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35
Escort

"All of a sudden they heard a howl away down hill, a long shuddering howl. It was answered by another away to the right and a good deal nearer to them; then by another not far away to the left. It was wolves howling at the moon, wolves gathering together!" The Hobbit

Written for the LOTR Community Halloween/Harvest challenge. Thanks to RiverOtter for the beta.

Aragorn has been called north to Rivendell to consult with his foster brothers and Lord Celeborn, and Merry and his older son Periadoc, now in his tweens, have decided to travel there to see him, deciding to make the journey without any further escort, just the two of them. Perhaps that wasn’t as good an idea as they’d thought. Fall has set in, after all.

(Note: I know real wolves don’t behave this way unless there has been a total dearth in their natural prey; but this is Tolkien’s world after all.)


~~~

Escort


“Dad, how long do you think it will take us to ride to Rivendell?” Periadoc Brandybuck asked his father as they rode out of sight of the palisade that surrounded the village of Bree.

“It took us roughly three weeks walking,” Merry answered his tweenaged son. “Probably about two weeks, as we have no reason to go particularly slowly, and won’t be attempting to avoid the road. The Rangers have built a nice waystation about a day’s ride from Bree, so we’ll probably stay there tonight.”

He looked about as they rode. “There are so many more farms and settlements along the way than we ever saw during our first journey. Bilbo wrote that they were able to beg room from farmers and woodsmen almost all the way to the Trollshaws when he and the Dwarves were headed with Gandalf toward the Lonely Mountain, although he said most of those homes and farms had been abandoned by the time he traveled east after the Party. I’m thinking we could do much the same if we wished. Folk appear to have come back now that Strider is the King.”

The younger Hobbit nodded his agreement as they rode past a field in which a herd of red cattle grazed contentedly.

A week and a half later neither Hobbit was as sanguine as he’d been at the time they left the Breelands. The last settlement they’d passed had been two days back, and there had been no further houses to be seen since. That had been a difficulty as the weather had been turning increasingly grey. Last night they’d made a camp amidst the ruins of an ancient cottage, grateful for the respite from a chilling westerly wind offered by the pile of stones that had marked one wall that still stood about three feet high. They’d been awakened when, in the middle of the night, the clouds had opened. In moments both bedrolls were soaked, and the two of them had been forced out of the ruins to take shelter under a spreading chestnut until the heaviest of the rain finally passed eastward not long before dawn.

“It’s going to be a miserable night tonight,” Merry sighed to his son, “with our blankets all soaked.”

Periadoc nodded, peering eastward where the clouds hid the mountains. “How much longer until we get there?” he asked.

“I believe four or five more days, if we don’t have any more storms.” He looked westward where another line of heavy, dark clouds could be seen moving their way. “However, looking at that, I suspect we are in for bad weather for at least the next two days. We should find someplace where we can take shelter for a day or two so we can let our blankets dry. I don’t know that the wet has gotten into our packs as well, but if it has we’re going to need to do some hunting or fishing--certainly we’ll need to forage for what roots, berries, and so on we can live on for the next few days.”

The three ponies were miserable, and Periadoc’s appeared particularly aggrieved to be here in the wet and wind rather than in his snug stable with a nice, warm barley mash. Much of that day they searched, and in the late afternoon, just as the next storm front reached them, they found a byre that still had a roof to it perhaps a mere five miles from the ruinous cottage they’d camped within the previous night, and quickly took possession of it. Apparently Rangers or Elves had also found it a handy shelter, for they could see where a corner of the stone structure’s roof had been removed over an improvised hearth, and they found a fair store of dry wood stacked to one side. Merry soon had the wettest of the blankets tacked up over the doorway to keep out the draft as well as to give it a chance to dry--if the rain would but let up--and they settled in. The byre was sufficiently large to allow them to house the two of them and the three ponies with some room besides. A measure of grain for each pony and a good rubbing left their steeds feeling more content, and soon they were preparing a meal for themselves.

“I’m so glad,” Perry sighed, his stomach also fuller for its ration of porridge augmented with carrots and celery and a few handfuls of mushrooms found growing wild near their last camping spot, “that Uncle Sam helped pack our extra supplies.” Most of those had proven sound and blessedly dry.

“As am I,” Merry answered, then sipped at his tin mug of tea. “Ah--to be warm again, inside and out!”

The ponies also appeared glad for the fire, and their coats steamed slightly as they pressed companionably together at the far end of the structure.

The two Hobbits had laid out the least wet of their blankets near the fire where they could also dry further, feeling grateful to whatever soul had camped here last who’d laid springy pine boughs to serve as a bed of sorts. “We’ll share the blankets tonight,” Merry decided once he’d drained his mug. “It will be warmer for both of us.”

“Yes, Dad,” agreed his son. “When I tell Fari and Wyn about----”

But then both froze to stillness, for they’d heard a noise outside--the snapping of a twig and a faint whimper. Remembering the howling of wolves at the foot of Caradhras, Merry’s hand settled upon the hilts of his sword where it lay, there within reach. Merry’s pony whickered uncertainly, and all three animals looked toward the doorway.

Something pushed slightly against the hanging blanket--something more substantial than the wind, at least. Meriadoc Brandybuck noted that his son also was reaching for the long knife given him by the King that served the younger Hobbit as a sword. The pack pony shifted its position, and the others grew more tense.

Whatever it was pushed again, and Merry picked up his sword and slid it soundlessly out of its leather sheath. The whimpering was louder, and Perry sat up straighter, a look of concern creasing his youthful brow. Another push, and a muzzle appeared in the gap between blanket and doorframe. Merry swallowed deeply as he rose soundlessly and prepared himself....

The creature slipped halfway into the room and then went still, eyeing them as warily as they eyed it. It was a dog--pale gold, its coat matted with mud and dripping with rain. Almost it began to back up, but paused lifting its questing nose and sniffed, a look of uneasy hope to its face. An ancient collar could be seen about the animal’s neck.

“A hound!” Perry murmured. “And so thin! Oh, Dad--do you think it’s hungry?”

Watching the nose and its determined sniffing, his father nodded. “I rather think it is.” It came a step further past the blanket and paused again, and he could easily see the hollow flanks. “Oh, yes, I’d say it’s near starving.” Perry’s pony was backing into the far corner and whiffled nervously.

“All we have cooked is the porridge, though,” the younger Hobbit noted. “Would it accept that?”

“If it’s as hungry as I think it is, I’d say yes.” Merry wasn’t going to put away his sword, though, not until the animal had proved itself.

His estimation of his son went up as he saw Perry turn to pick up the small pot of porridge. He knew the lad had been considering finishing off what was left, and had only been waiting to be certain his father didn’t wish more before working at filling the corners. Without pausing, Perry carried it to place before the hound, who’d cringed slightly and backed almost out the doorway again before Perry set it on the ground and backed away, his hands open to show he held nothing with which to abuse the beast. One eye on Perry and the other on the pot, at last it slowly eased its way back inside again, sniffing more determinedly, until at last it decided that these were indeed not going to snatch the prize away again. At last it entered fully and examined the pot carefully, finally burying its muzzle in the remaining porridge and wolfing it down greedily. The ponies again watched and shifted position uncertainly, then calmed, apparently accepting that the animal was no threat.

“I hope it’s not eating too much too quickly,” Merry commented, remembering the cautions given them about Frodo when he’d wakened first in Rivendell and later in Ithilien. “I would hate for what we give it to make it sick instead of helping it fill its belly.”

His son was shaking his head. “I doubt it, Dad--there wasn’t that much left in the pot.” He watched sympathetically as the dog thoroughly washed the pan clean with its tongue before turning his gaze to his father. “Do you think we could spare some of the dried meat? And I think we still have that hard sausage Uncle Pippin gave us.”

“Not the sausage--its spices are rather strong, and in this one’s shape I doubt it could stomach it. All right--some of the dried beef--that should be acceptable to it. But not much--we still have a few days’ journey ahead of us, and we aren’t going to starve ourselves to feed the dog--that would do neither it nor us any good.”

Perry nodded his understanding and went unerringly to the bundle that held their food supplies, quickly bringing out the waning store of jerky and tearing off a couple strips, returning the rest to their stores before slowly approaching the dog, holding out the offering. This time it retreated only a half step, then came forward with relief to take the meat, again eating it quickly. It eyed the two of them, particularly Merry with his drawn sword, and circled around them, settling itself there where Perry had been sitting by the fire. Having chosen its place it lay down, and for the first time they could see the other side of its head.

“Oh, pups and kittens,” Perry murmured. “Its other ear is half missing.”

“So I see,” Merry said in a tight voice. “This one has been through a fight or two, I’d say.”

The wound was fairly recent, for there were still scabs on the ragged edges on the outer side of where the earflap ought to have been. As the animal closed its eyes and lowered its head to its paws Merry finally sheathed his sword and set it aside, although still within reach. He took the pan out to the stream where they’d filled their water bottles and cleaned it thoroughly, then filled it and brought it back in and set it to heat while he brought out a shirt he’d torn earlier in the journey that they’d set aside for emergency use. It didn’t take a good deal of time to have some smaller rags and warm water, at which time he knelt by the animal, which looked up at him warily, then relaxed as he began to stroke its head, gradually working toward the wound. It whined when he began to clean the ragged end, but didn’t pull away or nip at him. Meanwhile Perry dug out his own foot brush and began grooming the animal, who was soon stretching out in pleasure at the attention.

“Whoever owned the dog appears to have loved it,” Perry commented as he took another of his father’s cloths and turned his attention to cleaning the pads of the creature’s feet. “It’s well behaved.”

Merry nodded. “That it is.” Having finished with its ear and not found any signs of infection he sat back. “I wonder whose it was? That collar doesn’t look rough--it appears to have been well made and of good materials, when it was new, at least. This was someone’s companion, obviously. And how did it end up way out here, days from anything or anybody, near an abandoned byre that appears not to have been used by anyone but Rangers and Elves for ages?”

There were no answers to those questions, so for now they allowed the animal to lie where it was. They cleaned up their space and set their things in order, and having built up the fire a bit they crawled between the blankets, lying close together for warmth, trusting the fire and the dog to deter other intruders. Perry was soon asleep, and Merry smiled as he felt his son relax easily into slumber. Soon after he, too, was sleeping, dreaming of sitting near the petrified trolls with Strider and the others, only this time Frodo was well and laughing and encouraging Sam to recite more of his poems. He smiled in his sleep.

*******


“Dad?”

Merry came slowly awake. “What, Perry-lad?”

“I have to get up.”

The older Hobbit considered their positions. He didn’t appear to be lying on any part of his son’s body--indeed, it appeared Perry was lying partly against his shoulder and right arm. “So, get up!” he finally said. “I am certainly not stopping you.”

“No, but the dog is.”

Merry was instantly alert. The dog was no longer in view by the fire. “I didn’t hear it growl or anything,” he said hesitantly.

“No--it’s lying on my arm.”

“What?” He did his best to rise up to peer over the younger Hobbit’s body. Sure enough, the animal was stretched out on its side, its back to Perry’s stomach, lying across the lad’s outstretched arm. He smiled. “Is your arm asleep?” he asked.

“I don’t know for certain, but I can’t feel it.”

“Probably is, then. When he was a child Pippin used to lie on mine and put it to sleep, and Frodo always said it served me right as I used to do the same to him.” He eased out of the blankets as well as he could. He could hear the animal’s breathing and a faint whine as it chased dream rabbits, its front paws scratching at the air. He gave a quick glance. “It’s a male, I see. And it had a nasty bite to its belly at one point--a lot longer ago than the ear, though.”

He reached down to stroke the side of the dog’s head, and immediately it awoke, startled, and scrambled up to its feet, apparently not certain of its welcome. “That’s all right, lad,” he crooned. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Calm down, now.”

Perry took advantage of the release of his arm to get up and head outside to relieve himself, while his father spoke soothingly to the dog. It was still raining, but again more lightly as they led the ponies out and down to the stream to drink and hobbled them so they could graze a bit; the dog did some quick sniffing of the area about the hut and efficiently marked some territory before following them back inside, alert when it noted they were again getting into the bundle that held their store of food.

Merry frowned. “We may have to hunt a bit if we’re to travel with Goldenrod here,” he commented.

His son paused as he set the pot of water over the relaid fire. “Goldenrod?” he asked, amused. “Since when have you named an animal you didn’t intend to keep? That was always what we did, you know--named the strays so you’d have to let us keep them!”

“And a lot of good that did when you brought home a lamb!”

Perry laughed outright. “Ah, yes, Wooly-Booly. You never gave him the benefit of a doubt, did you?”

“Stupid creatures, sheep!” Merry commented as he tore off some strips of dried beef and examined the size of the remaining hard sausage they had left. “Definitely not intended to dwell in a smial of any size.”

The younger Hobbit grinned broadly. “No, but Melody was so taken by it, and wished it always by her. How was she to know it would try to eat the Hall’s storage baskets and Aunt Diamond’s new straw hat?” They laughed.

They were surprised at a soft but demanding “Woof!” and turned to find the dog was watching Merry avidly.

“He recognizes who has care for the food, doesn’t he?” Perry noted, smiling.

“Indeed.” Merry looked at what he had in his hand, sighed, pulled out the beef again and tore off two more strips, and after giving most of what he had to his son he presented the last two strips to Goldenrod. “There, demanding soul. But you will need more than this to get you back to proper weight again, I’m thinking.”

The younger Hobbit peered toward the doorway. “If the rain gives over for a time I might go out and find a deer or some smaller game. But if I go now the bowstring will likely be uncooperative.”

His father, however, was shaking his head. “Too near the Trollshaws here, I fear. I don’t like the thought of you going out alone. We may see something as we ride tomorrow. I think the rain should give over by then.”

Perry made a sound of disgust. “With three ponies, Dad? No, any sensible game won’t allow itself to be seen once it hears the ponies’ hooves.”

Merry gave a grin and responded, “Then I suppose we must hope at least some animal is daft enough to come out to see just what we’re up to. But we do have the stream--perhaps there are fish to be tickled there.”

In the end Merry did bring in three fat trout that had lurked under the bank. He set them down by his son as he pulled out one of the blankets with which to rub his arms. “I’m glad Frodo taught me the trick of that,” he said as he rolled down his sleeves and stood over the fire to warm himself. “I understand a lad there in Whitfurrow taught him how to do it when he was still quite small. He was very good at it--Aragorn would always shake his head when we’d camp near a stream and Frodo would be able to get enough to feed the whole Fellowship. Gandalf would just sit there and puff on his pipe with a smile as if it were somehow all his doing. As for Boromir----” His smile became softer. “Boromir was always fascinated when we’d come up with enough from what was around us to feed us all--saw it as some magic only we Hobbits could manage. And no one anywhere is as good a forager as Sam, I think--he could spot anything edible within a minute of entering a clearing and would have it harvested and ready to go in the pot in no time at all. Not that he doesn’t prefer meat from the butcher’s in Bywater, of course, to a rabbit or two Pippin and I would bring in.”

He sat down and brought out his pipe and filled it. “Strider at first thought we were completely helpless in the wild, of course, although we taught him different on the road sou----”

He stopped, and both turned, their ears twitching, and Goldenrod’s ears twitching as well. In the distance they heard howls.

“Wolves!” Meriadoc Brandybuck whispered, and at that moment Perry saw the grim-faced Hobbit who’d stabbed the Nazgul in the back of the knee as that dread creature had sought to infuse despair in the Shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Goldenrod growled deep in his throat, and it was plain the hound had no love for its wild kindred.

*******


They cleaned the corner where the ponies had spent the night as swiftly as they could, and Merry quickly strewed such grass as he could pull in haste over the area before they led the ponies back into the byre. They were restive--they, too, had heard the howls of the distant pack.

“Even if it does clear up, do you think we ought to remain here if they don’t appear to move away from us?” Periadoc asked.

His father shrugged. “I’m not certain, son. We’re not that far from Rivendell now--or at least I don’t think so. Some things have changed since I came the last time, eight years ago, but I know we aren’t more than four days away. I would think the road between here and there should be still relatively safe.”

“But they’re not wargs, are they--not like when you were traveling with the Fellowship?”

Merry looked at him closely, having heard the fear in his son’s voice that the lad hadn’t been able to hide. “I doubt it--the last time I spoke to Lord Elladan he said no wargs had been seen for at least ten sun-rounds.” He looked off toward the region from which the howls had been heard, a serious expression on his face such as that he’d shown only since they’d first heard the wolves. “I’m not certain what we ought to do, but I know we don’t have food for more than about four days, not that we couldn’t tighten our belts and make do if we need to--I have had to do that and know it can be done. But if there are wolves prowling about we don’t want to do much outside the byre, and especially at night. There is still the odd orc knocking about in these parts, and you know what they say--Where the wolf howls, the orc prowls. I don’t wish to test that saying. I’ve no problem with killing any of the beasts if we meet with them, but it’s wiser to avoid them if at all possible. They don’t like Men’s structures and aren’t likely to bother us here, and as there’s but one way in we can defend ourselves fairly easily, I’m thinking. I’m just glad your Uncle Pippin and I saw you trained to use that sword Strider gave you. I hate the thought of you being blooded, though--it’s not--pleasant--killing your first orc.”

The fear Periadoc had been feeling deepened. “You never said that there might be orcs when we talked about riding to Rivendell to meet the King on his visit, just the two of us, Dad.”

Merry’s expression was grim as he turned his face slightly away from his son. “There are still no truly safe places, lad--not even in the Shire, and certainly not outside of it.” He turned back to look almost defiantly into Perry’s face. “But what are we to do--go nowhere, do nothing, because to step outside our door may mean we might slip on ice or find another unexpected danger? No, I didn’t travel alongside Frodo for so long to sit, craven, hiding from possible danger. And it’s not for nothing I am accounted a knight of Rohan.”

More than ever the younger Hobbit saw that other Meriadoc son of Saradoc in what he usually knew as the affable Master of Buckland. He thought of what he’d read in Uncle Frodo’s book: “Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous; more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Gloin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion.” He had the feeling that had his father and Uncle Pippin been there, too, the Wizard would have warned the Dwarf of the dangers of Hobbits as well, and for once the thought of such a warning did not make him smile. Oh, he sensed that his father could be very dangerous indeed should the need arise.

*******


Two more days they lingered in the byre, but they still heard the howls of the wolves at odd times both during the day and at night.

“We can’t stay longer,” Merry said. “It’s too late in the season, and there won’t be enough grazing for the ponies in another day, much less enough food left for us to finish the journey. We must go on tomorrow, whatever we do, and take the chance.” He looked up at the grey sky. “Yes, it’s cloudy, but not raining now. You will have your bow at the ready, and we both have our swords.”

“And there’s Goldenrod,” Perry added with a pat to the animal’s head. “He’s plenty brave!”

Merry nodded, giving the dog a brief smile. “We’ll ready things tonight and leave early, and hopefully they won’t bother us.”

“And if they do?”

His father turned to look toward the last area where they’d heard the howls about an hour earlier. “If they do, then we fight. What else can we do, Periadoc Brandybuck?” The expression on his face as he turned back said it all, his son thought.

Early in the morning they loaded the pack pony and saddled their own mounts, and after straightening things as well as they might so the next Rangers might find the byre habitable, they set off eastward. They heard and saw nothing all that day, and did not pause in their journey, eating as they rode, always keeping a watch.

Goldenrod kept up easily with them. He didn’t look quite so lean as he had, although they’d not been able to boast of feeding the dog particularly well. He loped along easily at Perry’s stirrup as if this were something he was well accustomed to, and the young Hobbit noted that he appeared ever to be vigilant, his nose questing, his ears swiveling. At first the ponies were restive, partly from lack of exercise over the past few days and partly due to an awareness of the wolves, who’d howled long into the night somewhere southwest of them. “They’ve passed us now,” the older Hobbit had commented. “I doubt they wish to bother us. We’re not their usual prey, after all.”

By noon the ponies were much calmer, and Perry noted that his dad didn’t have his hand quite so close to his sword hilt now. Perry found himself starting to sing, and in a while they were both singing a song about ponies and riding to the fair that Frodo-lad Gardner had written for the Free Fair a couple years back.

In the late afternoon they found a hill covered with blackened tree stumps. “A wildfire must have struck here since I last came this way,” Merry murmured. “Come--I think I see a shielded place where we might camp.” So saying he led the way up the slope to a cleft in the rocks. Here they made their camp for the night--there was room behind them for the ponies and an overhang to shelter them all should it rain again. Perry drew the first watch, and pulled his warm cloak and a blanket about him as he perched on a half-buried boulder and looked down toward the road, Goldenrod lying at his feet. He drank the soup his father had prepared, now and then pausing to spoon out the slivers of meat and herbs cooked into it until the cup was all but empty, then set it down for the hound to enjoy the last of it. When the golden hound leaned on his knee he felt warmer somehow, having found an unexpected friend along the way.

He was drowsing when Goldenrod startled him by leaping to his feet, and they heard the howling of the wolves again, and this time close at hand. There was a long, shuddering howl down the hill, followed by another to the right and a good deal closer--far too close, Perry thought, suddenly shivering. He peered out, trying to see if he could see the beasts, all the time leaning over and feeling blindly for his bow, which he’d set at his feet. He found it and the quiver, drew the latter over his shoulder, and had the bow strung in a trice. Uncle Pippin had given it to him--it had been made there in the Tooklands by Cousin Reginard Took, who was accounted the best bow maker in the entire Shire. Why, he’d even made an extra-large bow for the Thain to present to the King when he’d come north the last time, three years back. Perry remembered how the King had praised it, as had his Elven brothers, although Prince Legolas had politely refrained from commenting on it, his own beloved bow from Lorien rising over his own shoulder.

It was odd, he realized, the thoughts that came to one as danger approached.

Goldenrod was again growling deep in his throat, and the warm, loose body that had earlier leaned on Perry’s knee now stood erect, apparently big as a bear, the Hobbit thought, now all muscle and teeth, ready to face the enemy.

The moon peeked through the clouds, and he heard still another howl as the wolves came still closer yet.

A shadow loomed behind him, and again Perry jumped, then realized it was just his dad, come from his blanketroll. No, he realized, not just his dad, not now, with wolves howling about them. It was Meriadoc, Holdwine of the Mark, the companion of kings, who came forth with the sword given him by Éomer King and his sister Éowyn in hand, the sword his father had wielded in the Battle of Bywater and in besting countless ruffians after that during the Scouring of the Shire. Nay, not just the Master of Buckland and Brandy Hall, but Meriadoc the Magnificent, steely in his determination.

The first shadowy shape crept out from among the clump of blackened trunks below them on the left, and Perry readied his bow. It slunk closer, and Goldenrod’s growls grew louder, more menacing yet. Closer it came, and Perry drew, drew deeper, and then when it came within what Perry had determined was their boundaries of safety, he let fly.

It hit--hit squarely, and the body of the wolf fell and rolled, twisting somewhat, down the hill. Immediately Perry had another arrow nocked, looking for another target, as the rest of the pack came charging out of the shadows on both sides. He let fly another arrow, then was lifting his sword from its sheath at his belt, for they were too close now for arrows.... He was aware of the hound surging forward to engage a large male wolf that was making toward his own position, and then a change in the shadows to the left and another was almost at his throat....

Dawn finally came, and with it the remaining wolves retreated down the slope, crossing the road and melting into the wooded copses there. Perry, shaking now that it was all over, stood, his sword the King had given him hanging loose now in his hand. He saw there was blood on his arm, and wondered stupidly from where it could have come--then realized it was from the sword, his sword with which he’d killed at least two wolves and wounded three others, or so a clearer portion of his mind told him.

He heard a noise, and looked sideways to see his father standing there, wiping the blade of his own weapon with a strip of the torn shirt he’d pulled from Perry’s quiver, somehow fallen to the ground, a strip Perry had stuffed into it earlier in the day to keep the arrows from rattling as they rode.

“You all right, Perry-lad?” his father asked.

“I--I think so,” Perry replied, realizing it was true. “You, Dad?”

“A small nip to my left forearm--luckily not my sword hand. That’s a bit cold, though, now it’s all done with.”

Oh, yes--at times his dad’s right arm would go cold on him--when a cold storm blew in, or when he heard bad news, or when he was very angry, which fortunately wasn’t often, Perry thought thankfully. Once as a faunt he’d asked his dad why, and his father’s face had gone distant, and he’d said, “It’s part of his legacy--the Witch-king’s revenge, I suppose. It was much the same with Frodo.” And his dad had remained quiet, sad, and thoughtful for the rest of that day. It was the first time he’d realized that his famous but absent Uncle Frodo had been hurt before he’d gone away.

Suddenly Perry was looking around. “Goldenrod!” he whispered. “Where’s Goldenrod?”

“Here, lad--wipe your blade and sheathe it,” his father said, thrusting the rag at him, his fingers somewhat clumsy as he sheathed his own sword. He, too, was looking about--and then they heard the hooves of horses coming, and turned toward the road. Three animals came to a stop before them, and from them dropped two Elves and a Man, tall and shining almost as brightly as the Elves themselves. Merry was hurrying forward. “Strider! Oh, Aragorn--but it’s good to see you!”

One of the Elves was one of the twin sons of Lord Elrond. He looked about at the bloodied ground. “There has been a great wolf slaying here,” he said with respect. “They attacked you?”

“Last night,” Merry replied, “or, rather, not too long before dawn this morning, actually. It was supposed to be my watch, but I suspect the lad dozed some and didn’t wake me to take my turn. But he did well--heard them coming and was ready--we were both ready.”

Aragorn was scanning both of them. “A bite, Merry? We’ll see to it in a moment--let us see what was done here first.” Together they began to walk down the hill.

They found the hound standing over the body of the great male wolf just beyond a fold in the land, licking at a deep bite on his flank. Perry hurried forward, relieved. “Oh, Goldenrod!” he said, reaching out to embrace the dog. “You’re all right!”

“He appears well enough,” commented the second Elf, coming forward to examine the animal. “Save for the flank, and then the ear--but that is not from today, is it?” he asked, looking at the two Hobbits.

“No, he came to us that way, a few days ago.”

“It is just the two of you?” Aragorn demanded. “Where is Pippin? Why are there no others? Do you think I like the idea of two witless Halflings wandering about in the wild unprotected?” But Perry could see the smile in the King’s eyes that betrayed his pride in both of them and belied his words.

“Oh,” Perry said as he held the dog closer, “oh, no, my Lord King. We were not unprotected, nor without escort. Not this trip!”

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