Orc Sign

by Auntkimby
I   II   III

Chapter 1: The Message

March 5th, 1422, daybreak.

Meriadoc Brandybuck looked grimly at the note in his hands. Orcs had been sighted near the borders close to the village of East Sarn Ford. A messenger had come from Brandy Hall before daybreak and pounded on the door of the house at Crickhollow, rousing Merry from the first sound sleep he had had all week. Pippin’s nightmares had returned after nearly two months’ respite, horrid occurrences that left him soaked with sweat and screaming with terror over dreams he seldom could recall in any detail.

Each time, Merry comforted him with soft, soothing words and lay beside him on the bed with Pippin’s head buried in his shoulder and his arms wrapped around his younger cousin, as he had done so often when Pippin was a small child. Not that Merry grudged him that. There had been many nights when Pippin had to do the same for him…and for the same reason.

Their experiences during the Ring War had left their cruel mark upon these two young hobbits of the Shire, and it was the primary reason that they remained together at Crickhollow three years after their return home. On the surface, Merry and Pippin were the same hobbits they had always been, and even more fair-spoken and amicable, but the scars on their hearts and minds ran deep and their loved ones could not begin to understand the effects their experiences had had upon them. Both had seen unimaginable violence and horror, and both had seen death - and inflicted it as well. Merry had been touched by the Black Breath three times, and unbeknownst even to Pippin, he and the Lady Eowyn maintained a private correspondence as they attempted to help each other deal with the pain and aftereffects they continued to suffer from their mutual brush with it.

Today was March the 5th…three years to the day since Pippin had looked into the Palantir and had his mind virtually raped by Sauron. No wonder his nightmares had returned, Merry thought with a tightening in his throat. It was the day Pippin’s innocence had truly ended, and while he had successfully kept his knowledge of Frodo and the Ring from the Dark Lord, he had been touched by a terrible evil and it had affected him as profoundly as the Black Breath had affected Merry.

However, the message on that note was a nightmare all its own, and one from which they could not waken.

“What is it, Merry?”

Without taking his eyes from the note, Merry spoke almost absently, “You should be asleep, Pippin.”

“I was,” his cousin returned with a yawn as he tightened the belt on his dressing gown, ‘but not any more. What was all that clamor at the door about, and at this hour?” He leaned over Merry’s shoulder with companionable curiosity at the paper in his cousin’s hands, and Merry automatically reached up and rumpled his hair.

“Is it a message?” Pippin queried.

Merry passed the note to him. “From my father,” he said quietly. Orcs, Pippin. The Rangers have been shadowing them for some time, and two rode from their main camp to Brandy Hall to warn us once the orcs’ destination became clear. A Ranger went to Sarn Ford as well, to send a messenger to alert your father. They are not traveling quickly, but they are far too close for comfort, and there are far too many for the Rangers to handle alone.”

All traces of sleepiness fled from Pippin’s face as he read the note. “Orcs?” he whispered, “East Sarn Ford is barely 70 miles from Brandy Hall. I-I thought that they were destroyed in Mordor when…when…S..S…Sauron fell.”

“The ones in Mordor were destroyed, Pippin. These are probably orcs from the Misty Mountains, or more likely Moria.”

“But what are they doing this far north?” Pippin protested. “I thought that the King’s men…”

“The orcs have been fleeing from King Elessar’s men for a long time, and they could not possibly capture and kill them all. There were thousands of them, scattered over hundreds of miles.”

Pippin sat down. “Well, this is not good news,” he finally said wryly. “I don’t suppose they got a head count?”

Merry’s mouth quirked up in a smile. “I don’t think anyone wanted to get close enough for a completely accurate accounting, Pip-lad, but they estimated 300 at the least.”

Pippin sighed. “Barely six months ago, we stood at the Havens and watched as Frodo left us forever. Now we are faced with another reminder of things we would rather forget. However,” he looked at Merry with determination in his hazel eyes, “the sooner we get rid of them, the sooner we can attempt to forget about them, again.” Merry felt a surge of pride at Pippin’s courageous words, for he knew what it cost Pippin to speak them at this time.

“Then we cannot delay another moment.” Merry moved swiftly toward his bedroom to get dressed. “I’m afraid it must be a hasty breakfast, dear Cousin, but we must eat something, else it will be difficult for our fellow hobbits to hear the call to action over our growling stomachs.”

“You will sound the Horn, then?” Pippin asked.

“The orcs are nearing our borders, Pip, and we Bucklanders can get to East Sarn Ford before the rest of the Shire can muster. First we will ride to the Hall to meet with my father and the Rangers, and then you ride for the Smials. Your father was asked to send word to the Mayor as well. All hobbits up to age 50 who fought at Bywater and are able to report to active duty once more, and any who came of age in the two years since the Scouring and who are able-bodied should be assembled at Sarn Ford by weeks’ end. We Bucklanders should get there by day after tomorrow and we will hold them off as best we can should they reach the border before you arrive. At best, we have five days to get everyone to East Sarn Ford. Once again I need you to bring me an army of Tooks.”

Pippin said quietly, thoughtfully, “Merry…these aren’t ruffians. None of these other hobbits, save for Sam, have dealt with orcs before. They do not lack the courage, but they do lack experience, and there is no time for us to train them properly.”

Merry smiled grimly. “It is fortunate for us then that there are at least two Rangers nearer to us than the orcs. They are waiting with my father at Brandy Hall. Hurry, Pippin, we cannot linger.”

“’Ere, now, put ‘at down!” Plugley snapped, “You've had mor'n yer share!” He turned so his glower included the troop of cringing culprits behind Fluknugt. “You all oughta be the next meal, for drawin’ attention to us by killin’ those cows. You just couldn’t wait until the scouts returned with a report, could ya? The Men can hardly miss ten cows an’ a cowherd now, can they? We didn’t come all this way to be turned back when we’re this close to the land of plenty.”

He glowered down at Fluknugt, who cowered and offered a mouthful of rotted teeth in what he hoped was a placating smile. “Just a bit of fresh meat, Plugley, that’s all we wanted. It’s been weeks since we last ‘ad any an’ it was right there, beggin’ to be eaten!”

“You’re beggin’ to be eaten!” Plugley roared, and a few orcs close by that had missed out on the cows and the cowherd looked up with grim anticipation. “Yet I can’t spare you, because while those Shire rats are small, they fight hard, an’ we’ll need all of us that are left to subdue them. An’ once we do, we’ll never lack for fresh meat again.” He displayed his own fearsome teeth in a grin.

“How far are we now?” Frigglim called out. “We’ve been walkin’ for days an’ days.”

“Less than 100 miles,” Plugley said with certainty, “from what that ‘ruffian’ told us before we relieved him of the burden of living.”

Frigglim muttered to his companion, “An’ this was the one what had us walkin’ in circles our first two weeks after we left the caves.”

“Wot was that?” Plugley growled, and his underlings hastily scuttled out of reach.

Plugley gazed off to the north. “Another three or four days, an’ we’ll be close enough to smell their cookin’ fires. And then…” his lips curled in a sinister grin, “to hear their screams for mercy. Aye, we'll eat well then, lads!”

He glared then, and looked back at Fluknugt. “The scouts oughta been back by now,” he growled. “Hope they aren’t as stupid as the rest of you, stealin’ cows an’ drawin’ attention to themselves what we don’t need. Let’s move out, now…we still got a long way to go.”

Pippin galloped along every shortcut he knew through the Green Hill Country, thankfully leaving behind the ill weather that had been blowing up in Buckland. He rode like the wind, bending low over his pony Fleet’s neck and urging him to greater speed. Fleet was a specially bred pony, a gift from King Eomer of Rohan, and brother to Merry's pony, Starlight. Fleet’s sire was a horse and his dam a pony, a union that produced a steed the perfect size for a hobbit who was a bit too short to comfortably ride a horse, and yet too tall for a Shire pony. Fleet was nearly as fast as a full-grown horse, however, and Pippin’s best hope for reaching the Smials by daybreak. He paused briefly twice to rest Fleet, and to eat the bread, cheese, and dried fruit his Aunt Esmeralda had hastily packed and insisted he take before he rode out. With any luck, his father would already have summoned the sturdy hobbits who had served so well under Pippin barely two years earlier, and would have sent riders to the neighboring farms and villages to request more help. It would still leave Pippin precious little time to organize them and get them to Sarn Ford in time to cross the River to East Sarn Ford and prevent the orcs from crossing the border into the South Farthing.

The lamps were burning in all of the windows as he rode up to the Great Smials an hour before dawn. Pippin was startled and gratified to find not only his father and brothers-in-law waiting with the assembled “Ruffian Routers”, as they proudly called themselves, but also Samwise Gamgee, the Cotton lads, and two dozen other Bywater veterans.

“How did you get here so quickly?” Pippin exclaimed to Sam as he dismounted and embraced his kin and then his friends.

“We’ve only been here a short while ourselves, Pippin-lad,” Sam told him. “The rider came from the Thain yesterday afternoon with a message for the Mayor, but he was off in Michel Delving an’ there was no time to fetch him to sound the alarm. Tom an’ Nibs an’ I sent out the call instead as we were at the top of the company roll, and we were on our way here with those as we could gather quickly enough by suppertime. We took enough time to sharpen our blades an’ make sure the arrows were properly fletched an’ all, but we make it a point to be prepared.”

Pippin raised his eyebrows. “You expected orcs to come to the Shire?”

Sam smiled a little sadly. “It was somethin’ Frodo an’ I discussed before he left,” he admitted. “He worried about it, an’ it was he who suggested that we keep a group outfitted an’ ready just in case it should ever happen. There were plenty of orcs who didn’t meet their end at Helm's Deep or Mordor, an’ it might have taken them a while to find out they were licked an’ without a leader. Frodo feared that eventually they would learn of the Shire an’ make their way here to take advantage of the bounty, as it were.”

Paladin Took nodded in agreement. “Frodo wrote to me as well, a month before he left, so when we received the Rangers’ warning it was not so great a shock as it otherwise might have been. However, life under Lotho and the ruffians is not so far removed from our minds that we would stand down completely in any event.”

Pippin put a hand on his father’s shoulder. “I only hope I should be half the leader that you are, Da,” he said softly.

Paladin smiled at his son. “You’ll be thrice the Thain I am, lad; you’ve already proved your worthiness to us, and to Gondor. I had a letter from Prince Faramir not a month ago, in answer to my request to purchase some seedlings of that strain of hothouse peaches that you suggested we import from Ithilien. I offered payment in advance but the prince wrote to me that my word is more than enough for him, as he knows from his friendship with my son that we hold our oaths to be our bond. He told me how you rescued him from his poor father’s pyre, and how much you are revered and honoured by him and the citizens of Gondor for your brave deeds. I never knew that, son.”

The hurt in his father’s voice brought a lump to Pippin’s throat. “There are some things I still cannot speak of, Father, because it is still hard to comprehend they ever happened,” he managed. “And the cost of that honour is still too high for me to fathom, and never to boast of.”

Before Paladin could speak, Sam interrupted quietly, “Beggin’ your pardon, Thain Paladin, but I think Mr. Pippin is tired an’ hungry, and he’ll need a quick bite before we ride for the ford.” He knew Pippin’s continued residence at Crickhollow was a painful subject for the Thain and his son, but Sam understood why Pippin and Merry remained there, and he spoke to save his dear friend further explanation of things he could not bear to voice.

By eight o’clock that morning, 100 hobbits rode out of Tuckborough by the South Road, and as they passed other farms and villages on the way 80 more hobbits joined them, not as well equipped or trained but as eager to defend their homes and loved ones as the veterans. The little lads ran after them, wishing they could go, but settling for calling out encouragement and cheers, and the lasses and their mothers threw flowers in their path. It reminded Pippin of the people of Minas Tirith as they lay flowers before Faramir and his men as they rode out of the city, before Faramir’s wounding and near death at the hands of his own father. He swallowed away the lump that formed in his throat and sat up straight, tall in his saddle, and faced forward, toward the muster in Sarn Ford.

Before Pippin departed for the Smials, he and Merry had ridden to Brandy Hall to meet with the Rangers and Saradoc; the three awaited them at the main entrance of the Hall.

“It’s Einon and Ioan,” Merry observed with pleasure. “It has been a long while since we last saw them.”

Merry and Pippin dismounted and approached them, and the two Rangers bowed deeply to them. A slight flush stained the cousins’ faces as they bowed slightly in courteous acknowledgement of their respect. Saradoc Brandybuck witnessed this with a mixture of astonishment, pleasure, and curiosity. There is much that my son and nephew have not told any of us about what transpired during their absence, he thought with both sorrow and pride, for these noble Rangers to show such deference and respect toward them.

“I see you have already met my father,” Merry said, the love and pride vibrant in his voice as he strode quickly to Saradoc Brandybuck’s side. The son stood several inches taller than his father did, but it was obvious to the Rangers that Saradoc Brandybuck towered above all others in Merry’s regard.

“It is good to see you again, Sir Meriadoc, Knight of Rohan, and Sir Peregrin, Knight of Gondor,” Ioan said, “though I wish it had been under happier circumstances. We regret that we allowed the orcs to travel even this far without warning you.”

“You have no cause for regret,” Saradoc spoke earnestly, “for there are so few of you, and many thousands of orcs. My son has told me that the Rangers have been faithful guardians of our borders for many years, and you have only our gratitude, not our censure.”

“Without clear direction or guidance, the orcs of Moria and the Misty Mountains have been meandering aimlessly and we have been able to kill many hundreds of them, as have King Elessar’s soldiers. However, the leader of this group seems to be brighter and better organized than most of his fellow orcs, and I fear we underestimated him. We know that they encountered a fleeing ruffian outside Hollin, and may have heard of your homeland and all it had to offer before they dined upon him…we found the skeleton days afterward, and guessed him to be one of Saruman's minion's by the crumbs of high quality Longbottom Leaf in his pouch. Then we discovered the orcs’ course had turned north toward your borders. By the time we caught up to them, they were within one hundred fifty miles of the Shire, and that is when Einon and I were dispatched to warn you.”

“I ride for the Smials to bring a mounted company of hobbits trained to fight, and some that have come of age in the two years since who are able and willing,” Pippin told them. “Thanks to your timely messenger, my father should have the company assembled when I arrive.”

“There are also 50 of our own at Brandy Hall who have had training and are prepared to defend our homeland, and the rest are farmers and traders, but still willing.” Merry paused. “However, none of them have ever fought orcs, save for me, Pippin, and our friend Samwise Gamgee of Hobbiton.”

“Samwise Gamgee!” Ioan exclaimed with a glad smile. “He is well, then? He too is greatly revered among our people.”

“He is married, and he and his wife Rosie have a beautiful daughter, Elanor, one year old this month,” Pippin told him with an answering smile. “However, I have no doubt that when I reach the Smials, Sam will be first in line waiting to ride with me to the muster.”

Merry nodded in agreement, then said solemnly, “However, no matter how brave or willing or experienced the others are, they will be hard pressed to defend themselves against creatures that were created to destroy and have years of combat experience and who care so little for their own lives. We will need your help as well, if you will aid us, in the little time that we will have to prepare. If all goes well, Pippin will meet us at Sarn Ford in five days…which will leave those of us arriving earlier only two days to prepare to meet the enemy.”

“Yet you and your hobbits have something that the orcs lack,” Ioan returned warmly, “and that is true courage and the desire to protect who and what is yours. We will do all that we can to help.”

“Then we must hurry,” Merry said. “There is no time to spare. We will transport our 50 trained defenders and their mounts by the River barges to reach East Sarn Ford more quickly, and my father will follow on land with the rest, though it will take them longer as they must ride around the Overbourn Marshes.”

“We shall go with you,” Einon said, and put his hand to his sword. “I will accompany Sir Meriadoc on the river, and Ioan shall go with Master Saradoc. It will be our honour to draw swords with you.”

Saradoc turned to Pippin. “Your aunt has some food packed for you, nephew. Fare you well on your journey, and we shall meet you in Sarn Ford in five days’ time.”

Pippin returned with the food a few minutes later and started to mount his pony, but Merry stopped him and put a hand on his arm. Saradoc and the Rangers quietly moved away, to give the cousins a moment alone.

Merry and Pippin could not speak as they each gazed at the other’s dearly-loved face for a long moment, but their eyes spoke volumes to each other. They exchanged a brief, fierce embrace, and Merry spoke huskily, “I will see you in Sarn Ford. Fare you well, my Pip.”

“And you, Merry,” Pippin gulped, and then mounted Fleet and rode away. It mattered to neither that this parting had taken place in their beloved homeland; it tore their hearts apart as surely as the partings in Rohan and in Minas Tirith, and the fear of losing the other to battle and death was just as great.

Thain Paladin Took rode at the head of the column of mounted hobbits, and Pippin deferentially rode a few paces behind him. He worried about his elderly father being present in any action, though he understood why he would want to be there to lead his people no matter what the danger to himself. At eighty-nine years old, Paladin Took was still in relatively good health, though he had never quite recovered from the physical strain caused by the grief and worry over Pippin the year he was gone, and the trouble with Lotho and his ruffians. The elderly Thain had stubbornly refused to stay behind, making it clear he was still quite capable of leading his Tooks, though he wisely and necessarily deferred to Pippin in the matter of mustering out and organizing the companies of defenders and the march to Sarn Ford. Concerned though he was for his father’s safety, Pippin felt his heart swell with love and pride as he watched Paladin ride, his white-haired head held high and his spine straight.

“Mind if I ride with you a bit, Pippin?” Sam asked as he cantered alongside him on his faithful pony, Bill.

“I would be glad of your company, Sam,” Pippin returned warmly, and he and Sam dropped out of line and rode off to the side so as to have a private conversation.

“I had hoped that I would never see another orc in my lifetime,” Sam commented.

“Merry and I were scarcely overjoyed either,” Pippin agreed. “We spent enough time in their amiable company to last us a lifetime as well, though you certainly had the worst of it.”

“No, it was Frodo who had the worst of it,” Sam said softly, and Pippin reached over and squeezed his arm. “Don’t worry, Sam, I’ll not let you be in the thick of it. Should you come back with so much as a scratch, your Rose will be after me with more fury than ten thousand orcs.”

Sam looked at the younger hobbit with affection. “That’s good of you, Pippin-lad, but I’d say she’d be just as furious at me if I let either you or Merry come back with so much as a scratch. She’s quite fond of you two, is my Rose, and we both miss your visits, an’ Elanor-lass is growin’ so fast you’ll barely recognize her. You’re both still welcome at Bag End, you know; never too soon, an’ never too often.”

Pippin swallowed. “Thank you, Sam. We will visit soon, and that is a promise.”

“It knows they are not far away,” Sam said, somewhat irrelevantly.

Pippin glanced at him with puzzlement, and then noticed for the first time that Sam
carried Sting, partly concealed beneath his elven cloak.

“I’m glad you’re coming with us, Sam,” Pippin said quietly.

“I’ve a wife and child that I never want to lay eyes on an orc,” Sam declared, ‘and they never will.’

Paladin Took reined his pony around and trotted back to his son’s side. “It’s growing late, son, and our companions are exhausted; we need to stop for a real meal and a few hours’ rest.”

Pippin nodded. “I agree. We shall camp for the night near Gamwich, but we need to be on our way at first light.”

As he and Sam dismounted half an hour later, Pippin said with a grin, “This reminds me of our days traveling with King Elessar, when he was still just Strider to us. He used to make us get up and move out so early, do you remember?”

“Aye,” Sam returned the grin. “Even Mr. Frodo once said of Strider that ‘we leave tomorrow morning’ really meant ‘one minute past midnight.’” He looked at Pippin with pride as he said, “Hard to believe that the tweenager that was last out of his bedroll at daybreak scarcely three years ago will be the one rousin’ everyone else out of their beds at daybreak instead an’ settin’ them on the march.”

Pippin laughed. “However, I still am no fonder of rising early now as I was then, only perhaps a bit quicker about it.”

Soon campfires were burning and tents pitched in the field where they chose to make camp, and while supper was cooking, Pippin rode a mile out from the others and looked to the southeast. Sarn Ford was still two full day’s march away across the Red Downs, and Pippin fervently hoped that they would not arrive too late.


Chapter 2

Once Pippin had departed, the Rangers, Saradoc, and Merry rode through a steady grey drizzle down to the docks. There they found Merry’s cousin Amarac waiting to greet them along with the 50 grim-faced Bucklanders that comprised the trained homeland defense, fully armed with arrows and knives, and their mounts packed to travel quickly. In addition to Merry's own company there were perhaps 50 more hobbits from the neighboring villages.

“Along with our 50 Defenders, Todo Danderfluff and Marroc Bramble of Newbury are here with their band, as well as Dimple Goodbody of Stock and Falco Hamwich of Buckleberry Fern with their company. The barges are prepared as well.”

“The Rangers are accompanying us,” Merry told him, “and they will give us what aid that they can. The orcs spotted near East Sarn Ford were almost certainly scouts; the larger group of 300 is still hopefully several days’ journey on foot from the borders, which gives us a bit more time than we originally thought. Pippin and his band should join us in Sarn Ford by weeks’ end, but we may have to engage the orcs before the Tooks and a few other Rangers from their main camp can arrive to assist.”

Amarac paled. “Cousin, we cannot face 300 orcs with only 100 hobbits.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Merry’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “Have you ever seen an orc, Amarac?”

“No, I haven’t, but…”

“Then how do you know that we cannot face them? I know for a fact that they are superior to us in size, and in weaponry, but certainly not in intelligence and wit…and that is what we must use along with our bows to contain them until reinforcements arrive.”

“I still do not like the odds,” Amarac said with a sigh, “but I am right beside you, Cousin.”

Merry embraced him quickly. “I never doubted, lad,” he said softly.

Saradoc said quietly, “We are waiting for your word, son. I am the Master here, but you are their Captain…and mine as well.”

Merry started to speak, but Saradoc interrupted, “I saw the respect the Rangers accorded to you, Meriadoc, and to Peregrin, and while you have not yet chosen to share all your experiences with me, I know there must be an excellent reason for such valiant men to show you such esteem, and that you must have proved yourself in their eyes as a worthy fighter, and true friend to the King.”

Merry gazed at his father for a long moment, his heart too full for speech, but he quickly recovered himself and turned to face the band of hobbits watching him expectantly.

“The companies from Newbury, Stock and Buckleberry Fern will go with my father and Ranger Ioan overland; the rest of you will accompany me and Einon downriver on the barges to Sarn Ford. Regrettably, we lack enough barges to ferry everyone downriver at the same time so the rest of you must ride. My cousin Peregrin Took and his band of hobbits will join us as soon as they are able.” Merry raised a fist in the air. “We shall give these orcs a greeting they shall not soon forget!” he shouted.

An answering cheer greeted his words, and Merry mounted Starlight as his father rode up beside him and the companies moved into formation behind their respective leaders.

Saradoc and Merry gripped each other’s hands hard.

His father was 82, and not as hale as he once was…

I love you, Father. I could not bear it if I lost you this way. It would be like losing Théoden all over again…but even more devastating.

“We shall meet in three days,” Merry said simply. “I should arrive in Sarn Ford one day ahead, and let us hope the coming rain does not hamper our journeys.”

Saradoc nodded. “Have a safe voyage, son.”

I love you, son. I only just got you back and now I face losing you again.

“Fare you well, Father,” Merry spoke softly.

“And you as well, Merry-lad.”

Each then turned and rode off at the head of his group into the stormy afternoon without looking back.

The first afternoon Merry and his band had covered only 20 or so of the more than 70-mile journey down the winding Brandywine. The rain that had begun to fall as they loaded the barges had only intensified and was descending in relentless sheets driven by an equally relentless wind. The Brandywine was rising, and the swirling, muddied waters heaving beneath the barges were having an unsettling effect on the ponies, which whinnied fearfully as their hooves slipped on the wet boards beneath them. Their masters spoke to them soothingly, trying to calm them, and Merry looked back over his shoulder from the lead boat, frustration and resignation in his face.

“We’ll have to stop soon,” Merry told Einon. “In another hour it will be completely dark, and we cannot light the torches in this weather, or even remain on the River when it is in this condition. We are all experienced with navigating the River, but our ponies are not capable of retaining their balance on a storm tossed barge, and there is likely debris in the water that could cause us to come to grief in the dark. In all of our planning, I did not stop to consider the spring rains. We have little enough time without this additional complication but I cannot risk continuing further tonight.”

“You cannot blame yourself for the weather, Sir Meriadoc,” Einon said gently. “We can only hope that the orcs are traveling even more slowly in this weather than we are. You show great wisdom in deciding to stop for the night despite the need for haste.” Merry managed a smile before he signaled to the others to tie up at the next safe place.

Half an hour later, the Bucklanders made camp under an immense shelter of trees. The majestic old beeches’ intertwining branches were so thick that the ground beneath them was only slightly damp and the rain sufficiently blocked so they could build campfires and prepare their suppers. Merry hoped his father had found a spot more suitable for the night, that he and his companions were warm and dry….and that they had made much better time than his own group had so far.

“If the rain stops, we should make Sarn Ford by late morning the day after tomorrow,” Merry told Einon as they sat beside their campfire. “My father will meet us the day after, and Pippin hopefully by nightfall the following day. If the rain stops,” he repeated with a sigh.

“And if the river remains navigable,” Einon added. He paused. “There is always a danger though with this weather that we might be forced to abandon the barges. What if Sir Peregrin should arrive before us, and the orcs attack? Do you feel that your cousin is as able to lead an action as you are?” He asked the question without rancor.

Merry stared down into his bowl of stew. “I have every faith in my cousin’s ability to lead,” he said softly and honestly. “Even so, I do not want him to have to do so. We must cross the ford together.” He said no more, and Einon did not press him. He could see by the look in the young hobbit's eyes that further questioning would not only be discouraged, but also considered an unwelcome intrusion into private matters.

They had left Gamwich before dawn, 7 sturdy local farmers having joined their band. Pippin pulled the hood of his cloak over his head a bit more snugly, and winced as he looked up at the grey sky spattering rain upon his face. It must be noon, but there was no way of knowing. They hadn't had so much as a glimpse of sun this day. The ground was thick, sludgy mud under the ponies’ hooves, and the company had covered perhaps 15 miles across the Red Downs since daybreak in the downpour.

“It’s been raining non-stop since midnight,” he muttered, “and it’s getting harder to move quickly in this muck. I hope it's not still raining on the River. If the Brandywine is too choppy, then it will be difficult and dangerous for Merry with his 50 and their ponies. They should have departed not long after I left for the Smials, and would have arrived in Sarn Ford this morning, if all went well.”

Beside him, Sam sighed in response. “Not only will I have to face orcs once more, you’re going to make me cross the River again, aren’t you?”

Pippin laughed. “Well, I can only promise you that there will be just the one. No rivers between here and Sarn Ford, but I'm sorry Sam, we’ll have to cross the Brandywine once we reach there. Cutting across the Downs saves us nearly 60 miles,
and then we will hit a road that will take us the last 25 miles to Sarn Ford. If all goes well we should be there by teatime on Thursday, which is much sooner than Merry hoped for.”

Sam looked sober. “It's hard going across country, but you are right to risk it. You've saved us nearly two days’ ride by going this way. But what if they have to meet them before we can get there, Pippin? Merry might not even be able to wait for his father to get there, if they were already so close two days ago.”

Pippin shook his head. “The orcs sighted near East Sarn Ford were scouts, the Rangers told us; the larger body of orcs was nearly 100 miles further south. So, that purchases us a day or two more, else we would have been hard pressed to stop them from invading our borders.”

“Well, that’s something, anyway.”

Pippin’s breath rattled in his chest, and he drew his cloak tighter as he tried to cough discreetly to avoid alarming his father. Sam could not miss it, however.

“You aren’t getting sick, are you lad?” the older hobbit asked. “I don’t like the sound of that cough.”

Pippin waved a hand. “This always happens when the air is chill and damp, remember? I’m all right, Sam. Besides, I cannot get sick until this is over. Once we defeat the orcs, then I can tuck myself into bed and have Merry pour athelas tea and broth down my throat to his heart’s content.” He tried to speak lightly, but there was a tiny thread of emotion in his voice that Sam could not quite define. He looked at his companion uneasily, more concerned for Pippin’s edgy, distracted demeanour than the cough. The young Took was one of the most courageous hobbits that Sam knew, but the approaching confrontation was having an unsettling effect upon him.

“Pippin-lad,” Sam said softly, using his friend’s childhood nickname. “Is there somethin’ else troublin’ you besides the damp air?”

Pippin hesitated, and then looked into Sam’s honest, round face watching him with love and concern.

“Frodo wasn’t the only one to have anniversaries, Sam,” he finally said, looking down at his hands tightly gripping the reins. Sam waited for him to speak.

For the first time, Pippin told Sam - or anyone else remaining in Middle-earth besides Merry and Aragorn - about the mental agony he had suffered in those awful moments when he looked into the Palantir, and the nightmares that continued to haunt him each year around that time.

“The Dark Lord was in my head, Sam. He tried to get me to tell him about Frodo and the Ring, but I didn’t…He…He hurt me terribly, but I didn't tell…it was March the 5th when that happened…” His voice trailed away.

Tears sprang to Sam’s eyes. “Oh, Pip-lad, how awful. No wonder this is affecting you so.”

“I’m not afraid of the orcs, Sam, but even thinking about them brings back too many painful memories of events that are as fresh as if they occurred yesterday. Of all times for this to happen…” Pippin looked at him. “I’m worried about Merry too. He has an anniversary of his own coming up…” He shook his head, coughed again, and then nudged his pony’s sides to prod him into a canter. He rode down the lines calling encouragement to the soggy hobbits on their miserably wet, plodding ponies. Sam watched him go, wishing there was something he could do to encourage and cheer Pippin.

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Sam promised himself, “an’ make sure he isn’t alone just when he doesn’t need to be.”

The orcs were even wetter, muddier, and more aggravated than the hobbits. Plugley and his orcs had regrouped on the South Downs forty miles from East Sarn Ford with their scouts, who were currently receiving both a tongue-lashing and a physical beating from their leader.

“Wot were you idiots doing, to draw so much attention!” Plugley roared. “You ‘eard horn calls you say, so that means they know we’re comin’. We won't get there till tomorrow sometime at the earliest an’ by then they’ll be ready to meet us.”

Urghlakt shrank down under Plugley’s blows. “We didn’t do anything, Plugley! We were spotted by one of the men-children, is all, an’ they must have told someone! We got back as fast as we could, but they’d already started soundin’ the horns before we even got out of sight.”

“We can still get there before they get set, Plugley,” Follarg insisted. “Those Shire rats are too small to be much trouble and there ain't that many of 'em in that little place.”

“Don’t count on that,” Plugley said grimly. “I ‘eard stories about them, ‘specially the one at Cirith Ungol. He killed at least four of us from what I 'eard, an’ fought a monstrous giant spider to get to the Tower at all. An' Dishgrob there fought some in the Mines, and look at 'im, he ain't never been the same. He weren't never much to look at but at least he 'ad both eyes and two hands. If they all can fight like that, we’ll need to get there afore they get set. Now stop sniveling an’ let’s move.”

The rain finally ceased an hour before sunset, and the grey clouds were chased away by a deepening purple sky pierced by thousands of twinkling stars. Pippin and his company camped for what they hoped would be the final night in the midst of the Downs. Everything was wet and cold and cheerless, and it was almost impossible to get any fire to burn. Pippin’s cough grew steadily worse, and his worried father and brothers-in-law urged him to return home with an escort. He stared at them disbelievingly. “You know I cannot do that. War does not stop because one soldier has a little cold. No one else here has any experience fighting the orcs, save for Sam, and I must be there in case Merry is delayed and Uncle Saradoc’s company is …” Another coughing fit wracked his chest and kept him from finishing the sentence.

“Peregrin, for heaven’s sake,” Paladin said brokenly and reached for him. Pippin shook his head and pulled away. “I’m all right, Father. Please go on to bed. I’ll be all right.”

Previously unnoticed by the Tooks, Sam was waiting with a blanket that he draped around Pippin’s shoulders.

“I’ll see to Pippin, Thain Paladin,” Sam said gently. “You need your rest for the morrow. We've a very long ride ahead of us.”

“And what can you do for him, Samwise Gamgee, that his family cannot?” Paladin demanded. “It’s bad enough that he refuses to live at home, but now he will accept your help before ours…”

“Da,” Largo Goodbody, Pervinca’s husband, spoke softly as he put his hands on his father-in-law’s shoulders. “Let’s go…it’s all right.”

The sons-in-law led the elderly hobbit to his tent, and Sam guided Pippin into his and made him comfortable.

“Now you just lie still, Pippin-lad, an’ I’ll fix you some tea and a poultice for your chest to help that cough.”

Despite his mental and physical pain, Pippin managed a chuckle. “You just happened to have both things with you, Sam?”

“You know me, lad; I even packed salt on our little journey into Mordor in case we happened to have roast chicken. I wouldn’t go into a confrontation with orcs without bringin’ a few things to patch up hobbits that might need it…especially a certain Took with weak lungs. Now you lie still- I’ll be right back.”

By the time Sam returned with the tea and the poultice, Pippin was asleep. However, it was not the deep, innocent sleep of a tween that Sam remembered; his hands trembled as they clutched at the blanket, occasional tremors shook his body, and his eyes moved restlessly beneath the closed lids. Sam gently pulled the blanket aside and raised Pippin’s shirt to place the poultice on his chest. A whimper issued from Pippin, and then the words “I see a white tree….burning….he’s burning…no, I won’t tell…I won’t tell….MERRY!” his eyes flew open, unseeing, as he cried out in anguish and thrashed his arms, one hand striking Sam’s face. “No, I won’t tell you! I’ll never tell you! I’ll…”

Sam gathered him in his arms and stroked his hair, crooning soft words of comfort to quiet the sobbing tweenager. A wrinkled hand jerked open the tent flap, and a terrified Paladin Took stared inside. “Samwise…what is wrong with my son?”

Sam held Pippin tighter; the younger hobbit had gone limp in his arms, eyes now closed and still asleep though he continued trembling and whimpering words of remembered horror and pain. With tears in his eyes, Sam whispered, “This is why your son doesn’t live at home, Mr. Paladin an' why he needs Merry with him. He never wanted you to see this. He needs to be with someone who knows what he’s goin’ through…an’ who can help him till the nightmares stop, an' Merry needs the same.”

Wordlessly, Paladin knelt beside them, and reached out his arms for his son. Sam gently surrendered Pippin to the father’s embrace, and the elderly Thain cradled his lad against his chest and rocked him as his tears fell upon the tousled curls.

Despite the continuing heavy rains, Merry and his company had reached Sarn Ford Wednesday morning, and were greeted with palpable relief by the hobbits who lived there. The atmosphere was fraught with tension and fear; the residents of Sarn Ford went about their business quickly and silently, with many worried glances toward East Sarn Ford, just 200 yards across the River. Bingo Boffin, Sarn Ford’s chief landowner and highly regarded by the residents, welcomed Merry, Amarac, and Einon as they rode into the village. After the introductions, he spoke to the Ranger first. “Five of your fellow Rangers are just across the River, Sir Einon. Two others were sent to replace you and Sir Ioan on the border guard, and three more yet to the north to protect the borders of the Old Forest, should any of these…orcs evade us on the other side of the River.”

He turned to Merry. “It's bad timing for something like this to happen Sir, if ever there could be said to be a good time. Most of the able bodied hobbits from here and across the River are shipboard, 10 days downriver on the Far Downs spring supply run to Cottonbottom. But we have 36 ready and willing to fight with you, Captain, myself included. We are as prepared as we can be and are at your command.”

“My father, Saradoc, and 50 more Defenders from Buckland should be here sometime tomorrow; they had to ride overland as we had too few barges to transport all of us at the same time. My cousin Peregrin Took will likely arrive with his larger company from the Westfarthing late Friday or perhaps Saturday, though I do not know exactly how many he will bring with him. We shall have to keep the orcs at bay should the attack come before they can arrive. Are there many hobbits still across the River?"

"Some have come across, mainly wives and children of those away downriver and who happen to have family on this side that they can stay with." Boffin looked worried. "There are still quite a few reluctant to leave their households."

"They won't be so reluctant once the orcs attack. Then they will be scrambling to get across the River in a panic, while we fight to keep the enemy from their backs. That's a sure way to lose some of our people to the River even if none of the orcs get by us. Better that they come across now and we can do battle knowing that all our folk are a bit safer on this side." Merry said firmly.

Mr Boffin nodded in agreement. "They'll listen to you Sir, where they wouldn't listen to others. There's plenty here in Sarn Ford that will give them shelter if they need it. I have room for some at my own place, and my wife said as much to me this morning. "

"Thank you Mr Boffin, and thank your wife too. I'd like you and your company to stay on this side of the River for now. Set your hobbits in concealment along the bank at 100-yard intervals both up and downriver to keep watch on the opposite shore. Make sure that each hobbit is able to signal his neighbours should it be necessary. We don't want to be surprised, and smaller groups or individuals might break off from the main group and try to cross into the Shire on their own."

Merry turned to Amarac. "Cousin, I am going to ride across the ford with Einon and meet with the other Rangers. Will you please make sure our hobbits get across safely? Have them set up camp in a likely spot near the bank and have some food; I know everyone must be famished. Then I'll need your help organising patrols to go around the smials and evacuate anyone who is not a fighter. Set hobbits to help anyone across the ford who needs it, and Mr Boffin, will you please organise shelter for those that will be coming across?" Merry looked expectantly between his cousin and Mr Boffin who both looked a bit overwhelmed at the responsibilities being given them, then Mr Boffin rallied.

"Yes Sir, everything shall be as you say."

Amarac stood a bit straighter. "I will do as you bid, Cousin."

"Thank you both." Merry smiled. "Now, Einon, if you will come with me, we shall go and find your friends."

Merry and the Ranger rode away toward the ford, and the other two hobbits watched them go. "He's no older than my youngest lad." Mr Boffin shook his head. "And yet he seems to know what he is doing. What's that fancy gear he's wearing?"

Amarac didn't know many details of his cousins' adventures but he knew some of the story behind their livery. "He was made a Knight by the King of Rohan, a country very far from here, for doing him some service."

Mr Boffin looked impressed. "You don't say? Well, I don't doubt he earned his gear and his title, but I have to say, gear and title or no, that's a lad that I'd follow most anywhere."

"And so would I. I shall see you later Mr Boffin."

Merry and Einon spent an hour with the other Rangers, then Merry left the village and rode out into the countryside to get the lay of the land, and plan his strategy. His sharp eyes took in everything, and as he rode he made mental notes and sketches of the area, which he would commit to paper upon his return. While he was thus engaged Amarac and his patrols escorted several dozen lasses, children, gaffers and gammers across the ford, to where Mrs Boffin and the other villagers waited to take them into their homes. Merry sent out scouts upon his return to the company, and then spent the rest of the afternoon outlining his plan to the remainder of the hobbits under his command. When he was certain that everyone understood, and was as prepared as possible, he sent them all to supper and bed, knowing that they would need all the rest they could get. He himself sat up far into the night, refining his plans, and wondering where Pippin was this night, and his father.

Saradoc Brandybuck arrived in Sarn Ford just past noon the next day, and immediately crossed over with his hobbits. Merry embraced his father gladly. “Was the traveling difficult, Da?” he asked.

“We camped at Deephallow the first night, and Longbottom the second and the crossroads by the Harwood the third, and encountered shin-deep mud and rain and midges in abundance in between, but we made it,” Saradoc said wryly. He showed no sign of weariness from the long journey and unpleasant conditions, however, and Merry was filled with pride.

“I was more concerned for Pippin’s journey,” Saradoc said worriedly, “with so many more miles to travel on roads that are less than amenable after days of rain.”

And I am concerned most of all for Pippin himself. It is his anniversary week…and I fear for his health as well…

Merry cleared his throat. “He will be here right on time, Da, I know he will. Come, let us go to my tent for some refreshment.”

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when a shout went up, and hobbits were looking skyward and pointing at a flaming arrow that flew across the sky.

“What is it?” Saradoc exclaimed.

"A signal from one of the scouts," said Merry grimly. "The orcs are almost here."

Quickly he laid out his plan to his father, and while Saradoc ran to tell his company, Merry lifted the horn from Rohan to his lips and blew the Horn-call of Buckland.

"Awake! Fear! Fire! Foes! Awake!"

On both sides of the River hobbits and Rangers sprang into action, taking their assigned places, or running to their assigned shelters. Those hobbits of Merry and Saradoc's companies that were mounted formed lines across the Downs, 100-yards outside the village, and waited for the enemy. Sitting before them on Starlight, Merry remembered Théoden King's stirring speech just before the Rohirrim rode into battle on the Pelennor, and knew that he was not equal to any speech so moving. As the first ranks of evil orcs broke over the Downs before his little cavalry, Merry drew his sword and pulled Starlight around to face his hobbits, and simply cried "For the Shire!" Then he aimed his pony at the enemy and charged. Every hobbit behind him echoed his cry as one, and followed their Captain into battle.

III.: The Battle

As Merry led the charge, sounding the Horn-call of Buckland as he rode, fiery arcs of flaming arrows shot through the air, and a moving wall of orcs armed with axes and clubs swarmed towards them, their ugly faces contorted as they screamed their fierce battle cries. Merry fought down feelings of horror, remembering all too well the mindless viciousness of the orcs and fearing for the Shire. How long could his little company hold them back from the borders? Four hobbits fell from their ponies under the first onslaught of arrows, and several of the younger hobbits panicked and turned back. Amarac Brandybuck immediately rode after them and marshaled them back into the action, encouraging them and urging them to follow his lead. He was no more skilled - or less fearful - than they were, but he was near kin to Merry and to Saradoc and he had to lead as he knew they would want him to.

The Rangers Ioan, Einon, and Bowen had taken the most skilled archers and deployed them in three different places around the perimeter of the field at Merry’s earlier instruction, using the tall hedges and trees as cover.

“We do not outnumber them, but perhaps we can confuse them into believing there are more of us than we truly are,” Merry had said grimly.

As the first wave of orc arrows found their marks, a volley of arrows from all three sides penetrated their ranks, and one orc fell with every arrow released. The other orcs let out a roar of rage as they tried to figure out where the hidden archers were, but another barrage of arrows assailed them from all sides before the cry had even died away.

“We must take down as many as we can, for they outnumber us three to one! Remember! Their armor is weak at the neck and the shoulder,” Ioan exhorted the hobbits under his command as they rapidly reached for more arrows. “It is your only chance to mortally wound them, and increase the odds for those in the field.”

Merry felt genuine fear for their desperate situation and for the lives of those who followed him. The loss of the brave hobbits in the Battle of Bywater still weighed heavily on Merry’s heart; he had been the strategist for the battle, and he had always felt their deaths had been his responsibility. He wished again that Pippin were here to share the burden of command, and that it did not fall on his shoulders alone. Now he faced 300 orcs with only 100 hobbits - and 36 more he had left as a rearguard to cover the River - and he was the only one of his people there who had ever faced orcs before. In the heat of the battle, he could not see what had become of his father, or of his cousin Amarac, and he tried to put his worry for their safety out of his mind.

All around him, the hobbits fought bravely, and many orcs lay stretched upon the ground, but there were also several smaller bodies, lying lifeless or badly injured, and Merry’s heart was wrenched with rage and anguish.

At first, the perimeter assault achieved the effect Merry had hoped; the orcs were so confused by the arrows coming out of nowhere that they were firing their arrows into one another as they tried to return the attack, and killed not a few of their own number before they realized what was happening. Then one overeager hobbit archer, trying for a closer shot, stumbled on a tree root and out into the open. The orc leader spotted him before he could draw back out of sight.

“They’re attackin’ from the trees!” he roared. “Spread out, and kill them all!” With a loud, ugly cry and a blast of the orc horn, three contingents of screaming orcs each bore down upon the archers’ betrayed hiding places.

“No!” Merry shouted. “We must not let them reach the trees! Stock to the right, Newbury to the left, and the rest follow me!”

Frigglim, Plugley’s second in command, had made the mistake of thinking a white-haired hobbit mounted on a chestnut pony an easy target, and as he raised his club to strike, the last thing he saw was Saradoc Brandybuck’s long, thin blade headed right toward his eye. He fell to the ground, and Saradoc withdrew the shaft and looked at the black blood with distaste before turning about to face the next foe. He heard Merry’s shout, and watched as his son, sword held high and countenance resolute, rode down an orc running toward the trees and removed his head with one sweep of his sword. He proceeded to do the same to another of the foul creatures, as the hobbits behind him gave an answering shout, inspired by Merry’s example, and used their own weapons to bring down as many orcs as they could.

“My lad,” Saradoc managed, tears of pride in his eyes, and then uttered a cry as a sharp blow connected with the back of his skull. He slumped from his pony onto the ground, and the pony whinnied in fear and ran off.

Fluknugt snarled, and raised his axe to finish the job. His yellow eyes went wide and his mouth fell open, a trickle of dark sticky blood dribbling down his chin. He fell to the ground, and Amarac Brandybuck pulled a pitchfork out of his back, which he had seized from a fallen farmer nearby. He threw the pitchfork aside, and then fell on his knees beside Saradoc, crying aloud for help.

Unable to prevent all the orcs from reaching their destination, the hobbits followed them into the trees, and once-peaceful green countryside groaned with the sound of the wounded and dying, and the clash of metal and stone. Merry saw brave Marroc Brambleburr fall, and his cousin Dinulas, who was also a close friend of Pippin’s. A wild, ugly cry tore from Merry’s throat, and he bore down upon their murderers and dispatched them with his sword before turning to confront three more. He felt a burning sting across his thigh and the whisper of an arrow as it passed his ear, but he cared not.

Amarac rode up then, his face streaked with tears, and urgently drew Merry to the side and away from the action. “Merry, your father has been wounded, and Einon bore him away to Sarn Ford.”

Merry’s hand trembled as it gripped the sword hilt even tighter, if that were possible. “How badly?” he asked tensely.

“He killed an orc, and another came up behind him and clubbed him right off his pony. I saw it, and I killed his attacker, but Cousin Saradoc was bleeding and unconscious. I do not believe it was enough to kill him…”

“He’s eighty-two, Amarac, it would take little!” Merry snapped, and when his cousin’s face flushed with shame Merry relented. “I am sorry, Amarac; the Ranger will see to him until we have finished this business.” If we can finish it.

“It grows worse, Cousin. A group of orcs followed after Einon, and I do not think that the 36 guarding the ford will be sufficient to restrain them. Seven of my troops are gravely wounded, and one is dead; I do not know how many more are dead or wounded. We will not be able to hold out until…”

Faintly, above the cacophony of battle, another horn sounded. Merry stopped Amarac and listened intently; the call came yet again…three short blasts and one long note. He recognised it. It was a hunting call of the Took's.

Merry’s eyes shone with joy and disbelief. “It’s Pippin!” he cried. “He’s arrived! He is nearly two days early!”

At the moment Merry sounded the Horn-call, Pippin and his troops were perhaps twelve miles from Sarn Ford, having covered more than two-thirds of the remaining distance from their previous night’s camp by traveling at a punishing pace since before daybreak. Sam had all but decided to voice his opinion that Pippin should return home. The young Took had had fewer than eight hours’ sleep in the past three days; his cough had diminished, but he ate little and could focus on nothing but reaching Merry in time. His father and Sam, who had both stayed with him all night in the wake of his nightmares, had practically forced breakfast down his throat before they broke camp an hour before dawn, over Pippin’s weary protests that he wasn’t hungry. “If you don’t drink all of this, and eat this chunk of bread and dried fruit at least, Pippin,” Paladin said firmly, “I’ll not take another step, and I’ll see to it no one else does either. You’re half-dead from lack of sleep and food, and you’ll be in no condition to lead anyone until you have some nourishment.” Sam nodded in agreement, and Pippin meekly succumbed to the two elder hobbits who loved him.

As they rode to a crest of a hill, Pippin tensed as he heard the distant echo of a horn sounding seven clear, ringing notes.

Awake! Fear! Fire! Foes! Awake!

He had heard it at Bywater, and again at Buckland three days earlier. He reined Fleet around, and spoke urgently to his family and Sam. “That was the Horn-call of Buckland!” he exclaimed. “Merry has already engaged the orcs!" He raised his voice so that all would be sure to hear. "Quickly, all those with the fastest mounts must ride for Sarn Ford with me, making all haste; the slower will follow as quickly as they are able. Sam Gamgee will be your Captain! Defenders of the Westfarthing, follow me! With any luck, we shall be there in time to serve the orcs our own particular cup of Shire tea!” Pippin shouted. At the rousing cry of the company, Pippin wheeled Fleet around and galloped full speed down the road, with as many of his troops as could keep the pace close behind.

Despite his concern for Pippin’s condition and the peril they faced, Sam could not help thinking with a grin that it was just like Pippin to say they would arrive in time for tea.

The distance was covered with maddening slowness; Pippin could now smell smoke, and hear the distant roar of battle. He clenched his jaw with determination and urged Fleet to greater speed. Not far behind him he heard a horn cry out the hunting call of the Took's and smiled grimly. We're coming, Merry! You will not have to face them alone.

The contingent of orcs streamed into the village of East Sarn Ford, and finding it seemingly deserted shot a few flaming arrows into the thatched roofs to make a point and waded across the ford, expecting no resistance. “They’ve all run, the miserable little maggots,” Gludgrum chortled. “So much for tales of their bravery and courage!”

The words died in his throat and he and his cohorts were met by a handful of very angry and determined hobbits who had contrived fire-arrows of their own, the arrowheads dipped in pitch and set aflame. One even wielded the stout handle of a butter-churn, sharpened to a point, and found it nearly as effective as any sword. Its bearer spilled orc blood three times before the handle splintered into useless bits, and the unfortunate hobbit fell victim to the fourth’s axe. It was young Tod Boffin, Bingo Boffin’s youngest son, who had also carried the Ranger’s original message of warning to Brandy Hall and volunteered for the rearguard.

Despite the best efforts of the valiant village defenders, the orcs prepared to wreak havoc upon Sarn Ford. They had barely splashed up onto the banks when they heard a horn call accompanied by the thunder of hooves, and clouds of dust rising from the road leading to the ford. Their eyes widened with disbelief as dozens of mounted hobbits rode down upon them, with a young, sandy-haired halfling in black and silver livery at their head.

Pippin unsheathed his sword and leveled it at the dumbfounded orc in the lead, and said pleasantly, “It appears you lads have arrived just in time for tea. The rest of our party will be here shortly with the cakes, but we might as well begin without them.”

He decapitated the orc with one swipe of his blade, and his sturdy Tooks swiftly followed his example. Theirs was the element of surprise, and they dispatched the remainder of the orcs on the Shire side of the River easily.

“We must hurry, brave lads, for the true battle lies across the ford!” Pippin shouted, and led the charge across the River. Sam, Pippin's kinsmen, and the remainder of the Westfarthing contingent arrived in Sarn Ford just moments later. They were dismayed and angered by the sight of the dead and wounded being carried from the field into Sarn Ford as they rode past.

Merry galloped up to them on Starlight. “Pippin, Uncle Paladin, you have never looked more wonderful,” he said fervently. “How did you get here so quickly?”

Paladin smiled proudly at his son. “Pippin managed somehow to lead us across the Red Downs instead of the roads,” he said. “It was his plan, and the credit is entirely his.”

Pippin covered his embarrassment at his father’s praise by saying, “Did you leave any orcs for us, you greedy Brandybuck?”

“At least half of them, but we are down to perhaps 60 of us who are still able to fight.”

Pippin realized then his Uncle Saradoc was not with Merry, and he looked at his cousin, afraid to speak.

“He’s wounded, but he will be all right,” Merry said, understanding Pippin’s expression. “He is being cared for along with the other wounded.”

The rest of the Tooks, led by Sam, rode across the ford at that moment, and Pippin said grimly, “Well, the odds are now in favor of the hobbits once again.”

Merry gripped Pippin’s hand. “Once again we fight together, Pippin,” he said. “It is an honour to draw swords with you.”

“And with you, Merry,” Pippin responded.

The main band of orcs had regrouped and was advancing toward them, attracted no doubt by their livery. Probably they thought that if they felled the leaders of the small rabble, that the others would lose their fight. Well, they wouldn't find that so easy to do. Pippin and Merry raised their swords to signal their troops and shouted as one, “For the Shire!”

“For the Shire!” the others roared in unison, and rode into the fray, following their brave Captains.

Even as he raised his sword to strike at the nearest orc, Merry called, “Pippin, as soon as this is over, you’re going to bed and staying there for the rest of the week.”

Pippin struck down an orc who was charging him with a halberd. “What are you talking about?” he shouted back.

“I know that cough anywhere. You Tooks, not even enough plain hobbit sense to come in out of the rain, and to cross the downs in the mud. Now get started, for your count is already far behind mine.”

“I thought that you wanted me to hurry, Cousin. And I wish Gimli had never told us about those counting contests he had with Legolas when they visited at Yule!” Pippin lamented as he thrust his blade home yet again. “Now there'll be no living with you if you surpass me!”

"If!" Merry mocked as he felled yet another of the foul creatures. "I am so far ahead of you Cousin, that you couldn't catch up if I went to the inn for a pint and left the rest to you!"

Amarac rode up then, letting Merry know that another group of orcs was attempting to cross the ford, and while Merry alternated between giving Amarac instructions and doing battle, Sam rode up next to Pippin. There was a cut over Sam’s eye, and a long shallow cut on his arm. As he and Pippin fought side by side for several moments, Pippin was surprised to see that Sam appeared to be having the time of his life.

“Are you holdin’ up all right, Pip-lad?” Sam called out as he ducked a clumsy swing of an axe before dispatching the orc who wielded it.

“I am, Sam; you look as if you’ve had a run-in or two already.” Pippin narrowly avoided a spear to his side, thrusting his sword into the orc’s neck and pushing him away with his foot as the slain creature fell against Fleet.

“One of ‘em knocked Nibs right off his pony, and was about to ram his spear right through ‘im. I disabused him of that notion,” Sam explained as Sting glowed brightly even in the sunlight and plunged into another offending orc. “It hasn’t stopped glowing since before we rode across the ford!”

“So you’re the one,” a voice growled behind them, audible even above the roar of battle, and Sam and Pippin wheeled their ponies around.

The orc leader stood there, brandishing a familiar sword in his hand, the blade red with blood.

Pippin’s stomach jerked violently. “That’s Ioan’s sword,” he whispered to Sam.

“The Ranger won’t be needin’ it anymore,” the creature informed them with a taunting grin, which faded as he focused on Sam. “You were the one at Cirith Ungol…the tales spoke of a halfling with a blade that glowed.”

“I might have been,” Sam returned quietly, undaunted.

“So at last I meet a Shire rat that is worthy of my attention,” Plugley sneered. “The rest were just so many squealing pigs under my axe.”

Pippin gripped his sword more tightly.

“The Ranger gave me a bit more of a struggle, but even he finally could no longer keep his two halves together,” the gruesome orc continued in an almost conversational tone. “It will be a pleasure to draw your blood as well.”

Plugley rushed at them with a howl, and Sam raised his sword - but to his horror, the big orc turned suddenly and aimed his blade for Pippin’s head. A startled Fleet danced aside, and the point of the sword slipped under Pippin's chain mail instead of severing his head. Sorely wounded, Pippin slumped over in the saddle, blood pouring from the wound in his abdomen as the orc threw his head back and howled in delight, whirling to go for Sam. A roar of grief and rage pierced the air, and Merry drove his sword into Plugley’s back. When the orc fell prostrate to the ground, Merry leaped off his pony and plunged the weapon into the body again and again and again and again and again and….

“Merry!” Sam cried as he and Amarac eased Pippin from his pony’s back. He laid Pippin out upon the ground and frantically tore his shirt into strips, pushing up the mail shirt and applying pressure to the wound, trying to stop the flow of blood. “Merry, he’s dead! It’s Pippin who needs your attention! Merry!”

Sam’s voice penetrated the red haze that filled Merry’s mind, and he threw himself down next to Pippin and Sam, and began tearing strips from his own shirt. The makeshift ones that Sam had been using were already drenched with Pippin's blood and he tossed them aside and Merry pressed the new ones into Sam's hands.

"Pippin? Stay with us my Pip-lad…" He said in a calm voice, though Sam could see he was grey and trembling.

“Pippin!” Paladin Took had seen the large orc attack Pippin and had fought his way to his son, killing two fleeing orcs as he hacked his way across the ground in a desperate race to get to him. The warrior spirit of his ancestor Bandobras Took burned like fire in the Thain’s eyes, and nothing would stop him from getting to his son. He reached them and leaped from his pony with the agility of a much younger hobbit, and knelt beside Pippin, cradling his head in his lap.

“I’m sorry, Thain Paladin,” Sam gulped, tears in his eyes. “I said I’d watch out for him an’ he got hurt. I thought the orc was comin’ for me, an…”

“I saw, dear Samwise, and you cannot be responsible for what the orc did, and how could you, for your mind does not work the same way. Meriadoc, help me get your cousin to Sarn Ford to the healers.”

Already exhausted from illness, lack of sleep and food, and arduous travel, Pippin’s head lolled to one side as the loss of blood weakened him. Paladin mounted his pony first, and then Sam carefully placed Pippin in the saddle in front of his father, while Merry kept pressure on Pippin’s wound until Paladin placed his own hand over it. Pippin’s eyes fluttered open and he managed weakly, “Did we win? I’m not leaving until we win.”

“Yes, Pip, we did…and all because of you,” Merry told him with quiet pride as he mounted his pony once more, and prepared to take Fleet's lead rein. Sam mounted Bill and took off at a dead run to the ford, to alert the healers. Merry and Paladin urged their ponies into a fast but gentle walk, Merry keeping Starlight as close to Paladin's pony as he could, so that he could easily reach out to steady Pippin if Paladin needed help.

“I got eighteen,” Pippin said sleepily. “You?”

“I got seventeen,” Merry said. “You beat me Pip.”

"You're a terrible liar Merry..."Pippin whispered, then said and heard no more as he sagged back against his father.

The rest of the few dozen orcs that still survived saw that Plugley was dead; without their leader, they became disorganized and uncertain of what to do next. They settled on a strategic withdrawal and started to run.

“They’re on the run!” Merry heard Amarac call joyfully. “Let’s get them, lads!”

After leaving Pippin in the capable hands of Einon and the healers, Merry rejoined his cousin and the others on the orc hunt. By sunset, they had killed them all, and removed the bodies to a remote location to burn them.

When Pippin woke up, he saw his da, his Uncle Saradoc with a bandaged head but otherwise hale, and Sam sitting beside his bed. At first Pippin wondered where Merry was, and then he became conscious of a familiar warm body pressed against his own, and turning his head, saw Merry’s head on the pillow beside him.

“Welcome back, son,” Paladin said softly, as he tenderly smoothed the curls from his son’s forehead.

“How…how long have I been asleep?” Pippin croaked.

“Today is the sixth day, lad,” Sam said.

Pippin tried to sit up carefully but sank back down with a gasp.

“You took a grave injury, Pippin,” his father told him regretfully. “Einon and the other healers say that you are very lucky to be alive. It will be some time before you are completely recovered. We are sorry, but you will have a nasty scar.”

Pippin swallowed hard. “It will not be the only one I bear. A scar and a little discomfort is a small price to pay when so many lives were lost,” he whispered. “How many?”

“Forty dead, twice that many wounded,” Saradoc said softly. “They were buried where they fell, on the field of honour; the surviving Rangers and others have overseen the burial detail. We will have a memorial service for the families when the injured have recovered somewhat.”

How close we came to counting my son among the dead…

Paladin’s hands began to tremble upon Pippin’s arm, and he turned his head slightly so his son would not see his tears. Saradoc placed a gentle hand upon his brother-in-law’s shoulder and said softly, “Now that Pippin is awake, he needs food and drink, as do we all, and I know I’ll not be permitted to carry all that back myself. Come with me, Paladin, for you spoke with Einon earlier and know what Pippin is permitted to eat. Samwise, you come along as well.”

Paladin nodded and shakily rose from his kneeling position at Pippin’s bedside, and Saradoc put an arm around his shoulders as they walked from the room. Sam started to follow them, but Pippin reached out and put a hand on his arm.

“Wait a moment, Sam,” he spoke softly so as not to wake Merry. The older hobbit moved closer to the bed and put his hand on Pippin’s arm. “Yes, Pip-lad?”

“I promise I’ll keep to my bed as you requested me a few days ago, on one condition.”

“What is that?” Sam asked with a smile.

“We will go fishing as soon as I’m well enough to be up. We haven’t gone since…”

Sam gently smoothed the damp curls from Pippin’s brow. “Soon as you’re completely healed, Pippin, we shall go. I’ve missed our trips too…and very glad I am you’re still here to take another.”

Pippin smiled weakly and squeezed his hand, and then Sam quietly left the room.

Pippin elbowed Merry gently. “Mer, wake up, you sleepyhead. My whole left side is asleep.”

Merry lifted his head heavily and blinked. “Pip? You're awake. Are you all right?”

“It seems I shall carry yet another permanent orc sign the rest of my days, but otherwise, I am all right. What about you?”

Merry nodded. “I’m all right.” He looked deeply into Pippin’s eyes, his brow creased with worry. “Are you sure you are well? I have been so frightened, Pip.”

“I am sorry I frightened you, Mer. Yes, I think I shall be feeling much better once I’ve had a bite to eat. I daresay I’ve also slept much more soundly than I had for many nights before my injury.” He paused. “At least I’ve had no dreams, at least that I can recall.” He looked solicitously at his cousin.

“If I’ve been asleep for six days, Merry, this makes today the 15th,” he said softly. “It is your own anniversary.”

Merry swallowed. “I know,” he murmured. “My arm is hardly bothering me at all though, and I have not been dreaming, either…perhaps because I needed to be there for you. Even so, I think I shall stay with you again tonight, if you do not mind.” Both were silent a moment, and Pippin eased his arm beneath his cousin to draw him closer.

“My father saw the nightmares, Merry,” Pippin said softly. “I think he understands now.”

“Sam told my Da what I did to the orc who attacked you,” Merry said. “I think he understands now as well.”

“I’m glad I’m still here with you, Merry,” Pip said.

“Me, too, Pip.”

Merry rested his head on Pippin’s shoulder and drew the blankets back over them.

“How many, Merry?”

“Twenty-nine,” Merry said, “counting the one that hurt you.”

“I knew that you were lying, Meriadoc. So that explains why you’ve been here the whole time. You couldn’t wait for me to wake up so you could rub it in.”

“You know me too well,” Merry grinned, and Pippin groaned and closed his eyes.