Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Author's Warning: major AU. Absolutely non-canon.
She tried not to think about the Old Forest.
For several weeks, she managed not to think about it, to behave, to not let anyone know that her arms and legs tingled like she wanted to throw out her arms and run, that she laid awake at night, unable to sleep, wanting to get up, to walk, to run, to shout, to do something, anything, to make the tingling stop. She was never tired anymore, she was always just bursting out of her skin, so full of life with nothing to spend it on.
Daddy started wanting her to stay inside, to keep near the Hall, and other families kept their children close to home, too. There was talk of Big People in the woods, tall, hooded Men who skulked in the shadows watching for good folk knew what. Mommy told the servants to lock the windows as well as the doors, to put shutters on everything, and everyone was in a quiet, bad mood.
Buttercup didn't tell anyone about where she'd gone. She had hoped the three Big Men had been a dream, that she'd fallen asleep in the flowers and seen it in her sleep, but when everyone began to talk about the Men in the woods, she knew it had really happened. Were they looking for her? Why? She didn't want to know, but she kept thinking about the Man with gray eyes and whether he was looking for her.
He hadn't looked mean. Buttercup thought that maybe he was just worried, that he thought there was a child lost in the woods. He hadn't seen her that well, maybe he thought she was a Big People girl? Then all she had to do was explain, and he could go away.
The night Buttercup heard at the table that Big People had been seen down near Haysend, she waited until everyone was asleep and sneaked out again. It was unexpectedly easy, with the dogs who slept at the door only looking up and wagging their tails to see her go by, and when she was on the Hill, she slipped from shadow to shadow in the dark as if she'd done it a hundred times before.
The Old Forest was gloomier at night. She walked carefully, but the branches moved and the leaves whispered wherever she went, though nothing reached down for her, and she got the feeling of being watched more strongly than before. But she wasn't afraid, especially since this time she'd thought to stop and borrow a long knife from the box where Saradoc kept his hunting things. She had it tucked into her dress, under her cloak, and somehow this made it easier to be by herself under the trees.
After a while, she realized that she was going too slowly. Her feet and legs itched, and the air felt good on her face. So she held her hood and went at a run.
It felt so good. Buttercup hated sitting still—she couldn't bear to be unmoving for more than a few minutes. To run in the woods was the closest she could get to whatever it was her feet and legs and arms wanted to do, and it felt so good to let herself go that she almost forgot where she was going. When she remembered, when she slowed down enough to notice where she was, she could hear the rippling and gurgling of the river somewhere nearby, and she smelled water on the air.
She came out onto a grassy bank, the dirt turning to mud under her feet. She could see farther up ahead where this river met a bigger one and thought that maybe that was the Brandywine and this, this was the Withywindle.
The stars were out overhead, silver pinpricks next to a glowing Moon. Buttercup stared down into the river, and remembered a pair of blue, blue eyes.
She forgot about the Big People. All she could think about was the water, the boy, Frodo, and how the fear of it sat like a rock in her stomach.
Behind a tree, she slipped out of her cloak and dress and small clothes, leaving them and her knife in a neat bundle under a bush. The night was cold, and she shivered as she went forward, to the edge of the water.
The first step wasn't so bad. It was just cold, was all. Then she kept going, step and step and step, until she was up to the waist in water, and then the faces came to her in her head.
A girl, thin, pale, with long brown hair. Another girl, taller, with fair skin and black hair, dark eyes that looked sad and mean all at once. They stared at her, they watched her, and she tried to remember them but couldn't. She felt strange again, felt a weightlessness in her arms and legs, felt the water lap at her waist, then her hips, then her knees. Her fingers, which had been trailing the surface, were suddenly in the air.
The cold air was bitter on her wet skin. She went forward, another few steps, and she was waist-deep again, and now she saw the brown-haired girl as clearly as if they were standing next to each other, and the girl's mouth was moving, she was calling her by name—” “Bu—” The girl's lips moved. “Bu—”
She shook her head. It was just in front of her, just out of reach...if only she could go just a little further...
Her feet moved on their own and suddenly the water closed over her head.
Water. The silver blue above and the darker blue below.
She saw him look at her. She saw him drowning. Frodo,
she thought. Frodo.
And she remembered her name.
A hand closed on her arm. It pulled her up.
She gasped when her head broke the surface, but her eyes were already open and she saw him clearly against the moonlight, the black hair, the stern face. She saw his mouth move as he talked to her.
Panic filled her head. She struggled, but he had a good grip, and she only ended up splashing him. He was closer to the bank than she was, was so tall that his feet were on the ground even though hers weren't, and he was trying to make her stop, trying to hold her other arm. She saw that the Man was between her and her clothes.
“Wait, wait, please, I only want—I only want to ask—”
She hit him, hard, in the arm, and he made a noise in the back of his throat and let go. She went under again, but this time found the muddy ground, and then she was coming out of the water, flinging back her wet, braided hair, and was on the bank, running, forgetting that she was naked, and the moonlight was cool on her skin.
She grabbed up the bundle she had left, a bundle that seemed smaller than it had before, and looked back, eyes wide. The Man stood on the bank, one hand outstretched, hood fallen back and hair wet, and she could see his gray eyes all the way from where she stood.
She turned and fled.
Like the time before, she wasn't sure how far she went. All she knew was that she made her legs go as fast as they could, she let the air push in and out of her lungs, and when she stopped, when she tumbled to the grass to lie, panting, on her back, shivering with cold, she couldn't remember why she'd walked into the river.
Again, she'd run straight out the woods and to that hill, the one from where she could see Brandy Hall, big and dark in the night. She pulled on her dress, her cloak, but saw that she'd lost the knife. It had been Saradoc's particular knife, with a bird mark in the handle, and her heart sank because she knew he was going to look for it the next day.