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Chapter 1. Awakening
'Tolly!' The voice was close at hand, more of a hiss than a whisper, his younger brother's voice, he thought, and his dream turned to younger days, and he was being roused out of his bed for some kind of mischief or other.
'Le’ me sleep,' he moaned, and tried to lift his hands to pull the bedcovers over his head, though something resisted his efforts, and the movement scored his ribs with pain. What mischief had he done himself? A deep breath sent a knife into his ribs, and without conscious thought he adjusted his breathing. Shallow breaths, yes, that was a help. It didn't hurt half so much, though he had to breathe at a quicker rate to get enough air.
There was a rustling; he had an impression of movement nearby, of someone giving way to someone else, yes, for another voice murmured, 'Tolly! Tolibold, are you with us?' A hand touched his shoulder, giving a gentle squeeze before simply resting there.
' 'Twould be better if we could keep him awake,' he heard his older brother Mardi say from his other side. Mardi was using his healer's voice, which made Tolly wonder what hobbit had been injured. It began to dawn on him, as his dreaming burst slowly asunder and began retreating in shreds, that somehow all this bother concerned himself.
'Mardi?' he whispered.
'That’s it. Keep awake, Tolly-lad, mustn't sleep now,' Mardi said, still in healer's mien.
'What...?' Tolly said, lifting his head and striving to open his eyes.
'There now, lad,' came a soothing female voice, somewhat cracked with age and weariness, and a few strides away, he thought, not right beside him as had been through the dark hours, was it in his dream, or was it...?
...and memory came back in a flood: riding along the muddied track partway up one of the great Green Hills, the trees above them on the hillside bending as in a strong wind when there was no wind, the sudden realisation that the whole side of the hill was coming down, pulling his unstrung bow from the quiver to strike a sharp blow upon the rump of Mistress Eglantine's pony ahead of him, the path slipping away from under their galloping ponies, the sensation of falling forever, only to waken to worse nightmare...
Something touched his cheek and he jerked away, but his arms were pinned. 'No!' he cried.
'Tolly, lad,' someone said.
'The birds!' he whispered, and the Mistress spoke again.
'They're well gone, lad, well gone... Do you not remember? The Tooks, they've come, they've found us...!'
He opened his eyes fully, then, to the light of early morning, and saw that his arms were pinned, not by the bole of a great tree, but blankets, and he was surrounded by hobbits, a brother on either side and Thain Peregrin crouching at his head, gripping his shoulder in reassurance.
'Tolly,' Eglantine said again, and he turned his head, scanning the faces until he found her, sitting up on a blanket at a little distance, a mug of tea in her hands, though she was too busy with concern for him to be sipping at the steaming beverage. She, too, was mud smeared, wrapped in blankets, her wet and muddy hair plastered to her head, and yet she sat as regally erect as if she were at tea in the sitting room of the Thain's apartments. 'You swooned, lad, not that anyone could blame you, after the night you've had...'
'M-mistress?' he managed.
'There now,' someone said, Mardi, perhaps? Or perhaps it was the Thain. His head felt muddled, and no wonder. They'd spent the night on the hillside, in the cold and rain, himself half-crushed under a fallen tree and the Mistress by his side, holding onto him with hands and voice, for she'd promised not to leave him. No, she'd insisted on staying with him, even in the face of his telling her to make her way to safety, away from the landslip, to the more stable grassy ground beyond them, where the trail still stood. Some head of escort, you are, a voice in the back of his brain said bleakly. Struck helpless, and the Mistress protecting you from the carrion birds, rather than you watching over her as is your duty.
'Tolly? ' the Thain said again, his grip on Tolly’s shoulder firm, anchoring the head of escort to the present. 'Are you with us?'
'I'd like to know where else I'd be,' he muttered. At home in bed, preferably. Waking up next to his lovely Meadowsweet, brushing a wayward lock away from her forehead to lay a wakeup kiss there.
Mardi's tired face lit up in a smile. 'There's the lad,' he said. 'Stay with us, now.'
Tolly bit down on his reply. He remembered, too, his earlier wakening, from nightmare into deeper nightmare, the touch of cold steel on his leg as Mardi prepared to saw away. In the end the Mistress had stopped them, had not let them take his legs to save him, had ordered them to dig him free though every moment was fraught with the danger of more of the hillside coming down upon them all. His own brother... Somehow it felt like a betrayal.
He shivered as Mardi lifted the blankets away, that had been tucked so firmly around him that he'd not been able to move. 'You've cracked some ribs, Tolly,' he said. 'We'll need to bind them.'
He winced as Hilly and the Thain lifted him to a sitting position, for it gave not only his ribs a twinge, but his damaged leg as well. Hilly apologised under his breath. Pippin told him to be steady, as if he had much chance of anything else, held in place between them, while Mardi began wrapping a long strip of cloth around Tolly's torso, lending support to his labouring chest.
Mardi talked as he worked, a blend of reassurances and healer-talk, about how they'd have him home soon, they had a litter ready and any number of hobbits eager to bear him back to the Great Smials in fine style (and to Tolly's annoyance, Mardi chuckled at this bit of rhyme, and Hilly chaffed their older brother, hoping aloud he was a better healer than poet).
Tolly distracted himself by listening to other talk nearby. Aldi, the Thain's chief engineer in charge of digging, was talking about the lake that had formed below them when the hillside came down and blocked the Tuckbourn stream that ran through the valley all the way to Tuckborough, and beyond. They were calling it "Bilbo Lake" in jest, for as soon as they figured out how to let the water out without collapsing the earthen dam and sending down a flood, the lake would be disappearing and only the stream would be left to run its course through the valley.
The main difficulty now was that Eglantine refused to recline on a litter, to allow herself to be carried homeward, at least carried by hobbits. 'I can ride a pony,' she said staunchly. 'I've been riding since before any of you were born, and there's certainly no need to treat me as if I've been injured or incapacitated, when I'm perfectly well and whole!'
This, from an elderly hobbit covered head-to-toe with mud and soaked to the skin.
Aldi, of all hobbits, spoke up in her support, in the face of the other rescuers' sputtering protests. He was neither healer nor escort nor son of the hobbit in question, and this gained him perhaps some perspective in the matter. In addition, the sooner the rescued hobbits reached safety, the sooner he could be about his business, and he was nothing if not efficient.
'By all means,' he said, 'ride! I would that Tolly could ride as well. ...by any chance, can he?' This last was directed to Mardi, who had finished binding his younger brother's cracked ribs, and now turned his attentions to Tolly's injured leg.
'Out of the question,' Mardi said flatly, his eyes on the work of his hands.
'I'm well!' Tolly said with a wince. 'Completely well,' he insisted, and then grabbed at Mardi's sleeve. 'D'you have to wrap it so tight?' he said.
Mardi patted his brother on the shoulder. 'Let the healer do his work,' he said, meaning of course himself. He pulled the bandaging cloth tighter yet, wrapping in an intricate pattern to support the damaged leg, though he was careful not to cut off the flow of blood.
Ferdibrand, the Thain's special assistant (and the finest hobbit Tolly knew, as close as one of his brothers to his heart) rolled his eyes about the same time Tolly did, and then the two of them smiled a matching smile. Healers! Bad enough by themselves, but when one was a blood relation... Of course, Tolly could hardly demand a different healer, not, at least, until he got back to the Smials. Which was the topic under discussion, after all. The sooner he got back, the better.
Aldi shook his head. 'I don't like it,' he said. 'In all likelihood...'
Pippin took the hint. 'In all likelihood... what?'
Aldi swept a hand across the brightening landscape. 'Look at the footing -- treacherous for an able-bodied hobbit bearing only himself. Litter-bearers, now... one slip, and the Mistress, or poor Tolly, goes rolling down the hillside and into the lake!'
'Ponies can slip just as well,' Ferdi began, but Aldi held up a staying hand. Tolly noticed then, idly, that Ferdi was holding a steaming cup, just holding it, letting the good warmth go to waste. Perhaps he was simply too wrapped up in events to notice.
'They've twice as many feet, to keep them stable,' the engineer said.
'Twice as many feet to slip, that is,' Ferdi argued, but Pippin was considering, and not listening to further argument.
'You'll be home much faster, and out of danger of the flood that might come down,' he said slowly.
'I'm all for that,' put in Tolly, sitting up straighter from where he sat propped against Hilly, though he grimaced in pain and spoiled the effect he meant to give.
Mardi hushed him and told him to drink his tea.
Tolly frowned in answer, but he was shivering, to be sure, and all could see it except perhaps himself. I would, if I had any. He'd had a cup in his hands, or thought he'd had; he'd begun to drink from it, even, though he had no idea what had happened to the cup in the meantime. If I had any, I would... But it seemed too much trouble to say so. A mist was gathering before his eyes, and sleep beckoned, despite Mardi's insistence on his staying awake.
'Yes, drink your tea,' Eglantine said, gulping at her own cup for good measure. 'Drink it whilst it's hot, there's a good lad.' Ferdi gave a start at that, and reached to place his cup in Tolly's hands. Evidently it had been Tolly's cup all along, only Tolly'd not been aware of it, and Ferdi had for the moment forgotten.
Since it was a direct order from the Mistress, he swallowed the contents of his mug in a series of steady gulps, and the warmth went down and spread through his chilled innards and brought him once more to alertness. 'There,' he said. 'I did drink, I drank, I have drunk. Bring on the ponies!'
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