In this AU universe, begun in the story "Quarantined" and continued in "By Chance or Purpose", "Reflections of the Past", "Estel's Birthday", and "Comfort and Joy", Aragorn, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam first met when Frodo was 22. They strongly bonded and became fast friends in a very short period of time, during a serious illness and subsequent adventure. A few years after the events in "Quarantined", Aragorn also meets three-year-old Pippin ("Estel's Birthday"). I know that in "By Chance or Purpose" Aragorn meets Merry and Pippin for the first time when the hobbits arrive in Bree, but... oh well. This is a very flexible universe!
I have borrowed Thalguron from my story "Guarding the Shire".
Approximate ages: Bilbo is 103, Frodo is 26, Merry is 12, and Scamp is 2.
Distances: According to The Atlas of Middle-earth, Brandy Hall in Buckland is about 60 miles from Bag End; Crickhollow is 3 miles from Brandy Hall; and the Hedge (the border between Buckland and the Old Forest) is just over a mile from Crickhollow.
DISCLAIMER: Of course. The characters don't belong to me, I just get to think about them day and night.
This chapter references "Quarantined", Chapter 15.
FORCE OF NATURE
Chapter 1 - Merry Meetings
"But you won't have any luck in the Old Forest," objected Fredegar. "No one ever has luck in there. You'll get lost." The Fellowship of the Ring, 'A Conspiracy Unmasked'
"Estel!" Merry ran into the clearing and looked around expectantly. "Are you here?"
A Man, with long, dark hair and clad in green and brown, whirled about at the sound of the small voice. He had seen hobbits in Bree, on occasion, and frequently observed the small folk from the borders of their land, but had never before been this close to a hobbit child. He left the small campfire he had been tending and slowly approached the boy, who stared up at him in awe.
"I did not know that the Shirefolk spoke Elvish," the Man said, "especially so young." He crouched down so as not to frighten the lad. "Good morning. Are you looking for something?"
"Are… are you Estel? Frodo knows a Ranger named…" Merry faltered, less sure of himself now. His eyes widened as he noticed the long knife sticking out of the Man's belt, and his strange footwear. The two horses staked nearby suddenly seemed enormous.
"Ah," the Man smiled. "I can think of only one of our company who might have been given an Elvish name. You must be looking for Aragorn." He touched his hand to his breast. "I am Thalguron of the Dúnedain, at your service."
Merry didn't recognize the gesture, but he found himself copying it. "Meriadoc Brandybuck, sir. At your service and your family's."
"I am pleased to meet you, Meriadoc," Thalguron said, "but you should not be out here alone. There are dangers even in the Shire."
"There's no danger if you're doing your job," Merry declared.
"And what do you know of our job, young one?" the Man asked, amused.
"You help guard our borders," Merry replied.
Thalguron stared at the boy in surprise. "Do even the children of your folk know of us, then?" he asked.
"No," Merry admitted, "not really. My father is Master of the Hall, and I... hear things."
Thalguron smiled. This precocious youngster doubtless overheard many things indeed.
"Neither I nor the horses heard you approach," Thalguron said admiringly. "You walk as soundlessly as any Elf, my young friend."
Merry beamed in delight.
"Now that we are acquainted," Thalguron continued, "I believe I can assist you in your quest. If you would care to wait here for a moment, I will summon..."
At that moment, another Ranger ran into the campground from the nearby trees, the smile on his face fading as he saw Merry.
"Aragorn," Thalguron said, "this young hobbit is seeking you."
Aragorn strode quickly to Thalguron's side, and also crouched down.
"Was that you shouting?" Aragorn asked Merry curiously. "Very few know me by the name 'Estel'."
"Frodo told me all about you," Merry explained.
"Did he?" Aragorn grinned. "And how do you know Frodo?"
"I'm his cousin. Frodo's mother was my great aunt, but I don't remember her." Merry suddenly looked sad. "She died," he whispered.
"I know," Aragorn said gently.
Merry stood tall and put his hand on his breast. "Meriadoc Brandybuck, at your service."
Aragorn was impressed with the lad's manners and composure. He was surely no older than Sam had been, when they met, but seemed much more self assured.
"Thank you, Meriadoc," Aragorn replied. A thought struck him. "Does your family, by chance, call you Merry?"
"How did you know that?" Merry asked, amazed.
"Bilbo spoke of you once," Aragorn explained, remembering a conversation with Bilbo several years earlier.
"Frodo is wonderful with children - he helped raise his cousin Merry, back in Buckland."
Aragorn looked at the boy closely. "Were you looking for me?" he asked, suddenly serious. "Did Bilbo send you, or Frodo? Is everyone all right?"
"I wasn't exactly looking for you," Merry admitted. "Bilbo, Frodo, and I are camping nearby. I woke up early, and thought I'd take a walk. I saw a Ranger here, and thought..."
"I see. And how did you know that Thalguron was a Ranger?"
In answer, Merry pointed to the silver pin - in the shape of a star - on each man's cloak.
"You are very observant," Aragorn said, impressed with the boy. He rose to his feet. "Would you allow me to accompany you back to your camp, Meriadoc?"
"Just Merry," Merry insisted.
"Merry," Aragorn smiled, "if I know hobbits, you must be needing your breakfast. And if I know Bilbo, when he awakens and find you gone, he will..."
"Here you are, Merry lad," Bilbo laughed, coming through the trees with a tiny, brown dog at his heels. "And what have you found? Dangerous Men about to attack the Shire?"
"Estel!" There was a sudden shout from the edge of the clearing, and Thalguron saw a young, dark-haired hobbit race across the clearing and into Aragorn's arms.
Thalguron stared in open-mouthed astonishment. Although he had seen Aragorn smile, and even laugh on occasion, he had never witnessed such joy on his captain's face. He found himself grinning at the sight of his usually grim-faced captain whirling the hobbit lad about and laughing, the dog barking excitedly and leaping around Aragorn's legs.
"Frodo, you do feed this pup, don't you?" Aragorn chuckled, bending down to gently dislodge Scamp's teeth from one of his boots.
"Of course," Frodo said indignantly. "Bilbo and I keep her on a steady diet of Ranger bootlaces so she'll always be able to find you."
"It seems to be working. I assume you used Scamp to track Merry?"
Frodo nodded, grinning.
Aragorn greeted Bilbo, and introductions were made all around. The two Men and three hobbits sat together on the grass beside the fire, while Scamp sniffed her way around the campsite.
"Why are you so far from home, Bilbo?" Aragorn asked curiously.
"Frodo and I were visiting Brandy Hall, and young Merry wanted to go camping," Bilbo explained. "We're camped not far away, in a glade near Crickhollow; that's a small guest house about a mile west."
"We're on an Adventure," Merry said proudly.
"Estel, why are you here, in Buckland?" Frodo asked. "You're awfully close to..." He pointed to the nearby Hedge, looming tall and ominous... and what lay beyond it.
"Regretfully, Frodo, I am not on an adventure," Aragorn said, "although one of my men might have had that idea. A young Ranger named Halbarad was patrolling near here on foot, and is overdue. Thalguron and I tracked him this far. I fear that he may have entered the Old Forest."
"Why would he do that?" Merry asked, wide eyed. "Doesn't he know the stories?"
"Indeed he does," Thalguron said. "We all know the tales, and would not disturb the trees' realm without serious cause."
"Halbarad is young," Aragorn sighed, "although he shows great promise. Over a thousand years ago, many Dúnedain - what you call Rangers - took refuge in the Old Forest, fleeing an enemy. Halbarad has often spoken of his wish to see this legendary forest for himself, and pay honor to those who fought - and died - so bravely. I suspect that he found a way in, and has been unable to find his way back out. The tales speak of paths that shift and trees that beguile."
"That's right," Bilbo nodded. "We hobbits have our own history and dealings with the Old Forest."
"If Halbarad found a way through the Hedge," Frodo asked curiously, "why can't you just follow him?"
"It is not so simple," Aragorn explained. "The recent rains have washed away most of his tracks, and although I suspect that Halbarad felt the lure of the old legends too enticing to resist, we have been unsuccessful in finding where he entered the forest. I have not had cause to explore this area before."
"This Hedge seems nearly impenetrable," Thalguron added. "We have traveled along its length to this point, but as yet have found no way to breach it without causing damage."
Merry and Frodo exchanged a glance.
"Estel," Frodo said hesitantly, "we can show you the way in."