Title: When the Fit Takes Them
Theme: January Potluck Challenge: Story from the October 2010 “Believe It or Not” Challenge
Author's Notes: This story was started quite awhile ago and was meant for the Halloween challenge. The title is a quote from “A Conspiracy Unmasked”
Summary: Some of the older lads at Brandy Hall thought it would be amusing to dare Pippin and Sancho to explore the Old Forest, looking for an old house which was built many years before by Men from another land. Rumour was they had committed a terrible crime and hid where they thought no one would search for them. That is, until two young hobbits accepted a dare. . .
Word Count: 4,332
“When the Fit Takes Them”
Evening in Buckland
Merry bent low and crawled through the opening in the hedge first. “I was hoping for a full moon tonight!”
“The moon is full.” His cousin Merimas was right behind him.
“But who can tell with all these clouds?”
“Oh, look out for those bramble bushes. The thorns are very sharp.” Merry did not slow his pace as he tossed the warning over his shoulder.
“You might have said something sooner.” Merimas rubbed his ear where the brambles had caught him. He pulled them aside carefully, making his way after his cousin.
Merry was already trotting on ahead, seemingly oblivious to anything but leading the way up the path and into the forbidden woodland. “We should have stopped them, you know.”
“We didn’t exactly have much warning they were actually going to do it, did we?” Merimas sounded cross as he scrambled to catch up. “I didn’t realise they were both that foolish.”
Merry turned, raising an eyebrow. “This is Pippin and Sancho we’re talking about. What did you think? Neither of them likes to turn down a dare.”
“Yes, but who would’ve thought they’d take the lads up on it?” He shivered as he glanced about. “This place is so creepy. No wonder no one likes to come here.”
“Pippin and Sancho don’t care to look frightened of anything in front of one another. If they were challenged individually neither one would probably have accepted it.” Merry grunted in disgust. “And I’m certain that’s why they did it like that. Berilac knew they wouldn’t say no in front of one another. Wait until I see him again,” Merry grumbled. “I’ve got a piece of my mind to share with our cousin.”
Earlier that Evening
A cross voice sputtered from the other side of the thick hedge as Pippin plowed through, allowing the branches to snap back.
“What?” Pippin squatted and peered through the bushes.
“You let the branch swing back and it nearly hit me in the face! And you almost stepped on my foot. Easy, will you? At least let me get through here in one piece.”
“Quit your fussing.” Pippin covered up his fear with a cross tone as he got to his feet. “Hurry up!”
“Just be more careful, will you?” Sancho finished easing his way through the opening and stood, then eyed Pippin with a smirk. “Scared, are you?” Sancho sniggered at Pippin’s obvious disquiet.
“Not me,” Pippin sniffed. “I’ll wager you are, though.”
“No I’m not.” Sancho puffed out his chest and tried to look indifferent. “Let’s get a move on, shall we? Time’s wasting.”
“My feelings exactly,” Pippin nodded. “Let’s go.” The smaller hobbit started to march determinedly ahead, and then paused when he realised he was alone. Whirling, he scowled at his cousin and gestured impatiently. “I thought you were in a hurry?”
Sancho chuckled and muttered something about gullible hobbits before following.
“What’s that? I can’t hear you.” Pippin squinted into the dimness.
The pair continued walking together in silence. Finally Sancho shouted, “Look!” he motioned at the path ahead, wearing a grin of excitement.
“Where?” Pippin spun, trying to look in all directions at once.
“Up ahead of us, just behind that tree. That must be the place they were talking about. We’re almost there.” Sancho started eagerly up the trail again with Pippin on his heels. A moment later he snorted in disgust.
“That isn’t a house, just an old rotted out tree.” Pippin said, disappointment in his tone. “It probably got struck by lightning; that’s why it’s all misshapen. I don’t know how you could have mistaken it for a house.”
“Look at it, Pip. It’s all squat and sort of round. In the dark it might easily be mistaken for a hole.” Sancho stuck his head into the hollowed out wound and cried, “Hullo, anybody home?” He withdrew his head and laughed, pleased with his own jest. “No one here, Pip.”
“Don’t you know anything? Big Folk don’t build houses that look like holes! They make them tall, like they are, and square. And they have steps sometimes,” Pippin told him with an air of importance. “They’re not at all like our hobbit holes.”
“How do you know?” Sancho tilted his head, inspecting the oddly shaped tree more closely, reluctant to give in. “Perhaps those Men wanted to improve their living conditions? Or they might have chosen something more appropriate for their surroundings. The house wouldn’t stand out then.”
Pippin stared at his cousin as if he’d grown another head. “What hobbit would build a home in the middle of the Old Forest in the first place? No one would find them because no one would want to come looking for them!”
Sancho considered this, and then shrugged. “Right. Nothing interesting here. Let’s go that way.” He pointed down the path the way they had come.
“We just came that way. That path leads out of here.”
“Oh, right. I guess I got confused.”
Pippin snorted and didn’t bother answering. They continued on their way, reluctantly heading deeper into the woods. As it gradually became darker the pair of youngsters drew closer together without noticing. The hooting of a night owl startled them and they shared a sheepish look. The clouds frequently covered the moon, making it difficult to see.
“We should’ve brought a lantern,” muttered Sancho.
“Oh well, it’s too late now unless perhaps you’ve a mind to go back and get one.”
“Not me. What about you?”
Pippin shook his head. “No, we don’t need one, I suppose. The moon will come out from behind the clouds again. I hope,” he mumbled beneath his breath.
The reluctant explorers walked for another half hour or so and finally paused again to take in their surroundings. “I still don’t see any sign of an old house of any kind, Pip. I think the lads were pulling our leg. I think they just wanted to see if we’d really accept their dare.”
Pippin sighed. “You’re probably right. It’s too bad you jumped right in like that and accepted it.”
“Me?” Sancho turned to stare at him. “I seem to recall it was you who said yes. Or more to the point, you laughed and said something like ‘what, us turn down the chance to go exploring? Of course not, why it’s a piece of cake, Berilac.’ And then you clapped me on the shoulder and told me I was joining you--”
“What?” Pippin stopped and placed his hands on his hips. “I think the night air is addling your brain. It was you who said that, and then of course I couldn’t disagree or I would’ve looked like I was afraid--”
“Well, you are afraid, you ninnyhammer! You know you are!”
“You were the one who bragged that we’d bring back a piece of the ghost’s sheet, you twit!”
Sancho scowled and puffed himself up. “Who are you calling--”
Both boys jumped at the crunch of snapping twigs somewhere in the distance. Neither dared to move. Eyes wide with alarm, Pippin whispered, “Did you hear that?”
“Of course I heard it,” Sancho hissed through clenched teeth. “Turn around and see what it was, why don’t you.”
“Me? I’m not turning around, you do it,” Pippin hissed back.
If ever there was one thing Sancho hated it was appearing more frightened than Pippin. “All right.” He drew a deep breath and peered over his left shoulder.
“Well?” Pippin prompted him, still frozen in place. “What’s behind us?”
Sancho looked about cautiously. “I don’t see anything.”
“Are you certain?”
“Of course I’m not certain! Why don’t you turn around and look?” Sancho gave him a less than gentle push.
Pippin turned slowly, holding his breath, ready to scramble away at the slightest sign of anything frightening. The woods remained still, except for the rustling of dry leaves in the cool breeze. Gradually he released his breath. “Whew.” Pippin darted his eyes about nervously. “Well, what do you want to do? Should we keep going?”
“Why is that my decision? It was your idea to come here in the first place!”
Both youngsters froze as the sound of rustling leaves increased. Something was crashing through the foliage, coming their way quickly. A moment later they heard the murmuring of low voices. Trading a look of panic they wasted no more time arguing and tore away in the opposite direction. Reaching the nearest tree, Pippin began to climb. He allowed himself a brief moment of trepidation, remembering the stories about the trees of the Old Forest, but he was much more frightened of the noises behind him. Sancho scrambled after him and Pippin reached a hand down and hauled him up. Just as they settled into the branches and tried to secret themselves behind the few remaining dry leaves, they spotted two figures approaching.
“The outlaws,” Pippin breathed.
The frightened youngsters remained hidden in the tree limbs shaking with fear as the figures approached. Pippin eyed them curiously. Finally he whispered, “They look awfully small for Big Folk.”
Sancho watched the pair thoughtfully and nodded his agreement. “That they do, Pip. Although, I admit I’ve never seen any Big Folk. But I wonder. . .”
“Shh! They’re getting closer!”
A moment later the intruders paused nearby, speaking in low voices. Snatches of conversation drifted to Pippin and Sancho’s ears.
“Foolish little sods! I can think of a great many places I’d rather be than traipsing about the Old Forest at midnight,” growled one of them.
“Right. Like curling up in front of a warm fire with a good meal, a tankard of ale and--”
There was an audible snort. “You aren’t even old enough to drink without your parents’ permission!”
“Well, I could have some ale easy enough,” sniffed the other one. “That is, if I wanted to.”
“Uh huh. What are you going to do? Go up to your father and just say ‘Da, I’d like a nice, stiff ale tonight. Would you care to join me?”
“Very funny. Let’s find those little twits before they get all of us into real trouble.”
As the voices moved away Pippin and Sancho stared at each other in surprise. Sancho’s eyes narrowed. “Merry and Merimas! Little twits? Why, I’ll show them--” Sancho reached down through the dry leaves and shook his fist at their backs, very nearly tumbling out of the tree before Pippin caught him.
“How did they know we came here?” Pippin wondered.
“Probably Berilac told on us. We’ve been set up, Pip. They’re going to tell on us. That’s why they dared us to come here.”
“Merry wouldn’t do that. He’s trying to find us before we do get in trouble, that’s it! Come on, let’s go before we lose sight of them.” Pippin was already slithering down the tree trunk.
“How can you be so sure?” Sancho hesitated, eyeing the departing hobbits with suspicion.
“Come on!” Pippin started to scramble up the path after his cousins. “Before they’re out of sight.”
Sancho lingered for another minute, grumbling to himself about trusting older cousins. He suddenly realised he was alone. “Umm, Pip? Pip! Wait, I’m coming too!” Sancho climbed down, leaped off the lowest branch and ran after him.
Merry and Merimas spun around in time to see a small streak in the darkened forest headed their way. “Well, well,” Merimas chuckled. “Talk about easy.”
“Pippin! Just where have you been?” Merry scowled as Pippin ran up to him, breathless from the run. “Where is Sancho?”
“What? I thought he was right behind me.” Pippin glanced over his shoulder.
“Ah, here he comes now,” Merimas chuckled as the other youngster bolted towards them. “Get lost, did you lads?”
Sancho reached them and leaned over, hands on knees as he panted. “Wouldn’t you like to believe that!”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. It’s what’s obvious,” Merimas laughed. “You two are in a heap of trouble!”
“We are not. No one knows we came here, do they?” Sancho glared at his older cousins.
“No one knows until we tell,” Merimas taunted.
“Then we’re going to tell on you too!” Sancho drew himself up to his less than impressive full height and favoured Merimas with his most withering stare. The older hobbit chuckled and ruffled Sancho’s hair. The youngster jerked away from him, annoyed.
“No one’s telling on anyone,” Merry said. “We found out what happened and came to save you from yourselves.”
“And from Uncle Saradoc,” Merimas snorted. “Although I don’t know why. If you were foolish enough to accept a dare like that perhaps you deserve to get your breeches blistered. Anyway, you should be thanking us for going to all this trouble.”
“Well, I’m not thanking you for anything,” Sancho declared, planting his feet firmly in place and frowning up at Merimas.
“Fine, then why don’t we just leave you here?”
Merry held up his hand to cut their bickering short. “We found out that the other lads dared you to go into the Forest and that you were foolish enough to take them up on it. Now come, let’s get back before anyone discovers we’re missing and we all get into trouble.” Merry turned around led the way.
They walked in silence for a while. Finally Merimas asked, “Are you certain this is the way we came?”
Merry nodded confidently. “I know exactly where I am. I marked the correct path when I was here before so I wouldn’t forget which way it was to get out of here.”
“You came here alone, Merry? How come?” Pippin sounded suitably impressed.
“Uh, well to prove I wasn’t scared to.”
Merimas eyed his cousin disapprovingly. “He came here because one of the lads said he wouldn’t do it.”
“Ha!” Sancho snorted. “You accepted a dare, Merry?”
“That wasn’t the reason. I’d already planned to do it--”
“On the Eve of Efenniht? I doubt that very much.” Merimas laughed.
“What? Yes I was! I knew all along I was going to do it, long before the lads said anything.”
“Uh huh, I’ll just wager you did,” Sancho smirked.
“These woods are very old, you know. No one dares come in here often. And never alone.” Merry chose to ignore the snide remark. Hearing that, Pippin glanced about nervously while moving closer to Merry. “They say the trees can move about on their own, you know,” Merry continued. Pippin moved a little closer to his trusted cousin. “Sometimes they carry away young folk who dare to disturb their home.” Merry gave Sancho a hard look. “Especially children who take dares to come here.”
Sancho, missing the point entirely, nodded. “That’s right, and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t be here. We’re going to get in big trouble, sure as anything. We might even get stolen away, like Merry said.”
“Sancho’s right. And all this just to prove a point,” Merry said with a sigh.
“Well Pip, you agreed to the dare you know, for both of us. So it’s really all your fault,” Sancho told him.
“It isn’t my fault!”
“If you hadn’t opened your big mouth--” Sancho continued, undaunted.
“But they were daring us! I had to show them we weren’t afraid.”
“Well, next time just agree for yourself, all right, Pip?”
“If there is a next time, you mean.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Pippin and Sancho both whirled on Merimas. Sancho appeared to have a great deal more to say before a raised hand stopped him.
“It means if we live through this and get away with it I won’t be so foolish as to go along with Merry to help look for you next time.”
“There’s no need to shout at us.” Sancho stood his ground and glared at Merimas. “You’ll wake the dead!”
“Don’t say that!”
“Oh, do be quiet Pippin,” Sancho snorted.
“Quit arguing you two. And hurry up!” Merry did not look back to see if they were following. Merimas was quiet for the most part but Pippin was certain he heard several colourful remarks as they stumbled after him. Always open to learning new things his ears perked up considerably. He inched closer to see if Merimas might say anything else of interest.
Merry stopped and looked around, trying to appear nonchalant, but suddenly nothing looked familiar. He wasn’t in a hurry to reveal his concern that they might be horribly lost. How had this happened? He was sure he had known the way.
Later that evening
“Are you certain they really went into the Old Forest, Berilac?” Frodo wrinkled his brow in disbelief.
“I’m certain,” Berilac replied, resting one hand against the side of the pony stable. “Oh, they are going to be in so much trouble if Da or Uncle Saradoc finds out.”
Frodo took a deep breath and released it all at once. “Well, we need to find them before they’re discovered missing or they get hurt. And you’re going to help me.” He gazed across the meadow at the setting sun, brow wrinkled in thought.
“What? Oh no, I’m not.”
Frodo swept critical eyes over Berilac. “You are. Because you helped them get into this mess in the first place.”
“Why don’t you get Merry to help? Or Merimas?”
Frodo shrugged. “I haven’t seen either one of them tonight. Come, it’s the least you can do after daring them to do this.”
“I didn’t dare them, Frodo. They were listening to the rest of us talking and Pippin walked right up and talked himself into it.”
“I’ll wager he had just a little help doing that, too.” A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth in spite of his worry.
“Yes, and that ‘help’ was named Sancho,” Berilac laughed.
Frodo sighed and started on his way. “Perfect,” he muttered.
“We’ve been walking for hours. Surely we must be near the hedge where we came in?” Merimas paused to gaze up at what stars he could observe through the thick branches of the trees.
“I think we’ve been walking in circles.” Merry sighed, tired and disgruntled.
“No, I’m positive we came this way earlier.” Merimas pondered. “Or perhaps it was that way.”
“How can you tell when there are so many trees?” Sancho demanded. “Everything looks the same no matter which way we turn.”
“But I still want to find the old house,” Pippin said. “It won’t have been much of an adventure without that.”
“You’re going to have all the adventure you want and then some, if anyone finds out what you did,” Merry scolded. “Forget the house, let’s just get out of--”
“Old house?” Merimas stopped short, causing Merry to run into his back.
“Yes!” Pippin grinned.
“What old house?”
“The one that Berilac and the other lads were talking about,” Sancho said. “It was the main reason we wanted to take their dare. They said there was a house that the Big Folk built in the Forest, to get away and hide in because they had done something dreadful.” He shivered in spite of himself and continued in a low voice, “They said those Big Folks’ ghosts haunted the old house and that Pip and I were too scared to come here and challenge them.”
“Well, you were, but I wasn’t,” Pippin reminded him.
“What are you talking about? You were the one who said you wouldn’t want to go into the Old Forest for all the silver pennies in the Shire! While I, on the other hand--”
“Are full of stuff and nonsense, Sancho Proudfoot.” Merimas took the youngster by the shoulders and gave him a small push. “Now let’s go! We’ve all heard enough boasting from both of you and the night is not getting any younger.”
After walking for a few more minutes Pippin piped up, “I’m hungry. Never mind the old house, at least for now,” Pippin said. “Perhaps next time we could--”
“There isn’t going to be a next time!” Merimas shouted, causing all of them, including Merimas, to jump. The boys scanned their surroundings warily, apparently afraid they might disturb whatever happened to be lurking in the darkness, before continuing their journey in silence.
“Look!” Sancho breathed in sharply, pointing ahead. “What’s that?”
A dim light was slowly making its way through the trees in their direction, moving within a mist. Elongated shadows shrouded the intruders as they approached. The wind picked up the sound of a low voice, delivering it to their ears with the eerie quality of a moan. The sound of snapping twigs was magnified by either fright or reality, no one was certain.
“I think we should go. . .that way!” Sancho cried, grabbing Pippin by the elbow and dragging him in the opposite direction. “Run!” Pippin, only too happy to do as he was told this time, bolted ahead of his cousins, Merry on their heels. Merimas, who managed to trip and plunge face first on the ground. Without warning, the full moon burst from the shadows and they could, at last, see who ran towards them.
“Frodo! And Berilac,” Merry cried. “Look, it’s only Frodo and Berilac!”
“We’re saved!” Pippin joined in the cry, jumping up and down.
“Mercy, thank goodness we’ve found you at last,” Frodo shouted, running towards them. He looked them over. “Is everyone all right?”
Merimas climbed to his feet and spat into the dirt. “Never been better,” he declared, wiping the dust from his trousers. “About time you two showed up.”
Frodo frowned. “We had no idea we were looking for four of you.”
“Yes, we thought Pippin and Sancho were the only two lads foolish enough to come into the Forest, and at night, no less,” Berilac added.
Sancho placed his hands on his hips and drew himself up. “Who are you calling foolish? You dared us to go into the Forest!”
“I did not dare you, you must have misunderstood,” Berilac said. “We were simply discussing some of the old legends about the Forest and then up you two came, all full of the idea to show us you weren’t afraid. We never thought you’d actually be daft enough to come here.”
“Let’s go, before we all regret it,” Frodo said, tugging on Pippin and Sancho’s arms. “We can discuss this later, when we’re back at the Hall.”
“Can we have some tea?” Sancho wanted to know.
“And ginger biscuits,” Pippin added.
“And a hot bath,” Merimas grumbled, picking the dried leaves from his hair.
“How about some ale?” Merry asked, only partially in jest.
“Yes, and while we’re at it, perhaps we can come up with a good tale suitable to cover up what happened tonight,” Frodo said in a cross tone. “In case anyone asks where we’ve been.”
“You mean we should lie?” Pippin’s eyes widened. Sancho, still in Frodo’s firm grip, grinned at his cousin.
“Not lie, Pip. Stretch the truth, that’s all. Perhaps exaggerate a little. It’s something I do quite well, right Frodo?”
“I suppose so, you little scoundrel. Anyway, we had best appear as if all is well else we might all be spending the rest of this visit in our rooms!”
“You’re too old to be sent to your room, Frodo,” Pippin chuckled.
“It never hurts to be cautious, Pip,” Frodo said, stepping up their pace.
Even later that evening
Two figures approached the High Hay in the quickly fading light. One could be heard grumbling to himself; the other appeared quietly determined.
Merimac produced a large key from his pocket and thrust it into the keyhole of the big gate that led into the brick-lined passage. The door to the Brandybuck’s private entrance into the Forest swung open with a groan on its seldom-used hinges. Saradoc followed. He kept close, out of habit he supposed, for anyone entering the Old Forest had best keep a keen eye on his whereabouts at all times. He glanced up at his brother’s heavy sigh.
“What is it?”
“I’m having a rather difficult time believing those youngsters came this way. I would have thought it far too spooky a place for children to venture, in spite of any amount of boasting about fearlessness.”
“It is most definitely not welcoming, to say the least.” Saradoc chuckled. “However, I remember we tried the same thing when we were children.”
Another sigh from Merimas, and a shake of his head. “That little adventure did not come to a good end.”
Saradoc grunted his agreement. “At least we were stopped before we could get very far.”
The pair paused after crossing the threshold into the Forest, looking about uneasily. Saradoc held up his lantern, and then pointed at a barely discernible path. Merimac nodded and they started on their way.
“We can only hope that path is in the same place when we try to find our way back,” Merimac muttered. Saradoc was thinking the same thing.
As the little group of travellers left the sparse path and began to climb through the Hedge one by one, the trees of the Old Forest seemed to give a sigh of relief at the end of the intrusion. The thin branch of an oak moved slightly in the breeze as if a ghostly hand reached out to bid them farewell. All around, the creatures that called the Forest home began to move from their hiding places and take up their routine once more. Further up the hill, far back in the woods, the house that would not be found shimmered in the moonlight. Quiet murmuring voices drifted from it, blending into the night, while high above an owl hooted and a nightingale called for its mate.
Far ahead, the lights of Brandy Hall beckoned the weary explorers home. Pippin and Sancho grinned conspiratorially at one another, not at all defeated, despite not having located the object of their search. After all, tomorrow was another day, and they knew they would bring along a lantern next time.