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Making Acquaintance  by Bodkin

Making Acquaintance

‘You’re not a squirrel, Pip.’  Merry spoke patiently, refusing to show any irritation.  If watching Peregrin Took’s sisters harangue their little brother had had any effect, if was to teach the said lad’s cousin that shouting at him only made him worse.  ‘You haven’t got a tail to start with – and I’ve not seen many squirrels dressed in jackets and breeches. Come down – I’m hungry, if you aren’t.  Let’s get back to the Hall.’

‘But it’s interesting up here, Merry,’ the lad protested.  ‘You can see all sorts of things.’

‘Nothing you can’t see from the ground.’

A twig landed on his head and, as he looked up, all he could see was the sole of a rather green-streaked foot seeking out a foothold on a yet-higher branch.

‘Don’t know about that, Merry.’  The lad sounded remarkably cheerful for someone halfway up a tree.  ‘I can see all sorts of things you can’t.  Nuts, for a start.’

His cousin brightened.  ‘Throw some down, then,’ he commanded.  ‘I’ll look after them until you get down here to share them.’

A rain of beechmast descended like hard brown hail, making Merry duck under a broad branch.  ‘Oy!’

When Pippin failed to respond – without even a giggle at his cousin’s expense – he popped his head out and peered up into the branches.  It was – odd – how silence could be watchful.  Guarded, even.  The leaves rustled as the lad climbed higher, but the birds seemed to have stopped their singing and be waiting warily.

‘What is it?’  Merry called softly, wanting, for some reason, to draw as little attention to himself as he could while still finding out what was going on.

He ducked down and grabbed a handful of the hard-edged shells.  They were not big enough or heavy enough to do much damage, but a well-thrown nut could sting sufficiently to drive off most creatures.  Just for a moment, he wished that he shared his cousin’s indifference to heights – a tree didn’t seem such a bad place to be if something dangerous was approaching on the ground.

‘Merry!’ his cousin hissed.  ‘Merry – are you there?’

‘Where do you think I would be?’  A flash of amusement sliced through his worry.

‘There’s a big person coming this way.’

Merry’s anxiety returned redoubled.  Most big people were all right, his father said.  They were just – well – big.  And clumsy.  And needed watching – at least until they had proved themselves friendly.  There was no reason to suspect that this one would be any different.

‘Stay where you are, Pip, and keep quiet.’

‘What are you going to do?’

His instincts screamed at him to hide – and then, when the stranger had passed, to run for home.  After all, his father would know what to do about a big person wandering about the Shire.  But he was a Brandybuck, the Master’s grandson – and this was Buckland – and a bigger part of him demanded that he should ask this wanderer his intentions.

He stepped out of the shadows, shoulders squared and chin up, and waited, missiles in hand and feet planted squarely.

‘Well, bless me – what do we have here?’

The voice was deep and rumbling – and decidedly entertained.

Meriadoc Brandybuck looked up – and up.  The big person was – most definitely – the biggest person he had ever seen, but, the lad assured himself stoutly, he did not look particularly dangerous.  Imposing, perhaps, enveloped in enough rather threadbare grey cloth to dress a dozen hobbits, hairier than a sheep before shearing, but his eyes and voice reminded him more of his grandfather than a dangerous villain. 

‘Who are you?’ he demanded.  ‘And what are you doing in Buckland?’  Merry shifted his weight involuntarily as the big person raised his hands to remove his odd-looking hat, but held his ground indomitably.

‘You have been set to guard the bounds?’ the figure enquired.  ‘You seem a trifle young for such responsibility.’   He appeared to smile – as far as the hobbit could tell through the mass of hair that concealed his face.  ‘I just thought I would drop by …’ He raised his face to glance into the tree above him.  ‘Meet some old friends – make some new ones.’

Merry followed his glance – to see a young Took clinging to a narrow branch so high up that it made his cousin feel queasy just to see him.  The lad leaned over as far as he dared, his curious face pale against the green of the leaves, his nose twitching with his desire to study this stranger.  Even as Merry watched, Pippin pushed himself just a little further – and then a little further still, the branch bending to point towards the ground as if reminding the lad that what went up, must, in the way of things, come down.

‘Go back!’ Merry commanded in a tone that he only hoped would make some impression on the young Took – but even as he spoke, he knew it was too late and that his little cousin had gone too far to retreat to safety. 

Time seemed to slow down as Pippin slithered inevitably towards disaster, clutching at the leafy twigs and somersaulting head over heels as his feet continued to slide until he dangled for a moment like some bizarre fruit from the branch. 

‘Merry!’ he squealed as the twigs began to break under their unexpected burden – but before his cousin could even begin to think, the last sprig gave way and the lad started what could only be a killing drop. 

Without taking his eyes from the child, the large person took a single step and extended his arms.

It appeared, Merry thought, that his arrival was more than fortuitous – almost as if he had always been intended to stand there like a rock ready to catch the youngest and most exasperating cousin a hobbit could ever have.

The child appeared to fall as slowly as a drop of setting jam from a spoon, as slowly as thick honey running down a jar, as slowly as flake of snow drifting from a windless sky – and yet, at the same time, in the space between heartbeats, the big person had caught him and swung him round, clasping the young hobbit to his chest as if he was meant to be there.

‘Thank you for dropping by,’ he said.

Merry started breathing again – and the world began to turn.  He did not know whether to laugh, or cry, or shout at the reckless little nuisance – or perhaps collapse to the ground, his knees shaking too much to support his weight.

‘You’re Cousin Bilbo’s Gandalf!’ Pippin declared, his face bright with excitement. ‘I’ve always wanted to meet you, but I never expected to see you here.  Have you come to see Merry and me?’

‘Do you know,’ the big person said, inspecting the cousins carefully, ‘I rather think that might be the very reason I have come.’  He smiled and shook his head.  ‘A Brandybuck and a Took.  It was, I suppose, inevitable.’

Merry had no idea what the wizard thought was inevitable – but it really didn’t seem to matter.  Not at the moment.  ‘Thank you,’ he said, his voice shaking.  ‘And if Pip had any brains – or manners – he would be thanking you, too.’

‘I have brains and manners,’ Pippin said indignantly.  ‘And I do thank you.’  He bowed to the wizard as best he could from his arms.  ‘I am at your service,’ he said.  ‘If there is ever anything I can do for you, I will.  Word of a Took.’

The wizard’s smile widened.  ‘I might just hold you to that,’ he said.

Merry suddenly found his confidence again.  ‘You can call on both of us,’ he said firmly.  ‘At any time.’  He studied the overgrown figure.  It would seem that, as usual, Saradoc had been correct.  Big people were all right.  Suddenly he found himself wondering what it would be like to travel among them beyond the borders of the Shire.  Maybe – just maybe – one day, he would find out for himself.  But not just yet – first things first.  ‘Would you care to accompany us to Brandy Hall?’ he asked.  ‘Grandfather will want to see you and thank you – and so will my parents and uncle and aunt – and I am sure it must be nearly time for dinner.’


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