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34
Hunting


“Mum would like fer yer to come in and look in on Cammie,” Pepper said next morning as he came up the loft hole, “if it’s all the same to yer. Dad’s at work now. And we saved some breakfast for yer.”

They went indoors, and Radagast told the others to wait in the kitchen; he would go see about Cammie. Serilinn said she wished to go too, and he told her to leave Eglenbain in the kitchen. She set the entling gently on a chair and followed the Wizard upstairs. Pepper got out the food his mother had saved for them and set it on the table, mostly sausage and eggs and buttered rolls. Greenjade’s hunger overcame his pride at the moment, and he and Sméagol dug in. Sméagol fed bits to Nilde from time to time.

“They’re still out there, ain’t they,” Pepper said as he watched the others eat.

“Aye, they are,” Greenjade said. “Most of them fled. And Gaergath is at large. He may not have his cloak still, but…well, he’s still out there.”

“What are we goin’ to do about ‘em?” Pepper said.

“I was wondering much the same,” Greenjade said.

Radagast came in just then. “Cammie is in a bad way, I fear,” he said. “She had nightmares last night, and she’s talking incoherently on and off, having fits of crying, and does not seem to know where she is at times. I’m going to stay with her this morning. You lads can start loading up the wagon if you like. Serilinn is singing to her. I think it may help her. If she gets better, we’ll leave right away.”

He sighed, shaking his head. Pepper offered him a plate of food. The Wizard thanked him, saying he would take it later, just put it in the larder for now. Then went back upstairs.

“So we’re stuck here a while longer. Sound familiar?” Greenjade said with a glance toward Sméagol.

“I likes it here,” Sméagol said. “Nice.”

Greenjade rolled his eyes, then looked at Pepper, who was now straightening up the kitchen.

“I say,” he said after a moment, “Pepper—do you know of a cave nearby?”

“Cave?” Pepper said. “Aye…but it’s sealed up. Some lads got lost in it, and was never seen again. Found their footprints goin’ into the cave, and a couple of their things nigh it. So they sealed it up.”

“I think I can guess what happened to them,” Greenjade said grimly. “Whereabouts is it? Close to here?”

“Southwest o’ ‘ere,” the lad said. “Me an’ my friends Skip and Othar goes huntin’ down that way betimes.”

Greenjade sat and smiled for a long moment. Pepper and Sméagol looked curiously at him.

“How would you like to go on a hunting trip, my lad…this morning?” Greenjade said, still smiling.

~*~*~

“Would Brown Master likes us to go without to tell him?” Sméagol asked as Pepper hitched his horse to the Widdicombs’ wagon.

“He’ll fuss a bit, but he’ll get over it,” Greenjade said. “Pepper, have you a long length of rope?”

“Aye, hangin’ on the wall right be’ind yer,” Pepper pointed to a rope coiled up and hanging on a large peg on the stable wall. Greenjade went and took it and laid it in the wagon.

“You takes the Mister’s rope?” Sméagol said. Greenjade bit back a sharp reply.

“We’ll bring it back,” he said. “And the ‘Mister’ will thank us later on. Are there any long poles to pry the rocks away?”

“This shovel might do,” Pepper said, retrieving it from the corner near the door. “Hit’s iron. What else?”

“I’ll go and get it,” Greenjade said. “Sméagol, you better come and give me a hand.”

They went back indoors and into the room that had been Greenjade’s, very softly, and found the boxes of jars with the braids sticking out of them, left over from the previous night. These they carried back downstairs with a glance toward the door of Cammie’s room, which fortunately was closed.

“What we do about that?” Sméagol whispered as they passed the kitchen, and saw Eglenbain still sitting on the chair where Serilinn had placed it.

“We’ll just have to leave it there,” Greenjade said. “We can’t take it with us. Now that the secret’s out, I dare say it will be all right there, and Serilinn will come down and see to it by and by.”

Pepper helped them load the jars into the wagon. About a quarter of an hour later they were rolling down the road from whence they had come three days ago.

“I was wonderin’,” Pepper said as he drove along, “if…well…”

“Wondering what?” Greenjade said. He sat between Pepper and Sméagol. Nilde sat in the wagon behind them.

“If…well…if I might come along with yer,” Pepper said. “To Mordor, I mean. Do yer think the Wizard would mind?”

“What??” Greenjade exclaimed, as Sméagol’s mouth fell wide open, showing gappy teeth.

“I’m sick o’ this place,” Pepper said. “I want ter go an’ ‘elp yer clean up Sauron’s mess, an’ all that. I wants ter go to Mordor an’…have some adventures, like. I ‘ate it ‘ere. Dad wants me ter work in the mill when I comes of age, and I don’t want to. ‘Tain’t what I wants ter do. There’s naught fer me ‘ere. I wants to go with y’uns to Mordor. D’yer think ‘e’d mind?”

“At the mill?” Greenjade said. “But you don’t work there, do you?”

“Not mostly,” Pepper said. “I works about the house—muckin’ out the stall, weedin’ the garden, choppin’ wood, runnin’ errands, stuff like that. But I’m tired of it. They don’t need me ‘ere—Dad ‘as me brothers, and Mum ‘as Cammie…and I, well, I jus’ wants ter get away. See some o’ the world. I’ve lived ‘ere all me life, an’ I know there’s a big world out there, an’ I’d like to see some of it. I was too young to go when the Wars was on. I’d of like to run off ter sea once’t, but I gets sick in a boat. This Mordor, yer say Sauron was ruler there once’t? Well, I’d like to go an’ see where the battles was, an’ Mount Doom, an’ all the rest of it. I jus’ wants ter get out an’ see some o’ the world out there. Most folks ‘round ‘ere, they don’t care ‘bout such. They’d laugh, if yer said yer wanted to get out and see places, they’d say yer was cracked in the ‘ead, but I don’t care. Can I goes with yer then? I won’t be a trouble. I got me own ‘orse I can take an’ ride be’ind, I wouldn’t ‘ave to be in the wagon. I can work, I can ‘unt and fish, catch food fer y’uns. Do yer think ‘e’d mind?”

“You would have to ask him,” Greenjade said, a trifle dismayed. Not that he disliked the lad, but he entertained serious doubts about taking him along. Likely the boy would get homesick eventually, and want to turn back, and likely lose his way, or get his fool self into some trouble…or something. “He is the one in charge. And somehow I don’t think he will go for it, to be frank. What would your father say?”

“Oh, ‘e’d prob’ly be glad to be shut of me,” Pepper said a little sullenly. “’E don’t listen when I tries to talk to ‘im, jus’ says to me, ‘Shut yer ‘ead and pick up that sack and load it up,’ things like that. I’m sick of it all. I just wants to get away…for a time, at least. Just ter see wot it’s like, an’ all.”

“But won’t you miss your friends? And your family, your cousins…haven’t you a sweetheart, or aught like that?”

Pepper’s ears reddened under his cap. “I had 'un once’t…but we fell out, ‘er an’ me. Now she likes another, some swell, that’s new in the town. Blossom Benbow, that’s ‘er name. Mayhap when I’ve done gone me way, she’ll think twice’t on me then.”

“Won’t do much good when you’re so far away,” Greenjade said with a sinking feeling inside, thinking of Nell. Was she thinking twice on him now?

“Well mayhap she’ll think on wot we once’t ‘ad,” Pepper said hunching over a bit and looking straight ahead of him at the road. Greenjade tried hard not to smile. “An’ mayhap she won’t think that swell was so much, struttin’ about like ‘e’s big stuff, and she’d wish fer the one that ‘ad the true ‘eart. Aye, mayhap she will.”

They were coming now to a wooded area that Greenjade remembered, seemingly from a long time ago, even though it was less than three days since they had come from it. He shivered a little as they rode in the green gloom, and he glanced aside at Sméagol, who was looking quite anxious.

“Arfter last night,” Pepper spoke up, “these ‘ere woods gives me the willies. Yer sure yer wants ter do this?”

“It’s not a matter of wanting,” Greenjade said. “It needs to be done.” He winced at how lofty it sounded even as he spoke, when he himself was wishing they might turn around and go back.

He wondered how many times his stepfather had wished the same thing.

But he had not turned back.

They drove past the campsite where they had stayed that night, and down the road where Greenjade had turned when he had decided to go back he knew not where, he had just been certain he was not going to Mordor.

What if he had not done so?

He shuddered.

Pepper was talking about his family now, and Greenjade was only half listening. About how Rodey came over at least once a week to cry and complain to their mum about something-or-other that Ferman had done, or had not done, and every time, Mum would tell her that she just had to take the bitter with the sweet. She said what Rodey needed was to have a young ‘un, then she’d start getting a new outlook on things…. Greenjade was tempted to tell him he shouldn’t be talking of his sister like this to folks he barely knew, but the next moment, he just didn’t feel like saying it. The sheer ordinariness of it all depressed him, and he tried not to listen at all, and focus on what they were setting out to do now.

The road looked different in the daytime, for which he was thankful. He asked how far it was out, and Pepper said about a mile more and they’d be there.

And Greenjade found himself shivering once more.

~*~*~

“Cave's that way,” Pepper said, “but there ain't no road leadin' to it. It's all growed over. We'll 'ave to get out an' walk through the woods, an' carry our stuff. And it's quite a piece.”

“Wonderful,” Greenjade said looking at the thick expanse of greenery. “Well, let's go.”

Pepper tied the horse to a tree, out of plain sight of possible passers-by. Greenjade took the box of jars, Sméagol took the shovel, and Pepper the rope.

“Got the fire?” Greenjade said. Pepper went back and got out the little metal box with the glowing coal inside, and carried it by its chain.

There was a path, of sorts, very narrow, and they had to dodge a good many brambles and vines and low-hanging branches to get through. It was eerily quiet this way; no birds singing, no woodland creatures scrabbling about through the brush or up and down the trees.

But finally they did reach the cave. Greenjade shivered just looking at the sealed entrance. He wondered how far they were from the place where he had encountered them.

“That rock’s bigger’n I remember,” Pepper said, reaching to touch the huge boulder blocking the cave entrance. “We carn’t budge that thing. Looks like we might 'a come out ‘ere on a wild goose chase.”

There were saplings and large trees all about, and evergreens atop of the cave, and a great deal of moss and ferns and dead leaves and pine needles; small wonder the cave had been so hard to find.

“Perhaps we can all move it,” Greenjade said. “Look, there’s a chink right there. Perhaps we can get the shovel in and try it?”

He thought to himself that they must have cut that chink with Serilinn in mind. To let the air in so she could breath….

“We could try, but I think not,” Pepper said. Greenjade took the shovel from Sméagol and tried to jam it into the chink.

“No luck,” he said a moment later. “Let’s all try and see if we can move it. Maybe I can pry it then, if we can budge it even a little.”

They all three spent the next few minutes heaving and tugging at the stone. But it seemed to have grown out of the cave wall. There was no moving it.

“They’re obviously damned strong,” Greenjade said, “and yet, they couldn’t even come into the house. Is there anyone living nearby that you know of?”

“Nay, not around ‘ere,” Pepper said.

“If we could get the rope around it, perhaps the horse could pull it,” Greenjade said. “And if we all help…no, I doubt it. I don’t know what we’re going to do. Seems we’d have to chip away at the rock, and it would likely take a week just to make a good-sized dent in it. I don’t suppose you know of any stone-cutters?”

Pepper shook his head. “We might’s well go back. They’ll be wonderin’ where we’ve got off to, and Mum ‘ll be none too ‘appy ‘bout it.”

“Somehow I doubt there’s a password that will open it,” Greenjade mused half to himself. “Damn, I hate going off without finishing what I start. But I suppose it’s all we can do.”

He told himself it was not his problem, they’d be going soon and those creatures were unlikely to follow, after the previous night.

And yet, at this moment, Gaergath was down there. He might be without his cloak, but…most likely he was not above lifting one from another.

Greenjade remembered how Serilinn’s face had looked in the lantern light, with the realization that Sauron was likely her grandfather.

Gaergath was not going to give up so easily.

“Perhaps,” Greenjade said, “you could get hold of some silver and melt it, and pour it all over the rock. Although it would take a pretty fair amount to cover it all. But it may--”

“I hears...something,” Sméagol said suddenly, rising to his feet from where he had been squatting on the ground. Greenjade turned abruptly and looked in the direction where the sound was coming. His heart pounded, even as he reminded himself that they could not come out in the daytime.

“Hit’s just a deer, I thinks,” Pepper said.

“Sounds a bit heavy-footed for that,” Greenjade said. “You have bears about?”

“Not so many,” Pepper said. “But likely they’d be sleepin’ this time o’ year.”

“Well, I suppose we’d better be getting back,” Greenjade said. “Wait, it’s stopped. What is that noise?”

They could hear a distinct murmur now…it sounded almost like speech. Nothing a beast would make, surely. Pepper’s eyes widened.

“I’ve ‘eared that sound afore,” he whispered. “Hit’s…I dunno. But me an’ Skip and Othar ‘eared it a time or two when we was out ‘untin’ this way.”

All three stood listening, and after a long moment, they heard it again. Something mournful about it, something lost, something pleading almost.

“Spooks,” Sméagol gasped, pale and terrified, looking frantically at his companions.

“Spooks don’t come out in the daytime, do they?” Greenjade said, hoping against hope that it was true.

“When last I ‘eared it, ‘twere in the daytime,” Pepper said.

Nilde growled low in her throat.

“If it were a ghost, she’d be frightened,” Greenjade said. “Wouldn’t she?”

They listened for the sound once more, then again they heard something moving in the brush. Something both heavy-footed and swishing, and making that groan.

Greenjade’s heart bounded.

“I know what that is!” he exclaimed. “Yet…I’m not sure we should go and find out.”

“Wot then?” Pepper said, looking all about. “Do I need me bow? Hit’s right there in the wagon.”

“I think not,” Greenjade said. “Let’s wait and see if it comes this way. If we go in its direction, we might frighten it off.”

“Ayyy!” groaned Pepper a moment later. “Did yer see that? Looks like…”

“Just as I thought,” Greenjade said. Sméagol stooped down to reassure Nilde.

The thing was coming closer…and yes, it was as he thought. Leaves moving, thick trunk-legs, one in front of the other….

“It’s an Ent,” he whispered. “A grown one.”

~*~*~

“So that’s what we ‘eard,” Pepper whispered as the three of them crouched in the bushes, watching. “And Dad said it was just a tale. ‘E’d ort to see this now. ‘E’d think ‘tale,’ all right!”

“I wonder if it’s Eglenbain’s mother,” Greenjade whispered as the thing stopped, perhaps sensing human presence.

“Does big tree-folk eats little folk?” Sméagol quavered.

“I doubt it,” Greenjade said. “I believe they only drink water. You know…I remember the tale now. They pulled up huge rocks to throw during the Battle of Isengard, remember? Perhaps that one can help us! But does it know our language?”

“No idear,” Pepper said, his teeth chattering somewhat. “Yer goin’ to speak ter it?”

“I think I’ll give it a shot,” Greenjade said. “If naught else, perhaps we can get Radagast out here. I dare say he knows. I didn’t try to persuade him because he is balky about killing things. But…”

“When ‘e spoke at News Day, ‘e said they ‘ad ter be destroyed,” Pepper said. “Said it was the only way ter stop ‘em, an’ all.”

“I wish I’d known that before,” Greenjade grumbled. “Well, I’ll see if I can coax that thing our way. Maybe it can lift that stone for us. Wait here.”

The others needed no persuading. Greenjade ventured out from the brush, pushing away vines and brambles and saplings, stepping carefully so as not to frighten it off, humming softly…somehow he thought the humming might be soothing, without really knowing how he had thought of it.

He could see the Ent now. Yes, it appeared to be of the same sort of tree as Eglenbain—beech, according to Radagast. It was not nearly so large as the Ents the Wizard had told of—more than likely, it was a female, with a distinctly feminine shape to its bole and arms, or so it seemed.

“Hullo,” he called softly, feeling more than a bit foolish, and it stopped moving, and stood absolutely still. He waved his arms, then approached very slowly, putting one foot in front of the other and then stopping, waiting a full minute before putting the other foot forward. This he repeated until he was about ten feet away from the creature. He saw some broken branches lying nearby and fetched those up, and held them in front of himself, then stood still, saying, “Hullo?” once more, wondering if Pepper and Sméagol were snickering at him. After what seemed an eternity, the tree-thing turned very slowly and he was able to see something resembling a face.

He waved and fluttered the fallen branches and swayed a bit, and he did hear a snicker behind him. Nevertheless he continued his Ent-dance, feeling utterly ridiculous, and the creature before him was looking at him with golden-brown eyes full of depth and sorrow, until he finally stopped and dropped the branches.

“Hullo,” he called for the third time. “Erm...I’m sorry to disturb you, and I do not even know if you speak my language, but…we’ve a bit of a problem. We come in peace. And…I think…well, have you lost a child, by any chance? Because we have a little one that we found in these woods….”

It occurred to him how Serilinn would feel on losing Eglenbain. Perhaps they should forget the whole thing, and turn back….

But then...Gaergath.

“Please,” he called to it, “we need your help. Over here. Stone. Move. Please.”

He gesticulated wildly toward the cave. It continued to stand looking at him.

Then he dropped to his knees, picked up the branches and held them together, and did what he desperately hoped was a convincing imitation of Eglenbain’s cry. And then he heard that sound he had heard previous.

He stood up once more, saying, “Please help. Stone. Big. Please help us. We will return your child. But please help us now.”

And the Ent-wife began moving in his direction.



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