I might just have to fill you in on that."

Faramir and Gobby leaned in eagerly, eyes wide. "Tell us please!"

Sam glanced once more back at the tent entrance and chewed his lip thoughtfully. It was clear he was debating whether or not to say anything, caught between his love of telling stories and his duties as mayor to keep order. The story-teller won.

"Alright, but I'm only telling you so that I can make sure you know how wrong it is," he said, wagging a finger at them. "Having fun is all well and good, but pranks and mischievous goings-on are no good for anybody, and decent folks won't stand for it. And don't go and think about repeating any of this, mind. Now's I know you know about it, I'll know just where to come looking if I hear about any mischief like it, if you take my meaning."

"We won't," Faramir and Gobby promised, holding their hands over their hearts.

Sam hardly looked as though he believed them, but it didn't stop him from pulling up a chair and gesturing to the two young hobbits to do likewise. He settled himself nicely and cleared his throat importantly.

"Well, now, have you ever heard of a hobbit called Farmer Maggot?"

The two hobbit-lads sat transfixed for half an hour, hardly believing their luck as Sam, the Mayor of the Shire, sat and told them both how their fathers would sneak into Farmer Maggot's fields in search of mushrooms, how they'd once caused uproar in the Green Dragon by bursting in and announcing that an entire army of trolls was descending on Hobbiton, and how they'd sneaked under the tables at one of old Bilbo's birthday parties and tied everyone's shoes together so that when everyone stood to drink his health they ended up falling into each other.

Faramir was in awe. His father had never once mentioned any of this to him. All the stories he'd heard of his father had been about his deeds in the wars down south, the battles he'd been in and victories he'd won. He'd never have thought of his father, the Thain, would ever be so mischievous. Gobby likewise was sitting amazed, his eyes as round as saucers.

Sam spoke for so long that they hardly noticed the sounds of the disrupted party beginning to return to normal, with hobbits beginning to laugh off the incident and recover somewhat with a few more drinks and cakes. No one seemed to know or care where the Mayor, whose party they were at, was to be found and they remained undiscovered for a good while until the flap was opened once more. The boys turned, disappointed, and saw their fathers enter. They both nodded at Sam.

"Aha!" Faramir's father cried upon seeing them. "There are the little criminals!"

"Caught them for us, Sam? Good work!" Merry said, looking down at them. "The Shiriffs will be wanting to take them off now."

Gobby's face drained of colour and he began to tremble, but Faramir was not fooled by the bluff. He was now eleven years old, a whole year older than Gobby, and far less gullible.

"Shirrifs only care about what happens on the borders," Faramir said, folding his arms. "They don't bother with things like this."

Merry raised an eyebrow, deadly serious. "They will if the Mayor, Thain and Master of Buckland ask them to."

Faramir faltered for a moment, but then shook his head. "What proof have you got?"

By way of answer, his father held up the crate in which they'd concealed the rats. He tuned it over and read the lettering underneath. "'Property of Brandy Hall. DO NOT REMOVE.' Now, I'm not sure how a crate from Brandy Hall got all the way here-"

"-but I'd hazard a guess that it may have been that large lump under the sheet on our wagon on the way over here," Merry finished, looking at Gobby. "Now, I know hobbits don't pack light, but I'm not fool enough to believe you needed that big bag and that big crate to carry everything."

This was too much for Gobby. He burst into tears and sniffed miserably. "I'm sorry, father. It was just a joke."

Faramir rolled his eyes at his friend; he always was too easy to break. But he wasn't about to stand down, and kept staring back at the two older hobbits.

"A joke like this could cause chaos!" Merry said, but his voice was more gentle seeing his son's distress. "There'll be exterminators trudging up and down Hobbiton for weeks! They'll get into the food stores, they'll nibble through doors, they'll completely take over! Do you see why this was a bad idea?"

Gobby nodded, wiping his nose, but Faramir refused to back down.

"At least neither of us ever stole mushrooms," he said, crossing his arms and smirking as he saw Merry and his father's jaws drop. Their eyes flicked to Sam.

"You traitor!"

Sam held up his hands and shrugged. "Someone would have told them sooner or later."

"Are you trying to corrupt our children?" Merry asked exasperatedly.

"Well, Mr Brandybuck, I think they're doing pretty well on their own."

"Or one is at least." Faramir's father turned to look at him, his gaze sceptical. "This was your idea, wasn't it? I know a Took scheme when I see one! Come on, you two. No more party food for you!"

Faramir said nothing, but he couldn't help stop a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips. His father shook his head and just gestured for the two boys to follow them out of the tent, which they did, after a brief farewell to Sam.

Just as they were leaving the tent, Faramir could have sworn he saw a similar barely suppressed smile on his father's face.

Peace seemed to have mostly been restored outside the tent as the party had shifted down to the far end of the field away from the rats who could still be seen scavenging here and there among the debris. Hobbits could be heard toasting their good fortune as to have escaped, even from this distance. The party looked as though it could easily continue for another hour or two, but Faramir's father and Merry guided the two boys away from the party and onto the road which led to Bywater and the Green Dragon Inn where they were staying the night.

Gobby hiccupped terribly as they walked, and Faramir just rolled his eyes. It wasn't as though he had forced the other hobbit to take part. On the contrary, Gobby had been as much the mastermind behind the plot as he was! But Gobby was far more sensitive than Faramir and a perpetual worrier. He was probably just upset at the thought of no more cakes that evening. He was a typical Brandybuck when it came to food.

Their fathers said nothing as they led their wayward sons back to the inn and ushered them both inside with a feeble attempt at looking stern. The inn was empty, with all the patrons still gorging themselves at the Mayor's party. The boys were directed to sit before the dying fire and Merry disappeared for a moment and returned with some bread, cheese and water for them.

"Take that and be grateful!" he said. "By this time tomorrow the rats could have eaten everything in the Shire."

The boys did so, Gobby practically inhaling his. But Faramir still continued to stare at the other two, who sat a little bit away with some beer and seed cake, chatting jovially with each other. He narrowed his eyes.

"You didn't really once put frogs into the beds of everyone at Brandy Hall, did you?"

The other two jumped, and then glanced guiltily at each other. Faramir blinked. The thought of the two most important officials in the Shire apart from the Mayor, advisors to the King no less, acting in such a way seemed inconceivable.

"You did!"

"We were all young once," his father shrugged. "We've all done silly things."

"Yeah, you most of all, Pip," Merry said, rolling his eyes. "A certain well in Moria springs to mind."

His father frowned. "That wasn't my fault. The Orcs already knew we were there. They would've found us eventually."

"Maybe. What about the palantír?"

"Well, I didn't know what it was, did I?"

Merry exhaled, shaking his head, though he didn't look annoyed. His eyes sparkled in hidden memory.

"Sam shouldn't have told you such stories, boys," he said. "We were idiots back then, this one here most of all. I'd much rather tell you stories of all our glory down south."

Faramir groaned and rolled his eyes. "You mean stories about Gondor and Rohan and Moria and all the rest of it?"

"What, don't you like our stories?"

"We've all heard them a hundred times," Faramir muttered.

"Well, Gobby likes them, don't you?" Merry demanded, looking back at his son, who by now had ceased stuffing himself.

Gobby flushed pink and looked at his hands, which twisted in his lap. "Yes," he mumbled. "But ... well you do tell them a lot."

Merry looked at the boy with an expression of betrayal and then looked back at his friend. "Imagine that, Pippin. We get chased by Black Riders, almost freeze to death on a mountain and get lost underneath it, get kidnapped by Uruks, capture Isengard from a wizard, almost get killed in battle and then liberate the Shire from Ruffians and our sons find it boring? What was the point of us going through all that if we can't boast about it now?"

"I'll have you two know that the people of Gondor think a lot more highly of us than you do," his father said in mock anger. "In fact, did you know that the people of Gondor call me-"

"-Ernil i Pheriannath," the two boys chorused dully. "Prince of the Halflings. We know."

"Oh," his father said, mouth opening and closing for a moment. He glanced at Merry. "Is there anything we haven't told them?"

Merry looked stumped for a moment. His eyes fell to the glasses of water the boys were drinking out of and they lit up. He smiled.

"Have we ever told you how we came to be the tallest of all Hobbits?"

Faramir and Gobby looked at each other a moment, slightly intrigued. "This isn't going to be something boring, is it? Were you just always tall?"

"Of course not!" Faramir's father cried. "In fact, when we set off on our quest, I was the shortest of all of us."

Faramir stared at him, unable to believe that his father, who towered over all other hobbits at an impressive four and a half feet had ever been short.

"What happened? Did the Uruks stretch you out or something?"

"No, nothing like that," Merry said. "They did give me a nasty conk on the head though," he said, fingers touching the old scar at his hairline. "This happened afterwards. When we met the Ents."

"You've told us about the Ents," Faramir said, falling back in disappointment. "Treebeard and Quickbeam and all the rest of them."

"Ah, but we've never told you about the secret Ent-Draught," Merry said, quickly glancing around as if to check they were alone. "No one knows about that."

"What is it?" Gobby asked, scraping his stool across the floor to be closer.

"It's a secret Ent drink," Faramir's father said. "It's made from the water of the Entwash and some other things as well. It was all we had to drink, and we didn't think anything of it at first."

"But when we started drinking it, we begun to notice strange things," Merry whispered. "Things very un-Hobbit like."

"Like what?" Despite himself, Faramir found himself also leaning in to hear more.

"The drink looked like water, but it tasted different," his father said, eyes lost in memory. "Such a drink you can never imagine. It felt like the lifewater of the earth itself, as if just by drinking it we were becoming part of nature."

"One of the drinks had a smell that reminded you of far off woods," Merry said, "but another was more nourishing, and the flavour was richer like the earth itself. Almost food-like. We didn't eat at all when we drank those. We didn't need to."

"We didn't notice at first," his father said, "but one day I turned around and looked at Merry and thought, 'Hold on, I'm taller than you!'"

"Something which had never happened before, I assure you," Merry said solemnly. "It puzzled us exceedingly. And even more so because the next time I looked, it was me who was taller!"

"Every time we drank those draughts, we grew," Faramir's father said. "Not too much at first, but little by little, so little that we barely noticed."

"Then before we knew it, we had grown several inches taller!" Merry announced. "We could probably ride horses now if we wanted."

"Even Frodo and Sam noticed the first time we saw them again," his father nodded. "It was one of the first things they said to us. And they'd just come from Mordor and had a whole host of other things on their minds."

"Are you really saying that a drink made you grow taller?" Faramir asked. He looked into their faces, trying to see if they were pulling some sort of prank on them, but both their faces were deadly serious. "That's impossible."

"Nothing is impossible with Ents," Merry said wisely. "They're the oldest things in Middle Earth, save perhaps Tom Bombadil. These draughts are what help Entings to grow."

"Entings?"

"Baby Ents," his father said. "And don't laugh at me, boy. I'm not making this up. It's a true as the nose on my face. There haven't been any Entings in a long time though."

"Why's that?"

"They lost the Ent-Wives."

Faramir looked between the two hobbits, a laugh threatening to burst out of him at any moment. "You're trying to trick me, aren't you? How could they lose Ent-Wives?"

"That's a long story," Merry said, "one so long Treebeard never managed to finish telling us it. He just asked us to keep an eye out for them."

"Did they try looking for them?"

"Oh, yes. For a long time. There's plenty of songs written about it."

"What do they look like?" Gobby asked, utterly drawn in.

"Treebeard couldn't remember," his father said with a frown, "but I'd imagine they look very much like Ents. Almost tree-like."

"And where are these Ent-Wives supposed to be hiding?" Faramir asked, unimpressed. "The Southfarthing? Buckland?"

"Actually," Merry said with a grin, "they might be."

"What?"

"Sam's cousin Hal Gamgee said he saw a walking tree in the Northfarthing once," his father said. "Everyone laughed at him. But ..."

"You never know," Merry said, winking at them. "Maybe it was an Ent."

"Or maybe it was a tree," Faramir said. "Trees don't walk."

"I'm shocked at your son, Pippin," Merry said, turning to his friend in despair. "Have you never told him about the Old Forest and Old Man Willow?"

"I most certainly have," his father said with a frown. "I wasn't about to let myself be near squashed in half by a tree for nothing. Everyone knows the Old Forest is queer. The trees are angry with the hobbits who used to cut them down, and they'll attack anyone that tries to walk through."

"That's just a story," Faramir said, though more uncertainly than before.

"The High Hedge is there for a reason, young Faramir," Merry said to him severely. "Folks are still scared of that place."

"Exactly," his father nodded. "That Forest is exactly why Bucklanders are thought to be so queer." He ignored a jab in the ribs by Merry and continued. "If there are any Ent-Wives around, that's probably where they'll be."

"So next time you're close by, keep an eye out, and you never know what you'll see," Merry said, tapping the side of his face knowingly. "Trees do more than you think they do."

"I'll believe it when I see it," Faramir said, folding his arms, certain now that his father and Merry were having him on. Walking trees? Ent-Wives in the Shire? It was ridiculous!

The two older hobbits just exchanged another look and laughed. Faramir said nothing more to either of them as they cleared away the remnants of their meagre meal. Merry soon left to go back to the party and find the rest of their families, their mothers and Gobby's sister and let them know where they were. Faramir's father remained behind to watch the two delinquents and soon ordered them to bed.

As his father dimmed the light in the little room the two boys were sharing, Faramir looked back at him.

"It isn't really true, is it?" he asked quietly, trying not to awaken Gobby in the next bed who had fallen unconscious as soon as his head hit the pillow. "Ent-Draughts and Ent-Wives and all of it."

His father laughed softly and perched himself on the end of the bed. He smoothed some of Faramir's wayward brown curls away from his face.

"I wouldn't lie to you, my boy. It's all true." He leaned closer, a mischievous grin on his face. "If you were to find an Ent-Wife, it'd be the greatest discovery of the age. Maybe devote some more time to that than crawling around looking for rats. Tooks are adventurers, after all."

Faramir pondered this for a long while after his father had left the room. He turned over in his bed, drawing the bedclothes closer together and listened to the distant sounds of the party. Find an Ent-Wife? It sounded utterly ridiculous.

But then he thought of what would happen if he did find one. His name would be as famous as his father's. Maybe he'd even finally be allowed to go with his father when he visited the King! He could be an explorer like Bilbo, or a hero like Frodo, maybe even a Knight of Gondor like his father. He'd be most famousest of hobbits; a Took to be remembered.

Faramir slowly drifted off to sleep, and that night, his dreams were filled with images of walking trees, of faces in bark and branches which subtly shifted into limbs the more you looked at them.

He would find an Ent-Wife.

 

Chapter Text

Merry and Pippin had been correct in saying that their son’s pranks would be talked of for a long time, but none of them had realised for just how long. The Great Rat Plague of Hobbiton seemed destined to go down in Shire history as the most memorable thing which had happened at a birthday party since Bilbo Baggin’s disappearance. Those who had been there were often asked to regale their horrific experiences over a mug or two of ale in the Green Dragon, and the tale had supposedly reached even as far as Bree. Rats were still to be found lurking around the cellars of the cleanest and most respectable of hobbit-holes, leading to much distress among the hobbit-gentry as they tried to figure out how to rid themselves of the creatures without their neighbours discovering it. Hunters had poured into Hobbiton and charged inordinate amounts of gold to exterminate the beasts, but they were so slippery that they caught almost none of them. Drunken hobbits down at the inns began to swear they had seen rats as large as dogs chasing after them, and Fatty Bolger would tell anyone who would listen that he saw one take down one of the goats in the neighbouring fields and drag it off to a foul hole to devour.

Merry and Pippin seemed to have used every bit of influence they could to try and keep their son’s names out of the whole affair, and Sam himself acted clueless when anyone asked. As annoyed as Faramir had been to be deprived of his notoriety he was secretly glad of it when he saw the fury on the faces of the farmers of Hobbiton and the long knives they wielded as they chased after the rats. The only one who seemed to be aware of his misdeeds was his mother, who had vented her fury by banning him from playing outdoors for almost three months, after which time talk had still not ceased over where the rats had come from.

Faramir was thoroughly miserable, and he was bored. As part of his punishment he was not allowed to see Gobby, which was by far the worse of it all. Though he lived at the Great Smials of Tuckborough, the home of the Took clan, there were few Took children and he was by far the youngest here. Being an only child had never been so irritating. He could easily see why such a thing was so unusual among hobbits. At least Gobby had his sister and some other young Brandybuck cousins to play with at Brandy Hall.

He found himself counting down until the day his punishment would end and he would be free to have fun once more, and woke up eagerly that morning before even the sun had risen. Today he and his family were to visit Brandy Hall; his father and Merry had some boring business matter to attend to, which meant he and Gobby would be staying most of the summer together. Faramir was eager to be off. He remembered how close Brandy Hall was to the Old Forest, and had not forgotten his father’s tales.

After an interminably long wait for his parents to wake and the wagon to be hitched to a small pony they were soon on their way to Brandy Hall, and Faramir could not stop himself from standing on the rickety planks to see the Old Forest come into view, dark and sinister in the distance.

They arrived at Brandy Hall just before nightfall. It was as grand as ever, with its three large front doors peering out of the side of the hill and the near hundred windows glinting in the setting sun. Merry and his wife Estella were at the door to greet them, but Faramir bowled past them and immediately seized hold of Gobby and together they disappeared into the warren which was Brandy Hall, their feet finding the familiar route which led to the usually disused rooms at the very heart of the hill.

They rapidly filled each other in on everything that had happened in the three months since they had seen each other and chewed on the apples which Gobby had already managed to swipe from the stores and lay by in this room in anticipation of his arrival. They had remarkably little to say, but that did not stop them talking complete drivel to each other, just making up for all the words which had been unsaid for the last three months. He rapidly gathered that Gobby had been just as bored as he had been.

“How long are you staying for?” Gobby asked, wiping some apple juice from his chin.

“Just until dad’s completed this business thing,” Faramir said, grimacing. “He tried to explain it to me. Something about landholdings in Tookborough and Buckland but I didn’t understand it.”

“I don’t either,” Gobby said, shrugging. “My dad doesn’t tell me anything.”

Faramir did not reply to this, though privately thinking that Merry was possibly right to leave his son ignorant. Gobby was a good sort of soul, but he certainly had no head for business, unless it involved food.

“Why are our fathers so boring?” Faramir sighed, leaning back against the cold wall. “Dad never used to be. He used to always have time for me.”

“Well, he’s the Thain,” Gobby said reasonably. “And my dad’s the Master of Buckland. They have jobs to do.”

But Faramir shook his head. “You know, I can hardly believe they used to be adventurers,” he said softly. “Can you imagine my father in sword and mail killing a troll outside the Black Gate? Or yours helping to kill the Witch-King? These days they’re too busy writing letters and drinking wine to do anything fun.”

“I know,” Gobby said, face creased in a frown. “I can’t imagine my dad ever fighting anyone. I don’t like the idea of it at all. Not one bit.”

“Well, when I’m Thain, I’m certainly not going to sit around all day looking at maps and letters and things like that,” Faramir said. He stood up and paced the room. “I’m going to be an explorer, and I’m going to see things no hobbit ever has. Just like my father did. Only I won’t stop. I’m going to keep on going and going until I become the most famousest of hobbits.”

“Where are you going to go?” Gobby squeaked. He stared at him with wide eyes as though expecting him to storm off at any moment. “Not somewhere dangerous?”

“Pfft, there’s nowhere dangerous in Middle Earth anymore.” Faramir waved his hand dismissively. “I’ll go to Gondor and meet the King, and then Isengard, and maybe Rohan. But first I’ll go to Fangorn.”

Gobby now also got to his feet and ran a hand through his fair locks. “F-Fangorn? Whatever for?”

“To meet the Ents of course!” Faramir continued to pace, his heart beating faster as he thought of it. “I’ll go and meet Treebeard and the others, and I’ll be the first hobbit to ever lay eyes on an Ent-Wife. I’ll reunite the Ents and the Ent-Wives, and then they’ll sing songs about me!”

“And how are you going to find an Ent-Wife?” Gobby asked. His wide eyes followed Faramir as he paced the room. “I asked my father about them again. He says they’ve been missing for centuries.”

“The Old Forest,” Faramir said, coming to a stop and grinning widely at Gobby. “That’s where they must be hiding.”

“The Old Forest?” Gobby took a step backwards, face draining of colour.

“Think about it,” Faramir said, ploughing on. “It’s the only place they could have hidden so long. No one goes there after all. Imagine if we were to go there and find an Ent-wife!”

Gobby was now trembling. He stared at Faramir as though he were mad.

“You don’t live in Buckland, you don’t know what that place is like,” he said, voice hushed as though worried the trees would hear him. “We can’t go there.”

But Faramir was not listening. Something had stirred deep within him; a longing to set out onto the path before the front door and let himself be borne away to unknown lands and uncertain adventures. He wanted excitement, he wanted peril and new experiences. His Tookish blood was burning in him more strongly than it ever had before. Unfortunately, Gobby still looked terrified.

“Listen, Gobby,” he said, placing his hands on his friend’s shoulders. “Everyone is always just going to compare us to our fathers: the heroes of the Battle of Bywater. Imagine, just imagine what it would be like if we could become famous for something we did.”

Gobby was silent for a moment and bit his lip. Faramir waited as patiently as he could, but could scream in frustration at the reluctance he saw on the boy’s face. His father had been in the Fellowship too, did he not want to go off and have adventures as well? He was part Took after all, was that longing for adventure not within him? Did he really always want to be stuck in the Shire like a good little boy and live a normal, boring life like any other respectable hobbit?

As Faramir waited, he was suddenly aware of a loud snuffling noise coming from the other side of the door. He froze and glanced at Gobby, who had also gone pale. But Faramir Took was no coward. Striding forward he seized the handle of the door and wrenched it open so quickly that he was almost bowled over the by figure which came crashing through, who a moment before had had their ear pressed to the lock.

As he looked down, Faramir soon recognised the golden curls and pink cheeks and rolled his eyes.

“Spying again, Mirabella? Haven’t got anything better to do?”

Mirabella Brandybuck stood up and smoothed down her dress and turned her blazing eyes on Faramir. “I have to right to spy when you’re trying to cause mischief again!” She stood her ground, folding her arms and tapping one hairy foot. “You’re going to get him into trouble.”

“And I suppose you’re going to go and tell on us, are you?” Faramir made a face. “You’re such a spoilsport, Mirabella.”

“I am not!” she objected, cheeks flushing. “It’s dangerous in the Old Forest!”

“Well, dad and the others managed to go through it once …” Gobby started, but trailed off when Mirabella turned her fury to him.

“They were almost killed by a tree,” she said. She scowled something fierce, looking almost comical with her hair all a mess and her dress askew. “Don’t you dare go there, Gorbadoc Brandybuck. I’ll tell mum and dad!”

“Gobby will go where he likes, and you won’t tell him otherwise,” Faramir said, scowling back. He stood as tall as he could to look down at Mirabella. “And if you dare tell anyone, Mirabella, we’ll find every last rat we can and slip them into your bed.”

Mirabella’s eyes narrowed. “So it was you two in Hobbiton. I knew it!”

“Yeah, and we’ll do it again,” Gobby said, but his cheeks were so pink the threat was hardly credible. Unlike Faramir, Gobby did not do well with confrontation, and always quailed under the looks his sister gave him, despite being three minutes older than her.

“Fine, go!” she said, jutting out her bottom lip. “Get yourselves killed. See if I care. If you die maybe I can be the first girl Master of Buckland. That’d show you.”

“You’re just a coward, Mirabella,” Faramir said. “And no fun.”

Mirabella’s cheeks went so red he could have sworn her very blood was boiling. “I am no coward,” she objected, stamping her foot. “I’m just not a silly, stupid little boy.” She breathed heavily for a moment, looking between both of them before screaming in frustration and stomping out of the room. They could hear her rants echoing down the hallway for several minutes.

“Think she’ll tell?” Faramir asked Gobby.

Gobby thought for a moment. “She might,” he said glumly. “She’s always telling on me.”

“Our dads are busy all evening, she won’t have a chance,” Faramir said, thinking quickly. “We’ll have to go as soon as we can. Tomorrow, at first light. We can get supplies tonight.”

“T-tonight?”

“If we go early enough we can spend all day in the forest, and maybe one night,” Faramir reasoned, resuming his pacing. “We’ll tell everyone we’re camping- they let us do that all the time. It shouldn’t take us too long to find an Ent-Wife. How could we miss a walking tree?”

“Faramir, wait a minute.”

Faramir stopped his pacing and turned to look at Gobby, whose face was still pale in the half light of the room. The younger hobbit took a great steadying breath and looked up at him.

“Are you sure you want to go into the Old Forest?” he asked.

“Positive,” Faramir replied, an excited grin breaking out over his face.

Gobby nodded, and closed his eyes briefly. “Then I’ll come too.”

“Excellent!” Faramir cried, clapping him on the shoulder. “Soon we’ll be the Took and Brandybuck everyone wants to hear stories of!”

It may have been the half-light of that little abandoned room, but Faramir wasn’t entirely certain that the smile he saw on Gobby’s face was genuine.


 

Faramir was so excited he barely slept at all that night. His little pack was stowed away in a corner filled with apples, bread and slices of meat and cheese he had swiped from the immense kitchens in Brandy Hall and he had already cast a glance over the few maps that existed of Buckland and the Old Forest which Gobby had lifted from his father’s study. When he awoke, he skipped around his bedroom a couple of times to try and control his restlessness. He was off to find an Ent-Wife!

Looking out of the little round window he saw that the sun was not yet awake but its light was already starting to illuminate the little hills and woods of Buckland. Slinging his pack over his shoulders, he quietly opened his bedroom door and crept down the corridor to Gobby’s room before tapping it softly.

Almost immediately the door cracked open and Gobby edged his way out of it, also ready to go. Judging by the weary look on his face he had not gotten much sleep at all, and was stifling yawns as he began to follow Faramir through the labyrinth of passages. No one else in the household seemed to be awake yet, and probably wouldn’t be for a while so no one saw the two boys as they sneaked through the kitchen and grabbed themselves some bread and cheese for breakfast and out into the main hall. Before they left through the main door, Faramir placed a scrap of paper on the little table in the hall. It read:

Gone camping. Will stay around the brandywine. Dont worry. Well be bak befor supper tomorro.

Faramir and Gobby.

Thinking himself quite responsible for remembering to leave a note, Faramir positioned it so that it would be clearly visible and then with Gobby, opened the great door and stepped out onto the garden path.

It was a bright morning, and already quite warm, and Faramir and Gobby felt quite cheerful walking along the road chewing on their meagre, yet tasty breakfast. Soon they left the road and scrambled along little dirt tracks through the fields, quickly losing themselves in amongst the towering crops. The sun grew warmer as they walked and soon they were both sweating, but this didn’t prevent them from chasing each other in and out of the forest of crops, or Faramir from jumping out at Gobby from behind a scarecrow. The sound of their laughter carried over the still empty fields, startling several crows nearby who shook their heads in confusion at the high spirits of two young hobbits so early in the morning.

They emerged from the fields and wound their way through wooded groves, hopping over a stream or two, singing loudly, feeling in high spirits. Faramir couldn’t stop himself from whistling happily. He had been on many explorations with Gobby before, but somehow this one felt different. This wasn’t an ordinary camping trip, or a simple walk though the woods, this was a quest, an adventure!

They stopped at the top of a little hill for a light snack and Faramir was astonished at how far they had come already. Brandy Hall was still visible, yet it had blended in with the surrounding hills, and if he had not known it was there and looked for the windows and doors in its side, it would have appeared as any other nondescript little hill. In the other direction he was thrilled to see now how close the Old Forest was and looked towards it eagerly.

It was as he remembered: dark, overgrown and sinister. A tangle of branches, thorns and undergrowth, it looked as though it were one massive wall of darkness. Even the sunlight did not seem to linger on those branches. Just before its borders, the High Hedge stood tall, protecting those in the border homes from the wrath of the trees. The little village of Crickhollow stood nearby.

Gobby swallowed hard as he looked at the forest. “It looks a lot bigger from up here,” he said. “Are you sure we’ll find an Ent-Wife?”

“of course,” Faramir scoffed. “They’re massive, aren’t they?”

Gobby did not look sure, but said nothing more as they packed away their mid-morning snack and set off again towards the dark trees. An hour or two of more walking brought them into the shadows of the Hedge itself, and Faramir could not help but be daunted by its sheer height.

“Come on,” he said, distracting Gobby who was standing with his head tilted all the way back to try and see the top. “The gate must be near here somewhere.”

The followed the line of the hedge until they came to a point where it curved inwards and there appeared a brick tunnel leading under it. Faramir grinned, and scrambled down the slope and ran into the tunnel, heart beating wildly. It was cold and damp, but not too long. At its far end there was a gate of iron bars. The bolt was closed tight, and it took all of Faramir and Gobby’s combined strength to draw it back. It opened with a creak and they passed through quickly, closing it shut with a click which sounded ominously final.

Faramir turned round and followed the tunnel until he found himself in the hollow beyond under the shadow of the trees. He had finally done it. He had left the Shire on an adventure of his own.

“There’s a path there,” he murmured, and he led the way along it, boldly out in front as Gobby trailed behind.

The path seemed to vanish almost as soon as they entered the trees, but that did not worry Faramir, who struck out on a broadly similar line. The trees were already thick around them. Ahead they could see many trees of varying sizes; thick, thin, leaning, gnarled and twisted, some brown, some mossy green and silver. The air was close beneath the trees and a hushed silence seemed to have fallen over them all. The ground rose steadily, and as it did so, the trees seemed to become taller and darker.

“I don’t like this,” Gobby said, sidling up closer to him, eyes flicking from side to side. “Don’t you think they’re watching us?”

“You’re imagining it,” Faramir dismissed, but he too had the feeling that there were eyes following him amidst the dark branches. “They’re just trees.”

As he said this, the feeling of being watched only increased, and he began to get the sense of a great disapproval emanating from them, almost tangible in its intensity.

“I don’t know,” Gobby said, gulping. “My dad told me the story. Once, the trees all gathered around the Hedge like they were going to attack it. The hobbits came into the forest and chopped them all down and burned them in the Bonfire Glade. Ever since then they’ve hated hobbits.”

“That’s just a ghost story,” Faramir said, though he had heard the same thing himself. “They don’t want to attack us.”

“What about our fathers when they were almost squashed by Old Man Willow?” Gobby pointed out. “That’s true, isn’t it?”

“Look,” Faramir stopped and turned to face Gobby, whose face was barely visible in the shade. “If you’re scared, you should go back.”

“I don’t want to go back!” Gobby squeaked quickly. “Don’t leave me.”

“Then stop complaining,” Faramir said, moving on again. “It’ll take all the fun out of it.”

Gobby obediently said nothing, and they continued on, but were now struggling to find any road through the trees. They grew so close and thickly together that they constantly seemed to bar their way, and more than once Faramir had to take out his little penknife to cut a path through a thicket of thorns. It was tough going, and he ended up very hot, dirty and scratched all over, and his cloak was a mess, but he did not complain. He was having the time of his life.

But after an hour or two passing this way, even Faramir could not deny the ill-feeling which seemed to come from the wood around them. The darkness of the trees and the stuffy feeling seemed to grow stronger and stronger, and more than once when a branch caught on Faramir’s clothes he thought for one heart-stopping moment that it was a hand reaching out to grab him.

The trees opened out after a little while and a patch of blue sky became visible which lightened their spirits. They had come to the top of a small rise and could see the beginnings of a path stretching out before them.

“You see?” Faramir pointed triumphantly. “We’ve got the path now! If we just follow that we’ll be sure to find something. Maybe it even goes to Tom Bombadil’s house! We won’t get lost with this.”

But Gobby still looked glum. “We should have come to the Bonfire Glade by now,” he said, looking around and frowning. “My father said its one of the first things inside the Forest. I think we’re going in the wrong direction.”

“What direction?” Faramir asked. “We’re not trying to get to the other side, are we? Not like our fathers were. I’d say we’ve been travelling straight east until now, so all we have to do is stay on this path and we’ll be able to find our way out again.”

He looked around at the relatively flat ground and his stomach grumbled. The air was still hot and stuffy and his clothes were now damp with sweat. A rest sounded like just the thing!

The two hobbits sat beneath a tree and shared out a little midday meal of meat sandwiches, cheese, and some plums, and they felt quite proud of how far they’d come already and that the day was turning out quite well. Faramir leaned back happily, eyes on the distant path and the trees which lined it. Adventuring was a doddle. At this rate, they’d find an Ent-Wife by lunchtime tomorrow and be back home in time for tea!

The hotness of the day was still oppressive, and Faramir found his eyes beginning to droop. He was exhausted. After all, they had walked a long way. A nice little nap was in order, he thought.

Barely it seemed had he closed his eyes and begun to snooze when he heard a sharp cry from his right.

“Faramir! Oh, Faramir! Wake up, wake up!”

Faramir jolted awake immediately and saw straight away that they had rested too long. The heat of the day was now gone, and the sun had sunk low in the sky. He had napped for hours. Gobby was at his side, and was struggling to get to his feet, and it looked like he was scrambling in the dirt for lost coins. His face was frantic, his cheeks even pinker than normal.

“What’s the matter?” Faramir asked, yawning.

“What’s the matter? Look at you!”

Faramir frowned, and looked down and saw to his dismay that several long thin roots had sprung from the ground and had begun wrapping themselves around his ankles and legs. Gobby had already ripped his way free and was trying to grab back their packs which were similarly restrained. Faramir’s heart leapt and he tore at the roots, shocked to find how strong they were, how they seemed to pull back against him. Their grip on his legs tightened so much he thought they wold snap right in two.

Having reclaimed their packs, Gobby now joined him, beating at new roots with the packs as they shot out from the ground. Faramir tried to reach inside his pocket for his knife but the roots were now so tight around him that his pocket was inaccessible. Faramir began to panic.

“Let go, you foul things or I’ll chop you all up and burn you!” he cried, wrenching at his bindings, but this seemed to be the worst thing to say, for they only grew tighter.

“I’ve got you!” Gobby shouted, running forwards with his own knife, but barely had he cut two of the roots before he was repulsed by one of them lashing out at him, making him fall to the ground and almost be ensnared once more.

Gobby’s distraction however had been enough, and with some of his bindings loosened, Faramir was able to wriggle his way free and get back to his feet, massaging his legs with a grimace. He grabbed his pack from Gobby and the two of them rushed off, eager to get away from the creeping roots.

However, as they ran, Faramir realised with a sinking feeling that the path they had spied earlier seemed to have vanished, and instead of following a clear route they now plunged headlong into the trees aimlessly. Realising the errors of this, he reached out and pulled Gobby to a stop. His friend turned to him incredulously, his face shining with perspiration.

“What?”

“We’ll get lost like this,” Faramir said.

“I don’t much care. I just want away from those things!”

“We need a plan,” Faramir said. He glanced back the way they had come. “They’re not coming for us. We need to make sure we can find a way back out when the time comes before we go on.”

“Go on?” Gobby stared at him. “You ant to go further inside?”

“OF course!” Faramir stared back. “Why ever not?”

Gobby just wordlessly pointed to Faramir’s ripped trousers.

“Oh, we can’t let that stop us!” Faramir laughed. Now that the fear had passed and his shaking had ceased he felt exhilarated by his close call. “That’s just part of the adventure. No story is complete without a little danger!”

“Faramir, we don’t know where we are,” Gobby moaned. “Please, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea-“

“Why did you come if you didn’t want to?” Faramir was now more than a little irritated by Gobby’s constant whining. “Why do you always have to be so scared?”

Gobby just looked at him, eyes wide and full of hurt. Faramir immediately felt rotten. Gobby was a very dear friend, his only friend in fact, and he did not want to cause him pain. But it frustrated him. All he had ever longed for was someone to share an adventure with, like his parents, or Frodo and Sam. Gobby was far too fond of food and his comfortable bed to be much of a travelling companion.

Faramir opened his mouth to apologise and suggest they take some time to plan their next move before he was cut off by the sound of a loud, shrill scream which rang out through the silent trees. The sound of that scream sent chills down his spine and a foreboding into his heart.

Gobby’s face went slack with terror.

“That’s Mirabella!”

And before Faramir had a chance to react, Gobby had turned tail and vanished off into the trees in search of his sister.

Chapter Text

Faramir found it hard to keep Gobby in sight as he tore through the forest searching for his sister. The little hobbit could run faster than he’d thought. His own legs were burning and threatened to buckle underneath him, still smarting from the tight bonds of the roots. Gobby raced ahead and screamed at the top of his voice for Mirabella, each syllable dripping with panic. Faramir’s own heart was in his mouth and a cold dread filled him.

“Mira!”

Faramir finally caught up with his friend as he came to a halt before a large elm tree, staring with wide eyes at the low hanging branches and the little figure entangled within them.

Mirabella looked terrified.  Her arms and legs had been seized by long trailing branches and pulled apart so that she hung in the branches like a spider caught in a web. Her face was ghostly white in the dim light and her face was a mask of fear. Her bright eyes, usually so confrontational were now wide and afraid. She jerked her head as she saw them.

“Help me!” she screamed, tugging fruitlessly at the branches she was caught by. “It’s going to rip me apart!”

Gobby immediately leapt towards the tree, though precisely what he had had in mind, Faramir doubted either of them knew. But as Gobby approached the tree, a long, snaking branch reached from behind the trunk and lashed the air threateningly before his face. The crack sounded like a whip in the still forest.

Unfazed, Gobby tried another route, and another, his little face growing pinker and pinker in the effort it took to avoid those lightning quick branches.

“DO something!” Mira yelled at them. Her eyes met Faramir, who had remained frozen at the far side. “DON’T JUST STAND THERE!”

Jerked out of his horrified daze, Faramir also ran towards the tree and joined Gobby’s side, who by now was nursing some small wounds from the vicious lashes of the tree. Faramir looked all around, desperate to find any way out of this situation, anything that they had missed.

A large rock was on the ground beside it, and, clueless of what else to do, Faramir quickly stooped down and scooped it up. He hesitated only briefly before aiming and lobbing the rock towards the tree as hard as he could. Gobby, seeing what he was doing, also searched the ground for rocks, stones, large branches, anything which could be used as a missile, and together they pelted the tree with all that they could find.

But if the tree felt these attacks, it gave no sign. Its hold on Mirabella remained steadfast.

His knife was still in his pocket, and Faramir fished it out, and as nimbly as he could, sprang forwards to seek a route towards the tree through the flailing branches. The tree seemed to know what was coming, for its attacks became ever more furious, and Faramir felt the twigs and branches of the tree tear at his exposed flesh with relentless ruthlessness as they sought to wrap their way around his own ankles and wrists. Twice he only noticed just in time the creeping tendrils beginning to get a tight grip of his flesh before he shook them off.

 

Gobby yelled as loud as he could and ran at the tree from the other side, drawing away some of its attention; not much, but enough for Faramir to finally get close enough to the tree trunk to touch it. Without pausing, he threw himself into the branches of the tree and began to clamber up it and edged along the ancient boughs to where Mirabella was caught. The tree knew he was there and tried to shake him off, but Faramir held tight; Tooks always were good at climbing trees.

By straddling the branch he was on he was able to slide himself along to a spot above Mirabella and gripping tightly with his knees he hung down, knife in hand. Reaching out, he grabbed a handful of thinner branches and took his knife to it, hacking and slashing as powerfully as he could in a desperate attempt to free the frightened hobbit.

Immediately, there came a terrible sound of moans and screams, which almost seemed to come from within the tree itself, for Faramir felt that sound vibrate through his entire body and reverberate so powerfully it made his heart skip a beat. The tree was in pain.

The moment of hesitation was all it took, and Faramir found himself thrown from the branches like a hobbit from the back of a mad pony, landing with a heavy thud several feet away, all the wind knocked from his body. Faramir rolled over, ignoring the pain from the bruises he had undoubtedly gained, and was only just in time to prevent himself from being grabbed by another branch from the elm.

He looked up at the tree, and for the first time that day, real fear began to settle in his heart.

Gobby, his face screwed up in determination, made one last charge at the tree, arms waving wildly.

“Let go of my sister, you overgrown weed!”

As it had several other times, the tree simply batted him aside as easily as a hobbit would swipe away a cobweb, but then it seemed that the branches had gone strangely rigid, and a deep keening sound came from within. Miraculously, the branches began to slacken, loosening their hold on Mirabella so much that she began to slip out of its hold.

Heartened by this, Gobby had jumped to his feet once again and rushed forward to tug at his sister’s legs from below until she fell with a crash on top of him and they became a tangled mass of limbs upon the ground.

Faramir, finally having gotten his breath back seized both of them by the arms and dragged them to their feet and away from the elm tree, which had by now gone suspiciously still. The three of them, stumbling and staggering in their haste, bolted through the trees, leaping over fallen logs and ducking under low branches for several minutes until they came to a small clearing of grass and weeds from which they could finally view the sky.

As one, the three of them collapsed onto the soft grass and lay there without speaking, all silently agreeing to do nothing more than wait for their hearts to return to their original pace and their limbs to cease from trembling.

Eventually, just as Faramir was beginning to feel decidedly chilly in the new breeze which had sprung up, Mirabella struggled to her feet and rounded on the two boys still spread-eagled on the ground. Her arms were crossed over her body and her face was scrunched in a deep scowl. The entire image would have been daunting if not for the ripped nature of her clothes and the twigs and leaves tangled in her thick, golden curls.

“You idiots!” she screeched, eyes blazing. “I almost died because of you!”

Outraged, Faramir also struggled to his feet. “It wasn’t us that got you tangled up in a tree! And you’re welcome, by the way!”

“I would never have been here if it weren’t for you two!” She glared at Faramir and then at her twin, who was still slumped on the ground. “This is by far the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.”

“No one asked you to follow us,” Faramir pointed out, crossing his own arms and frowning. “Why did you?”

“I wasn’t about to let my brother go off alone,” she replied, her face growing pinker by the moment. “I didn’t want to get him in trouble.”

Faramir laughed loudly. “The only one who got into trouble was you!”

“Oh really? The two of you look like you had your own little run in with a tree.” She looked meaningfully down at their own ripped clothes and cuts. “How stupid could you be coming in here?”

“No more than you-“

“Stop this!” Gobby stood up and looked between the arguing pair, hands flapping. “We shouldn’t fight.”

“We wouldn’t be fighting if you hadn’t followed him here like a little puppy!” Mirabella now turned her blazing expression on her brother. “Why do you always have to do what he says?”

Gobby’s expression of distress now hardened and he stuck out his lower lip. “I do not!”

“Yes you do!” Mirabella looked at him severely, though her eyes shone, as though holding back a flood of tears. “You always do. No matter how much trouble you get in.”

“Trust you to ruin everything, Mirabella,” Faramir complained. He turned away from her and readjusted the pack on his back which had come loose in their flight. “You’re no fun.”

“Rather be no fun than dead,” she huffed. She pulled her cloak close around her, and it was then that Faramir saw she had come dressed in travelling clothes, and had a small bag slung over her shoulder. He looked at these curiously, wondering why she had bothered if her only intent in coming had been to drag them both back.

He brushed himself off and turned around the clearing, trying to get his bearings. The sun had now sunk so low that he could no longer see it through the trees and he had no way of telling which direction was which. To make matters worse, the light was fading rapidly and with it, the reassuring warmth which had been with them all day.

“Come on,” he said to the other two, turning around and leaving the clearing the way they had come. “We need to try and find where we were so we can find the path again.”

Cursing Mirabella, he headed once more back under the blackness of the trees, hoping against hope that he was heading in the direction he had come from. If they couldn’t find the path, he didn’t know how they would find their way out again.

The other two followed him, though not without a grumble or two from Mirabella, and they walked silently behind him, jumping over logs and scrambling over the rocks which blocked their paths. The further they went, the more unfamiliar everything looked to Faramir, and he paused more than once to look around him, trying not to let the other two see his confusion. Doubt was gnawing at the pit of his stomach. The forest was now so dark he could barely see a few feet ahead.

“We need to stop,” Gobby said, and he came to Faramir’s side. His frightened eyes darted through the trees. “It’s not a good idea to wander around in the dark.”

“I am not spending a night in this forest!” Mrabella announced. “The trees will steal us away in our sleep.”

“Well no one asked you to come,” Faramir snapped. His nagging doubt was growing however. The animosity that seemed to accompany this forest seemed to increase as the light faded, and a part of him was afraid of what might happen if they tried to spend the night.

Making up his mind, he dropped his pack to the ground. “We’ll camp here for the night,” he said, trying to best to take charge. “We’ll make a fire and maybe that’ll keep away anything dangerous.”

“A f-fire?” Gobby looked doubtful. “Do you- do you think the trees will be happy if we start burning things?”

“Our fathers did it once before,” Faramir reminded him. “As long as we don’t hurt a tree, it should be fine. We’ll only use wood we find on the ground. We don’t have an axe anyway.”

The other two did not object, and after Faramir had gathered a small pile of broken twigs and branches on the ground, Gobby got out his tinder box and soon there was a little fire crackling away happily beneath the canopy of the trees. The sight of the fire heartened all of them, and they gathered around in a circle, moving closer to feel its gentle warmth, fingers spread out gratefully.

“It almost looks like the trees enjoy it,” Mirabella murmured, her eyes on their surroundings. “It’s like they want to get warm too.”

Faramir opened his mouth to offer a cynical remark, but stopped when he saw that it did appear as though she were right. It may have been a trick of the light, but the trees which surrounded them almost looked as though they were bending towards them, though not in the threatening manner of before. Their branches waved softly, even though there was no breeze.

They shared out a small meal of dried meat and bread with some dates for dessert, and spread their blankets upon the ground. Despite his earlier fear, Gobby was soon curled up on the ground and fast asleep, his gentle snores half muffled by his blanket. Mrabella and Faramir however did not sleep at first, but gazed long into the fire, both perhaps too unsettled to lie down.

Faramir glanced at her occasionally, seeing that she did likewise to him. He was more than a little annoyed with her; if she hadn’t followed them, he and Gobby might not have lost their way and would not now be saddled with an unwilling accomplice to their adventures. It could ruin everything. Yet, as angry as he was, he couldn’t shake the sound of her terrified scream from his memory. He dreaded to think what would have happened if he and Gobby had not been close enough to hear. He found he could not look her in the eyes. Similarly, she too seemed to be avoiding his eyes. He wondered what it was she was thinking of.

“Thanks.”

Faramir’s head jerked around in astonishment. Mirabella’s face had flushed and she hugged her legs close to her chest, staring resolutely into the fire.

“For what?”

Mirabella turned to glare at him and shifted uncomfortably. “For getting me out of the tree, of course. My parents raised me to be polite. Now stop rubbing it in.”

“Oh,” he said, and bit his lip, uncertain on how to process. “Um, you’re welcome?”

“How did you do it anyway?” Mirabella’s embarrassment seemed to have been overridden by her curiosity, and she peeked at him from behind her hair. “One minute it had me … then it dropped me.”

“I don’t know,” Faramir replied honestly. “I didn’t think we were hurting it at all. It just seemed to … stop.”

Mirabella turned to face him fully now, a little crease above her brow. “You mean, it did it on its own?

“Maybe,” Faramir shrugged. “The trees here are strange. Maybe it realised we would get you eventually and decided to give up.”


The other hobbit shook her head. “No, that can’t be it. You said you weren’t hurting it. It must have been something else.”

“Or maybe it was just worried what we would do.” Faramir puffed out his chest importantly. “After all, it was three against one, and we had a knife.”

Mirabella rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t believe that if I were you. Big heads are no good in a crisis’, my mother always says.”

“Yes, well, your mother isn’t here and neither should you either,” Faramir grumbled, looking away. We were getting along fine before you came.”

He heard her laugh aloud and his mood darkened when she spoke again. “What? Looking for Ent-wives, you mean?”

“You were spying on us!”

Mirabella raised an eyebrow. “I don’t spy.  No one’s seen an Ent-Wife in centuries, you know. You won’t find one in an afternoon.”

“Says you,” Faramir said, lying down and settling himself beneath the blankets so that he would not have to look at her. “You and all the other silly little girls can stay safe at home in your hobbit hole with your books and pressed flowers if you like, but there’s adventures and discoveries to be made out there. And I’m going to be the one that finds them.”

He said nothing more and closed his eyes, hoping to drift off into sleep, despite the hard ground underneath and the unnerving sounds he could hear from the trees around them. Mirabella’s words had annoyed him and he wished he had said nothing to her. They always seemed to end up fighting, ever since they were little. It was the downside of being best friends with a twin; annoyingly the other one always wanted to tag along. And Faramir had no patience for girls who wanted to spoil everyone’s fun.


 

When the three hobbits woke the next morning it was clear they were in a very precarious position. Although the sun had risen the forest was hardly more light than it had been at night time; every little light seemed to be squeezed out of existence by the oppression of the trees which surrounded them. Even their voices seemed to fade away as though swallowed by some creeping menace beneath those leaves.

They rolled up their blankets and shouldered their packs after a meagre breakfast of some bread, which was more than a little stale. Gobby looked doubtfully at their stores and chewed his bottom lip.

“I don’t think we have enough to last another day,” he said. “We ate more than we should have yesterday.”

“I wonder whose fault that was,” Faramir said, eyes on Mirabella, who immediately thrust her head in the air defiantly.

“Actually, I brought my own food,” she said, patting her own small little bag.

Faramir ignored this and tried to ignore the grumbling of his stomach. He had known that adventures were troublesome things at times, and sacrificing a few good meals had been expected. Still, it didn’t make him feel any better.

“Let’s go this way,” he said, pointing off into the trees, and walked out ahead more confidently than he felt.

“Who put you in charge anyway?” Mirabella moaned, running to catch up.

“I’m the oldest. You’re the youngest.”

“Only by a few minutes-“

“Mira, Faramir’s in charge,” Gobby said wearily. “It’s his adventure.”

“Hmpf,” she protested. “A stupid adventure. We’re lost and running out of food. We should be going back, not forwards.”

“You’re welcome to go off on your own you know,” Faramir snapped back. “I’m not forcing you to come with me. Either find your own way back or stop complaining and come with us to find an Ent-Wife.”

Mirabella fell silent, but he could almost feel the animosity of her glare boring into his back. He was glad she stopped speaking; her arguments were almost making him doubt himself, and he needed to be certain. Their food was low, yes, but they had plenty of water, and he knew from his father that there were berries and mushrooms inside the Old Forest. They’d be alright. And as for finding their way back, that’d be no problem. All they had to do was keep travelling east.

The morning beneath the trees of the Old Forest was dramatically different to the morning of yesterday’s walks across the fields and wooded groves of the Shire. The sun fought to find its way through the heavy canopy of leaves, and when it did its light was unfriendly and cold. Thin mists seemed to wreathe their way around the trees like streamers around the branches of the Party Tree and he shivered more than once. The very air itself seemed heavy, and every breath felt like an effort, as though the combined strength of the forest was pressing down upon him and leaving him drowning in a sea of anger.

They ploughed on and on going in no particular direction, all three keeping their eyes peeled for the sight of something moving between the trees, hoping against hope they might find an Ent-Wife before the day was out. The ground began to rise sharply and they huffed and puffed as they scrambled up the incline, the top of the hill always seeming to be out of their grasp. As they climbed they noticed the trees seemed to be growing taller and becoming thinner and the daylight seemed to increase until there was no longer a murky gloom surrounding them, but instead, bright beams of light which lightened their hearts.

After an hour the three hobbits set foot on top of the hill and stopped in astonishment as they saw the entirety of the forest laid out in front of them as though they had stepped into a map. The forest was a blanket of dark green, interspersed here and there with tendrils of mist which lingered over the tops of the trees like a dusting of flour on a cake. The sun was shining brightly on the mists making them glow in a multitude of shades of orange and pink. A river could be seen snaking its way through the mass of green, sparkling in the light of the rays which reflected off it, making it appear almost mirror like beneath the blue sky.

Faramir breathed out in admiration, and the despondency which had settled within him all morning at the lack of food and direction was blown away, as if the sun itself had lightened the darkest corners of his heart. His blood raced through his body and his old excitement was back. There wasn’t a sight like this in the whole of the Shire! And he was here to see it, as though it had been waiting for him here all along.

The puffing and panting of the two Brandybucks almost served to ruin the illusion, and Gobby soon threw himself on the ground, chest rising and falling heavily as he recovered from the steep climb. His face shone with sweat.

Mirabella came to stand beside Faramir and looked out at the forest, mouth hanging open. Her eyes sparkled in the sunlight as they roamed over the sight before them. A strange expression came over her features, a wilder one than Faramir had ever seen before from her, and he half expected her to rush off down the hill into the unknown trees before them. Then, it passed.

“I can barely see the High Hedge,” she said, turning on the spot and shading her eyes with her hand so she could see in every direction. “We’re further inside than I thought.”

“Well, the Ent-Wives aren’t likely to be at the border, are they?” Faramir said, rolling his eyes. “We’ll have to get right to the heart of the forest.”

“The Withywindle,” Mirabella said, pointing towards the shining river. “My father always said that the river valley was the queerest part of the wood, where all the strange things come from. If there are Ent-Wives here at all, that’s where they’ll be.”

Faramir looked eagerly at where she pointed and grinned. “And that’s where Tom Bombadil is supposed to live as well. He’s sure to know about the Ent-Wives. We should find him and ask him.”

He remained standing where he was a moment, his excitement building, and then narrowed his eyes and looked at Mirabella.

“I thought you didn’t believe in Ent-Wives?”

She avoided his eyes, and shrugged. “I didn’t say that.”

Faramir fixed his eyes on the Withywindle and then turned and looked back at the now far distant dark line which was the High Hedge.

“You should go back now if you want,” he said to Mirabella, tightening the straps of his pack, “but Gobby and I are going on.”

“We are?” Gobby’s voice was faint from behind them, where he still lay on the ground.

Mirabella also looked between the Withywindle and the High Hedge. He could see the inner turmoil in her eyes, saw how she bit her bottom lip and twisted her hands, torn between safety and her brother. She finally turned away from the hedge and looked onwards and her eyes seem to sparkle anew and a final expression came over her face.

“Let’s go find an Ent-Wife,” she said, and set off down the hill, striding out far in front before Faramir had a chance to join her. She looked back and flashed him one last grin, a mischievous glint in her eye which he had never seen before. “Maybe she’ll crush you under her foot and teach you not to dismiss silly little girls!”

Faramir was stunned for a moment and stood still several seconds before following her, practically skipping to keep up. If he didn’t know Mirabella as well as he did, he could almost swear she wanted to go on.

It was several minutes later after they’d almost reached the bottom of the hill that they heard the faint sounds of Gobby tearing after them.

“Wait on me!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

As optimistic as Faramir had been when he had set out that he would soon run across the Withywindle, he was surprised when after several hours they had still not come across it. It made no sense to him; they had followed a more or less straight line from the hill and should have found it easily. They stopped under the shade of a large oak tree and had a small meal of some of the remaining cheese and bread, but it was clear their food would not last much longer. Mercifully, their waterskins were still largely full, and they managed to quench the extreme thirst extensive walking on a sunny day can bring.

Mirabella was standing still, eyes turned towards the sky, a frown on her face.

"We've travelled the right way," she said, voice so low she could be speaking to herself. "Why aren't we there yet?"

"Maybe the trees are moving around to confuse us," Gobby said, eyes flitting nervously from side to side. "It wouldn't be the first time."

"We've been walking all day, we should have come to the river, or at least to the edge of the forest," Mirabella said, ignoring her brother. "Unless we've been going in circles."

Faramir groaned. That would be a disaster!

"This isn't fair!" he said, rubbing his shoulders where his straps were beginning to chafe. "The day's half gone already and we haven't found anything yet."

"Our families are expecting us home tonight," Gobby said miserably. "If we don't find something soon, we'll have to turn around."

"No," Faramir announced, and got to his feet once again. "We're not going home empty handed. We've still got loads of light left and we need to stop taking so many breaks and eating so much. Let's go."

Mirabella immediately fell into step with him, but Gobby grumbled and muttered to himself as he hoisted his pack back onto his back and scuttered after them. He was suffering the most of the three of them; he was most definitely the roundest of the lot, and the one least accustomed to exercise. Gobby was more the sort of hobbit who preferred to sit upon the banks of a river with a fishing rod all day, a nice basket full of tasty treats at his feet. He was not the travelling sort.

"What do Ent-Wives look like?" Gobby asked, already out of breath once more. "You didn't answer me the other day."

"Well, they look just like Ents, don't they?" Faramir said, brushing aside some undergrowth as he continued on. "Only smaller probably."

"But what do Ents look like?" Gobby said. His face was screwed up tight as if trying to remember some long-forgotten fact. "I mean, are they trees? Are they bigger than trees?"

"They're ... well they look like ..." Faramir trailed off trying to bring to mind what exactly an Ent looked like, but coming up short. His father had described them to him many times, but he could not recall it now. Somehow he'd always glossed over little details like this, more interested in his father's accounts of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, or the battle at the Black Gate.

"They pretty much look like the sort of tree that they protect," Mirabella said, a smirk on her lips. "They can be up to fourteen feet tall and they all look different. Some have ten toes, some have twenty. Some are skinny, some aren't. Some are a sort of mossy green, some are silvery. They've got really thick skin, like the bark of a tree."

The boys stared at her. "How do you know that?" Faramir demanded.

She smirked again. "My father told me the stories, and I listened. And he took me to see the mayor once and he let me read a bit of the book he's writing. I've read some of father's writing about it as well."

Faramir shook his head. Reading. He much preferred hearing stories told aloud and didn't have time for sitting around all day with a nose pressed in a book. He didn't like how smug Mirabella looked about it.

They said nothing more as they continued their trek beneath the trees. The land seemed to be sloping downwards now, and they began to hope that perhaps this meant they were coming upon the river, but the ground levelled out once more and then rose again. Their frustrations were now increasing, particularly when Faramir noticed through a gap in the leaves that the sun was beginning to set. With a jolt he remembered the letter he had left on the table in Brandy Hall: will be home for supper. It looked as though this promise was going to be impossible to keep. He tried to push thoughts of his worried parents out of his head however; he'd been out longer than he was supposed to be before now. As long as he was back tomorrow at some point his parents wouldn't be too angry. Though, he did not relish the thought of another several weeks confined to the house in the height of summer.

The woods around them grew colder and colder, and just as it seemed the sun was setting the mist began to wind its way around the trees before them, and around their own bodies so that it became difficult to see one another, even from only a few feet away. The mist had the effect of a chilling cold all around them and the three were soon standing in damp, clammy clothes. Stopping here for the night seemed impossible.

"Let's keep going up," Faramir called to the others, seeing that the ground was rising once more. "Maybe we'll get above the mist. Hold on to me."

Gobby stood behind him and grabbed hold of his cloak, and his sister did the same behind him, and together the tree of them stumbled blindly through the mist, as unable to see as if they had been lost in the dark caves of the Misty Mountains. Faramir led the way as confidently as he could, but even he had to admit he had no idea was he was doing. The mist was like a solid wall of white, branches looming out of it like daggers pointed towards them, disembodied from their trees. He moved steadily on, hoping that the rise he was on would lift them out of this world of white, but nothing happened except the density of trees around them seemed to decrease until he could see no trunks or branches on any side. All that was around him on all sides was white.

Looking down, he noticed that instead of walking on the twigs and leaf litter of the forest he had become accustomed to, he now walked on soft springy grass. What was this? Had they stumbled across a meadow in the forest? Was this where Tom Bombadil lived? He hoped so; he wasn't sure how much longer he could endure this bone-chilling cold.

Out of the fog a dark shape loomed and the hobbits ran towards it, hoping that it may be some sort of shelter against the fog, but as they approached they saw it was nothing more than a tall black stone sticking up straight out of the ground, silent and ominous, like a tooth reaching up from the earth below.

"Let's rest here," Faramir said, and sat down with his back to the stone. "We don't know where we are. Let's wait until the fog passes."

Gobby threw himself on the ground beside him and seemed ready to fall into a deep sleep, despite the cold and the damp, but Mirabella remained standing. Though only two feet away she was almost lost in the fog. She was hugging herself hard, shivering in the sudden cold, and her expression was wary.

"I don't like this," she said, her entire body tense. "This doesn't seem right."

"We can't do anything till the fog goes, Mira," Gobby said, already beginning to yawn. "Sit and rest a while and stop being such a worrywart."

"One of us needs to be!" She rounded on the two of them, scowling down at them. "Look at he two of you! Aren't you worried?"

"By what?" Faramir said, trying to look unconcerned, though he too had felt a horrible creeping sensation descending on them, almost like there were things watching them from the very earth beneath them.

Mirabella's face was pale in the darkness, and her eyes were wide. "There aren't any trees," she said. "I don't think we're in the forest anymore."

"And else where would we be?" Gobby asked, opening his eyes with a frown, probably irritated by his sister's attempt to ruin his sleep. "Rohan?"

Mirabella turned to face them and looked at the stone they were resting again, her blue eyes running up it to its zenith and back down, a growing horror on her face.

"The Barrow Downs," she whispered.

Immediately, Faramir leapt to his feet and jumped away from the stone and looked it over again, his heart pounding. No, surely it was impossible. How could they have come this far?

Gobby had gone white, and his entire body trembled. "B-but th-that's where the-the Barrow-Wights live!"

Mirabella grabbed Faramir's arm, her expression urgent. "We need to leave, now," she said. "Before we wake something up."

Faramir nodded in agreement, his hostility to Mirabella forgotten. "But which way?"

"This way," she said, and all he saw the next moment was her blonde curls bouncing off into the mist.

Faramir wasted no time, and soon he and Gobby were following fast on her tail. But he knew well that Mirabella was as ignorant of the right way as he was. They tore down the hill, deeper and deeper into the enveloping mist, as though sinking down into a bed of feather pillows, but icy cold instead of welcoming.

"Take my hand!" he heard Mirabella call and he saw her pale hand looming out of the mist.

Despite the situation, Faramir couldn't help but balk at holding a girl's hand, but common sense prevailed, and he seized tight hold of it, and extended his other towards Gobby, who grasped it closely in his own sweaty palm. They ran forwards with no clear sense of direction, just desperate to get out of the biting cold.

A growl sounded off to his left, and Faramir's heart almost stopped to see a pair of lantern eyes peering at him through the mist. Dark shapes were huddled behind those eyes, coming closer. He could hear the rattling of their breath, the clink of chainmail and swords, long since rusted in their long sleep underground.

"Close your eyes, Gobby!" he cried, but he needn't have bothered, for Gobby was already running with his eyes tightly clenched shut.

Ice clawed at his heart and his breathing grew quicker. Barrow-Wights. He knew well what fate awaited them if they lingered or fell under their spell. His own father had barely escaped with his life.

He looked away from the melliferous eyes, but as he did so his world seemed to slow down, and running seemed to him as though he was wading through a thick marsh. Unbidden, he felt his head being turned back towards those eyes, and in his head and heart he was aware of whispering voices, their words harsh and guttural, yet dripping with malice.

"Come to us!" they cried. "Come with us, young adventurer. Great treasure awaits you!"

Faramir shook his head, trying to clear his mind of those dreadful voices, but they grew ever louder, their words ever more forceful.

"Come, come! A prince we shall make you. Glory and honour shall be yours!"

Again, Faramir felt his head being turned by a force over which he had no control until his eyes were fixed on the cold, luminous gaze of the Wight. Its words flowed over him, deadly and hypnotic. He could not blink, could not tear his gaze away from the foul creature. As he looked, it seemed to change into a being of pure light, of warmth and goodness. His resistance was falling. The Wight's call echoed in his mind. Come, it cried, and Faramir found himself wanting to go, to follow the creature wherever it led. His running slowed, and he placed one foot in the direction of the Wight. It called, and he was answering.

"Faramir!"

Mirabella's frantic cry sounded loud in his ear and he felt a resounding slap against his cheek. He reeled and blinked fiercely, his cheek stinging something fierce. Mirabella was in front of him, her eyes wide and desperate.

"Don't listen to them, you idiot!" she shouted. "Don't look, don't listen. Just keep running."

He nodded dumbly and the next moment she had jerked his hand so strongly it was near wrenched from its socket. Gobby's hand was still in his own, but looser than before, and Faramir feared he too was falling under the spell of the Wights. Faramir tightened his grip, digging his fingernails into Gobby's hand to rouse him somewhat. The voices of the Wights were still to be heard, and so he started singing as loudly as he could.

"O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
despair not! For though dark they stand,
all woods there be must end at last,
and see the open sun go past:
the setting sun, the rising sun,
the day's end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail!"

He hardly knew what it was he sang, vaguely recalling it from his father's house, but it mattered not. With the singing, the call of the Wights grew less and Faramir came more back into his own mind. Soon Gobby and Mirabella's voices were joined to his and the voices of the Wights could no more be heard. They ran on and on, singing as they went, the world around them seeming to grow warmer as if the melody itself was lending it warmth.

It was not long until branches of trees could be seen protruding from the mist and Faramir realised they were back among the relative safety of the Old Forest trees, if safety that was. They ceased their singing but did not stop running. The mist was lifted and a path had appeared, one which Faramir had been certain had not been there before and they ran along it for several minutes until they all collapsed in a heap upon a soft bank at the side of the path which continued on down a steep embankment.

Faramir did not know how long they lay there, feeling the warmth return to their bodies and their breathing return to normal. His entire body trembled. The horror of those eyes lingered, and he was almost certain he could still see them lurking in the shadows of the trees. He was drenched in icy cold sweat. He wondered how long it would be before his stomach ceased to feel so queasy, or his limbs so weak.

It was now well into the night, and Faramir sat up and looked around him. The cold that surrounded them was not merely due to the Wights. They needed to find some form of shelter and make a camp for the night. Mercifully, they each still had their packs.

"We need to move," he announced, scrambling to his feet and dusting off his trousers. "Come on. If we get down this embankment we might find a stream, or at least a little more cover for us to camp under."

Mirabella was on her feet in a moment, but Gobby lay wheezing on the ground. He looked much the worse for wear; his face was pale and splotched with red patches, his clothes askew and forehead shining in perspiration.

"Can't we stay here?" he gasped. "I don't think I can move!"

"Well, you need to," Faramir said, nudging him with his foot. "We need to get away from those Wights."

This was all it took, and the next moment, Gobby was on his feet, wearily adjusting the straps of his pack and lancing fearfully behind him.

"You don't think they'll come again, do you?"

"No!" Faramir scoffed and waved his hand. "We scared them off alright. Lucky I thought of singing, eh?"

"Lucky?" Mirabella rounded on him, hands flying to her hips. "We shouldn't have been out there in the first place!"

"We managed all right-"

"Of course!" Mirabella glared at him. "Only because was there. If I hadn't been you'd now be locked up in a barrow somewhere. You were almost under their spell!"

"Was not!" Faramir glared back, trying not to se the truth of her words.

"He did think of singing, Mira. Wasn't that what Tom Bombadil did when-"

Mirabella's glower stopped the words in Gobby's throat. "Don't you dare. You were all for going to sleep on the barrow. Honestly, are you two that stupid?"

"Look, stop being so bossy, Mirabella," Faramir shot back. "We're all in this together now. And we need to find somewhere to sleep, far away from the Barrows."

"No, we need to stay near them."

Faramir stared. "What?"

"The Barrows are the first decent landmark we've found," Mirabella said. "When daylight comes and the Wights go to sleep we can cross them and know where we are. Bree isn't far off. If we can get there we can get someone to take us home."

"You want us to cross the Barrows?"

"The Barrow-Wights can't be in daylight," she argued back. "It makes more sense. This is getting too dangerous. If we don't leave the forest now we could be trapped here forever!"

Faramir shook his head. "We're not giving up now. We've come too far. We need to keep going."

He turned and led the way down the embankment quickly, making great long strides with purpose, despite the fact that there was so little light he might as well be in a cave. His feet stumbled over uneven ground but he didn't stop, wanting to be away from Mirabella. He didn't want to hear her, despite knowing she had a point. He couldn't give up now, he wouldn't!

"Don't be an idiot, Faramir!"

Not to be defeated, Mirabella came stumbling after him, her feet sliding across he steep leaf strewn path. She wobbled dangerously close to the edge of the path, where the ground fell away down the embankment into black nothingness.

"It's too dark to do anything tonight!" she complained. "We have no idea where we're going."

Faramir rolled his eyes. Did she ever stop moaning?

"You're going to lead us into trouble, Faramir Took!" She finally caught up with him. "You're so arrogant. You think you're right all the time, but you're not. We're going to get stuck in here, or get eaten by a tree, or starve to death or something all because you're so desperate to be the centre of attention."

A spike of anger ignited in his chest, and Faramir wheeled around to face her, hardly able to see more than the sparkle of her eyes in the dim light.

"I'm not the one going around pushing their nose into everyone's business," he pointed out. "And I'm not arrogant."

"Yes, you are! You don't care about the rest of us as long as you get your own way. No wonder Gobby's your only friend."

Faramir opened his mouth for a harsh retaliation, but fell short, his hurt at her words surprising him. It was true what she said. Gobby was his only friend. But that wasn't because he was arrogant, was it? True, Gobby always went along with him, but was that such a bad thing? They had fun, didn't they?

He's not having fun now, a voice said in the back of his mind. Gobby's miserable. He doesn't want to be here, but you dragged him along anyway.

Faramir felt the uncomfortable truth settle on him like a heavy cloud. Gobby was only here because Faramir made him come. Was Gobby only his friend because Faramir gave him no other option? Was he really such a bad friend?

Mirabella seemed to smirk at him in the darkness, confident she had caught him out at last. But she had little time to enjoy her victory.

The forest around them soon rang with a loud shout and a great crashing as something heavy tumbled down the embankment, falling into the undergrowth and rolling away, gaining speed. Both instantly recognised that cry. Gobby, in his haste at trying to follow them had taken a wrong turn in the pitch blackness and fallen from the path down the steep cliff on the other side.

"Gobby!" Mirabella shrieked and made to run after him, but Faramir grabbed her arm to hold her back, despite his own panic.

"Try that and you'll fall as well," he said.

In one fluid movement he slipped his pack form his shoulders and propped it up at the side of the road, lightening his weight substantially. Mirabella did likewise. The crashing had ceased, and Faramir was conscious of a low moan sounding down below them.

"Gobby, where are you?" he called, straining his eyes in the darkness.

"Here!" came the answering cry, weak and pitiful. "But I don't know where here is!"

"Keep talking!" Faramir called, judging by the voice where he should leave the path. He made off carefully down the steep slope with tiny steps, holding the branches of the small trees which surrounded him to stop himself tumbling down likewise. "I'm coming for you!"

A rustling from behind let Faramir know Mirabella had also followed him. He could hear her sniffing loudly. She was afraid for her brother, and Faramir shared her fear. His heart beat far more quickly than it had when facing the Barrow-Wights. If Gobby was hurt ... it was all his fault.

The slope turned even steeper and Faramir had to sit down and edge his way down, painstakingly aware how precariously he was situated on the side of the cliff and knowing one false move could send him hurtling down into the darkness.

He became aware then of a pale circle on the ground before him which was creating some amount of noise.

"I see you, Gobby!" he said. "Hold on."

A few more minutes and he was crouched by Gobby, who was sniffling as badly as his sister, but trying his best to hide it. His fall down the hill had been halted by means of a shallow ditch which ran down the hill in a flowing pattern, marked out by the winter rains. Gobby had fallen into this ditch and was sprawled upon the ground, his left arm cradled in his right.

"I think it's broken," he wailed as soon as Faramir was at his side. "I can't climb back up!"

"I'll help you," Faramir said, feeing an odd tightness in his throat as he looked at Gobby's useless arm and tear-stained cheeks. A wave of guilt threatened to crush him entirely, but he banished it for the moment. He needed to stay clear headed.

Mirabella joined them a moment later and fell upon her brother with a tight embrace. She took his arm gently and wrapped it in her cloak, binding it close to his body in a makeshift sling. She looked up at Faramir. Her gaze was angry, but a forced calm was in them. What now, she seemed to say.

Faramir gazed up at the path where they had come, or rather, where it should be, and then down the rest of the slope where they clung to the sides. He could not see the bottom of the slope, and knew not whether it opened out into a river, or fell into a deep gorge filed with razor sharp rocks. Going down could be dangerous, but so could climbing back up. He hesitated. Surely it was better for them to go the way they knew for certain led to safety?

Crouching before Gobby, he and Mirabella helped him to his feet, relieved to see that it was only his arm which appeared hurt. His legs shook, but Mirabella took his good arm firmly around her own shoulders to steady him. Faramir went ahead several paces, and found himself a good anchoring spot on the sloping ground and turned to offer his hand to Mirabella, helping her and Gobby to follow. He then went on again, holding onto boulders, trees, whatever else seemed permanent on that ever-sliding ground before reaching back to the others, helping them to scramble up the near vertical slope. It was slow going, and more than once the soft earth gave way and sent them sliding backwards in a heart-stopping few seconds. Exposed roots in the ground gave him handholds, and he dug his fingernails deep into the earth to give himself leverage, climbing almost spiderlike up the cliff. The smell of the earth was pungent in his nostrils and his limbs strained with the effort as he reached back every so often and assisted Mirabella and Gobby up behind him, both struggling to drag themselves up the hill with one arm. Their faces shone with the effort, and Faramir feared at any moment they would slip away into the nothingness below.

After an age, Faramir saw the path up above him and his heart grew lighter, but soon stopped in dismay. The path was several feet away, but he could not reach it. The earth before him was crumbling when he tried to put any weight upon it and the thicknes of the leaves made it too slippery to stand. There were no trees or roots to offer a convenient aid. He tried to scramble up twice, but each time fell back, sliding back further and further. He could cry in frustration. He could see the path! But the ground was simply too steep and slippery to gain purchase. They were destined to be stuck there forever. Beside him, Gobby and Mirabella also looked upwards in dismay, both panting heavily, too worn out by the climb to say anything.

Faramir looked at Gobby and saw his poor arm, clutched close to his chest, his face pale with the pain. He turned away, tears stinging at his eyes. Gobby was hurt because of him, because he'd stormed off into the dead of night believing his plan the best and Gobby had followed him, trusting him blindly as always. He'd led Gobby into many a bad situation before now, but he'd never caused him to be hurt. Perhaps Mirabella was right. He was a terrible friend.

Spurred on by this revelation, Faramir looked back at the path and tried one final time, launching himself forward with as much effort as he could muster, scrambling desperately to find some leverage in the soft ground. He feet fell from beneath him and sent him tumbling to the ground. Faramir groaned and cried aloud.

"Stupid forest!" he shouted, his voice strained and thick with emotion. "Why do you have to be so mean? He doesn't deserve it! Help us, won't you? Please!"

Why he'd shouted, he had no idea, and hardly expected anything to come of it. He fell flat on his face and would have given over to weeping if not for Mirabella's shout.

Jerking his head up, he saw to his utter amazement that in front of him a branch had appeared, thick and strong. He traced its length and saw that it belonged to an old elm which lined the side of the path. It would lead them directly to safety.

Faramir didn't stop to think twice. He seized hold of the branch and hoisted himself to his feet before turning and similarly assisting Mirabella and and Gobby. Slowly and steadily, each of them inched their way up the remaining few feet of the slope by holding tightly to the elm branch and in a matter of minutes they were lying flat on the path near their packs breathing heavily from their brush with danger for the second time that evening.

When his strength returned, Faramir bolted upright and looked back down the slope. The elm branch was gone, and the tree to which it had belonged sat still, innocently swaying in the slight breeze. Faramir stared at it a long moment. He couldn't have imagined it, could he?

Mirabella stared at the tree as well, a frown on her face which turned to amazement when she met Faramir's eyes. He knew they both thought the same thing. The forest had helped them.

The only question was why.

 

Chapter Text

Their night was a miserable one. The three hobbit children sat huddled together on the path beneath an overhanging bank all night, drifting off for perhaps half an hour at a time before their drooping head was jerked up by the movement of the one they had been leaning on. None of them had dared venture further along the path in the darkness, fearing that they should once more fall down the slope. They were too afraid even to venture far to obtain firewood, so they sat shivering with their cloaks wrapped tightly around them, sharing out the remnants of their food in a cheerless evening meal. Mirabella, who had given her cloak towards creating a sling for Gobby suffered the most, her teeth chattering so loudly Gobby was certain it was the sound of the swords of the Wights come after them again. Faramir arranged it so that Mirabella was sandwiched between the two boys and pulled the most part of his own blanket over her to cease her shaking. She looked at him curiously when he did this, but said nothing, to his relief.

When daylight finally came it was not before time. The three of them were profoundly cold, hungry and more than a little afraid of the strange forest which surrounded them. As soon as there was sufficient light to see by Faramir and Mirabella went to examining Gobby, who still cradled his hurt arm. Faramir was no physician, but even he could tell it was obviously broken; it seemed to bend the wrong way and was twice its usual size. Gobby could do more than twitch his fingers without causing great pain. What was to be done? Faramir felt shame rising inside of him as he saw Gobby hissing when Mirabella gently ran her hand along the arm. Gobby had said nothing that suggested he blamed Faramir for his injury, but he didn't need to. Faramir blamed himself, and would have wept if Mirabella were not there.

The hobbit-lass however did not sit idle and fighting back tears as Faramir did. After examining Gobby's arm she disappeared for a moment and returned with two long sticks which she broke across her knee. Then, she took one of their blankets and using Gobby's penknife cut from it some long strips. Faramir watched dumbfounded as she aligned the two sticks with Gobby's arm and tied them in place using the blanket, keeping the arm in a more or less rigid position, then using a remaining length of fabric to form another sling, lifting Gobby's arm so that it was immobilised against his chest. She did all this with an air of such authority that neither of them said anything to her, or tried to help. When finished, she sat back, satisfied.

"That should do for a while," she said thoughtfully. "You should try and keep it still."

"How did you know how to do that?" Faramir demanded, looking at her in a new light. "That's brilliant!"

"I saw mother do it once," she said, a slight blush appearing on her cheek. "She's the unofficial physician at Brandy Hall and I help her sometimes. My cousins are always getting themselves in trouble."

Faramir had to admit that he was impressed. Somehow he'd never much thought of what Mirabella did when she wasn't annoying him and Gobby. He supposed she just read boring books and played with dolls all the time.

"It's a good thing you're with us," he mumbled, avoiding her eyes. He felt vastly uncomfortable. She had been able to help Gobby where he could not, and she had helped him resist the Wights. What had he done except lead them all into danger?

Mirabella blushed deeper and stared at him in astonishment, but she seemed pleased, attempting to hide the small smile which had arisen at his words.

Clearing his throat, Faramir stood and made a survey of their surroundings, seeing that the path went on twisting down the length of the hill upon which they were resting. Peering over the side of the path he saw the treacherous slope they had climbed the previous night and shuddered. As he had feared, the bottom was a long way down, lined with rocks and jagged formations. If Gobby had fallen all the way ...

He shook himself and looked away, not wishing to lose himself in thoughts like that again. It was no use lingering. Gobby seemed stronger than the night before, and quite willing to go on, but Faramir was wary. He didn't want his friend getting hurt again. Then again, they couldn't stay where they were.

He screened his eyes and looked skywards where the sun could just be seen peeping through the leaves.

"If we head along this path, I think it might take us down to the valley floor," he said. "It might be the Withywindle. We can fill up our water and see if we can't get some berries or something along the banks." He paused and looked awkwardly at the other two. "What do you think?"

The twins blinked in surprise and glanced at each other. Silently, they nodded.

Their packs were lifted, Gobby hoisted to his feet and the three began their slow descent down the steep slope, their going impeded by the slipperiness of the path and their lack of sure footing. The sun rose ever higher and the air became stiflingly hot and almost unbearable in the closeness of the trees. At all times Faramir was aware of a prickling feeling on the back of his neck and more than once turned sharply around expecting to see something watching him. He was uneasy and distrustful of the trees; they swayed and moved on all sides, though there wasn't a breath of wind. He wasn't the only to notice.

"Do you think they're angry?" Mirabella whispered to him, her eyes fliting from side to side.

"I'm not sure," he said, though he was almost certain he could detect a definite malice in the air. "We haven't done anything to hurt them. Maybe they'll leave us alone."

"Do you think they're all bad?" Mirabella turned her wide eyes to him. "I mean, that elm last night ... it was like it was helping us."

"I don't understand this queer forest," Faramir said, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't trust it. Maybe it wanted to help, or maybe it was trying to trap us. Who knows?"

"But why would it help us up if it wanted to trap us?"

Faramir shook his head. "To guide us where it wants us to go? Maybe it wants to send us down this valley. That's where the badness is supposed to come from, isn't it?"

Mirabella said nothing, but he saw her shudder. She betrayed no fear upon her face and walked in step with Faramir, the two of them almost like a guard for Gobby, both of them alert and ready for any new danger. As they walked, they became aware of a whispering surrounding them on all sides, and more than once the sound of what seemed to be a distant howl.

Gobby squeaked at the sound. "Wolves!" he cried, and clutched Faramir's arm tightly. "There's a pack of wolves about!"

"Don't be silly, Gobby," Faramir said, though his own heart had leapt. "Of course there aren't any wolves in the Shire."

"We're not in the Shire," Mirabella reminded him darkly, and she peered back into the dim light beneath the trees with a new tension in her limbs.

The sounds of the howls soon faded however, and they relaxed somewhat, even eventually venturing to laugh it off, though not one of them ceased looking about them every so often with bated breath, half expecting to see a flash of a tail behind a tree or some dreadful eyes surmounting a wide toothy grin leering at them from beneath a rock.

The path they were following eventually levelled out and all three were overjoyed to see a merry little stream before them which ran parallel to the road. The trees had thinned and the sun was allowed to penetrate here, its rays bouncing off the flowing river in great bursts of light which made the entire sight look almost magical in its golden hues. A lazy haze seemed to shimmer above the waters and the very sight lessened the burden on all their hearts.

Faramir smiled and loosened his pack, depositing it by the bank and strode forwards to dip his weary feet into the clear water. It was cold, but soothing and he could not help but be cheered by the sensation. The water was not deep and so he waded out a little into the stream, disregarding the chilling effects of the water and bent down to wash his face and neck. It was then he noticed how filthy he was from the climb the previous day and undertook to wash himself more thoroughly, peeling off his outer layers and throwing them to the bank so to wash away the dirt and grime of the road. Mirabella and Gobby, no less filthy than he was, soon joined him, and before long each of them was standing knee nigh in the little stream, cupping the water into their hands to give themselves a good scrubbing. Even Gobby, with his bound arm soon began to smile and even dared so much as to aim a strong kick towards Faramir which quite drenched him from head to foot. Spluttering from the drenching and hearing Gobby's cackle of laughter, Faramir wasn't long in sending a returning splash of water in his direction, turning the laugher into squeals.

Gobby, one-armed as he was, was not about to settle for this, and so the boys soon fell into splashing each other ever more wildly, laughing raucously as they did so until they were wetter than they would have been if they'd been entirely submerged. Mirabella, who at first had rolled her eyes and muttered something inaudible about 'silly boys' was soon induced to enter the fray when a particularly vicious wave from Faramir sent her toppling over into the water with a profound splash. Upon leaping to her feet she proved herself a formidable opponent, sending as many splashes in their direction as she received in return. She too was now shrieking with laughter, her eyes sparkling and her rosy cheeks full of colour. For a moment all their cares and worries about the forest had vanished, and they became three young hobbit children again, the same as might have been seen playing in the Brandywine in any part of the Shire.

Worn out by their play, they eventually waded back to shore and threw themselves upon the grassy bank to dry in the midday sun. after what seemed to be a very short nap they rose and were fortunate to find mushrooms and berries lurking under the bushes which lined the stream and they had quite a fine midday meal, for the circumstances. Gobby lay back to sleep again after eating, his lips stained purple and resting in a vague smile while Faramir and Mirabella sat awake.

She was a little way away, looking thoughtfully over the stream, her brow creased. Faramir watched her a moment, suddenly somewhat embarrassed, though he didn't know why. Yesterday she had been so angry with him, and today they had just spent half an hour playing in a stream. He wasn't sure how to act around her.

Mirabella rummaged in their packs and retrieved their water bottles and began to fill them at the edge of the water while Faramir watched, still uncertain what to say. She had been so calm yesterday in a crisis, and even now was thinking ahead. Again, a great shame came over him, thinking how recklessly he had led his companions into danger.

She came back eventually and sat nearby, but did not look at him, instead casting her eye over her brother. She smiled fondly.

"I think the pain's not so bad now," she said. "He'll be fine until we get home."

"Yeah," Faramir mumbled, folding his hands together and looking at his nails. He sighed. "I'm sorry, Mirabella."

She turned to him, her eyes round in surprise. "You? Apologising?"

"Don't get used to it," he grumbled, shifting uncomfortably. "But ... you were right. It was stupid of us to come in here. I didn't think it through. And ... I shouldn't have acted the way I did with the two of you. I'm a rotten friend."

Mirabella looked as though she was about to smile and shoot back some snarky comment, but the words died on her lips when she saw his hunched shoulders and miserable expression.

"A rotten friend wouldn't have gone down that cliff to save Gobby," she said instead, her voice gentler than before. "And a rotten friend wouldn't have tried to save me from that tree."

"You shouldn't have needed to be saved," Faramir said gloomily. "You came to help Gobby, and Gobby wouldn't be here without me."

Mirabella was quiet a moment before speaking again, looking uncertainly at Faramir, chewing her lip.

"Gobby wasn't the only reason I came," she said, staring at the ground. "And before you get any ideas it wasn't because of you either. As far as I'm concerned, you deserve all the trouble you get."

"Then why did you come?" he asked, curious at the sudden nervousness he saw on her face. He had never seen her look so tentative before. She was always so confident, so brash and decisive. "Why do you always follow us?"

She squirmed for a moment before looking back across the river, a light in her eyes and a new peace on her expression. She smiled softly.

"For this," she said, gesturing to the forest before her, which in the light of the sun had transformed from the sinister into the beautiful. "For adventure." On seeing Faramir's surprise she laughed. "What, you think hobbit-lads are the only ones who dream of far off lands and quests? I'm the daughter of Meriadoc Brandybuck, the Master of Buckland, Esquire of Rohan, Hero of the Battle of Bywater. Why shouldn't I want to be like him and see some more of the world?"

She sighed and twirled a blade of grass between her fingers. "All the great hobbit adventurers, that is, Bilbo, Bullroarer Took, Frodo and the others ... they all have one thing in common, and it isn't their height. When was there ever a story of a hobbit-lass going on an adventure? I want to be the first one."

"I had no idea," Faramir said, staring at her as if he had never seen her before. Mirabella shot him a look of mischief he could never gave imagined she'd be capable of.

"Of course not, you don't notice anything if it isn't in front of your nose. I've listened to father's stories more times than you can imagine, read all his writing and looked at his maps and wondered what was beyond the edges. And I thought, maybe there is something in what you were saying. Maybe there are Ent-Wives in the Old Forest. And if not, well, at least I get to go where few other hobbits dare to go, and save you two along the way."

Faramir smiled in return and they fell to silence, each thinking of their situation. He stole a few glances at Mirabella. He could never in his wildest imaginings have guessed at the real reasons Mirabella was always tagging along after them, just assuming it was something all annoying sisters tended to do. He felt now he understood her for the first time. She too had longed to get out of the Shire, to live up to her father and see the world. It was remarkable that they had both been so much of the same mind and never realised it until now. It was all just more proof that Faramir never took much notice of the people who were important to him.

It was something he resolved to change.

"Well, if we both want to be adventurers, then we both need to find our way out of this mess," he said. "We need to get home as soon as we can. Gobby isn't like us. I shouldn't have forced him to come. He didn't want to."

"I wouldn't say that." Goby had opened one eye from his position on the grass and sat up, wiping his stained mouth. He looked at Faramir. "I didn't want to come to the forest, true, but I wanted to be with you. I wasn't about to stay behind."

"But why?" Faramir frowned. "Why come with me if you're afraid and didn't want to?"

Goby blinked slowly, as if he wasn't quite sure how to answer such an obvious question. "Because I thought you would need a friend," he said simply, and he smiled. "Mayor Sam didn't abandon Mr Frodo when he got scared."

Faramir, far from being heartened by Gobby's reassuring smile felt ever more wretched than before, touched to the core that Gobby would still consider him a friend after this.

He coughed, clearing his somewhat thick throat and looked to the two of them, a more serious expression over his face.

"We need a plan," he said, looking between the twins. "We need to get out of the Forest as quick as we can. Any ideas?"

Both the Brandybucks thought for a moment, brows furrowed.

"We could follow the river," Gobby suggested. "If it's the Withywindle like we think, then Tom Bombadil's house is at the end of it."

"Are you sure?" Faramir asked. Tales of the strange man of the forest had never been of much interest to him, who had much preferred to hear of the ruthless Old Man Willow and vicious Barrow-Wights.

"Certain. His house is at the end of the valley. If we find him, he'll be sure to help us get home."

Faramir was unsure; Bomdadil seemed like a strange fellow and he wasn't as sure as Gobby that he would help. But then, as he reminded himself, he had helped both their fathers long ago. If he was still alive (and there was no reason to think he wasn't), would he help their children?

He glanced at Mirabella. "What do you think?"

"I think it's our best chance," she said, smiling at being asked. "Going back across the Barrow-Downs, now I think about I, would be too dangerous. We'd never cross before night fell again, and I have no idea how far Bree is. And we'll never find our way back though the forest on paths which keep changing."

Faramir nodded. "Alright then, it's decided. We'll follow the stream. Even if it doesn't lead to Bombadil it'll probably lead us out eventually. We won't get lost following it at least."

They gathered their things and made off along the direction of the flowing stream, keeping as close to its banks as they could.

"And," Mirabella added with a wink, "if we find Tom Bombadil we can ask him about the Ent-Wives. If there's any, he'll know for sure!"

Faramir grinned back and it was quite a cheerful attitude they continued on, spirits bolstered by their paddling and lunch of berries and mushrooms. The sunlight which filtered through the trees seemed to make the place far more welcoming than it had before, and as they walked along the bank their voices were soon raised in singing some of their fathers' favourite walking songs with words of their own devices, their voices getting louder and the words getting sillier with every repetition until they were creased in laughter. Once again they were on the look-out for Ent-Wives, searching through the trees and calling for them with such high spirits that all thought of leaving the Forest began to fade from Faramir's mind in his renewed sense of excitement.

But their good moods began to darken when the light faded behind a cloud and the forest was plunged once more into ominous darkness. The stream which they followed which before had babbled pleasantly at their side now seem angry as it pursued its relentless course through the black trees. The berry bushes, which until now had been plentiful along the banks as they plucked as they walked, were now far and few between. The old feeling of being watched came upon Faramir then and he was once more on his guard.

Gobby gulped and shuddered at his side. His eyes were permanently wide.

"Watch out for willow trees!" he squeaked suddenly, seeing Mirabella about to pass beneath the branches of one. "It could be Old Man Willow! Stay away!"

The thought had not occurred to any of them until now, and they went on with more caution, Merry and Pippin's descriptions of the evil willow on the banks of the stream ringing in their ears. The light grew ever dimmer and dimmer, though they knew it was still the afternoon. Faramir thought more than once of Brandy Hall, where his and Gobby's parents would be waiting, probably out of their minds with worry. He had a sudden rushing desire to be at home, tucked up in his feather bed with some sweet tea and some cakes.

The darkness was shrouding them now, and they bunched together unconsciously, alert for every sound in the forest, jumping at the breaking of twigs, the whispers of the trees, the creeping evil which seemed to descend upon them.

A howl sounded close by, surprising them all; they had forgotten about the howls from earlier. Another joined the first, and Faramir was horrified by how near they sounded now. No longer could he dismiss the sound as the moaning of the wind. It was real. It was the sound of some ferocious animal, and it was close!

Gobby's face drained of colour and he stopped in sheer terror, raising his shaking hand to point across the stream. "Look!" he squeaked.

Faramir looked, and he could have fainted in fright.

Faramir had never seen a wolf before, but he had no doubt that was what he saw now. Like a dog, but larger and hairier, with sharp pointed teeth and glittering eyes, it stood on the hill on the other side, looking at them with a curious expression. Its head tilted to one side, as though wondering whether or not to eat them. A low noise sounded in its throat.

If Faramir had been older, he would perhaps have been a bit more sensible as to what to do when one sees a wolf. Perhaps he would have known that the creature before him was in fact (despite his wild imaginings) not a Warg or a werewolf, or any of the foul creatures his father had told him about, but a simple wolf who was merely curious as to why three little children were wandering about in its forest. But he was only eleven years old after all, and had never come across anything more dangerous than a goat before. And so he did the worst thing possible when one is confronted by a wolf.

"RUN!" Faramir yelled, and Gobby and Mirabella (who likewise, knew nothing of wolves) followed him immediately as they ran in the opposite direction, away from the river and into the darkness of the forest.

The wolf, seeing this as a challenge, howled and barked, and was met with answering snarls and yelps as he was joined on the hill by several other of the creatures, all of whom followed the fleeing hobbits with amber eyes. Then they ran.

Faramir could hear the sound of the wolves behind him as they crashed through the undergrowth hot on their trail and his little heart beat so fast it was like one continuous hum. The little hobbit had never been more terrified in his life.

But Faramir Took was nothing if not resourceful. Somewhere at the back of his mind he realised that three hobbit children could never outrun a pack of wolves. So what to do?

One of his father's stories came back to him then, not one of his own adventures, but those of Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves who had been pursued by Wargs from the Misty Mountains. Thinking these creatures which followed him to be of the same variety, a new idea sprang into his head.

"Into the trees!" he shouted with all his might. "Climb up!"

Mirabella immediately shot into the nearest low hanging branch and pulled herself up as quick as she could, more nimble than Faramir could have given her credit for and was soon perched in the highest of branches, swaying dangerously. But poor Gobby,with one arm, could not follow.

Faramir ran to his friend, blood rushing in his ears. At any moment he expected to feel teeth snapping at his ankles, flesh being ripped from his body. He used his hands to give Gobby a boost into the nearest tree and then sprang up behind him, pushing and shoving, then dragging and lifting, straining with effort as he hoisted his terrified friend into the higher branches. Gobby, never much of a tree-climber, tried his best to pull himself up, his feet scrabbling to find footholds while Faramir assisted.

They reached a branch thicker than the others, some thirty feet in the air where they rested a moment, Gobby leaning back against the thick trunk while Faramir hung over the edge to gaze at the situation below.

The wolves had reached them now, at least twelve of them, and all of them turned their unnerving gazes skywards at the three hobbits. Faramir could swear he saw some licking their lips.

Some lifted their huge paws and placed them against the base of the trunk and Faramir went cold, thinking perhaps that he had been wrong and wolves could climb trees, but none attempted it. They circled the two trees which held Mirabella and the two boys, growls rumbling in their throats, no doubt not best pleased at being robbed of their dinner.

Mirabella, in the next tree looked over to Faramir.

"Now what, genius?" she called, gesturing to the ravenous hunters down below.

"We wait!" Faramir called back, completely clueless.

"For how long?"

"Till they give up!" he scowled over at her. What else did she expect of him?

"And when will that be?"

Faramir ignored her and turned instead to Gobby who was trembling with fright. He made sure the younger hobbit was secure where he sat and tried to comfort him as best he could before turning to look back down at the pack below.

The wolves did not seem ready to give up on such an easy meal so soon, and continued to pace between the two trees, looking up hopefully every so often as if hoping for a hobbit to fall from the tree like a pine cone. Some continued to bark and snarl, and Faramir felt faint looking at the sharpness of their teeth. Most however, settled down upon the ground, yawning and stretching out their paws, much as he'd seen dogs back home do on a warm lazy day. It appeared the wolves were content to wait as long as they were.

Faramir cursed his luck. He had no idea what to do now. Could they wait it out? When would the wolves give up? And even if they did, what would prevent them from being pursued again whenever they came out of the trees? More than ever now he wished he hadn't thought to come here. Adventures perhaps weren't as much fun as he'd thought.

It must have been hours that they sat there perched in those trees, but it was impossible to tell the time, for the sunlight had long been obscured by cloud. Soon however, he knew it must have turned to night-time, for the usual noises of the night began to sound around him, and the light which occasionally peeked from behind the clouds was now white instead of yellow.

The wolves seemed unconcerned by the passage of time. They sat grooming themselves, stretched out asleep on the ground or alternatively stealing glances up at them. They were now barely visible to the hobbits, so dark was it now, and Faramir couldn't tell if there were still the original twelve, or if some had left or joined them. Soon, all that could be seen was the glinting of their eyes.

Mirabella likewise was barely visible in the neighbouring tree. She was moving uncomfortably in her perch, the branches she was sitting in being much thinner and less secure than in Faramir's tree meant she was sprawled across several in a very uncomfortable position. She tried to stretch her limbs, which he knew must be cramping badly by now, and he saw with some concern that the branches on which she sat were bending dangerously.

She twisted on her perch and peered down below.

"Still there!" she announced unnecessarily. "I can't take this anymore!"

She wriggled again, trying to get herself more comfortable. The branch creaked ominously.

"Mirabella, stop moving," Faramir warned, eyes fixed on the bending bough.

But Mirabella just scowled at him. "This is your fault, Faramir Took! Stuck in a tree like birds in a nest! What are we supposed to do!"

"Just be quiet, won't you? And stop moving!"

"If I don't move my whole body is going to seize up-"

"Mirabella- STOP MOVING!"

He'd just seen a huge crack appear on the branch close to the trunk and Mirabella turned her head in a panic, she too having heard the startlingly loud sound of wood cracking. She had frozen and her eyes were wide. She hardly dared breathe. Her eyes looked towards Faramir and he was shocked to see genuine terror there for the first time in all their adventures.

"Stay still," he urged, eyes not moving from the crack. "Stay calm."

Mirabella did as he did, but they both knew it was futile. The crack widened, slowly but surely, the sound tearing through the stillness of the forest. Faramir's mind was racing. What could he do?

"Faramir!" Mirabella cried as another loud crack burst upon them and the branch on which she leaned sank by several inches. She looked at him again, tears filling her blue eyes. Faramir watched helplessly as the branch gave way entirely, and it plummeted, its passenger with it, several feet down to the hard earth where twelve angry wolves were waiting below.

 

Chapter Text

Mirabella's screams were echoing in his ears. Gobby's joined them. Faramir was frozen for a moment, lost in the horror of what he had seen. He heard Mirabella falling, hitting several branches on her way to the ground which slowed her down. Roused to action he looked down from his perch, hoping she had managed to grab one of the lower branches and pull herself back up. But still she fell. Her hands reached out desperately.

She hit the ground.

Faramir heard the wolves below jumping to their feet. Some ran away. Some growled. Mirabella gasped in fright. She couldn't move. Terror had won. Faramir made up his mind.

Ignoring Gobby's warnings he half climbed, half fell through the branches of his on tree, slipping and sliding and jumping from branch to branch, blood rushing in his ears. His limbs trembled so much he thought he would plummet straight down.

With one final leap, Faramir found himself on the ground and turned to face the wolves. They were a little distance off. The fall of Mirabella had surprised them, but they were quickly overcoming that. The closest wolf was coming nearer, eyes fixed on the children, hunched low to the ground. A low snarl sounded in its throat. Its body seemed to be quivering in anticipation. At any moment it could pounce.

Faramir ran to Mirabella and pulled at her arm desperately. "Come on! Move! You need to climb up!"

But Mirabella was still on the ground where she had fallen, body rigid and eyes wide in horror. She was petrified.

Growling sounded closer behind him now, and Faramir turned to see the wolves still coming steadily towards them, spread out in a wide pattern, cutting off all means of escape. They were hemmed in. Faramir could have dropped down next to Mirabella in fright.

He spied a large branch on the ground before them, broken off by Mirabella's fall and he seized it on one hand and waved it towards the wolves as if it were a sword.

"Get back!" he cried, swinging it from side to side. "Stay away!"

He was painfully aware of how foolish he must look. A child with a stick against a pack of wolves, but what else could he do? He wasn't a warrior. He wasn't like his father who had gone on all those adventures.

The wolves narrowed their eyes at the stick, but other than a slight hesitation, they continued inching closer. Faramir looked desperately for another idea.

Crouching down, he grabbed some rocks which lay on the ground with his left hand and hurled them at the lead wolf, still brandishing his stick and yelling at the top of his lungs.

"Leave us alone!" He threw another rock. "Go away!"

The wolf jumped back when the rock hit its muzzle and yelped with pain. It halted for the briefest of moments. Faramir seized his chance.

He moved forwards, leaving Mirabella huddled at the base of the tree. Heaving the stick into the air, he whirled it around his head, the same way his father had told him trolls did with their clubs before they attacked, and yelled again at the wolves, who were by now starting to inch back warily, examining him with new caution.

Faramir threw another couple of rocks for good measure, heart thumping in his chest. He silently gave thanks for hours of practice he and Gobby had had with catapults which gave him his good aim. All his rocks met their mark. One wolf at least retreated, giving him up as too much effort.

But the pack remained.

The lead wolf, who had taken several steps backwards as it evaluated the threat anew had now stopped. Its unblinking eyes rested on Faramir, and the little hobbit stared back as fearlessly as he could. Would it leave him alone? Would it call his bluff?

The wolf blinked once, and then settled itself back into its original position, body close to the ground, muscles tense in readiness to bound towards the helpless hobbits.

Faramir's courage failed him. He sank to the ground beside Mirabella and prepared to be eaten.

The moon sank out of view behind gathering dark clouds, plunging the forest into an impenetrable blackness. All Faramir could see was the glinting of white teeth. He closed his eyes.

Faramir waited for those teeth to sink into his flesh, to be torn limb from limb and chewed up into tiny pieces. But the promised bite did not come. Instead, he heard many shrieks and yelps, barks and snarls. He covered his ears with his hands, desperate to block out whatever sound those dreadful creatures were making, but still their noises were loud in his ears. They yelped and they whimpered. They sounded ... afraid.

Faramir wrenched open his eyes and removed his hands peering into the darkness before him. Instead of those horrid faces pouncing upon him he saw instead vague shapes before him moving very quickly, flashes of grey and white, and something larger among them. In amidst the yelping of the wolves he could hear another sound, a deep moaning, rumbling sound which seemed to be coming from the very earth itself. Faramir trembled. Was something even worse than the wolves out there?

The dreadful moaning sound grew louder and louder and the wolves grew quieter. Their snarls were now nothing more than whines, and the sound of their paws was loud as they hastened away over the forest floor.

Silence fell. Soon all that could be heard was the frenzied breathing of the two young hobbits.

The moon reappeared from behind the clouds and Faramir was astonished to see the forest around them was entirely of living creatures apart from themselves. All that remained was a mess of broken twigs on the ground and clumps of scattered hair.

Faramir stayed where he was, eyes searching every inch of the clearing, hardly daring to make a sound. What on earth had happened?

Behind him, Mirabella shuddered and choked. "The wolves," she gasped. "Where are they?"

"I don't know," Faramir said honestly, still hardly believing his luck. "But we need to get moving before they come back."

He got to his feet, rather unsteadily as he felt his knees were about to give way beneath him. Mirabella was still hunched against the tree. He saw she was shaking even worse than he was. Normally, he'd have made some wise comment about her being a coward, but he had no heart for it. He himself had never been so afraid.

"Here," he said gruffly, holding out his hand to her, avoiding meeting her gaze.

She narrowed her eyes at him, suspicious of his sudden gallantry, but she said nothing, merely accepted his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. Getting to her feet, Mirabella hissed and clutched her ankle.

"I hurt it when I fell I think," she said, screwing up her face as she gently pressed her fingers against it.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?" he asked, suddenly afraid again. She had fallen a long way and he worried she was too wounded to move. He knew they couldn't stay here.

"No, I think I'll be fine," she said, and she stood up straight, only a slight wince betraying the pain she was in. she lifted her chin proudly. "I can keep going."

Faramir would have argued with her, but he recognised the stubborn streak in her eyes. She gazed at him boldly, a slight flush to her cheeks. She was embarrassed, he realised. Mirabella always hated anyone saying she was weak. She didn't want him to realise she was afraid. He understood her perfectly.

He turned away from her, not wanting her to see how scared he was himself, how terrified he had been when she had fallen. He was the oldest, and their leader. He had to be stronger than that.

"What's going on down there?" Gobby's frantic cry from above made him flinch. In the chaos they'd entirely forgotten about him.

"We're fine!" Faramir shouted up to him. "I'm coming to get you."

As he climbed back up to Gobby however, his mind was racing. Why? Why were they alive?

Gobby was ecstatic to see him, and with much manoeuvring and sliding, he managed to help his friend scramble back down to the ground. Tears flowed down Gobby's cheeks as he saw his sister and he ran to her and threw his good arm around her neck. Mirabella hugged him back, and only Faramir caught a glimpse of the tears on her own face before she buried it on Gobby's shoulder.

"Let's go," he said, interrupting the family moment. "The wolves could be back."

The other two made no objection, and soon they had started on their journey once again, moving through the dark trees like shadows in the night. Faramir was painfully conscious of the fact that they had lost the Withywindle in their desperate run from the wolves and had no idea where they were heading. But he thought he would rather be a little off track than remain where they were where the wolves could easily find them again.

As they walked he felt an increasing urgency as he looked at his companions, both of whom were now injured. Mirabella made no complaints, but he could see she was in pain and she fell back several times before Faramir went and offered his arm to lean on. He saw she was about to object but he fixed her with such a stern gaze she relented. She knew about his own stubborn streak.

Gobby was now the one in front, acting far more bravely than Faramir knew he felt as he searched the woods ahead of him. After a few hours or so, just as light was beginning again to peek through the trees Gobby gave a yelp and jumped up and down with his arm outstretched.

"The Withywindle! We've found the river again!"

Faramir had never been so glad to see a river, and before long the three of them had flopped down the bank of the little stream, feeling suddenly that they were safe for no particular reason other than they now knew where they were. They stretched out beneath an overhanging bush and all three fell into a deep sleep at once, exhausted by their night's adventures, too sleepy even to bother unpacking a blanket each.

When they awoke some hours later they were absolutely ravenous, having eaten nothing since the previous afternoon. Gobby, ever the most resourceful one, disappeared into the undergrowth and returned with some mushrooms which they eagerly fell upon, despite being less than tasty. Faramir fished around the bottom of their packs and threw away the remnants of the now rock-hard bread and retrieved the last of their dried fruit and the berries from the previous day which were now a squashed mess. It was a miserable little meal, especially by hobbit standards, but they were all grateful for it. Gobby's eyes went thoughtfully to the river.

"I wonder if there's any fish in that stream."

"If there is, I won't eat it," Faramir said with a shudder. "All the queerness comes from the river valley. What do you think the fish are like?"

"Can't be any worse than the mushrooms!"

"What are you going to use to catch them?" Faramir asked him, and saw Gobby's shoulders slump. "We'll go fishing when we get back," he said, trying to put a smile on his friend's face by engaging him with his favourite hobby. "Down by the Brandywine. Alright? That is if we're not grounded for a month."

Gobby's lips twitched into a small smile. "But you hate fishing! You never want to go with me. You said it's boring."

"Perhaps a little boring will do me good," Faramir said quietly, looking away. "Nothing bad ever happened going fishing."

Beside him Mirabella gave a short laugh. "You must be forgetting the story of how Gollum got the One Ring!"

Faramir purposefully ignored her. He would go fishing, no matter how bored he was. Gobby deserved a friend who took an interest in his own hobbies for a change.

"Are we going to starve in here?" Gobby asked, his voice smaller than usual.

"Of course not," Faramir said immediately. "There's always things to eat in a forest. We'll be fine. We'll get out safe and go home and everything will be good again."

"And what about the Ent-Wives?" Mirabella asked.

Faramir sighed and rested his head on his knees. He glanced at the twins, eyes lingering on Gobby's bandage and Mirabella's swollen ankle.

"No adventure's worth losing my friends," he said softly. "If there's any here, they've been here for centuries. They can wait until we're a bit older."

Gobby grinned, and even Mirabella offered a small smile, though he saw the disappointment flash in her eyes.

"I think there is one here," she said, looking at the trees across the river. "The trees have been too good to us."

"Good?" The boys chorused, staring.

"Think about it," she said, turning to them with a new energy in her eyes. "The tree that was crushing me ... why did it stop?"

"Because of me and Gobby."

"It barely even noticed you," Mirabella dismissed with a wave of her hand. "It was like something told it to let me go. And then," she paused, holding her breath. "When we were running from the Barrow-Downs a path appeared in the trees where it hadn't been before. A path which took us to the river!"

She sighed as she looked at the boy's disbelieving expressions. "Come on! When Gobby fell down that hill it was a tree branch which helped us get back up. It wasn't there before. It helped us. And last night! What do you think could have scared those wolves away? Didn't you hear that sound? It was the sound of a creature we've never seen before. It was huge, and it was old."

"You think it was an Ent-Wife?" Faramir couldn't keep the scepticism from his voice. He was certain if an Ent-Wife had had anything to do with them he would have realised. There couldn't have been one there last night.

"Well? What did get rid of those wolves?"

"I was getting rid of them," Faramir said, puffing up his chest. "I was scaring them away, remember?"

Mirabella's lip curled. "I can't believe how full of yourself you are Faramir Took! You think twelve wolves are scared of one little hobbit-lad? It was an Ent-Wife, or one of the trees who helped us!"

"Let's not argue!" Gobby cried, seeing Faramir about to do exactly that. "We need to stick together. Our lives are more important than trees!"

Faramir and Mirabella glared at each other another moment, before Faramir reluctantly nodded. "He's right. We need to focus on getting out."

The three hobbits soon stood up and began their journey along the river but without the light-heartedness of the previous day when they had sung songs of cheer in the sunlight. Today they were far too tired and hungry to do anything other than trudge along wearily, hoping against hope to find their way out of the forest. But the day wore on and they grew more and more fatigued and the sun dipped lower and lower.

Around them the forest seemed to change before their eyes. Hulking trunks which before had seemed perfectly ordinary now morphed into ominous figures which hung over their heads, long fingers of their branches outstretched and read to snatch them away. The babbling river was now black and unfriendly, the sound reminding them more of the slow dripping of water in the darkest of caves than of anything pleasant. Even the air itself became closer, pressing down upon them all until it was difficult to breathe for the pressure. Shadows grew longer, and faces peered at them from behind the gnarled trunks. Night was fast approaching once again, their fourth under the oppression of the trees, and Faramir's heart had never been lower. The thought of spending another night here was enough to make them very miserable indeed.

The light was almost gone when Gobby came to a halt ahead of them and threw himself upon the ground, his chest heaving wildly.

"I can't go on!" he cried, his pale little face shining with effort. "I'm too hungry! I'm too tired! My arm hurts! We're finished!"

"Don't be dramatic, Gobby," Faramir muttered as he approached, half supporting Mirabella, whose ankle had only worsened. "We're not finished till it's over."

But as optimistic as his words were he did not truly believe in them. He and Mirabella sat beside Gobby, each of them leaning on the one next to them. Faramir had never been more wretched. His stomach was rumbling and his limbs felt weighed down with lead. Mirabella said nothing, but her breathing was heavy and her eyelids were drooping.

Faramir too felt himself falling into sleep even where he sat. He was so lost in his own thoughts he almost missed the sound of a voice a great distance off. He frowned as he listened; it had to be a dream. They were entirely alone.

Yet the voice grew louder and louder until he opened his eyes and looked about him. There was no doubting it now; the voice was real, and it was singing.

Mirabella and Gobby heard it too and looked at him with wide eyes. They were afraid, and he could not blame them. The voice came nearer, and soon they were able to distinguish words in a deep cheerful voice which reached them even through the stuffiness of the air:

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!

Ring a dong! hop along! fall lal the willow!

Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bomabillo!

It was nonsense, pure nonsense, but the words lifted Faramir's heart so much he thought it would burst. He turned to the twins, an enormous grin spreading across his face.

"It's Tom Bombadil!" he whispered excitedly. "We're saved!"

"Maybe it's the forest trying to trick us!" Gobby said, but hope had sprung up in his eyes. Mirabella looked as excited as Faramir.

Ignoring her injured ankle, Mirabella got to her feet and looked around before placing her hands around her mouth and shouting as loud as she could.

"Hey! Help us! Please, come help us!"

The singing paused for a moment, but then continued on, closer than before. As the words went on, the forest seemed to lift around them. Leaves grew brighter, the shadows grew shorter, the air became less thick.

"Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!"

"Help us!" Faramir joined in on the shouting, and Gobby also pulled himself up. "Please!"

Before them on the path along the river, as suddenly as if he had sprung from the earth itself there appeared the strangest creature the hobbits had ever seen. Too tall for a hobbit and too short for a man, he was large and wore great yellow boots and a great blue coat with a matching battered hat on his head with a feather stuck through the band. His face was half covered in a large brown beard, but what they could see of it looked cheerful and red, with many lines covering it as though he did little else other than laugh. He was skipping and jumping along the path with great bounds of energy and when he saw the three hobbits he seemed to almost skid to a halt and looked at them with a great deal of astonishment.

"Well now, what a surprise for old Tom!" he cried, peering down to look at them. "Hobbit-children, three of them! What a strange thing! And what is the matter? Why do I see tears on those cheeks? Tell me your trouble now! I'm Tom Bombadil. Let us mend these sorry hearts!"

"Mr Bombadil, sir," Faramir began, but was suddenly seized with a great nervousness as he looked up at the large man. He was aware of just how silly he seemed. "We are lost! We cannot find our way out!"

"Lost! Lost in the forest!" he cried, face sincere in its distress. "What a frightful thing for those so young! Tom walks here and there, over hill and under tree, in sun and in rain and he knows it all. But little hobbit-folk are bound to be lost. Too much darkness there is here, too much to fear! But worry no longer! Tom will take you back to his house and there you shall rest and eat and be merry once again!"

Tom's blue eyes swept over the three of them and a new light came into his eyes. He laughed loud and long. "Let us hurry back to the dinner table where we can sing and ask questions. I see in your faces there is much to be told. Now, come along with Tom, follow as quick as you are able!"

With another skip and a bound Tom continued down the path away from them, singing loudly. The three hobbits wasted no time and hurried after him as fast as they could, but Tom was soon out of sight. They would have despaired if not for the continuous sound of Tom's singing which reached them every so often, his nonsense floating back to them along the path. They were almost dead on their feet, but still they hurried along as quick as they cold in the fading light.

The ground was soon sloping upwards and the river growing louder. They saw ahead of them the river plunge over a short fall and the trees came to a halt. The Forest was at an end and they found themselves in a sweeping meadow where the river twinkled in the light of the first emerging stars. Before them stood a grassy knoll behind which rose a great house with many shining lights which spoke of warmth and goodness. Instantly, half their cares and worries seemed to fade away.

They all but ran up the path and found themselves upon the threshold surrounded by golden light.

Chapter Text

The room before them was long and low, filled with many brightly lit lamps which swung from the roof over a long, polished table covered with many candles which burned merrily as if they had been burning since the world's beginning. Low chairs surrounded the table and they looked soft and welcoming. Tom Bombadil stood at one end of the table and he held up his hands in welcome as they entered, his battered hat now replaced by a crown of leaves.

"My dear little hobbits! How glad I am to welcome you here! You must forgive me, for my lady is not at home at present. Fair Goldberry walks the forest still, singing to the trees and the flowers in the light of the moon. Sweet as honey is her voice! Clear are her eyes and golden her hair! She will be sad to have missed you. But here, seat yourselves and Tom will be host. Supper is coming!"

The sound of supper brightened their spirits immediately and they sank into the little chairs around the table as Tom busied himself around the room fetching jugs of water, plates of bread and cheese, fruits and berries and many other wonderful things. The famished hobbits fell upon the food much more greedily than they would at home. The water in their cups was cold and clear yet filled them with cheer and sustenance, lifting their hearts of their fatigue. There was no end to the food which appeared on the table; even Gobby could not ask for more. They ate and they ate and as they did so their hearts were glad and the horrors of the forest began to fade away and their voices turned to song. Tom sat with them the full meal and eat heartily, occasionally bursting once more in nonsensical singing.

He cleared the table when the hobbits felt even they could eat no more and they were sat down in three chairs before the fire with a footstool for each as the lights were dimmed except for one lamp and one set of candles on the mantle. A sweet smell came from the fire which seemed to soothe their aching bodies.

Tom approached with a basket and sat down before Gobby, who froze suddenly, his courage failing him. But Tom merely smiled and gently reached out to Gobby's poor arm, removing Mirabella's splint and sling, now filthy with the mess of the forest and examined it gently.

"Alas, what pain!" he cried softly, seeing Gobby's expression change. "We must remedy that, we must! Tom is not so fair a nurse as his pretty Goldberry but he knows a thing or two!" He cast a warm glace at Mirabella who watched anxiously. "It was well this sling was put on him. Happy was the hand that tended him. Worry not; healing will come with time, faster perhaps here in Tom's house. Let him tend to you now."

And so he did. From his basket Tom pulled out draughts and solutions which he administered to Gobby, and the little hobbit's face relaxed as his pain was diminished. Tom applied another splint, more masterfully than Mirabella's had and wrapped it in clean bandages, so gentle that his fingers seemed to dance along the flesh as gentle as the ticking of a feather. The arm was soon suspended again in a little sling tied neatly.

Then Tom turned his attention to Mirabella and laid a cool cloth across her ankle, lifting it to place it high on some pillows and gave her also some drinks for the pain. Mirabella settled back in her chair, a hazy smile over her face.

Tom rose and put away his basket before coming back to sit with the three hobbits looking dreamily into the fire. It was a long time before Faramir felt rested enough to speak.

"Thank you, Mr Bombadil," he said. "You saved us from being lost in there forever!"

Tom looked at him as though he'd almost forgotten he was there. "Forever? Nay, not forever my dear little fellow. But it was good I came across you when I did, yes indeed. Three little hobbits should not wander so far from home."

Faramir hung his head. "I know. We shouldn't have gone into the Forest. It was foolish."

"Foolish, yes perhaps," Tom said, nodding. "The Forest is a dangerous place. All paths lead to the water, and Old Willow may have caught you ere long. Many a wiser being than you has been ensnared by him. And harsh he would have been. Especially with the three of you. He has unfinished business with your families."

Tom laughed as he saw the surprise on their faces. "Yes, yes! Tom is no fool. He saw it upon your faces. What other hobbits would dare enter here? I have here the children of Peregrine Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck, have I not? Tom's memory is long, and your features not so dissimilar from theirs. It has been many years since I welcomed them here, and saved them from the trees. They too were weary of travels and in need of food and rest. They were merry little souls, and I am glad to be of use to their children. You must tell me of them, and your names, and your purpose here. I hope it is not as dark as theirs?"

"I'm Faramir Took, and this is Gorbadoc and Mirabella Brandybuck," Faramir said, smiling as he saw the genuine friendliness and warmth upon Tom's face. "We came in search of Ent-Wives."

Tom's surprise was great. His mouth fell open and his eyes were round.

"Ent-Wives!" he cried, and his gaze became distant, lost in the mists of the ages past. "Many years it has been since I have seen one. Many years indeed!"

"Then there aren't any here?" Mirabella asked. Her disappointment was heavy in her voice.

"Eh, I did not say that," Tom said with a smile. "I cannot recall ever seeing any here in the Forest, but that means little. Why, I cannot say as I remember what they look like! Who can say? Maybe they are here! Maybe they hide from Tom! The Ent-Wives have hidden long, perhaps even old Tom has been fooled."

Tom saw clearly that they were disappointed, but he remained cheerful as ever. "Come, little hobbits!" he said, standing quickly. "No more questions tonight. Hobbit children need their sleep. We shall speak in the morning when the light is greater. Now is the time for resting. Sleep till the morning-light and heed no nightly noise! Fear nothing of the Forest!"

He led the hobbits down a short passage and around a corner and into a low room with a sloping roof and walls of stone. The room was warm and pleasant and there were three beds with deep mattresses and piled high with white blankets and green slippers at their sides. Along the other side there were water basins, some with warm water and others with cool.

The three hobbits, barely able to stand for their weariness washed themselves swiftly and then sank into the beds which were as soft as down. They barely had the time to cover themselves with blankets before each was fast asleep.

*

Faramir's dreams were wild and confused, but when he awoke he had never felt more refreshed in his life. The room was filled with morning light and Tom stood at the foot of their beds whistling cheerfully. He had opened the yellow curtains and allowed fresh air into the room.

"Good morning little hobbits! Come merry dol! I have already been walking across the hills and under the trees. A warm today it is to be today! Ring a ding dillo! Come and eat and sleep no more. Goldberry is home!"

He left them and the three hobbits hurried after him quickly. Mirabella didn't even limp. Something about the goodness of this place and their food and drink had cured them all of their hurts.

When the entered the room for breakfast they saw a woman sitting at the table beside Tom, tall and fair and more beautiful than Faramir had ever supposed someone could be. Her dress was green and shot with silvery dew, and a golden belt circled her waist. She stood warmly and held her hands to them.

"Come little friends!" Her voice was high and clear and almost like a song. "The day has begun and you must eat. Tom has told me of you. What trials you must have suffered. Come and sit and tell us of them and let your burdens be gone!"

They sat and ate at the table, Faramir and Gobby suddenly shy in the presence of Goldberry who laughed often and sang and moved quickly and gracefully around the room as she fetched them food and drink and cleared away their plates. They stuffed themselves in the same way as the previous evening and all of them felt quite full.

As they ate they told Goldberry and Tom of their journeys and they listened attentively, their eyes wide and their exclamations genuine. They asked many questions. Faramir felt his voice grow weary and was happy to allow Gobby and Mirabella to assume the flow of the conversation. He sat back and listened. As he did so, shame once more settled over him as his friends related everything that had happened, their troubles, the danger they had been in. Hearing it all again made him feel utterly wretched.

"Curious!" cried Tom, when they had finished. "What adventures for ones so young! You take after your fathers!"

"Not quite, my dear," Goldberry said, "for Merry and Pippin did not go needlessly into danger. Their quest was for love of their friend and the good of the world."

At this, Faramir's shame deepened. He hung his head and felt tears stinging at his eyes.

"it was my fault!" he cried, a tear rolling down his cheek. "I made Gobby come. It was all my idea. All because I was selfish and desperate to be famous like my father. We could have died so many times and it was my fault."

Faramir was absolutely miserable, despite the fairness of the setting and the warmth of the house. He could not look at his friends and instead looked down at his hands which twisted in his lap.

Soft hands reached out to him, and he looked up to see Goldberry's fair face close to his own. She smiled sweetly and her eyes twinkled with the light of many stars. As his eyes met hers, his misery was lessened, and courage seemed to flow back to his heart.

"Do not grieve yourself, young Faramir," she said gently. "My words were not intended to be harsh. All living creatures make mistakes. We cannot expect great wisdom from ones so young; even the oldest of us is not infallible! But greater than wisdom is love and friendship. You have those in abundance. Do not weep! Your ability to love, your desire to defend your friends, your courage in the face of danger to them and yourself; these are all qualities which you cannot learn with the passing of years. They are all the more precious because of it. Dry your tears! You are safe in the house of Tom Bombadil and your friends are here and well. The day is new! Let us laugh now and be glad!"

Faramir looked at her a long time and a brightness seemed to pass from her into his own soul. His tears dried up and his misery was gone. He looked to Gobby and Mirabella who smiled at him; real genuine smiles, not even Mirabella's usual mocking one.

Tom continued to ask them many questions and for the rest of the morning they spoke of their homes and their families, for Tom wanted to know everything about the dealings of the Shire. They found him a lot more knowledgeable than they expected and were surprised when he asked after certain individuals. He was greatly interested in their fathers and their deeds and was especially pleased to learn of their marriages and positions as Master of Buckland and Thain. He inquired after Mayor Sam as well, and even Frodo Baggins, but of him they could tell him little, other than the stories of the ring they had been told. Tom listened to these with grave interest.

"Dark times they were," he nodded. "Many dark times Tom has known, but few as dark as those. But darkness passes and the light rises the clearer! I am pleased to learn of your people. Hobbits are so full of cheer. They sing almost as much as old Tom!"

This then gave way into many more songs from Tom, and also from Goldberry, and the hobbits soon also joined in, though they could have sworn they knew none of these songs beforehand. There was something about that house which breathed life into song and transformed it into something living and bright.

Tom abruptly stopped the singing and he and Goldberry jumped up and fetched the hobbits food and drink for lunch.

Their afternoon passed in much the same manner, and they sat by the fire with Tom as he told them stories, fantastic stories of the history of the forest and many other far off places. His tales were interspersed with song and rhyme and Faramir felt himself falling into an easy restfulness until he felt he could stay here forever. Time seemed to have stopped for him, the world went on outside these walls and changed nothing within.

After another wonderful evening meal Tom turned to them with more seriousness than before.

"Now, young hobbits," he said, an almost stern look in his eye. "Your parents will be greatly worried about you, I imagine! You did not tell them you intended to enter the Old Forest?"

"No," Faramir admitted, "we told them me and Gobby were going camping." He glanced at Mirabella who was shifting in her seat. "And I don't think Mirabella told them anything."

"I hope they did not try to enter the Forest to search for you," Goldberry said. "The trees would not like so many hobbits inside at once."

"I walked far and wide this morning and saw nothing of any other hobbits," Tom said turning to her, "but that is not to say they are not there."

Faramir glanced to his friends in alarm. He had not thought that their families might enter the Forest after them. He had no doubt they would do so if they were desperate enough. The thought of what had almost happened to his father the last time he had been inside the Forest made him shudder violently. He would never forgive himself if any of their families came to harm because of them.

Goldberry seemed to notice his distress, and smiled softly.

"Merry and Pippin are braver and more capable than perhaps you realise," she said warmly, "older and wiser than the last time they passed through. And what is more, they will remember the song that Tom taught them to sing when in need of him. They are not as defenceless as you were."

Mirabella closed her eyes in frustration. "The song! I forgot about that. Father taught it to me! If only I'd remembered sooner."

Faramir did not feel annoyed with her He too had been told of that song many times, yet he hadn't thought of it either. He'd never found the details important.

"No point in worrying about things that are past!" Tom clapped his hands together cheerfully. "Tom will take you home as soon as it is light again. Together we shall cross the forest with no fear of unpleasantness. Fatty Lumpkin is an old pony, but he is yet strong, and three little hobbit-children won't worry him. We'll guide you out of the Forest well enough and by this time tomorrow you shall be safe in your own beds once more!"

Faramir and Mirabella were profuse with their messages of gratitude, thanking him over and over for his generosity. Gobby merely burst into tears.

As they went to sleep that night Faramir thought seriously for the first time about his home in the Shire. For so long he'd wished to be away from it, to roam the lands of Rohan or Gondor, or climb up Mount Doom. Never before had the thought of his own warm and comfortable bed in his own warm and comfortable hobbit-hole seemed so appealing.

*

Tom was true to his word and had woken the hobbits so early that it was still dark so that they could be off as soon as the light broke over the house. After a quick, but splendid breakfast, he and Goldberry gave each of them some bread and fresh water for the journey and hung a cloak around their shoulders to make up for their own which had been muddied and ripped beyond repair. Goldberry stooped before each of them and kissed their brows.

"I wish you well, young hobbits," she said, smiling at them so brightly their hearts were glad. "Let this experience be a lesson to you all. Adventures and quests are all well and good for a few hours fun, but friendships last forever. Guard them well."

They bid her farewell and followed Tom outside the house where an enormous, fat, ancient pony was tethered. It munched happily on the grass of the meadow before the house and eyed them with such interest and intelligence Faramir half expected it to start speaking to him.

Tom hoisted each of the children upon its back, and Faramir worried the weight would prove too much; they had after all eaten a great deal in the last day or so. But Tom's reassurances of the creature's strength proved true, and Fatty Lumpkin seemed no more disturbed by the presence of three hobbits on his back than if it had been three squirrels he had to carry.

Tom, who now had no mount of his own, walked beside them, or rather, hopped and skipped along as they set out along the path of the previous day just as the first rays of light were beginning to touch the eaves of his home. He did not guide his pony for the animal seemed as sure of the way as Tom himself and was deceptively fast considering his considerable girth.

They made good progress beneath the trees for several hours which Tom filled with more nonsensical singing and occasional stories and tales. Mirabella, whose curiosity was by now fully returned after her restful day in Tom's house plied him with question after question about the Forest, the old Kingdoms of Men who had inhabited this land, the Elves from across the Sea ... anything and everything she could think of. Tom, who never tired of these questions answered them with great detail in most cases, in others he sang of long ago heroes and long-forgotten deeds, and in others just acknowledged them in a voice so sad Mirabella would ask him no more of it. Faramir and Gobby asked him nothing except one thing each; Faramir asked how long till they reached the edge of the Forest, and Gobby asked how long until lunch.

When the midday sun was at its warmest Tom finally called them to a halt and they spread out upon a sunny bank to tuck into the provisions Goldberry had handed them that morning. They found in their packs bread and cheese and sweet fruits and berries, and their water as heartening and cool as it had been that morning. They had themselves quite a cheery feast but did not linger. Each of them was eager to be home.

Once mounted again upon the old pony they went on following the path, and Faramir was surprised to notice how easy their journey seemed to be with Tom alongside. The path stayed true and steady throughout their journey, did not lead up and down hills or impassable embankments as it had done for the thee hobbits. Faramir stared at the old man with newfound wonder. He truly was Master of the Forest.

Mirabella also seemed to notice, and as usual, decided to ask a question.

"Do the trees obey you?" she asked. "Can you control them?"

"Control? I'm not sure quite whether that is the word for it!" Tom said cheerfully. "They listen to me, yes, that is true. For they know that I am older than they. I have spent long in this Forest, and they know me and I know them. I know their thoughts, their moods and their darkness. I know their hatred for all things which move freely under the Sun. With understanding comes power."

Faramir was more confused than ever.

"Is it magic?"

Tom smiled but did not answer him.

"It's like you're an Ent!" Mirabella said, frowning thoughtfully. "You're like the guardian of the trees."

"Nay, I am no Ent," he said, though he did not look offended. "Old Tom is not so slow as they!"

"Who's older, you or the Ents?"

Tom laughed. "Which is older, the Sun or the Moon? Tom remembers both. So do the Ents. Who can say?"

Mirabella pursed her lips and Faramir laughed to see her annoyance. She always liked a straight answer.

"Were you the one that helped us?" she asked finally, chewing her lip. "When the trees helped us when we fell down the cliff or when we were faced by the wolves? Were you the one that told the tree to put me down?"

"Me?" Tom looked surprised. "No, indeed. Tom did not know you were here until he saw you on the path."

"You didn't?" Faramir frowned, and glanced at Mirabella. "Then who did?"

"Who can say?" Tom threw up his hands with a laugh. "The Forest is strange, and old Tom does not know all its secrets. Maybe there are still yet some left to be discovered."

This wasn't a particularly satisfying answer, but Tom didn't seem to realise how frustrated the two hobbits were and continuing bounding along the path singing loudly. Faramir and Mirabella looked at each other, but both were too confused to say anything.

They continued on in this manner for many more hours and they observed the sun steadily sinking below the line of the trees. Faramir couldn't help but feel alarmed as he saw it going down, fearing yet another night in this awful Forest. But his fears were unfounded. Their pony had left the path to move through the trees and when it reached the open again it was in a large clearing which was of green grass except for a large brown circle in the centre.

"The Bonfire Glade" Mirabella said. Her eyes lit up. "We're almost home!"

And indeed they were. Through the trees, Faramir saw the path appear again and at the end of it he saw he faint outline of the High Hedge, and Buckland beyond. His face split into a wide grin.

"This is where I leave you, little hobbits," Tom announced suddenly turning to smile at them again. "You will be safe from now on!"

"Do you have to go?" Faramir asked, suddenly not wishing to leave this strange old man, but Tom laughed.

"Tom has much business in the Forest and Goldberry is waiting! Worry not. I feel that we shall meet again one day, perhaps when you are a little older and wiser. Fatty Lumpkin will carry you safe to your parents. He will know them when he sees them; his memory is long! Stable him tonight and in the morning let him loose. He will find me again."

The hobbits could not stop thanking Tom, but the man just laughed and smiled, and tipped his battered hat to them before turning and skipping back off into the Forest singing wildly.

The pony continued along the path, needing no instruction from the hobbits as he made for the Hedge. The three hobbits sat tight, each of them eager to be home.

"Do you think they'll be angry with us?" Gobby asked worriedly. "Will we be in trouble?"

"Of course," Faramir said, patting him on the shoulder. "But I'd rather be locked in my room the rest of the summer than lost in that Forest for the rest of my life, wouldn't you?"

"Speak for yourself," Mirabella said. "I'm going to tell them all you two dragged me along."

"You wouldn't dare!" Faramir glared at her, indignant and furious as he twisted on the saddle to get a good look at her. It was then he noticed she was laughing.

"Not funny, Mira!"

She raised her eyebrows. "You know, that's the first time you've called me Mira? Getting attached to me now, are you?"

Faramir scowled and stuck out his tongue. "Don't count on it."

At the front of the saddle he could hear Gobby's quiet laughter, and he rolled his eyes. Maybe it was a good thing they were all going to end up grounded. Four days stuck in the Forest with them had filled him with as much of the Brandybuck twins as he thought he could take!

None of them said another word as Fatty Lumpkin carried them all down the gentle slope back towards Buckland, and their families.

Chapter Text

Far sooner than the hobbits could have thought possible the tunnel through the High Hedge was upon them. To their surprise, the bolt on the gate was open and the gate swung on its hinges. Faramir was filled with dread.

"Do you think someone came in after us?" he asked, suddenly afraid of how much in danger he may have put his family.

No one answered him, but they continued on through the tunnel, Fatty Lumpkin's hooves echoing in the damp little brick tunnel. After an unpleasantly long time they emerged into the sunlight once more, and all three breathed a sigh of relief. The Shire again, at last! They each could have wept.

"We should go this way," Faramir said, pointing towards the way which would lead them back to Brandy Hall, but Fatty Lumpkin, either not hearing or not caring made off in the opposite direction and continued east along the line of the hedge as if he knew exactly where he was going. No amount of tugging his reins would make him change his course, and so they gave up and just rested on his back as they went along. Darkness was starting to fall now, and in the distance lights could be seen twinkling in the houses dotted around the countryside. The sight was cheering, and if Faramir had not been firmly sat upon the pony's back he might have collapsed for the joy of seeing them.

He was not quite sure where Fatty Lumpkin was taking them, but oddly enough he trusted the old pony. After all, he belonged to Tom, and somehow none of them could imagine anybody associated with the odd old man as being harmful in any way.

"I think we're heading to Crickhollow," Mirabella said after a while when they saw a larger collection of houses appear in the distance. The lights seemed extremely bright there.

Faramir trusted her judgement, knowing how much more familiar with maps she was than himself. He was not pleased however, and would much rather have gone to Brandy Hall instead of Crickhollow where he knew no one and could not be sure of finding a warm bed for the night.

The little houses drew nearer and nearer and as they grew more prominent so too did the sound of a great many voices, a large gathering by the sound of it, each of their voices raised in tones of a keen urgency.

The voices became more distinct, and before long they could pick out a few louder than the others, and hear also the stamping of hooves and the clamour of metal. Faramir looked to the other two. They were as confused as he was, and more than a little alarmed. Why would so many be gathered at this little village at the approach of darkness. Was it the Shirrifs? Was there an attack on the Shire? Had the wolves who pursued them turned to the Shire when they were foiled in their ploy to eat the hobbits?

The lights of the village were bright, and as they approached they saw that they came from many lanterns held in the hands of around thirty hobbits, all of whom were dressed in warm cloaks and carried staves or bows and arrows, and even a few gardening tools. They were all gathered in front of one of the houses of the village seemingly awaiting some call to action. Their faces were grim.

None of them had noticed the pony yet, all their eyes were turned to the front of the crowd where three hobbits stood upon upturned barrels and addressed the gathering. They were tall hobbits, and all of them were dressed in shining mail and helms and wore short swords at their belts which shone in the light of the lanterns.

It was several moments before the young Took and Brandybucks recognised two of the hobbits as their fathers.

Their jaws dropped open as they gazed at the Thain and the Master of Buckland upon the barrels. No longer were they sedentary, comfortable hobbits in yellow waistcoats puffing on pipe-weed and munching on cakes by the fire, but they appeared now as warriors, noble and courageous. For the first time Faramir saw in his father the same hobbit who had lain siege to Isengard, slain a cave-troll by the Black Gate of Mordor and led the defence of Bywater against Saruman. The third hobbit was Mayor Sam, and he too was similarly garbed, with Sting at his waist, which Faramir had never seen out of his precious glass case before. He looked ready for action.

Faramir's father was speaking, his voice loud and clear in the gathering dusk.

"-where they may be, but keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you!" He fixed his gaze on each hobbit in turn. "The Old Forest is a dangerous place, but it can be weathered. Nothing is as it seems, keep that in mind. It will try and trick you, deceive you and trap you. Do not give in to fear. Stick together and we will ..."

The Thain trailed off, his jaw hanging open and his eyes growing wide. His face went whiter than a sheet. He had spotted the three children on the pony. Merry, alarmed, turned to look where his friend's gaze fell, and he too blanched. The crowd muttered and whispered and as one turned themselves around and gasped aloud.

Faramir felt suddenly foolish with all these eyes fixed on him. They looked at him as though he were a ghost. He smiled awkwardly and lifted his hand in greeting.

"Hello, everyone."

The crowd erupted into one massive cheer and the gathered hobbits dropped their weapons and lanterns to hug one another and dance with glee, making way happily as two tall figures raced through the crowd and towards the pony faster than any could have thought possible.

The next moment Faramir found himself grabbed roughly from Fatty Lumpkin's back and swept up into the tightest embrace he had ever been in in his entire life. He was crushed so forcefully against a mail covered breast it was almost painful, but he didn't care. His father held him as if he would never let him go, his arms surrounding him so completely that Faramir did not think he could have moved if he had tried. As he was held, he noticed his father's shoulders were shaking and realised with a jolt of surprise that he was crying.

"Father, are you alright?" he asked in concern.

His father pulled back slightly and looked down. His face was pink and his eyes shone with tears. An enormous smile near split his face into two.

"Alright? Alright? Of course I am, dear boy! You're home! You're safe! Oh, I've never been more alright in my life!"

And he was swept back into another hug, less desperate than before and Faramir stretched out his own arms and placed them around his father's neck, feeling tears springing into his own eyes. All his fears and anxieties and worries over the last few days spilled from him anew and he trembled as he thought of how close he had come to death and how glad, so glad indeed that he was back here in his father's arms. He sniffed loudly, not even bothering to try and conceal his tears. He didn't care any more. He was home.

"I'm sorry," he choked out, hiding his face against his father's shoulder. "I'm sorry we left. It was my fault. I was so foolish!"

To his surprise, he heard his father laughing through his tears. He pulled back once more and fixed him with a warm smile. "Well, you aren't a Took for nothing," he joked, cupping Faramir's cheek with one hand. "Let's worry about all that tomorrow, eh? Right now, I don't care where you've been or what you've done. I just want to look at you and embrace you and pinch myself to make me believe this is real."

Faramir blushed as his father continued gazing down at him. He'd never been one for much physical affection, ducking whenever his father attempted to ruffle his hair or his mother to kiss him goodbye. However, at the moment, he was more than willing to tolerate it.

He looked to his left and saw that Merry had also reached the pony and had swept his children into his arms, crushing them both together so that their faces were quite pink. Not that either of them minded, for they too were weeping and clutching each other as if they never meant to let go.

Behind the reunited families the hobbits continued to celebrate, giving many cheers and hoorays and there were many requests for ale and cakes to round off a most pleasant evening. From this rabble came Mayor Sam who, though not quite as effusive in his relief as his friends, looked mightily pleased to have them back. He did a double take as his eyes fell over the pony, who had stood by quite calmly throughout all of this.

"Why, that's never Fatty Lumpkin!" he cried aloud. "Impossible!"

"I don't think there's anything impossible where that forest's concerned," Merry said with a laugh, though he too looked amazed at the sight of the pony.

"Tom Bombadil said he'd bring us back to you," Faramir explained, looking at his father. "He'd said that he'd remember."

"And do he did, good old Fatty Lumpkin!" his father cried, and stretched out his hand to pat the pony's muzzle. The creature tossed back its head and looked most pleased.

"Good old Bombadil!" said Merry, nodding and looking fondly at the twins. "I'd almost forgotten there was good in that Forest as well as evil. We should have known old Tom would see you right!" His face creased as he beheld Gobby's hurt arm. "How dreadful it must have been. I'm glad he was there to put things right."

"How did you know we were in the Old Forest?" Faramir asked. He hardly dared meet the adult's eyes, so ashamed was he. "We didn't say that's where we were going."

"And you left us quite the mystery!" Merry looked severely down at the three of them for a moment before softening his expression. "'Camping' indeed! We've heard that one before. We've used that one before! Well, we checked all your usual spots deciding to drag you back home before you could get into any mischief, but there wasn't a sign of you. We knew something was up right away. Mirabella was missing too and there was no mention of her in the note. And Estella and I know too well how you boys never let her come along!"

"We searched everywhere!" Faramir's father said. "All over the Shire almost. The North Farthing, the South, East and West, neither hide nor hair to be seen! We knew you hadn't pilfered enough food to last more than a day."

"That's when we got really worried," Merry continued, and the arms around the twins tightened their grips. "We couldn't have any idea where you'd gone off to. We thought you'd been snatched off by Orcs or trolls or something! We got the Shirrifs searching the borders and then one of them came and told us that the gate to the Old Forest was unlocked. You can imagine our horror!"

"And I remembered how I'd told you those stories about the Ent-Wives," Faramir's father said, and as he spoke a pain flashed in his eyes, "and how I'd said you might find them in the Old Forest. When I thought I had put the idea into your head ... I could have jumped into the Brandywine!"

"Or been shoved in by the rest of us," Merry said, narrowing his eyes briefly at his friend. He sighed and shook his head. "But it wasn't your fault."

"No, it was mine, my stupid, selfish fault," Faramir said miserably, detesting the looks on the faces of the two fathers and knowing how much pain he had caused. "All because I wanted to be an adventurer!"

His father immediately pulled him into another embrace. "Don't think about it now. I'm just glad you're back. We both are. I shouldn't have told you such tales when I know what you're like, what was like at your age!"

"Yes, definitely your father's son," Sam said with a chuckle.

"What's all this?" Mirabella had found her voice and gestured to the crowd of hobbits, celebrating and completely oblivious to the family reunion.

"Well, when we figured out where you must have gone we knew we had to go after you!" Merry said, staring at her. "We couldn't let you wander in there on your own, not with those evil trees about! So we gathered up the Shirrifs and a few volunteers and were about to head on in after you!"

"All these people were going to go into the Old Forest?" Faramir was amazed. "For us?"

"You really have no idea how important you are, do you?" His father met his eyes and Faramir saw a depth of feeling in there he had never seen before. "what it would do to us, to everybody if you weren't around anymore? You might not have your name in tales yet, Faramir Took, or have songs sung about you, but to the people that matter you're more precious than anything in all of Middle-Earth."

Faramir could say nothing to this, feeling instead that he was about to burst into tears once again. No one said much after that, but with much more hugging and tears of joy the night was beginning to wear on. Blankets were fetched from one of the nearby houses and wrapped around the three young travellers, who were by now growing very tired indeed. Their fathers left them sitting close together on Fatty Lumpkin's back as they went off in search of ponies of their own, determined to make it back to Brandy Hall that night where their mothers were growing frantic. Faramir, as much as he longed to see his mother, felt a little more apprehensive than he had when seeing his father; Diamond Took was a force to be reckoned with.

But even thoughts of future punishment weren't enough to make him worried. Faramir Took had learned a lesson from his adventure; that nothing made you more grateful for home and family than a few scrapes with danger.

Soon they were off on their way back to Brandy Hall, Merry and Pippin at the front, Mayor Sam in the rear and the three children in the middle. The search-party continued celebrating in the village as they left, and seemed happy to continue through the whole night.

They turned out of the village and came onto the path which led to Brandy Hall which ran along the length of the Hedge for a little while before looping back around to the west once more. The moon was high in the sky now and Faramir felt his head drooping in exhaustion, only Fatty's skills keeping him from falling to the ground. In front and behind, Gobby and Mira were already asleep, their heads lolling around, sometimes falling against his back or his chest when the road became uneven. Gobby's snores were soft and carefree, and Faramir felt himself being lulled into sleep also.

Just before he closed his eyes he looked once more to the Forest which was now bathed in silvery light, looking mystical and ancient in its light, branches almost innocently waving to him on a soft breeze. It might have been his imagination, or a trick of the moonlight, but before Faramir Took succumbed to sleep entirely, he could have sworn he saw a large tree-like creature watching him from the eaves of the Forest. As he watched, the creature appeared to wink at him, and then turn and walk back through the trees, vanishing into the darkness as swift as a shadow.

It appeared the secrets of the Old Forest would remain there for some time yet.