Chapter 13. In which a hobbit surprises himself
Merry fell silent, causing his listeners to start up.
‘But then, what...?’
‘You cannot leave it there!’
‘More brandy?--no, I see that your cup is still well filled...’
At last he looked up and shrugged. ‘That’s all I know,’ he said, ‘until I wakened, quite some time later. They told me it had been a fox, and that we had been found...’
Pippin turned eagerly to Ferdibrand. ‘Then you must take up the thread, Ferdi!’ But his urging trailed off in puzzlement, and growing concern, for Ferdibrand was staring into his own cup, frozen in memory.
‘Ferdi?’ he said more gently.
‘Ferdibrand?’ said the King, his healer’s senses stirring.
‘Ferdi,’ Pippin said softly. ‘You cannot leave the tale there... It is one you’ve never told me, nor Merry either, and so if you don’t tell, and he doesn’t know... How can you leave us hanging, here at the narrow end of a hollow log?’
‘I’ve never told you,’ Ferdi said, adding, ‘I’ve never told anyone, truth be told... They asked, but they did not press me, when they saw....’ He looked up, his eyes shining with moisture. ‘Ah, the dreams,’ he whispered. ‘For days, weeks--months after!’ Anger came into his countenance then. ‘Just whose idea was it to tell this tale?’
Pippin refrained from pointing out that he’d been the one to bring up the matter, earlier in the evening, when they’d all been relaxed and laughing.
‘Then now is as good a time as any,’ Elessar said softly. ‘Lance the boil, and let the poison out. You’ve held the memory to yourself much longer than was good for you.’
There was a long silence while the listeners looked from Merry to Ferdi, but Merry merely shook his head helplessly: He truly had no memory past the moment he’d emerged from the log.
‘Aye,’ Ferdi sighed at last. He smiled faintly. ‘I suppose it does make a gripping tale for the telling, and a shame to leave it off at the exciting part.’
‘The little ones will never get to sleep at this rate,’ Pippin said lightly. ‘You’ve got them all stirred up and imagining the worst sort of imaginings.’
‘Not at all,’ Ferdi said, and swallowed. ‘Not the worst, I mean.’
‘Certainly not!’ Merry said staunchly. ‘Why, the worst would have been for the fox to slay and devour us both! And that didn’t happen! A rescuer must have happened upon the scene just in the nick of time!’
Ferdi smiled again. ‘Oh aye,’ he said. ‘The rescue came just in the nick of time, indeed.’
‘I love a good rescue,’ Pippin said, leaning closer and using his most persuasive tone. ‘Tell on, cousin, do.’
‘You know we older cousins could never resist him when he uses that tone,’ Merry said in a conspiratorial manner.
‘Too true,’ Ferdi whispered, and then he drew a deep breath and sighed it out again. He drained the brandy he held, as if to garner courage, and put the empty cup to the side with a final air, as if to say, Ready! And then he took up the thread of the tale.
Little Ferdi loosed his hold on Merry’s foot as the older cousin began to pull himself out of the opening of the log, for while it might have been satisfying to see Merry fall upon his face, it would not have been productive for Merry to fall on his nose. Ferdi did not want any more scoldings; he was put out as it was, already, by the high-handed tone Merry’d taken in the past few moments.
He bit down hard on his tongue to stop his whimpers as his older cousin pulled away, blocking most of the light coming in. Then the bulk of Merry’s body had cleared the log, and he was pulling his legs out, ending on all fours as if playing at “pony”, and Ferdi began to creep forward, only to freeze in terror and consternation as a dark form flashed down from above, and Merry disappeared under a descending layer of shaggy red-brown fur.
And then Merry was screaming, and Ferdi put his hands to his ears and squeezed his eyes shut, for surely this was a nightmare; it could not really be happening! It couldn’t!
But Merry’s cries still came, even through Ferdi’s muffling hands, and the littler hobbit couldn’t not look; his eyes popped open, and yes, it was real, and more terrible by the moment.
It was a fox--he’d seen the pelt of a fox on more than one occasion, pinned to the side of the barn to dry after a hunt. Uncle Dinny had no quarrel with foxes that kept to the woods, but when a fox would begin stealing chickens, he and his neighbours would assemble together with their dogs for a hunt, and they’d hunt and kill foxes until the chicken killings stopped--the only way to be sure they’d found and taken care of the culprit.
Ferdi had never seen a living fox before, but this creature reminded him more of a dog than anything else, for it had Merry by one shoulder, shaking him furiously. And then, horribly, it dropped the lad, dancing away, jaws parted in a silent laugh, and as Merry tried to crawl away it darted in to bite at him and jump away again.
Ferdi had seen one of the farm cats playing with a large rat, nearly of the cat’s size, in just this manner. Jump in, worry at the prey, jump out again, circle, find another hold, shake.
The fox was killing Merry!
And then, somehow it came to the young hobbit, what he must do. He could not cower, trembling, in this log, while the fox continued its deadly sport.
He dug frantically in his pockets for the pretties he’d picked up in the stream. Smooth and round they were, nicely weighty in the hand. Closing his fingers around one, he drew his hand up again, pulled himself half-out of the log, and then all the way out, dropped silently into a crouch. He was fully vulnerable now; the fox could not get at him in the safety of the log, but out here in the open... He was glad the fox was half-turned away.
Merry’s screams ceased suddenly, and he hung limp in the creature’s jaws. The fox laid him down on the ground and pawed at him, then opened its jaws to take its prize when...
A stone whizzed, catching the fox hard and painfully behind one shoulder, and it yelped, took a few steps away, seeking cover before turning for a brief survey of the danger.
It was only another baby hobbit, and not a threat at all!
Furious, growling, the fox advanced on the tiny figure, but instead of retreating in a panic, or falling to the ground, quaking in fear, the little one drew back its hand. Another stone flew, striking true, and the fox yelped again, shaking and pawing at its head, and when it raised its head it looked out of only one yellow eye.
‘Go ‘way!’ Ferdi shouted, digging out another stone.
The fox decided that retreat was the better part of valour, but it was not willing to relinquish fresh meat. It snarled and circled away, its brush tail thrust out at a stiff and angry angle, its glowing gaze fixed upon the stone-thrower.
Suddenly it darted in to seize Merry’s shoulder in its teeth, and growling it began to half-carry, half-drag the limp body away.
‘No you don’t!’ Ferdi shrieked, flinging another missile, which caught the fox square on the muzzle, making it drop its prize. ‘Go ‘way, and leave Merry alone!’ More stones followed, each one finding its mark, and at such short intervals that there was no question of turning and attacking the thrower.
Surely catching a rabbit would be easier than this! The fox turned tail and fled.
Ferdi stood clutching his last stone, his chest heaving. The fox was gone. Was it? Yes, it was gone. Limp with reaction, he let the stone fall at his feet and stumbled to Merry, incoherently entreating the older cousin to waken, to speak to him, to say something, anything!
Was that rustling noise the fox, returning? Ferdi snatched up two of the stones that lay on the mossy ground, having done their work. He stood to his feet, clenching the stones in his fists, turning slowly to survey his surroundings.
It wasn’t safe to stay here in the open. The fox might return at any time.
He couldn’t go for help and leave Merry here. The fox would come back and eat him, or drag him away to its den and eat him there. He couldn’t let the fox eat Merry!
As his gaze circled the little clearing, his eye fell once more on the hollow log. Yes! It had been their refuge before! Though the fox had waited outside to catch them, it hadn’t tried to get at them when they were in the log. The opening was too small.
He’d get Merry into the log again, somehow; shove him down, far down where the fox couldn’t get him, and then he’d climb out and gather up the stones once more, the marvellous pretties, gifts of the playful-but-treacherous stream--the fox had been playful-but-treacherous, too.
He realised that he was babbling aloud, and somehow he’d come to be sitting down beside Merry’s crumpled form, and there were fat tears rolling down his face. He shook himself. This would never do. He had to get Merry safely inside the log, and then he had to go for help. Michel Delving was just on the far side of this wood, Merry’d said. He’d go and find the Mayor, and bring back help. That’s what he’d do.
Wiping at his face with his sleeve, young Ferdi struggled to his feet and considered his older cousin. Merry was as big as himself--bigger, and he didn’t think he could carry him. He tried taking Merry’s hands and dragging him, but this made his cousin moan piteously.
At last he found he could roll Merry after a fashion, and so he rolled him across the mossy ground, toward the log. How he’d get him into the log, that was another matter, but he’d do it somehow. He’d walked halfway across the Shire, nearly to Michel Delving, after all, and he’d bested a ferocious predator.
Somehow getting Merry into the narrow opening and down the hollow shaft seemed child’s play by comparison.