Chapter 1: Prologue
Of course there had always been stories. The wandering elm-tree on the North Moors. The whispering voices in the Old Forest, passing secrets from branch to branch. Many who had walked the banks of the Withywindle that sprang from the Barrow-downs spoke of it only under their breath or behind their hands, as though afraid that even safe in their own homes, the wily old river might hear them. And Peregrin Took himself, thirty-second Thain of the Shire, had once been swallowed up whole by a great, wicked willow.
At least if one believed the tales – which Cobson Roper most certainly did not.
“Fiddle-faddle,” he often snorted in the common-room at the Pipe and Mow in Tighfield, when hobbits who had consumed more ale than was good for them strayed off into idle fancy.
But his wife Fern had Tookish blood, and whispered tales from the olden days to their children at night, and Robin and Sorrel listened and believed, as though bound by some ancient spell.
“You're filling their heads with nonsense,” Cobson would complain, sitting by the fire, the children in bed in the next room.
Fern would kiss his brow and gently rub the callouses on his fingers and hands. “There's truth in those old tales, my love, whatever you may think.”
Often Robin would lie awake and listen to them talking, kept awake by Sorrel's dry, jagged cough. He had heard the half-hearted arguments many times over the years, could recite his father's dismissive retorts – and yet something in his soul still soared at his mother's gentle defence of the magic in the legends that blew in from the East, falling from the lips of travellers or shared by some dream-eyed elder who remembered the Scouring. The names nestled in his heart like charms or treasured jewels. Gandalf. Rivendell. Frodo. Thorin. Mirkwood. Gondor. Beren. Elvenhome...
“It will do the children no good to grow up believing in fairy-stories. Soon enough the world will hurt them badly, and the fall will be all the harder if they think some wizard can fix their troubles, or that a magical flying ship will take them across the sea.”
His father would always end by saying that, or something like it. And they would both fall silent, and over the hush Robin would once again hear the rasp of his sister's breath as she slept, and he would close his eyes and wait for dreams to come, suspecting that he knew what his father meant when he spoke of the world soon bringing them grief and pain.
Chapter 2: Keep Your Feet
The air on the North Downs was warm and smelled of honey. Sorrel had woken at dawn and begged her brother to come exploring outside. He had agreed, unable to resist the joy and mischief sparking in her green eyes – although a nagging voice reminded him that even their mother had grown stricter with Sorrel of late, keeping a close eye on her and insisting that she didn't go too far afield. But she always seemed better in the summer, and she hated being told she couldn't do things. She would stick out her bottom lip and scowl and protest that she wasn't a bit tired, and anyway, why was Robin allowed to go?
And so he had sneaked cheese and bread and a jar of pickles from the larder, and tied them up in one of his father's cotton neckerchiefs, and they had both crept out on tiptoe, Sorrel's hand over her mouth to stop herself from giggling (or worse, coughing) and giving the game away.
Now she skittered across the gold-green grass like an autumn leaf, red hair streaming behind her, swerving in different directions as though the wind pulled her hither and thither. From time to time she would dance back to him, wanting to show him a particular stone, or describe the way a few stalks of grass had bent to one side, as though squashed by the footprints of fairies. Robin smiled, his guilt easing. Surely nothing that brought her this much joy could be wrong.
He followed behind her for the most part, keeping the northern edge of Bindbole Wood in sight. Once she begged to go up into the hills and onto the moors proper, but he shook his head, firmly refusing.
“I don't know my way around up there,” he told her truthfully. “We'd get lost.”
Sorrel pouted, but her attention was soon caught by a baby rabbit, and she darted off again.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the heat, they had the moorland to themselves. The sun climbed towards its peak, flaring white against the sky's liquid blue, and Robin pushed damp golden hair from his face. He paused and squinted after his sister. There – crouching by a pile of tumbled stones that might once have been a crude kind of tower. He shook his head. What had distracted her this time? He picked up his pace to reach her before she scampered away again, hurrying through the moss and fern, not watching his own feet – and then a sharp, stinging pain seared up his left ankle. He sprang back with a cry and looked wildly around. On the edge of his vision he thought he saw a flash of black and white darting away into a crevice between two stones. He tried to put his foot down but it burned; dark spots danced and swam in front of his eyes, and he sank onto the grass.
He blinked, and his vision cleared a little. “Sorrel, mind where you're walking!” he called sharply as she sped back towards him.
She halted, puzzled, hurt, anxious.
“It was a snake,” he explained. “An adder, I think. Go carefully.”
A solemn nod. The burning in his ankle built and spread, but at least his sister knew to watch her step. He'd be in enough trouble as it was. The thought of his mother's face if Sorrel were to get hurt too made his stomach heave up and down.
She picked her way carefully across the grass towards him, checked the ground, and then knelt at his side. “Is it bad?”
“Bad enough. I don't think I can walk – or not on my own, at any rate.”
Her mouth set in a determined line. “I'll help you.”
He took the hand she offered him and let her slide her thin arm around his waist. He put a little of his weight on her – not too much, she was so small, so delicate – but before they had gone thirty paces it felt like a fire raged in his left leg, and the earth seemed to tilt beneath him and his vision blacked again.
“No,” he gasped. “No, no good. Let go; let me down.”
He slid back to the ground and took a slow, deep breath as his stomach heaved again and his breakfast churned and fought to rise back up through his throat. He rested his forehead on his knee, eyes closed, until the sick feeling eased. He felt his sister's fingers pressing their water bottle into his hands.
Oh, sweet one. Carefully, he lifted his head and took a sip, then gave her a wobbly smile. “I'm sorry. You'll have to go back on your own.”
Her face darkened into the stubborn scowl he knew so well. “I'm not leaving you here! There might be more snakes.”
“I doubt it. And if there are, they won't come and bite me if I'm sitting still. They're shy creatures.” He gauged the distance from where they they were now to the edge of the wood. His heart sank a little, but he couldn't sit out in the fierce sun for hours while Sorrel went for help. “Help me get over there. I'll be alright in the shade.”
Sorrel looked doubtful, but nodded anyway.
The short journey to the shelter of the trees was slow – and agonising. By the time Robin sank into their shady embrace and leaned against one of the trunks, every limb was shaking, and it was all he could do not to throw up in the grass. The flaming heat in his leg built and burned and climbed up towards his knee, and redness and swelling crept outwards from the two neat puncture wounds.
“Go on,” he said, catching Sorrel staring too and chewing her lip. “You know the way, don't you?”
“I think so.”
“Keep the wood on your left until you come to the top of Weedknell Hill,” he instructed. “Follow the path down towards the river until you can see the rope-walk. You know how to get home from there.”
She nodded again, looking less certain and determined now that she had to leave his side.
“You can do it.” He summoned another smile, although his cheeks and lips felt loose and weak. “You're always telling us you're big and strong enough to go out on your own.”
“Mother will be angry.”
If his head hadn't been spinning like a whirligig, he'd have laughed. “Not with you. Now go – the sooner you leave, the sooner you can come back. And if you meet anyone on the way then never mind Mother's rules about strangers; bring them, rather than going all the way back home. Understand?”
“Yes.” She sniffed and glared. “I'm not stupid.”
“I know that. But be careful, won't you?”
“Alright.” She hugged him tightly, and he felt rather than heard the thud of her heart, the uneasy scrape of her breath – then she rose and padded away along the edge of the wood, half-running in her haste.
Robin watched her until she was out of sight, then closed his eyes and leaned against the tree. He moaned at the dizziness that washed over him again; it felt as though the world was about to tip him off its surface. What a fool he had been! He knew better than to go scrambling around on the moors without watching his footing. And to think it was Sorrel he had been worried about...he shook his head and then regretted it at once. The spinning grew faster and his vision blurred, and as his leg throbbed again he gripped the grass tightly, fighting the wave of faintness.
“Help,” he whispered, not caring about seeming brave now that his sister was gone. “Please...please, someone help.”
But his only answer was a surge of vicious pain from his ankle up to his thigh, and he cried out again as his whole body seemed to burn, and then he slid into merciful oblivion.
Cool night air kissed his face. A sweet, light scent prickled in his nose. Roses? In any case he was still outside.
A cough like the sound of a cloth tearing. Sorrel...had she not gone back to Tighfield? Perhaps she had been too afraid, though that seemed unlike her. He tried to shape his lips around her name.
“There, now, what did I tell you? He'll be quite alright.”
The voice was like the chiding of the grandmother who had died in his infancy, and the creak of the trees in Ma Burrows's orchard. He felt a small hand slip into his, and he squeezed it, blinking his eyes open.
Sorrel knelt next to him. Behind her was a woven willow screen almost as tall as their front door – and peering over it...
He closed his eyes again. He was dreaming. He had to be.
“Enough of that, now.” The voice took on a scolding edge. “Sit up and drink something. Your sister's been worried sick.”
“It's alright.” Sorrel gave his hand a little shake. “I was frightened too at first, but they're friends.”
That needled him enough to open his eyes and glare at her. “I am not frightened!”
“Liar.” She coughed again into a thick white handkerchief that he knew was not hers.
“Here.” Belatedly he realised he was covered with a rough – though warm – woollen blanket, and lying on another; he propped himself up on his elbows and moved across to make room for her. The night air, with its cooler, sharper edges, always made her breathing worse.
As she nestled into his side he looked up again at the strange creatures looking over the side of the screen. It was as though someone had carved faces into the trees and then brought them to life. One was dark brown, with bare branches tangling and curling where it looked like there should be hair; the other was silver grey, and sprouting from its crown – its top? Its head? - were trailing wands hung with cream-coloured catkins. Their eyes were deep and ancient and somehow sad and merry at once, and he thought of his mother's tales of the Elves. The hairs along his arms prickled and rose. “I'm sorry to be rude, but...what are you?”
A laugh like the spring breeze through pear blossom. “What are they teaching you young ones these days?” The silvery one slowly moved around the corner of the screen so that she – at least, he thought it was a she – was fully visible to them. Her body was slim and her limbs long and oddly jointed, as though they'd prefer to curl off and follow the sunlight rather than grow along more traditional lines. Each of her feet had seven long, silver-grey toes without nails. “I am called Silverleaf. As for what I am...I am an Entwife.”
“An Entwife?” He tasted the word on his tongue, strange and yet somehow familiar.
“An Entmaiden, to be strict; I never had a mate. Although I think now we're all a little too old to be maidens of any sort.”
She and her tangle-branched companion both chuckled.
“It's like in the stories Mother tells us,” Sorrel whispered loudly. “The walking trees that helped the good Men win the war.”
Walking trees...he'd heard the rumours, what curious young hobbit hadn't? And he knew the tales of the Old Forest away by Buckland, where the trees were said to sway and drop their branches even when there was no breeze. And he knew which long ago war his sister spoke of, when the legendary Peregrin and Meriadoc had roused the tree-shepherds of Fangorn, and they had torn down the home of the fallen white wizard who in the Shire had gone by the name of Sharkey...
“Entwives?” he repeated again, stupidly.
Silverleaf looked at Sorrel. “Is he deaf?” the old tree-creature inquired.
“He's had a shock, that's all.” Now the other Entwife bustled – there was no more apt word, however slowly she moved – around the edge of the screen. She was shorter and squatter than her companion, and covered from cheek to toe in soft green moss. “How does that leg feel now?”
He stretched it experimentally. It ached, but not with the sharp burning pain of earlier. “Better. Thank you.” He pulled his gaze from the Entwives and took in the rest of his surroundings. They were indeed still outside, although sheltering underneath some kind of great, high structure, the gloom of night dispelled by small, glowing lamps somehow thatched into the ceiling. No – not a ceiling. It was a curved canopy of tightly woven branches. Around them in a sweeping circle large enough for a vast gathering of hobbits, slim thorned trees climbed to the skies. Their branches grew together, twining and curling around each other, embracing like old friends, forming archways around the perimeter and a natural roof over their heads. The lights, he realised, were not woven in at all; they were moving, drifting and swaying like lazy summer bees, and as they moved they cast their gentle light on clusters of rosebuds and blossoms, cherry-red and ice-pink and golden peach.
It was like nothing he'd ever seen in the Shire before.
“How do you make them grow like that?” he asked.
The Entwives laughed again, louder and fuller this time. He felt refreshed and strengthened, as though he'd taken a long drink of water.
“I like him,” the brown Entwife said.
“Wandlimb has a way with roses,” Silverleaf explained.
He looked at the other Entwife. “Are you Wandlimb?” It seemed unlikely, and their gales of laughter answered his question.
“You'll meet Wandlimb tomorrow, as long as you're well enough to be up and about.” Mirth lit her old brown eyes, and her odd carved mouth curved into a smile. “I am called Sweetbark.”
“Pleased to meet you, Sweetbark.” He wasn't sure if they could bend down far enough to shake hands, and he wasn't yet sure he wanted to get up, so he stayed where he was. “My name is Robin.”
Both Entwives exclaimed and tutted at that. “Well, now!”
“Whatever goes through those funny heads?”
“He's as bad as his sister...”
“They don't think we should be giving them our real names,” Sorrel whispered.
“Why not? What are they going to do with -” Like a bird thudding against a window, the other part of what Sweetbark had said struck him now. “Tomorrow? No; we must go, our parents will be looking for us...”
“No need to worry about that. Time runs differently here.” Silverleaf's smile was kindly but amused.
“I don't understand.”
“You do not need to. Now hush, and drink, and then go to sleep.”
As though it had just been placed beside him, he noticed the rough wooden bowl at his elbow – although it must have been there all along. Neither Sorrel nor the Entwives had moved. It was filled with a clear liquid, and he drank deeply, tasting herbs and violets something almost spicy that he couldn't name. He offered it to Sorrel, but she shook her head.
“I've had mine. And they told me we mustn't drink too much of it.”
Like fairy food, he thought drowsily, wondering if he should have touched it at all – but as he set the bowl down warmth curled up from his toes all the way to the top of his head. Slowly, quietly, the Entwives retreated; the moving lights floated after them, and he lay down as though drawn by some unseen force in the earth. His head touched a pillow that smelled of fresh grass. A jolt of curiosity halted the march of sleep through his tired limbs – he remembered the handkerchief his sister had used, and thought it unlikely that the Entwives would need such things. “Sorrel, who brought us here?”
“Oh – Tom.”
“Tom?” He frowned. There was no Tom in Tighfield that he knew of, or in Oatbarton either. “Tom who?”
“He didn't say. He wasn't a hobbit, but I don't think he was one of the Big Folk either.” She wriggled. “I was a little afraid of him, but the Entwives said I needn't be.”
“Why were you afraid?”
“I don't know. At first I was just glad to see him, but I walked next to him as he carried you here, and I'd look away at something and then look back, and...” She hesitated. “It was almost as though I wasn't seeing all of him.”
Robin wondered what that meant, but the edges of his mind were growing dim and fuzzy. “What was he like?”
“Funny-looking. He had a beard, and a squashed hat.”
He laughed, too tired to be exasperated with her. “Handsome? Ugly? Old? Young?”
“Well...” Another long pause. He suspected Sorrel was biting her lip. “He didn't look very old, but he told me he was the oldest old thing in all the land. The Entwives said he was here before the beginning, and would still be here after the end.”
Now Robin began to think he'd wandered into a riddle rather than a fairy tale – or a fever-dream, the kind that only felt real on the surface. He wondered if he wasn't still lying in a swoon on the edge of Bindbole Wood. “That doesn't make sense. There's nothing before the beginning. That's why it's called the beginning.” But even as he said it, he knew it wasn't true. In all the old stories his mother told, something had always happened first, before, just out of reach.
Sorrel's breathing settled into the soft, slow rhythm of sleep Though they weren't truly inside, the willow screen was carefully positioned to keep the wind away, and between her warmth and the woollen blanket covering them it was almost cosy. His eyelids drooped.
“Goodnight,” he whispered to his sister, and was dreaming almost as soon as soon as the word left his lips.
Chapter 3: When the World was Young
Soft green light filtered down through the canopy. As he came awake, he realised his sister's hair was stuck to his lips. He blew gently to clear it from his mouth, and she groaned in protest, then rolled onto her side and coughed.
“Sorry.” He sat up and looked for the handkerchief she had used yesterday. It was in a crumpled heap at his side of the makeshift bed. “Here.”
Sorrel wiped her mouth. “Are you feeling better?”
He no longer felt dizzy or sick, and the pain in his leg had eased to a dull stiffness. “I think so, yes.” He hid his surprise; he knew that adder bites could take a week or more to heal fully, but there was no need to worry his sister. He brushed her fluffy red hair back behind her ears. “You were very brave yesterday.”
“And you were very foolish.” Robin jumped at the unfamiliar voice. A creased, sun-browned face with sharp blue eyes and a bristling beard peered around the edge of the willow screen. “Next time, my lad, watch where you're putting your feet.”
“Tom!” Sorrel wriggled out of the bed. She held out the crumpled handkerchief and nibbled her lip. “I'm afraid I marked it.”
“Keep it, sweetling; old Tom has plenty more.”
Robin scrubbed his eyes and stared at the strange little man. He saw now – or he thought he did – what his sister had meant yesterday. When he looked straight at Tom he seemed like nothing more than a yellow-booted, overgrown, heavy-set hobbit, but if his gaze strayed and returned, for a moment Tom's form seemed to blur or drift at the edges, and something ancient and wild flared behind his eyes.
Tom smiled at him, and winked. Robin thought of a clever old fox, or an imp from his mother's tales. “Well, now, will you lie abed there all day? Or will you come and see the gardens of the Entwives, and learn a little more about those fireside tales you love so well?”
Robin wondered how he knew this – but then he supposed Sorrel must have said something yesterday, before he woke. Tom smiled and nodded again as he pushed back the blanket, and held one fisted hand out to each of them.
“Gifts for you,” he said.
In each hand was a roughly hewn wooden leaf on a thick leather cord. Crab apple, Robin thought, turning it over. It sat warm and snug in his palm, and vigour and wakefulness curled upwards through his limbs. He thought again of the strange reviving liquid he had drunk the night before and wondered whether he should accept – but Sorrel had already slipped hers over her head.
“Is it magic?” she asked.
“I suppose your kind would call it magic, yes.” Tom's eyes twinkled. “Now you shall see – and, perhaps, know.”
Robin knew it would be fruitless to ask exactly what they would see and know. He hung the cord around his neck, and the wooden leaf stirred as though moved by the wind, and settled on his breastbone. Sorrel slipped her hand into Tom's, and he followed them out of their vast rosebud shelter, and into -
Well. He felt his mouth drop open, heard his mother's voice in his head reminding him that he was not a codfish, and sharply closed it.
He had known, of course, on that deep level beyond conscious thought or even instinct, that they were no longer in Bindbole Wood. He supposed they were somewhere up on the North Moors – and again he thought of the old whispered rumours of the walking tree – but he had never seen moorland that looked like this. Great sweeps of green lawn were dotted with structures similar to the one he and Sorrel had slept beneath. Some were woven from willow; others, like their own, were fashioned from rosebushes, or wysteria. Bordering the lawns were neatly tended beds of flowers and shrubs and herbs. He sniffed deeply, tasting the rich savour of rosemary and the sweet soothing balm of lavender. Bees hummed a cheerful ditty as they danced from bud to bud, and he laughed a little, thinking of Sorrel out on the moors yesterday.
The grass sloped gently away into orchards divided by neat wooden fences; he recognised apple trees, and pears, and cherries. There were rose gardens too, rows and rows of them. Some held bold, proud blooms the audacious red of ripe fruit. In others were small bushes with peeping buds the colour of his mother's best custard, or the delicate pink of a winter sunrise. There were orange roses, silky lilac roses, roses so dark they were almost black. Some were large and loose and voluptuous, as though shaking themselves out after a long rest; others were stiff and tightly curled, turning their noses up at the wild scrambling of their neighbours. There were roses of more than one hue – great clashing petals of yellow and red, like dragon's flames in the sky; heavy white blossoms the size of cabbage heads, irradiated with palest green; roses of thick lustrous cream, swirled with a deep dark pink like raspberry jam.
And among them, like mother-shepherds, the Entwives walked.
“Oh!” Sorrel's voice fluted over the peaceful buzz of the gardens. “How beautiful.”
Robin said nothing, only stared.
Tom gave Sorrel's hand a brief shake. “This way.”
He led them along a path between two orchards, towards a glade of silver birch trees. Sweetbark and Silverleaf waited there, and with them was another Entwife, tall and slender and proud, her crackled skin the colour of strong tea. As they approached, Robin thought that this must be their queen, or their leader at the very least – for who else would carry themselves with such surety, such balance, such grace? She was the first Entwife he had seen whose face he could honestly describe as beautiful – her features were elegant and even, her golden eyes wide and dark-rimmed, her cheeks and lips gently sculpted. Again he thought of Elves, but not for their age or sorrow. This time he thought of their enchanting looks, too lovely to be real, or so the stories had it. And yet there were deep dark scars in her bark, great wounds like the hacking of an axe or a sword. He frowned. He knew that when you cut into a tree trunk, the wood underneath was paler than the bark, and he wondered what terrible weapon had left its mark on this fair creature.
Tom let go of Sorrel's hand. As though by instinct, she sank into a deep curtsey; Robin followed her lead and bowed.
“Well met, children of the Shire.” Her voice was soft and sweet, like the sun on summer grass. “It is long since we had dealings with any of your kind.”
He found his tongue. “Thank you for looking after us.”
“Do you live here?” demanded Sorrel.
He rolled his eyes. “Hush!”
But Silverleaf, Sweetbark and the queenly Entwife only laughed.
“Yes.” A shadow past across her voice and eyes. “Although these gardens are only a pale echo of the realm we once tended, far away in the East.”
Sorrel tilted her head. “You're Wandlimb, aren't you?”
“I have been called that, yes. Fimbrethil, the Elves named me, long ago when the world was young.”
“You know the Elves?” she asked excitedly.
A deep flush crept into Robin's cheeks, but the Entwives didn't seem to mind the questions bubbling out of his sister.
“There are few enough of them left now – although more than there are of us – but yes.” Wandlimb looked at Tom, who bowed and settled himself against the trunk of one of the birch trees. “We meet with the Wandering Companies now and again, when they are travelling North.”
So they were somewhere on the moors, he thought. He wondered how no hobbit had ever found this place – and then he touched the wooden leaf resting around his neck, and remembered Tom's words.
Wandlimb was watching him now, amusement curling at the corners of her mouth. “Like many old things in this late Age, we do not always wish to be found.”
The heat in his cheeks deepened. “We didn't mean to intrude.”
“No, indeed – and nor would you have been able to, if we had not willed it so. This land knows Tom of old; that and our own power keeps us safe from prying eyes.”
Robin glanced back at Tom, who now appeared to be asleep. One leg lay crossed over the other, and his hat covered his face.
“But since you are here, and you have asked questions...” Wandlimb smiled, and rustled her limbs, and the air around them sighed. A low deep thrumming seemed to rise from the ground, and the thick warmth of summer faded into the cool clear clime of a newer, fresher land.
Robin felt his sister's gasp, and reached out and took her hand. They stood under a sky of sharp young stars. The lands were cragged and empty; Tom was still with them, although he seemed now to be resting against a boulder rather than a tree. Wandlimb, he thought, still stood over them, although her shape was shaded and her presence felt somehow...distant.
He felt the voice in his mind rather than heard it with his ears – and he stared as a long-limbed, green-skinned maiden rose from the ground as though fashioning herself from the grass itself. She was taller than one of the Big Folk – taller even than the Entwives – and somehow stretched, her arms and body and legs too long and thin to be human. Her robes were silver, and white flowers were woven in her hair. Awe prickled down Robin's spine. He wasn't afraid, or not exactly; the woman did not feel evil, but she was ancient and terrible, and her loose, floating gait with its light bounce made his body turn cold with a sense of otherness, not unlike the way he felt when he looked at Tom through the corner of his eye. But this ran deeper. Tom seemed bound to some part of the earth that he, Robin, could not see. The tall green woman did not feel like she was from this world at all.
They followed along behind her, their steps carrying them further and faster than reality should allow, and watched as she knelt by a forest edge. She clasped both hands over her breast and closed her eyes and opened her mouth, and though her lips did not move a song rose through the land, strange and complex, atonal and yet surer and truer than anything he had ever heard. He felt Sorrel's hand grip his own tighter as slim, shining white stalks rose from the ground in front of the trees. They curled and waved and raised thin voices of their own to join the music, and as they grew and changed they blazed like the watching stars, and the woman rose and walked between them, touching each one in turn. The things that had seemed as young white trees shifted, blurred, grew faces and limbs, and their pale glow faded into shades of brown and green and grey.
Robin and Sorrel padded forwards as the woman lay down in the grass, unfolding herself out of existence as suddenly as she had come.
They did not truly resemble trees – not yet. Or at least it was hard to say which tree each belonged to. Rather they were like children's drawings of trees, plain, simple, blank. They smiled at one another, and walked away into the forest. Sorrel started after them but Robin caught her around the waist; her breath hitched, and she coughed, and the fresh world faded and warm yellow sunlight surrounded them again.
Tom pushed a bowl into Sorrel's hands as she gasped for breath. Robin released his grip on her, guilt worming in his gut. Silverleaf and Sweetbark peered down at them in concern. Wandlimb said nothing, watching, her face inscrutable.
Sorrel took a deep breath and passed Robin the bowl. He glanced at Wandlimb for permission; she nodded, and he sipped gratefully.
“Is that how you were born?” Sorrel asked.
“Made rather than born, perhaps, but yes.” Wandlimb gazed out of the grove towards the rose gardens. “Some of us, at least.”
“There were Entings too, once,” Sweetbark put in.
“Baby Ents,” guessed Robin.
Sorrel fingered her necklace, and looked between Tom and Wandlimb. “How did you do it? How did you take us there?”
Tom grinned, and Robin shivered, not entirely sure he liked the expression. “There's power in this old earth – and will be for a long while yet.”
His sister seemed undeterred. “Will you show us the Elves? Please,” she added hurriedly as Robin glared.
Again the Entwives only laughed. “No need to be so hasty!” Sweetbark scolded her. “All in good time.”
Robin was surprised to find that, though the vision had seemed to last only a few moments, the sun was already high in the sky. They ate a small luncheon of nuts and berries, but despite the size of the meal, no stabs of hunger troubled his stomach. He wondered what was in the drink the Entwives kept giving them. It seemed rude to ask, and he doubted he would receive an answer.
After their meal, Tom and the children settled on the ground.
“Sheep grow like shepherds, and shepherds grow like sheep,” Wandlimb intoned, as though continuing some tale she had been telling. “For many years we toiled in the forest and on its plains.”
Again the ground seemed to thrum, as though stretching and awakening from a long deep sleep. Cool, sweet notes crept into the air – and now they were back in the same fair land, lit by a young white sun.
“Oh, that's you!” exclaimed Sorrel as an Entwife who was now recognisably Wandlimb emerged from the trees – but when Robin turned, the three Entwives had vanished. Only Tom remained, sitting silent on the ground beside them, his crinkled eyelids closed.
The young Wandlimb – for she was young, and pink blossoms budded from her branches – looked about her, and cried out in a deep, strange voice like the bending of trees and the rush of a woodland river. Others followed her from the forest, ash and thorn and rowan and pear, and finally a great handsome oak with hair like green catkins and bark of rich, dark brown. He took Wandlimb's hand and kissed her lips, and the sun caught in their leaves and glowed on their skin.
The wind rose, bearing the scent of fresh grass and pine and budding flowers and wild garlic, and as it curled about them it carried fair voices like starlight on a mere, laughing, calling out a greeting. Sorrel squealed as half a dozen tall, long-haired figures cantered by on horseback.
“Elves!” she cried out, delighted.
Her exclamations were echoed by the thin, lanky beings now running out of the forest. Robin couldn't help laughing; these were Entings, they could be nothing else. They were like gangled sapling trees, green and smooth-skinned and bendable. The Elves dismounted and knelt to greet them, and he felt a stirring in his heart as their cloaks blew in the breeze, ruby red and sapphire blue, jewel hues so vivid he thought that he could fall inside them and drown. And their eyes, full of wisdom and lost, ancient light...
Evening fell, as in dreams it could so suddenly do. The Entings and the Elves were gone. There was a faded grey taste to the air now, and Robin knew that in that rapid shifting of the light, hundreds if not thousands of years had passed by. He glanced at Tom, who might still have been asleep, then back at the forest.
Wandlimb, older now, stood at its borders, holding hands with the same tall oak-Ent as before. Their brows rested together, but there was sorrow here now, and difference, and regret.
“Will you not stay?”
“How can I? What is there here for me? We no longer care for the same things, my heart of oak...”
They spoke in their own tongue, but in his soul he understood their words.
On the dark night air came a wild battle-cry, and the ring of steel on steel, and blackness fell – and when it lifted he was high above the earth, without form or body, and he cried out but no sound came. Below him was a great river; on one bank was a wide, wild forest, and on the other a garden of plenty, its flowers a riot of colour and its orchards stretching for miles. Voices called from one side to the other, singing a melody that pulled at his mind like the memory of a dream.
“When stride is long, and breath is deep, and keen the mountain-air,
Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is fair...”
“...When shower and Sun upon the Earth with fragrance fill the air,
I'll linger here and will not come, because my land is fair!”
And then, so distant that he wasn't sure he heard it, the crackling snap of flames...
A deep sob – not Sorrel's – pulled him from the vision, and with a sickening swirl he was back on the ground in the silver birch grove. Sweetbark and Silverleaf and Wandlimb stood together, leaning into one another. Sorrel curled against his side. Tom twirled his hat between his hands. The sun was setting, and red light spilled across the gardens.
Chapter 4: Going Home
“What happened?” Sorrel asked as they followed Tom back through the rose gardens and orchards to their bower. “Where did it all go?”
Deep indigo clouds curled in the evening sky. Tom rested one nut-brown hand on her shoulder. “The memory became painful for them to hold.”
“But what did it mean?”
He ushered them under the rosebud canopy, now lit again by the the floating lamps. Insects, Robin realised, now that his head was clearer. Fat glowing insects. He ducked as one buzzed lazily past his cheek.
“Well, little miss,” Tom said, “tell me how it would feel to you if you spent days and weeks making something for your brother – something you loved as well, mark you, loved and cared for deeply – and when you gave it to him he said thank you all the same, but that's not what I wanted at all, and now I'll be off to see the wide world alone?”
“Robin wouldn't do that. And anyway, he'd take me off to see the wide world with him.”
Tom's sharp shining eyes met Robin's. Robin squirmed a little at his sister's faith.
“And you, Master Robin. What would you think if all you wanted in the world was to explore, and find, and understand, and yet the person you held dearest wanted you to spend your life with your head straight down, staring at the same patch of earth for the rest of your days?”
“That's how it was for the Ents and the Entwives,” Robin said slowly. “But then at the end...I thought I heard fire...”
“The Entwives' gardens were in the East, and when the Shadow rose, few escaped its wrath.”
He nodded, thinking of Wandlimb's terrible dark scars. An image flashed in his mind of blood weeping from her gashed skin, like sap from a diseased tree. “And they came here...and you hid them.”
Tom's eyes sparkled. “They can hide themselves, you know. You young hobbits could walk under the forest eaves for a year and a day and pass an Ent or Entwife every hour, and you wouldn't know it if they didn't want you to.”
“But why didn't they go back to the Ents?” Sorrel demanded. “After they – after the Shadow came.”
“Are those ears on the side of your head, pretty one, or did you stitch on a pair of dish-clouts in their place?” Tom raised his brows. “They no longer loved the same things. They had grown apart – as growing things sometimes do.”
“That's sad.” She coughed into her handkerchief.
Tom shrugged. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. You see, things have a way of coming back together again, in the end.” He clapped his hands. “And now, if you have all your belongings, it's time for you to go home.”
“Home?” Sorrel's yelp was indignant. “It's nearly nightfall!”
Tom looked from one of them to the other and cast his eyes up to the canopy. “And there was I thinking you might have learned something while you've been here. Well, well, never mind – come along now. You've tarried long enough, and Tom must be getting back to Goldberry.”
A merry smile split Tom's face then, and he laughed and capered out of the bower.
“O slender as a willow-wand! O clearer than clear water!
O reed by the living pool! Fair River-daughter!”
Sorrel frowned and looked at Robin, who shrugged.
The Entwives were gathered in the rose gardens, and they smiled and nodded at the children as they said their goodbyes. Sorrel flung her arms around Sweetbark and Silverleaf. Robin hesitated, not sure he wanted to hug what essentially seemed to be a tree trunk, so instead the two Entwives who had cared for him last night ruffled his hair and blew him a kiss.
“Take care of yourself and your sister, Robin of Tighfield,” Silverleaf said.
“And don't go leaping into any more adder-nests,” Sweetbark scolded.
He grinned. “Don't worry. I won't.”
Wandlimb came forward last of all, and once again he bowed, deeply and slowly. She smiled at him as he rose, and touched Sorrel's cheek with one twig-like hand. “Come. I will show you to the borders of our land.”
The crab apple pendant shifted against his chest, and he touched it and looked around for Tom, intending to return it – but somehow the funny little man had vanished, as though into the air, or perhaps into the earth.
“Keep them,” Wandlimb said, seemingly guessing his thoughts. “Both of you. They were gifts.”
She led them through the orchards, here and there pausing to check on one particular tree, or pull down a piece of fruit. Soon the land began to rise, and they followed an uphill path lined with sweet wild garlic, and as it crested over the hill she came to a halt and closed her eyes, inhaling the night air. “Carry on down the path to the bottom of the hill, and keep walking. You'll soon know where you are.”
Robin frowned. There was nothing around, not for miles, only soft green hills lit silver by the moon, each one very much like another – but, he reminded himself, not everything in this land was as it seemed.
Sorrel seemed trusting enough of the Entwife's instructions. “Goodbye, Wandlimb – and thank you.” She turned and set off down the hill, waving Tom's white handkerchief behind her like a good luck charm.
Robin paused for a few moments, watching until she was out of earshot. “The drink you gave us – that's why my adder bite healed so fast, isn't it?”
The old Entwife bent slightly as though tilting her head, but kept her eyes on the little girl as she trotted down the hill. “Why ask a question when you know the answer already?”
Golden hope sprouted in him. “Then Sorrel...her cough...will it cure her too? She won't die?”
Wandlimb did turn to him then, sorrow etched into her noble face.
“Oh.” Robin felt the smile he hadn't realised he was wearing slip away. “I see. It doesn't work like that.”
“It does, and it does not. She will live a longer life than she might otherwise have had. Perhaps she will even grow up to be a pretty young woman, and capture and break a few hearts before she is done – but there is something at work within your sister that even the wholesome drafts of the Ents cannot keep at bay forever.”
He nodded. Tears wadded in his throat, and he felt ashamed. The Entwives had been kind – and it was better than nothing at all. “Thank you,” he made himself say.
“I should talk to her about it if I were you,” Wandlimb replied gently. “She knows, however much you and your parents may try to keep it hidden. She will not be a child for much longer.”
He nodded. “I will. And...” He hesitated, hoping he was saying the right thing. “And I hope you get to see the Ents again. In the end. If it's what you want.”
“It will be one day. But there is no need to be hasty. For now, we have everything we need.”
She looked back over her gardens then, and walked away, singing in a soft voice that swayed and creaked like the apple tree she resembled.
“Together we will take the road that leads into the West,
And far away will find a land where both our hearts may rest.”
Robin shivered and wrapped his arms across his body.
He followed his sister down the hill, and presently he felt a brush against his skin like the ghost of a leaf. His scalp prickled, and there was a breath of something warm and old and magical and sad on the back of his neck – and then, somehow, unbelievably, impossibly, they stood on the edge of Bindbole Wood.
It was a warm and sunny morning, just as it had been when they left. Sorrel blinked, staring at the trees as though she had never seen root, leaf or branch before in her life, and then looked back over her shoulder to where the Entwives' gardens had been.
“I don't understand.” Her voice was hurt, almost petulant.
Robin remembered Silverleaf's words to him the night before last. “I don't think we need to.”
He took her hand and led her back towards Tighfield. As they came down over Weedknell Hill they saw the rolling grassy humps of the familiar hobbit holes, the thatched roofs of the cottages, the rows of apple trees in Ma Burrows's orchard, and their father's rope-walk. Everything was exactly as they'd left it, though why that surprised him Robin couldn't say. When they arrived home their mother scolded them for almost missing luncheon, but said nothing about them being gone for two nights. Perhaps the Entwives' claim of time running differently in their land was true, Robin thought, dazedly accepting a plate of ham and lettuce and a cup of cold milk. He suspected it was something to do with Tom.
That night he and Sorrel lay awake whispering.
“We must be careful who we tell,” Robin said. “In fact, I don't think we should tell anyone at all. Father wouldn't be pleased to hear such stories from us, I know that much.”
“It's not a story!” In the shadows he saw her grip the necklace Tom had given her. “It was real, and true! It happened!”
“Hush!” he hissed.
Sorrel curled herself up into a tiny ball, as though that would somehow call back her indignant outburst.
“I know it was true,” he continued under his breath, “but most people won't believe it. And anyway, the Entwives won't want everyone going wandering up onto the North Moors looking for them.”
A long silence. “I told Penny Haybrook this afternoon.”
Robin closed his eyes and counted to ten. “Well, that can't be helped. Nobody else, though. Promise me?”
But no such solemn vow bound Penny Haybrook. She told Sky Mallow, who told Billy Burrows, who told his Old Ma, who told it to Andy Cotton, who shared it with the common-room in the Pipe and Mow, and before long the tale of walking tree-women with magic rose gardens and Elvish friends was being told everywhere from Needlehole to Oatbarton. Most sensible hobbits dismissed it as nonsense, and as Robin predicted, Cobson Roper was not pleased to hear that the rumours had begun with his own children - but his wife Fern and a few others believed, at least in part.
Chapter 5: Epilogue
Of course there had always been stories. The wandering elm-tree on the North Moors. The whispering voices in the Old Forest, passing secrets from branch to branch. Many who had walked the banks of the Withywindle that sprang from the Barrow-downs spoke of it only under their breath or behind their hands, as though afraid that even safe in their own homes, the wily old river might hear them. And Peregrin Took, his own father, thirty-second Thain of the Shire, had once been swallowed up whole by a great, wicked willow.
At least if one believed the tales – which Faramir Took most certainly did.
He remembered that Treebeard had once said the Entwives would be fond of the Shire and the lands around it, having a love of flowers and tilled earth and the ordinary fruit trees and herbs that the hobbits held so dear. It was true, too, that even after the coldest winters and the fiercest summer heat, the lands of the Shire would bloom and grow as though tended by some ancient power bound into the soil itself. And the earliest Men had been friends with the Entwives, if he recalled his history, learning from them and revering them.
Faramir leaned back into his winged chair. Perhaps these latest rumours weren't so wild as they seemed, although no doubt they had grown and flowered in the telling as the months went by and they made their way across the Shire. Now winter was on its way, and the stiffness in his bones deepened. This was no time to go running off on an adventure, whatever the keening in his heart and blood might urge.
Yet his father had never forgotten his promise to Treebeard, or the old Ent's reminder at their parting.
“Don't forget that if you hear any news of the Entwives in your land, you will send word to me...”
Maddening that the cold had fallen so early. In warmer weather he would have travelled to the Northfarthing himself, if not to see the Entwives (for who was to say they would show themselves to him?) then at least to speak to the two youngsters at the heart of these stories. He ought to satisfy himself of the truth of their tales before sending any message to Treegarth, or wherever the Ents dwelt these days. And anyway, would it even be right to summon Ents to the Shire, without first knowing whether the Entwives wished to be found? The verses he had learned in his youth spoke of a deep rift, not bitter or angry but full of sorrow, and not to be healed until the ending of all things.
He closed his eyes, drew on his pipe and chanted softly, “When Winter comes, and singing ends; when darkness falls at last...”
For a few moments he was a small boy again, kneeling at his father's feet while the evening fire died, begging for one more song or story before his mother took him to bed. But that was long ago, and his father and his friends had kept the world's darkness at bay, at least for a while.
He sighed and reached for his cane. It was late, and tired minds made poor choices. In the morning he would decide what to do.