1. Rescue of a Wee Cousin
There was something intoxicating in the spring breeze. The thump of the ponies' feet on the grassy path combined with the soft jingle of their gear to make a pleasant music as the two Travellers jogged along. They made a brave sight with their bright mail and shields, looking as if they had sprung from the pages of a storybook of errantry.
The rhythm reminded Pippin of an old song he'd learned in Gondor. First he hummed - the music fit the ponies' trot perfectly - and then broke into song.
Note to fanfictionnet moderators: This song is of my own making.
'O the life of a soldier's the life for me,
'Marching along with the infantry,
'Winking at each pretty girl I see,
'Tis a soldier's life for me!'
Merry picked up the tune.
'O the life of a soldier's the life for me,
'Riding along with the cavalry,
'Leaving the dust for the infantry,
'Tis a soldier's life for me!'
Together they continued, 'O the life of a soldier's the life for me...'
As they passed a farmstead, children ran to the road to wave and cheer. A mother and tween-age daughter appeared at the doorway to shake their dishcloths, another daughter stepped out of the byre to flap her apron and blow a kiss. The riders waved as they passed. In the field beyond a figure following a two-pony plow straightened to raise a hand.
The green-clad rider turned to his companion with a wry smile. 'I swear, Pippin, if you wink at any more pretty girls, you will develop a permanent twitch!'
'Can I help it if they must blow kisses?' the other demanded.
Merry laughed. 'You are cutting quite a swath through the lasses in the area. I think every mother in this part of the Shire is setting her cap for you to marry her daughter!'
'That has its benefits. We're making up for all those meals we missed on our travels.'
'How many dinner invitations is it this week?'
Pippin guffawed. 'More than enough.' He sobered abruptly and looked very serious. 'It is quite a dilemma.'
Merry glanced over. 'What is?' The sudden twinkle in his cousin's eye warned him.
'D'you think it is possible to have two dinners a night?' Merry burst out laughing at his cousin's wicked grin.
When he got his breath back he answered, 'I don't see why not, perhaps even three, if we plan it well.' Laughing, the two rode on.
The road passed through a little wood that for a wonder had not been cut down by the ruffians. A small figure, gesticulating wildly, ran up to them, causing Merry's pony to shy. He expertly controlled his mount and pulled up.
'Steady, lass,' Merry reproved. 'Do you not know better than to run up to a pony, flapping an apron?' He caught sight of the tears streaking the dirt- smeared face. He jumped down from the saddle and knelt before the child. 'What is it, lass?' he asked gently.
She hiccuped a sob, and Merry spoke soothingly. Finally he had her calm enough to speak. 'Toby's stuck up a great tree and I cannot get him to come down again!'
'It's like that, is it?' Merry crooned. He cocked an eye up at Pippin, still on his pony. 'Well, let us see what we can do.' He tossed his reins to his cousin. 'Watch him for me a minute? Seems as if I must rescue another young hobbit from up a tree!'
Pippin laughed and answered, 'Do not be too long about it or we all might just go on without you! Bright Nose and Socks are eager for their nuncheon, as am I!'
'Do not listen to him, Bright!' Merry called to the pony. 'You keep Socks from running away with his master, hear?' The pony tossed his coppery head as if in answer. Pippin's laughter followed him and the lass into the woods.
It was a tall tree, perhaps one of the tallest remaining in the Shire. Far up, too far, he could see a small figure sitting on a slender branch, clinging to the trunk of the tree, frozen with fear. There would be no talking this one down, he could tell. He bent to look into the wee girl's face again. 'It will be all right, lass,' he reassured. 'I've done this sort of thing before. But... I am going to need your help.'
Wide-eyed, she gulped back her sobs. 'What can I do?' she asked.
'Well, yon lad up in tree does not know me, and I do not want him to panic and lose his grip as I reach him. So I want you to talk to him... your brother?'
'Ah.' Merry's grin brightened. 'A cousin is a fine thing for getting into scrapes. I have a cousin too, and I cannot tell you the number of scrapes I have got him out of!' His nonsense seemed to be having the desired effect; the lass was calmer.
'What do I tell him?'
'Tell him that he is all right. Tell him to hold on, and everything will be fine. Keep talking to him unless I tell you to stop.'
As the lass began shouting reassurances he removed his helm, unbuckled his sword belt, and divested himself of his cloak, surcoat, and hauberk. Armour did not make for good tree climbing. He removed his tunic as well, neatly folding it and laying it on the pile. The spring breeze blew cool through his thin undertunic, but the effort of climbing would warm him soon enough.
The tree was even taller than he had first thought. The girl's shouts were fainter, the trunk and branches uncomfortably thin as he approached the stranded lad. Merry stopped short before he reached him. He did not want to startle the boy into losing his grip.
'Toby!' he called softly. The frozen form did not move. 'Toby!' he called again, trying for a light tone. He saw the arms tighten their hold on the trunk. 'Toby, it is all right. I am here to help you get down.' The wee face remained pressed against the trunk of the tree. Merry could not see if his words were having any effect.
'Now, Toby, we have just one rule we must be sure to follow!' he called, and waited.
Finally a muffled voice spoke. 'What?'
'There's a lad! The rule is, whatever you do, do not look down!'
'I already did,' the boy snuffled.
'All right, then, we will start fresh. Do not look down again, hear me, lad? Anyone can climb down a tree so long as he keeps his eyes off the ground.'
'Anybody, even you and I, lad. I have climbed down many a tall tree. You see, I had a wee cousin who loved to climb up but too often forgot how to climb down.' He thought he saw a smile crook the side of the boy's mouth. Good. The lad was relaxing.
'All right, now, lad, just sit tight. I am going to climb a little closer.' The boy nodded and Merry began to climb again, choosing his branches with care. Even so, they were thinner than he liked, and one cracked dangerously under his foot; only a firm hand grip saved him. He could hear the lass below still shouting encouragement as he paused to catch his breath and let his heartbeat steady a bit.
The boy's grip on the tree had tightened when he heard the branch break. As soon as Merry could conjure a calm voice, he called again. 'That's all right, Toby lad, no harm done. But I cannot climb up to you any further. I need you to come down to me.'
'I cannot!' came the anguished reply.
'O yes, you can, lad. 'Tis just the same as climbing up, you know. Just remember our rule. Do you remember it?'
'Do not look down!' The boy sounded a little calmer.
'There's a fine lad. Now I am going to talk you down just like I used to talk my cousin Pippin down. You are going to be fine! Are you ready?' He thought he saw a nod. 'Now then,' he said, keeping his tone determinedly light and cheerful. 'I want you to keep hanging on tight with your arms.' He was sure the boy would have no problem with that. It was the next bit that would be tricky.
'Now then,' he repeated, 'just below your right foot is another branch. Hold tight and reach down with your foot - no!' he shouted rather louder than he meant to. 'Your other foot is your right!' The boy paused, but thankfully did not freeze again. The other foot descended in quest for the promised branch.
'That's it!' Merry encouraged. 'You have it! Now rest your foot on the branch, slowly let your weight rest on it, keep holding on with your hands, just let your weight down easy - don't look down!' Bit by bit he talked the lad down to where he was. They would have to get a little lower, he realized. The branches here were too thin to risk the weight of both of them. Carefully he worked them down to thicker branches, then stopped for a breather.
'Fine job, Toby,' he praised. 'We are nearly done.' Holding tight to the tree with legs and one arm, Merry got the boy to turn and cling to him. 'That's it, lad. Wrap your legs around my waist and hold tight with your arms.' The boy hugged tight and buried his face in Merry's chest. 'That's right. Now do not move and I will have us out of this tree in no time.'
Merry was as good as his word. The rest of the descent went quickly. It was quite an excellent climbing tree, with branches well placed for hand and foot holds. As he jumped lightly to the ground and put the boy down, the girl pounced to gather her cousin in a great hug. Only a moment later she was shaking the boy and scolding him.
Merry chuckled and picked up his belongings to hike back to Pippin, who must surely be wondering about him. He found his cousin stretched out, back to a tree, smoking his pipe while the ponies grazed nearby.
'Did you need any help?' Pippin asked with a grin.
'No, I was fine, it was no trouble at all. I've rescued wee hobbits from so many trees I could probably do it with my eyes closed.' He slipped his tunic over his head.
'That'd make it easier to remember not to look down.'
'I do not recall how many times I had to repeat that rule before you learned it!'
Pippin laughed. Merry was quickly dressed, and fastening his sword belt and slinging his shield over his back, he reclaimed his pony. Pippin had slipped the ponies' bits from their mouths and loosened the girths on the saddles to give them a rest in the interim. Merry slipped the bit back into Bright's mouth and the pony nudged him; he chuckled, fondling Bright's nose. 'Sorry lad, not a carrot left! But we will get our nuncheon soon and that grass ought to keep you until then.' He checked every buckle and strap on the bridle, then ran a gentle finger down the crooked strip of white on the pony's face, all the way down to the splash of white that covered Bright's nose.
'There's a fine lad,' he crooned. 'Did he take good care of you, pet?' He walked back, running a hand along the copper colored coat, flicked a few specks of imaginary dirt from the shining flanks and picked up each foot in turn for a quick check before he bent to tighten the girth. All along he crooned a soft sing-song to the pony.
'You treat that pony as if he were your own son,' Pippin teased as he checked his own pony.
'Oh, aye,' Merry answered. 'Had you not heard? I have left everything to him in my Will!' He mounted and spoke to the pony again. ' 'Tis only fitting for the fastest pony in this part of the Shire.'
'Oh?' Pippin's eye gleamed with challenge. 'Do you care to prove those words?' Merry threw back his head and laughed.
Just before they had entered the woods was a fair green meadow. In the center of the field was a lone tree, one of the saplings Sam had planted and blessed with a grain of dust from the Lady of Lothlorien.
'Race out to the tree and around; first one back to the road buys the first pint!' Pippin cried.
'You're on!' Merry shouted, '...but do not run over the tree or Master Samwise will have our hides!'
'Go!' At the same instant, they kicked their ponies and leaned forward into a glorious run. The breeze blew the ponies' long manes back into the riders' faces and the silky tails streamed out behind, one a banner of flame, the other of smoke. Pippin and Socks pulled ahead as they came around the tree, but Merry spoke to Bright Nose, the pony surged forward, Pippin heard his cousin's laughter. Neck and neck they raced back toward the road...
...and suddenly Merry was not there. Socks ran a few more lengths before Pippin could rein him to a stop and turn. His heart seemed to stop at the sight behind. Bright Nose struggled on the grass. Merry lay without moving.