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A New Kind of Courage  by Auntiemeesh

Chapter One: The Mustering

Merry woke only reluctantly when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he squinted against lantern light. Blinking rapidly, he made out a blurry form. ďPippin?Ē

ďAye. Iím sorry to wake you, Merry, but I thought you might take first breakfast with me before I go.Ē Pippinís voice wavered just slightly and Merry was suddenly wide awake. Pippin was leaving this morning with the host, going to the very doors of Mordor to provide a distraction, keep Sauronís eye outside of his realm so that the object of all their hopes should have a chance at least of success.

ďOf course I will, Pip. I should have been furious with you if you hadnít woken me.Ē He forced a grin and climbed out of bed. He felt stiff and his right arm ached slightly. Doing his best to ignore the sensation, he quickly drew off his nightshirt and dressed in clean clothes. He eyed the armor he had received from King Theoden but decided against putting it on. Instead, he wrapped his elven cloak about himself and turned to Pippin. ďShall we go?Ē

The two friends walked silently through the House of Healing, careful to disturb none of the patients sleeping in the rooms they passed. Once out in the street, they spoke lightly as they headed to the mess hall. Although it was still some time before dawn, they were not alone as they entered the large hall. Many men were sitting about, alone or in small groups, eating quickly and speaking in hushed tones. Pippin led Merry to a high counter and spoke to the man on the other side.

ďGood morning, Targon. This is my cousin, Meriadoc.Ē Targon nodded his head to Merry, ďPleased to make your acquaintance,Ē the large man said as he handed over bowls of steaming porridge, a warm loaf of bread, fresh butter and cheese, along with a pot of tea and two cups. In the short period of time that he had known Pippin, he had come to understand that the perian preferred tea to ale, first thing in the morning.

The two friends made their way to a table that was half empty and set their tray down. They didnít speak for several minutes as they applied themselves to their food. Finally, when all that was left on the tray was some bread and a few nibbles of cheese, they pushed back from the table.

ďWhen do you need to go?Ē Merry asked this haltingly, not wanting to hear the answer.

ďSoon, but we still have some time,Ē Pippin replied.

Merry did not know what to say to Pippin. He wanted to remind his cousin to be careful, keep himself safe, but knew that there was no safety where Pippin was going. ďDid you remember to pack everything youíll need?Ē he finally asked, just to break the silence.

Pippin smiled in understanding and Merry was struck by how much older his young cousin seemed. Pippin had matured a great deal just in the short time they had been separated. They had spent much time the past two days talking over their adventures but somehow Merry had not realized until now, how much Pippin had changed.

ďI donít suppose there will be much that I do need, once we get there,Ē Pippin commented. ďJust my sword and shield, and the strength and courage to use them.Ē His brow was creased and his eyes shadowed.

ďAre you worrying that you wonít be brave enough to face whatever comes?Ē Pippin nodded. ďThatís ridiculous, Pip. You are one of the bravest hobbits I know. You came all this way with us, knowing that unknown terrors awaited and yet refusing to be sent home. You have faced orcs, ents, wizards, mad Stewards, fire and fear. You will not fail of courage.Ē Merry quirked a smile. ďOf course, you may fail of height. You are woefully short, Pippin.Ē

ďHoy!Ē Pippin shouted in indignation. ďIím taller than you, Meriadoc Brandybuck.Ē

ďLetís get this straight once and for all, Peregrin Took. You have never been, are not now and never will be taller than me. If I, on occasion, seem shorter than you, it is only because I have slouched in order to make you feel less inferior.Ē Merryís eyes sparkled warmly as he bantered with his cousin.

The conversation continued in this vein for some time as they piled their dishes in a waiting receptacle and left the hall. They wandered down through the levels of the city, still arguing in all good nature. The sun was just rising in the east as they approached the ruins of the main gate. It was time to say their farewells and the thought was bitter to Merry.

Looking at Pippin, he could find no words to say that would properly express all the things he was feeling right now, shame that he could not go along, fear that he would never see Pippin again and a greater fear that was too difficult to even put into thought, that they might fail and Sauron regain the Ring. Finally, he simply put his arms around his cousin and held him tight for a moment. ďDo the Shire proud, Pippin, and come back safe,Ē he muttered into his friendís collar before breaking away.

Tears glistening in his eyes, Pippin nodded and turned away, moving to join the company that he would be marching with, led by his friend, Beregond. Merry, with Pippinís friend Bergil next to him, stood where he was, eyes glued to the one small form amongst the Men of Gondor. He remained where he was long after the last horns had blown and the last companies had disappeared into the distance, unwilling to let go of his friend. He bowed his head in despair, the pain in his arm growing stronger as he lingered. Dimly, he was aware of Bergil talking to him and guiding him up the hill back to the Houses of Healing, but he paid the lad little heed. Once again he had been left behind by everyone he cared for. Feeling old and useless, he was grateful to reach his little room. Closing the door behind him, he slowly undressed and crawled into the overlarge bed, pulling the covers up over his head and shutting out the sights and sounds of the new day.

Chapter two: Truths

Merry was standing at his window, taking an occasional puff of his pipe and staring out into the distance. He had been helping the kitchen staff earlier in the day, pushing meal trolleys from one room to the next, delivering food to those patients too ill or injured to leave their beds. It was about all he was able for until some more strength returned to his arm, and it left him feeling tired and sad. So many men had been injured in this war. Some of them horrendously injured, missing arms or legs, some having lost an eye or ear. Each of them needed someone to talk to, someone who could understand their fear and pain, their uncertainties about what would be in store for them when they were recovered enough to go home. The worst were those who were all alone here. Merry had been trying to spend as much time as he could with them, knowing how lonely he was, and he was able to move around and keep himself busy. How much worse must it be for those confined to a bed in a lonely room, isolated from everyone else. The healers did their best but were overworked and pressed for time.

This morning Merry had been sitting with a young Rider of Rohan, more lad than man, with a fluff of down on his chin that he proudly called a beard, who had lost an arm in the battle. The lad was homesick, in pain and frightened of what his life was going to be like now that he was forever maimed, but determined to put on a good front. He had been telling Merry about the lass he had left behind in Dunharrow. Although he had not said so, it was clear to Merry that the lad was afraid his lass would no longer want him when he returned to her. There was not much Merry could do to reassure him and heíd tried distraction instead. Heíd told a story about a lass he had once fancied, in his tweenage years. He had told of all the outrageous things he had done in order to draw the attention of this lass to himself, only to find once he succeeded that his own interest had wandered off and gotten lost somewhere. The lad had laughed and for a moment Merry had felt some of the weight of his own despair lift a little.

There were so many, though, and he wasnít able to help them all. No one was. One of the men in Eomerís mark had died that morning. There had been no real reason for the riderís death. His wounds had been healing well and he would soon have been able to leave the Houses of Healing. He had suffered from the Black Breath, though, and never seemed to come all the way out from under the shadow. He had been found by one of the healers, having taken his own life in order to escape the darkness. It wasnít the first time this had happened in the days since the battle and it wasnít likely to be the last, either.

Merryís thoughts were distracted by a knock at the door and he gratefully admitted entrance to the Warden of the Houses of Healing, finding himself curious as to the manís purpose here.

ďMaster Brandybuck, how is your arm today?Ē Merry bit back a grimace at the manís formality. He had tried to convince the man it was perfectly proper to call him Merry, but it seemed this was as good as it was going to get. It was an improvement over Master Perian, at any rate.

ďIt is improving, thank you.Ē He automatically flexed the arm and was reassured to feel some of his strength returning. Not enough to wield a sword, of course. He forced a smile. ďCan I help you with something?Ē

ďAs a matter of fact, you can. Lord Faramir was curious about the Lady Eowyn and I told him that you would know more about her than I did, as I understand you spent a great deal of time with her.Ē

Ah, Lady Eowyn. Merry had visited with her this morning, as he had yesterday. Heíd understood her feelings of resentment and despair all too well. It was no easy thing to be left behind when those you cared about were heading into danger.

ďI will speak with the Lord Faramir if he wishes it, though I do not know if I can help him.Ē Merry took up his cloak and followed the Warden. He was led to a room that, while well appointed, was still clearly a sick room. Here a tall, serious man was sitting at a small table in front of the fire.

ďLord Faramir,Ē the Warden spoke respectfully, ďhere is the halfling, Meriadoc Brandybuck, of whom I spoke earlier.Ē

Faramir looked up and Merry was caught by his resemblance to Boromir. Pippin had spoken of Faramir several times, but this was the first time that Merry had met him. His face still bore the marks of illness, lines of pain and shadows of weariness. Despite these marks, or perhaps because of the quiet dignity with which he bore them, Merry could see why the man had made such a strong impression on Pippin.

ďWelcome, Master Brandybuck.Ē Faramir smiled in greeting. ďPlease sit and join me in something to eat.Ē

Merry bowed politely, then faced west for a moment before sitting, having learned this strange custom from Pippin and not wanting to offend his host.

Faramir laughed. ďI see that you are learning our customs quickly, Master Brandybuck.Ē

ďMy cousin, Peregrin, taught me much that he had learned here, before he left for...for...Ē Merryís voice died out and he left the sentence unfinished. After a moment, he started up again. ďHe tried to explain as many things as he could, although he didnít understand the whys of most of the customs.Ē

ďI owe a great debt of gratitude to your cousin.Ē A shadow fell across Faramirís face. ďI have been told that he saved my life while I was ill, although I have no memory of the event and when I asked him about it, he grew very evasive and said that I owed my life to Gandalf, not him.Ē The Steward was quiet for a moment, lost in some sad thought, before forcing himself back to the present. ďEnough of that. Eat up, Master Brandybuck, there is plenty of food.Ē

Merry obediently filled a plate. ďMaster Brandybuck is my father. Please call me Merry. Thatís what my friends do.Ē

Faramir, nearly done with his meal, picked politely at his food and kept up a stream of light conversation while his guest ate, quickly putting Merry at his ease. When the meal was over, Faramir set the tray outside his door and returned to the table, where he found Merry restlessly playing with his pipe.

ďI was always fascinated by Mithrandirís pipe, on his visits to Minas Tirith when I was a child.Ē Faramir indicated that Merry should go ahead and light up. ďI had not ever seen such a thing elsewhere but I never had the courage to ask him about it. I saw that your friend, Gimli has a pipe as well. It is an intriguing habit. Do all of your people have this trait or have you acquired it on your travels?Ē

A shadow passed over Merryís face as, just for a moment, he seemed to hear Theoden asking him a similar question at the gates of Isengard. Shaking off the sudden sadness, Merry forced a smile. ďIt is a common habit amongst hobbits, my lord. Tobold Hornblower of Longbottom first brought the leaf to the Shire several hundred years ago. It seems likely he got it in Bree although no one really knows for sure.Ē Merry began to warm to his subject and Faramir allowed him to go into quite a bit more detail than he had anticipated with his innocent question.

Merry began to wind down after several minutes. ďBut Iím sure thatís not why you asked me here today. The Warden mentioned something about Lady Eowyn.Ē He waited for Faramirís response. The new Steward of Minas Tirith did not reply immediately, his eyes moving off into the distance for a moment.

Finally he returned to himself with a shake. ďShe intrigues me. She is beautiful and sad and I do not entirely understand her pain. I was told that you have spent much time with her and so was hoping you could tell me about her.Ē

Merry found this a difficult task. ďI must confess, my lord, that although I did spend several days in her company, she was in disguise as a Rider of Rohan. I did not myself realize who she was until she slew the Nazgul.Ē Mention of that evil seemed to summon the pain and cold in Merryís arm and he shifted slightly, drawing closer to the fire for comfort. Faramir shivered as well but attempted to dismiss his unease.

ďStill, you must have spoken with her. Is her sadness simply due to the death of her uncle, or is there, as I feel certain, more to it than that?Ē

So Merry spent the rest of the afternoon recalling everything he could of Eowynís moods and words for Faramir. Later in the evening they went out into the garden and strolled around. Now Merry pressed Faramir for details of his meeting with Frodo and Sam. Faramir spoke at length about his conversation with Frodo, the encounter with Gollum, and Frodoís insistence on following Gollumís lead.

The long shadows cast by the setting sun gradually disappeared as darkness loomed over the city and Merry felt the darkness returning to his heart as well.

ďThey are all out there, my friends and kin.Ē He waved his arm to the east. ďI promised myself that I would protect them. It turns out I was unable even to take care of myself.Ē He bowed his head. ďIt shames me, Faramir, that I must sit here in safety and comfort while they are all in such gravest danger.Ē

Faramir studied the small figure before him. Here was another unhappy soul and again there was nothing he could do to change the circumstances which brought about this pain. He understood Merryís desire to go to the battle. He felt it himself, although he knew that his recovery was not complete.

ďI think,Ē he began haltingly, ďthat these times call for a new kind of courage from us, Merry. The courage to face our own weakness and accept it. The courage to accept that in this instance, someone else is better suited to the task. There is no shame in this. You helped to rid the world of a great evil and suffered greatly in the doing. Now it is time to rest and heal. The time will likely come when the battle returns to us and we will need all our strength to face that end.Ē He rested his hand on Merryís shoulder for a moment. ďCome, the air is growing chill. We should both of us return to our rooms.Ē

Merry nodded but did not respond. After a moment, Faramir departed, leaving his friend alone to think. Merry barely noticed his going. A freshening breeze blew through his hair and he barely noticed that, as well. Faramir had given him much to think about and he sat for a long while, trying to come to terms with the truths that had been said and the truths that he felt in his heart.

Much later, he found his way back to his room. He was tired and ready for sleep, but sleep did not come. He could find no resolution to the conflict in his soul. He knew that Faramir had spoken truly but in his mindís eye, he kept seeing Frodo and Sam all alone in Mordor, and Pippin being overwhelmed by hordes of orcs and evil men in front of the Black Gate. These were the truths that his heart knew and Faramirís words brought him no comfort.

Chapter three: The Summons

Merry was sitting on a bench in one of the gardens which overlooked the city. He had been released from the healersí care several days ago but was still living at the Houses of Healing, having nowhere else to go. Heíd continued to help where he could and the Warden, whoís name Merry had finally learned was Faragut, had found that Merry had a talent for organization. With this in mind, he had asked Merry to help him inventory the remaining supplies. Merry had taken on this task in addition to spending time with the convalescing patients, especially those from Rohan and other distant places who were far from home and alone. He had also fallen into the habit of eating his noon meal with Bergil, who was equally alone and lonely though he wouldnít admit it. He was waiting for the lad now.

The wind was blowing from the north and clouds covered the sky. Merry wrapped himself in his cloak, wishing he still had his good wool coat. It had been lost when he and Pippin were stolen away by the orcs. He shivered, thinking of that, and turned his thoughts to other things. It had been seven days since Pippin and the others left. He wondered where they were. Had they reached the Black Gate yet, or were they still marching? Poor Pip must be exhausted, trying to keep up with the tall men of Minas Tirith. He remembered how hard it had been for all of them to keep up the pace Aragorn had set when they left Bree. The ranger had been as patient as he could be, but their shorter legs just couldnít go as far or as fast as the tall rangerís could. He had finally accepted this and slowed the pace just enough for them to make it to the end of each day. Now Pippin was the only hobbit amongst an army of men and Merry doubted Aragorn would slow the pace to accommodate one small soldier among many.

He was distracted from his worrying by the arrival of Bergil with a hamper full of food, a flagon of ale and another of water.

"Here," the lad said, handing over the flagon of ale, "Targon made me swear that I would turn this over to you directly, and promised that he would flay me alive if I drank so much as one sip of it."

"So how much did you drink, then?" Merry made a great show of weighing the flagon in his hand and trying to guess how much ale was missing, glad to have his gloomy thoughts interrupted.

Bergil grinned guiltily. "More than a sip, but not much more. Father doesnít approve of us young lads drinking ale." Clearly his fatherís approval mattered far more to Bergil than all of Targonís threats.

The lad set the food down on the wall next to Merry and the two of them began to eat. Neither of them was terribly hungry, they found, and both just picked at the food. There was something oppressive in the air today and it was affecting them both.

"Do you think they are fighting, over there?" Bergil nodded towards the northeast, in the direction of the Black Gate. He sounded very young today, young and insecure. Merry wanted to give him reassurance, but found he had nothing to give. His heart was troubled.

"I feel sure that something is happening, or is about to happen," he answered. He shivered again and wrapped his cloak more tightly about himself. The wind, which had been blowing vigorously all morning, suddenly died down and all was still. Merry and Bergil looked out over the wall, neither talking. It seemed as though a giant hand was pressing down on the city. Everyone had paused and even the birds and beasts had gone quiet. Looking east, Merry gasped as he saw a mountain of darkness rising. His heart lurched painfully as the darkness was lit intermittently by flashes of lightning. It seemed that something was indeed happening. But just as Merry drew breath to cry out in fear and sorrow, the darkness lifted and blew away. Suddenly the sun was bursting through the clouds and the vice that had clamped itself around Merryís heart released and fell away. He couldnít explain the sudden joy he felt, or the tears that were running down his face. Looking to Bergil he saw that the lad had been similarly affected. They stared at each other for a long moment, unable to make sense of anything. Faintly, upon the gentle breeze that was springing up around them, Merry could make out the sounds of singing coming from the lower levels of the city. Clearly, whatever was happening, the lightening of fear was being felt all over Minas Tirith.

"Do you think," Bergil began hesitantly, "is it possible that weíve...won?"

"It hardly seems possible or reasonable to suppose so, and yet," Merry faltered as he tried to explain what he felt, "I cannot help but think that some good thing has happened."

The two friends stood at the wall, waiting it seemed, although they knew not what they were waiting for. It was not long before they received an answer to Bergilís question. The sun had just passed zenith and was slowly sliding down into afternoon when a great Eagle came winging in out of the east, crying out a message of victory. The sounds of singing redoubled as everyone began to celebrate.

Merry was kept very busy the next few days. The healers, while celebrating as much as everyone else, knew there would be a price for the victory, paid in bone and blood. Men and women went out into the surrounding countryside, with armed guards, to gather as many herbs as they could find to replace those used up in the battle upon the Pelennor. All the young lads left in the city, including Bergil, were put to work rolling bandages, running errands, and generally helping out where needed, and Merry found himself in charge of this small army of underage helpers.

He was pleased to have something useful to do, as it kept his mind occupied and prevented him from fretting over the well-fare of his friends. Once the initial jubilation had worn off, he had found that his fears for Frodo, Sam and Pippin had not gone away. The eagle had given very little information, just crying that the dark tower had been thrown down and Sauron defeated. Merry supposed this to mean that Frodo had accomplished his quest and destroyed the ring, but at what cost to himself and Sam? And what of Pippin? It was best not to dwell on these thoughts and so Merry did his best to keep busy.

"Ah, Master Brandybuck, what can I do for you?" Faragut asked, inviting Merry into his study.

"Iíve got the completed inventory of the lower supply rooms." Merry handed over a sheaf of papers. Faragut looked the papers over, noting that Merry had marked which items were in danger of running out, which items were old and past their usefulness and what was missing altogether.

Before the Warden could comment on the papers there was a knock at the door. "Yes? Come in." Faragut looked up as the door opened. Bergil stood in the doorway, looking very excited, face flushed and breathing heavily.

"Messengers have come, Master Faragut, from Lord Aragorn. Lord Faramir has summoned you to a meeting. You as well, Merry." Faragut frowned at the ladís informality with Merry but did not comment. Gathering up his cloak, he nodded at Bergil to lead the way.

Several minutes later, Merry found himself sitting with ten or twelve men, most of whom he did not know, around a large table. There were no tall stools in the room and Merry was forced to make do with one of the regular, man-sized chairs. This resulted in the table being at about the level of his chin and making him feel like a child eavesdropping on the business of his elders. It was not a sensation he liked, but one he had become somewhat inured to since leaving the Shire. Faramir stood at the head of the table, facing the men he had summoned.

"As youíve heard, Lord Aragorn has sent several messengers," Faramir began. "He tells that while the war is over, the battle took a grievous toll of men. There is much need for healers and medicinal supplies. He also requests that supplies of food, clothing and other such goods be shipped as soon as possible. He is removing the army to Cormallen and there establishing a field hospital to care for the wounded."

There were many murmurs as the gathered men took in Faramirís words but no one interrupted the Steward.

"Warden Faragut, Lord Aragorn has forwarded a list of supplies for you to fill. Please have the supplies and a contingent of your best healers ready to go by the first hour before sunrise tomorrow."

"Of course, my lord." Faragut nodded his head in acknowledgment, already mapping out in his mind the things that would need to be done in the next hours.

Faramir continued to speak, delineating the tasks each of the men were being asked to perform. Finally, they had all been assigned their tasks and the meeting was adjourned. Merry wondered why he had been summoned. Heíd hoped for news of his friends but clearly that was not forthcoming. Everyone was talking freely now, as the men stood and began moving towards the door. Merry slid off his chair but hesitated, torn between wanting to ask Faramir if there was any other news and not wanting to annoy the Steward, who was currently engaged in speech with the Captain of the Guard. After a momentís indecision, he headed toward the door.

"Master Brandybuck," Faramirís voice froze him in place. "Please wait one moment. I have something for you." Before Merry could respond, Faramir returned his attention to the soldier, continuing to issue instructions.

Merry stood awkwardly, not sure what to do with himself as he waited. He toyed with the idea of returning to his chair but discarded the thought almost at once. Instead, he moved into one of the narrow window bays, looking out over the courtyard. In the distance, he could see the waters of the river Anduin glinting in the sunlight. Spring had arrived in truth this past week and everywhere he looked, Merry saw signs of rebirth. The dead tree by the fountain drooped sadly but elsewhere trees had burst forth in a riot of blossoms and fresh green leaves. Garden plots, neglected during the course of this long war, still bloomed, a tangle of flowers and weeds that shouted out their joy in warmth and sun. The very air was warm and sweet. Merry wondered what Cormallen was like. Were there trees or flowers there? Was Pippin smelling the sweet scent of honeysuckle right now, as Merry was? His thoughts were interrupted by a hand on his shoulder and Merry jumped in surprise.

Faramir smiled. "Minas Tirith is beautiful in the spring, is it not?" he asked. "Of course, the city has a beauty of its own in every season, though it is not to everyoneís taste, I suppose."

Merry, glancing up into the Stewardís face, saw the love Faramir felt for his home and recognized it as the same love that burned in his own heart whenever he thought of the Shire and Buckland, and his home at Brandy Hall. Faramir smiled again as he met Merryís gaze. "We are much alike, you and I," he commented, seeing much of Merryís thoughts reflected in his eyes.

Merry had met many big folk on his travels, most of whom were admirable men, but he had never felt that he had much in common with any of them. It came as something of a shock to realize that he agreed with this tall, stern ruler of men. He returned Faramirís smile.

"I have a missive for you, from Lord Aragorn." Faramir handed over a small piece of parchment, folded over and sealed with wax. Merry accepted it with a trembling hand, eager for news but afraid of what he might learn. "I do not know what he has written to you, but he has requested of me that I allow you to accompany the supply wains leaving in the morning."

Merry nodded to acknowledge that he heard Faramirís words but his attention was all on the letter in his hand. Faramirís hand rested on his shoulder a moment more before moving away. Merry vaguely heard him move across the room, and the sound of the heavy door opening and closing.

He studied the parchment. His name had been written across the front, hastily but in an elegant script which proclaimed the writer thereof to have had elvish training. Taking a deep breath and attempting to still the nervous trembling of his hands, Merry broke the wax seal and opened the paper. The note was short. Merry, you are needed here. Please come with the supply wains. Aragorn. That was all.

The letter fell to the floor, slipping free of Merryís suddenly lifeless fingers. He was suddenly convinced that something was terribly, horribly wrong. An image of Pippin rose in Merryís mind, laughing as he drained a mug of beer in the Green Dragon back home. Side by side with that image rose another, this one of Pippin lying on the ground, bleeding and lifeless, hacked apart by cruel orc blades. Tears fell unnoticed down Merryís nose and splattered on the parchment and his hands. Why had Aragorn not said something? Anything to reassure Merry that Pippin had survived the battle. He held little hope that Frodo and Sam could have survived the exploding mountain and if Pippin was gone too, he thought he might lose himself as well.

"No!" Merry shook his head, refusing to believe his own worst thoughts. Pippin was fine. Aragorn hadnít said anything more because he had more important things on his mind. Stuffing the letter in a pocket, Merry hurried out of the hall. It would not take long to pack his few belongings and the items Pippin had left behind. Then he would try to track down the messengers and see if they could give him any information. With this plan in mind, Merry was able to push his fears aside, at least for the moment.

Chapter four:† Nightmares

The night took an eternity to pass. Merry alternated between a sick sense of fear for his friends and raging against Aragorn for sending such a frightening and uninformative note. Unable to sleep, he paced his room for several hours until he began to feel like a caged beast. Then he went to the gardens and paced some more. It was well after midnight before he finally felt tired enough to succumb to sleep. Returning to his room, he laid down, fully dressed, on his bed. His mind continued to conjure up terrible images long after sleep finally overtook him.

He awoke with a shout and stared about himself in confusion. Heíd been suffocating, a great weight pinning him down, unable to move or call for help, struggling just to breathe. Gradually his mind cleared and he realized it had been a nightmare, nothing more. Taking a deep, shaky breath, he sat up and looked out the window to judge the time. The stars were still out but the birds were chirping madly as they prepared for a new day. Time to get up.

Merry dragged himself out of bed, splashed some water on his face and changed into a fresh shirt before putting on the leather jerkin heíd been given in Dunharrow. Grabbing up his shield and helm, which he hung from his pack for the time being, he double checked the room to make sure he had not forgotten anything. Then, taking up his pack, he headed towards the kitchens. He was too anxious to have much appetite for breakfast but he wanted a cup of tea before he left.

"Master Brandybuck," the cook, a plump motherly woman with grey hair and a red face, acknowledged him. "Youíre up early this morning."

"Iím leaving with the supply wains shortly and wanted some tea before I go." The words were barely out of his mouth before he found himself being pointed towards a tall stool next to a rough-hewn wooden table.

"Surely youíll be wanting more than tea?" the woman asked.

Merry shook his head. "Iím not feeling very hungry this morning, Tirane."

The cook looked at Merry in concern. He had been taking most of his meals in the kitchens and she had gotten a sense of hobbit appetites. That he didnít want anything to eat was enough to alarm her. She was used to cooking for sick or injured folk, however, and understood that sometimes a body needed food whether he wanted it or no. She decided to ignore Merryís lack of appetite. Therefore, he soon found himself presented with a cup of tea, several slices of toast, sausages, eggs and a bowl of fruit. He looked at Tirane inquiringly.

"Eat, Master Brandybuck. You might not be feeling hungry now, but sure as the sun rises, youíll be wanting something when youíre on the road and itís too late to change your mind."

He really wasnít hungry but smiled at her concern and gamely picked at his toast, managing to eat one slice before pushing the rest away. Looking up as he did so, he caught Tiraneís glare. "Iím really not hungry, Tirane," he protested. "If it will make you feel better, though, Iíll wrap up the sausages and some fruit to take with me."

"I suppose that will have to do," the cook grunted in concern. "I know youíre worried about your friends, lad," she continued in a kindly tone, "but it wonít do you or them no good to go wasting away from that worry. You eat and keep your strength up." She looked as though she would like to say more but restrained herself. She quickly wrapped the food for Merry, adding some more sausages, a small loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese as well as three or four apples. She gave him a stern look as she handed the food over but said nothing more about the matter. "I hope you find your friends well," she said then and returned to preparing breakfast for the rest of the House.

Merry accepted the packet of food and stowed it in his pack. Bowing, he bid Tirane farewell. It was time to go. Slinging the pack onto his back and absently rubbing his right arm, he left the House. The absolute black of the night sky was fading to a dark blue and only the very brightest stars were still visible. The air was cool and he pulled his cloak around himself as he walked through the city down to the first level. He found himself picking at the edges of the nightmare that had awakened him. He could no longer remember any details of it, but the sense of fear and pain lingered like the ache in his arm.

The last stars had disappeared by the time he reached the ruined Great Gate leading out of the city. There he found the supply wains all loaded and ready to go. He also found Faramir, in converse with the Warden, Faragut, and a man whom Merry concluded must be the lead driver.

"Ah, Merry." Faramir finished speaking with the men and saw the hobbit hovering uncertainly near the rearmost wain. "I know you were forced to leave your pony behind at Dunharrow, so Iíve taken the liberty of acquiring another for you." The pony that Faramir indicated was slightly larger than Stybba, the pony King Theoden had given him, with a rich chestnut coat and a thick mane of nearly black hair.

"Thank you, my lord, I..Iím in your debt," Merry stammered and bowed deeply. He was much moved by this gift, although he doubted Faramir understood what it meant to him. No longer must he ride attached to someoneís saddle like their blanket roll or spare shirt. Nor would he be forced to endure the claustrophobic confines of a supply wain, unable to do anything but sit and fret for the hours of the journey.

Merry attached his gear to the back of the saddle and mounted the pony, which shifted restlessly under him. He calmed her with a gentle hand and soft voice before turning to Faramir. "Does she have a name?" he asked curiously.

Faramir smiled. "If she does, I did not learn it. She is yours now, feel free to name her as you will." He hesitated before continuing. "I hope that your cousin, Peregrin, is well. I know that you are worried about him and I worry as well. I would have argued against his going to battle had I been well enough to attend that council. Although, judging from what I know of you and him, he would have been very difficult to leave behind." The Stewardís eyes twinkled as he said this and Merry could not help smiling in return.

"When I see Pippin I will give him your good wishes," Merry responded, mentally affirming that it was when, not if, as heíd almost said. That brought his thoughts back to places he did not wish them to go. Places dark and grim, where he traveled alone along roads meant for four. Shaking his head to dispel these thoughts, he saw that the supply wains were beginning to move. Bidding Faramir farewell, he nudged his pony into a gentle walk, falling into line behind the last wain.

"So, my friend," he said, stroking the ponyís neck, "you need a name." Merry continued speaking to the pony as they walked along, musing aloud on possible names. Soon the healers in the wain began calling out suggestions and it became a game, trying to find the best name for the shaggy little beast.

They followed a road which wound through the fields and villages of the Pelennor, traveling north-east towards Osgiliath, where the supplies would be loaded on ships and taken up river to Cair Andros. The distance was only four leagues but the heavy wains moved slowly and the horses had to be rested every hour. All in all, the trip took most of the morning, with the wains reaching the river a scant hour before noon.

Everything had then to be taken off the wains and reloaded onto the waiting ships and this took another several hours. With all of this, it was mid-afternoon before Merry found himself leading his pony, which had acquired the name Hanna at some point during the morning, into the hold of one of the ships.

"There you are, Hanna," he murmured as he fastened her harness to ties attached to the sides of the stall. He poured fresh water into her bucket and made sure she had plenty of hay to eat. Then, giving her a last affectionate pat, he closed the door of the stall. As he climbed the ladder up to the deck, he felt a lurching movement that indicated the ship had begun to move away from the dock.

Above deck, Merry lifted his face to the breeze, breathing deeply of the slightly salty tang in the air. He couldnít see the ocean, but he knew that if the ship were to go downstream instead of up, they would arrive at the sea. Closing his eyes, he tried to picture what that much water must look like but wasnít sure he was all that close to the truth. The best he could come up with was something that looked much like the Pool at Bywater, all still and calm, only stretching unimaginably far so that one couldnít see across it.

With nothing much to do but wait, Merry found a quiet, out of the way spot and sat down. Despite Tiraneís predictions, he had not really been hungry at all today but he knew he should eat something. Pulling out the packet of food the cook had made for him, he sighed and forced himself to eat an apple and some bread. He couldnít face the sausages, however, and ended up giving them and the cheese to the two healers who were traveling on this ship with him.

He spent the rest of the evening trying to stay out of the way of the sailors. Things settled down a bit as the sun sank and darkness overtook the ship. The healers had been found bunks in the crewís quarters but the soldiers were sleeping in shifts on deck, under an awning. Merry had been overlooked in the sleeping arrangements but found he didnít mind as much as he would have thought. It was a pleasant night to spend in the open, under the stars and Merry hoped that the fresh air, quiet creaking and groaning of the ship, the splash and lap of the water, the shushing of the soft breeze and the occasional muted voice of the men on guard would lull him to sleep.

Hours later, the stars had been covered with a thin veil of clouds and Merry was still awake, pacing the deck in an attempt to outrun the fears that had redoubled to plague him in the peace of the night. Finally, too exhausted to pace any longer, he returned to his blanket roll and lay down, tossing restlessly. He was shivering in the chill of the night, in spite of cloak and blanket, and his arm ached fiercely. The dread that had been haunting him since he received Aragornís note seemed overwhelming and inescapable in the darkness. Somehow, despite this, he finally managed to fall asleep.

Asleep, he dreamed. In his dream, he had returned home to Buckland. He wandered through the corridors of Brandy Hall, looking for his parents, but couldnít find them. In fact, he realized, there was no one there at all. The Hall was deserted with an eerie feel of desolation. Finally, after what seemed hours of searching, he heard a noise further ahead of him in the corridor. Running to see who it was, he stopped in shock and horror. Frodo and Sam, bodies burned and blackened almost beyond recognition, were playing at dice in a room crowded with cast-off furnishings and forgotten mathoms. Frodo looked up at him and grinned, the skin melting off his face, while Sam rolled the dice with skeletal fingers. Merry backed away, crying out a refusal to accept what he was seeing. Turning, he ran from the room, not stopping until he heard another sound, this time coming from his fatherís study. Opening the door cautiously, hoping against hope that it was his parents, he found Pippin. His cousin turned to face him and revealed a body feathered with arrows, rent by swords, covered in blood.

"No!" Merry shouted, coming suddenly awake. His heart was pounding, pain was stabbing through his head and arm, and he felt sick to his stomach. Scrambling to the railing, he heaved and retched for some minutes before his guts finally settled down. Only a dream, he told himself over and over. Only a dream. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he shakily returned to his blankets and wrapped himself up. It was some time before his heart slowed to normal and he ceased shaking. He continued to sit like that, huddled in his blanket, head nodding but afraid to sleep, until morning.

Chapter five: A Friend in Need

The ship docked on the east bank of the river near the island of Cair Andros. There were a number of large men on the bank, waiting for everyone to disembark so they could get on board and begin offloading the cargo. Further away, Merry could see an encampment with people milling about. He could hear the speech of both Gondorians and Rohirrim. Walking down the shipís ramp, he scanned the crowd, hoping to see someone he knew, who would be able to direct him to Aragorn. It was difficult to see around so many big people, however, and once he had stepped off the ramp and onto dry land, it was even worse. People were moving about purposefully and Merry had to look sharp to prevent being trodden upon. He didnít know where he should go and was beginning to feel very small and insignificant. He jumped when a gentle hand suddenly grasped his shoulder. Turning, he looked up into an elvish face.

"Legolas!" He clasped his friendís hand in relief. "I was afraid that I would never find any of you in all this."

The elf smiled. "We would not let that happen. Aragorn sent me to meet you and asks that you join him in his tent."

Merry refused to move. "Where is Pippin. Is he alright?"

"Come, Master Brandybuck," Legolas evaded the question. "The rightful King has summoned you and you would keep him waiting?" He quirked a delicately arched eyebrow at Merry. Before the hobbit could protest further, Legolas picked up his friendís pack and began walking away rather swiftly. Merry had to nearly run in order to keep up and felt resentful at having to do so. The resentment soon vanished under a fresh wave of anxiety. Why wouldnít the elf tell him that Pippin was safe? All he needed to know was that his young cousin was alive. On the other hand, if the news was bad, he supposed it would be better to hear it in private.

A wave of nausea swept over Merry at that thought and he stopped dead, trying to control both his thoughts and his stomach. Legolas, now far ahead, turned to check on his small companion and saw him standing still some paces back. He returned and knelt in front of the hobbit, looking into his eyes for a long moment before shaking his head.

"He lives. That is all I will say as this is not the place to discuss such things. Aragorn will tell you more when we reach him. Which will happen faster, young hobbit, if you continue to walk."

Pippin was alive. Relief flooded over Merry as strongly as the panic of a moment ago. He gave himself a shake, trying to regain his composure. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he demanded as he strode off, passing the elf still kneeling in the mud.

If Merry had hoped to see the elf scrambling to catch up, he should have known better. In one graceful movement, Legolas was back on his feet and in the lead again. "I applaud your eagerness to serve your king, young one, but it helps if you know where you are going." Relenting slightly, he slowed his steps enough for Merry to comfortably keep pace with him.

This time they walked side by side and Merry hoped to gain a little more information from his friend as they went, but in this he was disappointed. Legolas was quiet and when Merry studied him closely, he realized that the elf looked tired and worried. Wondering what other news he might receive from Aragorn, Merryís sense of relief began to fade and the anxiety crept back in. Pippin was alive but what shape was he in, and what about Frodo and Sam? What about Gimli, for that matter.

He almost asked Legolas these questions but thought better of it. His companion was clearly not in the mood for speech and would likely just repeat what he had said earlier, that Aragorn would tell him what he needed to know.

Merry was very grateful, therefore, when they arrived at a tent and Legolas indicated they should enter. The tent was unprepossessing, no larger or fancier than any other in the encampment, although it had guards stationed on either side of the entrance. At a gesture from Legolas, one of the guards opened the flap for them.

Merry was not sure what heíd expected, but found that he was in what seemed to be a conference room. Aragorn was standing by a table in deep discussion with Eomer and Prince Imrahil. There were maps strewn about the table, along with goblets of wine and half empty plates of food. All three men looked worn but none bore any injuries that Merry could see. Aragorn looked up as they entered. Although he smiled a greeting to Merry, he continued talking with the other men for several minutes. Legolas took a moment to make Merry comfortable, leading him to a small table with several chairs placed around it. On the table was a decanter of wine and a tray with bread, cheese, cold meats and fruit.

"Please help yourself, Iím sure you are hungry after your journey," Legolas gestured at the food. "I have other duties that I must see to now. No doubt Gimli is wondering where I am, but Aragorn will be with you shortly." The elf gave him a reassuring look before leaving the tent.

Merry poured himself a goblet of wine and took a sip before sitting back in his chair. He supposed he should eat but the food didnít tempt him at all. He wondered if he would ever feel like eating again.

Lack of sleep was beginning to catch up with him and he sat sipping his wine and staring rather blankly at the walls while he waited for Aragorn to finish his meeting. Thoughts drifted randomly through his mind but even his fears couldnít fully capture his attention.

He was startled out of his doze when a hand touched his forehead. He looked quizzically at Aragorn, who simply stared searchingly at him.

"When a hobbit doesnít inhale all the food placed in front of him, I worry," the Ranger eventually responded to Merryís unspoken question. "When he doesnít even touch the food, I know something is wrong."

Merry looked for a lighthearted response and couldnít find one. "Please, Aragorn, tell me whatís happened to Pippin. Legolas told me he was alive but wouldnít say any more and I know something must be terribly wrong or you would have said that he was fine in your note and I must know whatís wrong."

Merry was horrified to feel tears pricking at his eyes. He knew he was exhausted but still, he didnít think it was right that he should be having such trouble maintaining his composure. In the years that he had watched his father handling various situations as Master of Buckland, he had learned how to keep his composure during a crisis. It had been ingrained in him that a leader must always stay calm and collected, no matter how upset he might be inside. Merry had taken that to heart and had become a much better leader himself because of it. But now everything was falling apart and he was unable to hold on to the pieces any longer.

Aragorn studied him gravely for a moment but made no comment on his distraught appearance. "I wanted to talk with you myself about Pippin. I had hoped in this way to save you worry, but I see that I was wrong. I am sorry for causing you needless pain. I suppose I wasnít thinking all that clearly myself at the time." He paused a moment. "Young Peregrin comported himself most admirably during the last battle. He killed a troll in defense of a friend but was buried beneath the troll when it fell. He is badly bruised and has some painful injuries but nothing life threatening. The main problem is that he has a head injury and has suffered some memory loss."

"Memory loss?" Merry was not sure how to respond to this. "How much has he forgotten?"

"He doesnít remember anything much past arriving at Bree. He knows Gandalf and vaguely recognizes me, but has no memory at all of Legolas or Gimli or any of the others here. The past few days have been very upsetting for him. It is good that you are here."

"Canít you help him?" Merry asked. "Or if not you, what about Gandalf, surely he could do something."

"Iím hoping it wonít be necessary," Aragorn responded. "Memory loss is not unheard of in conjunction with head wounds and it is often temporary." Merry wanted to argue this point but decided to hold off for the time being.

"Come, you are clearly tired. I have a cot prepared for you in the tent with Pippin. Why donít we go see him and then you can get some rest." Merry simply nodded, feeling suddenly as if he had marched for days to get here instead of arriving by boat. Wearily hefting his pack, he followed Aragorn out of the tent. He was thankful to find that Pippinís tent was very close by, because it suddenly seemed as though he couldnít go another step. Aragorn caught him swaying slightly as he passed through the tent flap, and placed a steadying hand on his shoulder. He was beginning to feel dizzy and a bit sick to his stomach again. Maybe he shouldnít have had that wine, he thought muzzily. He was vaguely aware of being led to a seat and then a glass of water was put to his lips. Drinking gratefully, he began to take in his surroundings again.

He was sitting on a camp stool placed next to a large (to hobbit eyes, anyway) cot which made its sleeping inhabitant seem tiny. Merry caught his breath at the pallor of Pippinís skin, contrasted by the many dark bruises on his face and what could be seen of his body outside of the blankets. In addition, there was a large bandage wrapped around his head. Despite Aragornís earlier reassurance, Merry felt a moment of heart wrenching fear. Pippin was lying so very still. What if Aragorn had missed something and Pip was more seriously injured than anyone realized? He gently picked up one limp hand and was somewhat reassured by the warmth of the skin. Just then, Pippin mumbled something in his sleep and stirred slightly without waking. It was too much for Merry and he put his head down by his cousin, crying silently for several minutes before giving in to his deep exhaustion and falling asleep.

He suddenly lurched upright, about an hour later, sweat pouring off his brow. His heart was pounding and he wasnít sure where he was or what had just happened. Looking around, he saw Pippin still asleep in his cot a few feet away. He vaguely remembered falling asleep at Pipís side and guessed that someone had moved him to the cot he now found himself in. He must have been dreaming, he mused as he gradually calmed down and oriented himself. He still felt shaky and even more tired than before, but had no desire to return to the nightmare that had just wakened him.

Climbing carefully out of the cot, he went to his pack and found a change of clothes. After washing and changing, he felt somewhat better. Sitting down next to Pippin, he looked his friend over carefully, remembering Aragornís words about his condition. True to the rangerís words, he saw that the injuries that had shocked him so much were mostly superficial. Pippin seemed to be bruised over most of his body but other than the bandage on his head, seemed to have only cuts and scrapes. There was a swath of linen wrapped around his left calf but otherwise, the damage seemed minimal.

Merry settled back in the chair by Pippinís cot and contented himself with waiting for his friend to wake up. His own eyes felt heavy, but the memory of the nightmare was still making him feel a little queasy. He refused to fall asleep again. When staying awake began to grow more difficult, he got up and began pacing around the tent.

"Itís about time you got here," a voice mumbled from the cot. Merry spun around and hurried back to his friend. Pippin was awake and looking relieved.

"Whatís going on, Merry?" he asked with a plaintive tone to his voice. "Where are Frodo and Sam? That Strider fellowís been in a couple of times and Gandalf has been here also, but no one will tell me what happened."

"That figures," Merry muttered in disgust. "One thing never seems to change. Our tight-lipped friends hold back information just for the fun of keeping us in the dark, I sometimes think." He shook his head and returned his attention to Pippin.

"You remember getting to Bree, right?" Pippin nodded. "Do you remember leaving with Strider?"

Pippin looked thoughtful. After a pause he replied, "I remember him coming to our room and telling us all how foolish we were and how we would need his help, and then you came stumbling in, babbling about having seen those black riders." Another pause and then, "We slept in the parlor, I think, but I donít remember anything that happened after that."

"Well, thatís alright, then.† Aragorn Ė Strider," he clarified at Pippinís blank look, "seems to think that your memory loss may be temporary. If you just give it some time, it might all come back." He didnít say that it might be more merciful if some, indeed most of it, remained blank, although he thought it. Pippin had matured a great deal during the course of their adventures, but Merry thought he preferred a more innocent, immature friend who had not suffered any of the terrible things they had all experienced.

"What about Frodo and Sam?" Pippin persisted.

"I donít know," Merry admitted reluctantly. "Aragorn has been almost as tight with information as Gandalf. He scared a good ten years off me when he summoned me here. He gave me no news of you or anyone else, saying only that I was needed." Merry smiled a bit shamefacedly. "I assumed the worst. I was sure you were dead and he just didnít want me to hear the news alone."

"Merry," Pippin took his cousinís hand and looked at him imploringly. "Tell me what has happened. Are we in Rivendell? Whatís become of," he looked around cautiously, "the Ring?" he continued in a whisper.

"We were in Rivendell for a few months, but we left a few days before Yule." Merry was thinking quickly, deciding how much to say. "Weíve had a lot of adventures, climbing over and under mountains, boating on the river Anduin. We met some talking trees and did some things that no hobbit back in the Shire will ever understand or even believe, most likely."

Indeed, Pippin was looking at him skeptically. "Talking trees?"

"Itís a long story, Pippin. Iím just giving you the basics." He sent the younger hobbit a mock glare, willing him to accept that, for now at least. "We all got split up a few weeks ago and I donít know exactly where Sam and Frodo are right now. They must have succeeded, though, because the war is over."

Pippin looked confused. "Succeeded at what, Merry? I thought we were just taking the Ring to Rivendell and then going back home." There was a noise behind Merry and Pippin tensed, looking very uncomfortable.

"Hmpf, look who finally showed up!" a deep voice rumbled. Merry spun around to see a dwarf glowering at him from the entrance to the tent. Gimli had a bandage wrapped around his forehead but seemed otherwise undamaged.

"I wish I could say you were looking well, lad, but Iíd be lying." The dwarf scowled at Merry. "We left you in Minas Tirith to recover and you look worse now than you did then."

Merry was taken aback by this as he hadnít realized that he looked any different than he always did. He turned to Pippin and found his cousin staring at him.

"Heís right, Merry. Iím not sure what heís referring to about Minas Tirith, but you look terrible." That was too much, coming as it did from a talking bruise.

"I think itís time for you to get back to sleep, Pippin," he replied as calmly as he could.

"I just woke up and Iím feeling much better today." Pippin refused to let his friend off the hook that easily. "Now tell me what you have been doing to yourself that you look like something dragged in by one of Queen Beruthielís cats."

Chapter six: Overwrought

Pippin stared at Merry expectantly. "Well? You look as though you havenít slept in a week. What have you been doing to yourself?"

"I havenít been doing anything to myself." Merry growled. "Iíve simply been worried sick about all of you. Thatís what happens when everyone else goes off to face almost certain death and you get left behind. You worry!" All of the anxiety, anger, resentment, fear and frustration that Merry had been feeling for the past fortnight burst out of him in a torrent.

"First you go off with the host, leaving me all alone in Minas Tirith, with nothing to do but wait for word off your death. Then Aragorn sends that horrible letter. ĎYouíre needed, come quick.í What was I supposed to think? And then I get here and find out youíre alive but youíve gone and got sat on by a troll. A troll! What were you thinking? I donít care if you were being heroic and saving someoneís life. It was bloody stupid, díyou here me? Stupid!" Merry took a deep breath to continue but stopped abruptly. He was feeling very sick suddenly. His head was throbbing, his stomach churning and his right arm was ice cold, nearly numb.

Distantly he was aware that Pippin was staring at him in wide-eyed alarm and he wanted to reassure him, but he couldnít answer. It was taking all his concentration to not vomit right there. Clenching his teeth tightly together, he somehow scrambled down off Pippinís cot and found a chamber pot. He began retching and retching. He thought it might go on like this forever. Finally, as his stomachís convulsions eased a bit, he became aware that there was a cool cloth on the back of his neck and someoneís hand was on his back, rubbing soothingly. He sat back on his haunches, wanting nothing more than to lie down on his cot and go to sleep, but feeling too weak and shaky to move just yet.

Someone handed him a cup of water and he accepted it gratefully. He cleared his mouth of the foulness and then drank gingerly, afraid to trigger any more vomiting.

"Come, Merry, letís get you to your cot and make you a little more comfortable." Looking up blearily, Merry saw that it was Aragorn helping him. Giving a little nod, he allowed the ranger to help him to his feet. He swayed alarmingly but refused to let Aragorn carry him the few feet to his cot. He thought rather vaguely that it was wrong the way he had yelled at Pippin, but he was feeling too sick to worry about that for long. He was immensely grateful when he reached his bed and was able to lie down and close his eyes. Someone Ė Aragorn, he thought muzzily Ė was speaking, but the words seemed to come from a great distance and soon faded away. Merry faded with them and was asleep almost as soon as his head met the pillow.

There was dark and cold. A sense of fear so strong he could barely breathe overwhelmed him. He thrashed around in the black, trying to find something, anything with which to center himself. He could find nothing. And yet, he could feel something creeping up on him, somehow hissing and rustling without making any sound. Closer and closer the something came as the cold intensified and the dark became a tangible thing.

Merry woke with a shout, flinging himself upright and staring about wildly, in terror of the cold thing creeping up on him. Gradually he became aware of arms about him, reassuring and supporting, gently holding his thrashing body still so he would not hurt himself. It was several minutes before reason began to reassert itself and he was able to take in his surroundings.

He found that it was Legolas who supported him and was grateful to the elf. His body still trembled with the fear that had awakened him. He thought that if it was not for the elf, he would probably have fallen out of the cot onto the floor of the tent. As he calmed down, Legolas settled him back on the pillows and moved back slightly, still maintaining a comforting presence but removing his arms from around his friend. Turning his head, he could just see Pippin, sleeping in the other cot. Somehow, the younger hobbit had slept through Merryís shouts.

Turning back, he found Aragorn approaching with a steaming mug, which he set on the small bedside table, now placed between the two cots, which also held the remains of a meal. Apparently Pippin had eaten supper while Merry slept.

Sitting on the edge of the cot, Aragorn looked Merry over, resting one hand on his forehead and the other over his heart. "How are you feeling now, Merry?" he asked quietly.

"Iím fine," Merry protested weakly, more out of habit than conviction. He certainly didnít feel fine. His head still hurt, the pain in his arm seemed to be alternating between a deep ache and a burning cold, and the rest of him felt feverishly hot, but there were other, more important things for Aragorn to be worrying about than Merryís health.

"Is that right?" Aragorn smiled. "I suppose thatís why you vomited up everything youíve eaten in the last week, which I might add seems to be very little, and then passed out?"

"Iím just...tired," Merry tried to explain. "Iím sure that a few more hours of sleep will put me to rights."

"I can see for myself that you havenít been sleeping well. How frequent are the nightmares?"

Merry squirmed. He felt like a prisoner undergoing interrogation. He didnít want to talk about the nightmares. He didnít want to think about the nightmares. He didnít want to think about anything. He just wanted to be left alone so he could go back to sleep.

"Merry?" Aragorn prodded.

"I suppose Iíve been having a lot of bad dreams of late, but anyone would. I really donít want to talk about them, Aragorn. Please?" He was very grateful when Aragorn looked at him searchingly for a moment and then nodded.

"Very well, Master Brandybuck." The ranger picked up the mug and handed it to Merry. "Here, drink this and then you can go back to sleep."

Merry eyed the mug suspiciously. Aragorn smiled reassuringly. "Donít worry, itís just tea. It will ease your fever and help you sleep. Drink."

Merry raised his right arm, without thinking, but his hand was clumsy and he dropped the mug, spilling the tea all over himself. Luckily, it had cooled enough that he didnít get scalded, but he did get soaked.

Ignoring the mess, Aragorn seized Merryís arm with a frown. After a short examination, he looked up. Merry was taken aback to see anger in the rangerís eyes.

"Has your arm been like this ever since your wounding?"

"" Merry stuttered in confusion. "It felt much better after the first few days, but itís been getting worse again. I...itís much worse today."

"You should have told me immediately, Merry." Aragorn placed his hand back on Merryís forehead and closed his eyes, concentrating silently for what seemed a very long time.

Opening his eyes, he removed his hand. "I understand, now," he muttered, more to himself than Merry. He shook his head. "I was sure that you were out of danger, that your strong constitution would cause you to quickly mend, with no ill effects."

Merry was unsure what was going on but realized the rangerís anger was directed at himself, not Merry.

Just then Pippin began to stir, muttering and shifting restlessly. Legolas, who had not moved far from Merryís side, now got up and went to sit with the younger hobbit. Pippin woke suddenly, with a frightened gasp. "Sorry! Iím sorry! I didnít was an accident!" He looked about in dismay for a long moment before realizing where he was. "What an odd dream," he murmured, looking at the elf strangely.

"Yes, there seems to be rather a lot of that going around this evening," Legolas responded dryly. "Your cousin nearly threw himself onto the floor a few minutes ago, shouting loud enough to wake the trees. No wonder you had a bad dream, after all that racket."

Pippin looked thoughtful. "No, I donít think thatís what it was. It was dark and there was a hole in the ground. I dropped something down the hole and then suddenly we were surrounded by enemies. I think they might have been orcs. Gandalf was shouting at me, "fool of a Took," he said and then he was gone, being dragged into the hole by a...a fire thing."

Aragorn and Legolas exchanged looks and Merry realized that Pippin had been dreaming, in a mixed up sort of way, about Moria. It seemed Aragorn had been right when he said Pippinís memories might return on their own.

Legolas spoke soothingly to Pippin while Aragorn returned his attention to Merry, who was becoming increasingly aware of the sopping wet nature of his blanket and himself. He shivered as Aragorn removed the coverlet, exposing his wet nightshirt to the cool air of the tent. Reluctantly, he sat up, ignoring the slight dizziness this caused, and forced himself off the cot so the sheets could be changed as well. While Aragorn did that, he scrounged through his pack, looking for a clean shirt to put on.

It was with great relief that he lay back down a few minutes later. Pippin had already fallen asleep again, so the tent was very quiet.

"Iím going to make you another cup of tea," Aragorn informed Merry as he made sure the hobbit was comfortable. "After that, I think youíll be able to sleep the rest of the night. Weíll talk more in the morning." Merry nodded sleepily, glad to be able to rest his dizzy, aching head on the soft pillow and allow his mind to go blank. It seemed only seconds later that Aragorn was back with another mug, which he helped Merry hold, this time. As soon as the cup was empty, Merry closed his eyes and waited for the world to slide away, which it obligingly did very soon indeed.

Chapter seven: The meaning of dreams

He awoke with the groggy feeling of not knowing where he was or what was happening. He lay still for a moment, trying to orientate himself. At first, everything seemed very quiet but gradually he became aware of distant sounds, people moving about, horses stamping and neighing, voices raised in laughter or shouts. None of it was very near, but close enough.

The previous dayís events came back to him with a rush and he sat up suddenly. Or rather, he started to sit up, got very dizzy, and flopped back down on his cot rather limply.

"Easy, Merry. Aragorn will be here soon and he wants to have a look at you before you get up." Legolas had appeared next to his cot and was bending over with concern shining out of his ageless face.

"Very well." Merry bit back his impatience and acceded to the elfís concern. Casting about for something to occupy his attention while he waited, he saw that Pippin was still sleeping. Or maybe sleeping again, as there were signs of a fresh meal having been recently consumed. The tray on the table between their two cots held different food remnants than it had the previous evening.

His young cousin still looked very pale and the lines of pain on his face tore at Merryís heart. He was alive, though, and he would recover from his wounds. This knowledge filled Merry with a relief so great it was almost a pain in itself.

"What is the time?" he asked. "Is there any breakfast service round here or must I go hungry?"

"It is midmorning, and Pippin said, and I quote," Legolas answered with amusement, "ĎIf that lazy cousin of mine cannot be bothered to wake up for breakfast, than he will have to go without.í" He sobered suddenly. "He was very worried about you."

"Well, thatís only fair. I was very worried about him." Merry avoided Legolasí eyes. "I was worried about all of you." He shifted restlessly, trying to obey Aragornís orders but wanting to get up and move around.

"Where is Gandalf? Pippin said he was here, but I havenít seen him. And what about Frodo and Sam? Has there been any word of them?" Merry had been hesitating to ask this question but couldnít put it off any longer. He knew there was almost no chance they could have survived but as long as he didnít know for sure, he could pretend to himself that they would be coming back.

Legolas gazed at him searchingly for a long moment before answering. "I do indeed have news of the Ringbearer and his companion. They have been returned to us, against all expectation. They are sleeping in a tent nearby, and Mithrandir watches over them."

"They are alive? They are here, in camp?" Merry tried to rise but the elf put a hand to his chest and easily prevented the hobbit from moving.

"Yes, they are alive." Legolas smiled in reassurance. "But they sleep, and will continue to sleep for some time."

Merry tried to roll out from under Legolasí hand, to no avail. "Let me up. I want to see them."

"Aragorn will be here shortly," Legolas responded, unperturbed. "Until then, you will stay in bed."

"But I told him last night that I was just tired." Merry tried negotiation when escape failed. "Iím truly feeling much better this morning."

"Iím very glad to hear that." Aragorn ducked his head as he entered the tent, straightening up once he was through the flap. "Thank you for your assistance, Legolas."

The elf joined Aragorn near Pippinís cot, speaking quietly, but not so quietly that Merry couldnít hear him. "He seemed quite dizzy when he first woke, but he seems steadier now. Heís asked for breakfast. Heís also asked after Frodo and Sam."

Aragorn rested a hand on the elfís shoulder for a moment in thanks before walking over to Merryís cot and sitting down.

"Now, letís just take a look at you. It eases me to hear that you are feeling better, but Iíd like to be on the safe side, if you donít mind."

"Only if youíll tell me about Frodo while you do so." Merry was determined to get some straight answers out of someone.

"Very well, but tell me about your arm first." Aragorn was every bit as determined as Merry. "How does it feel? Any coldness or pain?"

Merry hadnít paid his arm any mind up til now, but as soon as the ranger brought it to his attention he realized that it was, in fact, still rather sore.

"It aches a little, not nearly as much as it did last night, but it isnít icy any more. It feels nearly normal. Now, what about Frodo?"

Aragorn smiled at Merryís tenacity as he felt the offending limb. "Frodo, as Legolas undoubtedly told you already, is sleeping in a tent nearby. He and Sam have been through a terrible ordeal. They are exhausted, more than half starved and suffering from numerous injuries. They will heal, however, at least physically. Iím keeping them asleep until they are fully recovered, so that all their energies may go to healing."

Aragorn kept his tone light, but Merry saw a shadow of worry in his eyes. The ranger was keeping something back and the hobbit wanted to know what it was. Before he could speak, however, Aragorn forestalled him.

"Now tell me about these dreams youíve been having."

Merry sank back onto his cot. The dreams were another thing he hadnít given thought to since he woke up this morning, and he didnít understand Aragornís interest in them. When he tried to pass them off, however, the ranger became very stern and insisted that Merry describe the dreams honestly and completely. There was nothing else for it, so the unhappy hobbit reluctantly and haltingly described the nightmares heíd been having the last few days.

"Oh, Merry!" Both hobbit and man looked up when Pippin spoke. He was staring at his older cousin, eyes wide and lips trembling. Merry wondered how much heíd heard.

"Donít worry, Pip. Theyíre only dreams," he tried to reassure his friend. He looked to the ranger for confirmation and was dismayed to see Aragorn looking disturbed as well.

Aragorn brought a gentle hand up to Merryís forehead, brushing back sweaty curls, and managed a small smile. "Yes, they are only dreams, Merry. But they signify something rather larger."

"Really." Merry was feeling exasperated. All he wanted Aragorn to do was reassure Pip that all was well. That was all. Could their friend do this simple thing, though? No. He had to go on about significance and deeper meanings.

Pippin was more straightforward. "What do you mean, they signify something larger?" He sounded worried and Merry wanted to go to him, comfort him, reassure him that there was nothing wrong. Aragorn prevented him from rising as effortlessly as Legolas had.

The Man sighed. "After I first tended to you in Minas Tirith, I told the Warden that you would heal quickly and indeed, you seemed to do so. When I met with him yesterday, he remarked on how well you were doing. And yet, it seems that he and I were both mistaken." He brought his hand down to Merryís arm.

"If your illness had been merely the result, as you insist, of being tired and overburdened with worry, your arm would not have worsened the way it did. When I led the host from Minas Tirith, I did you a great disservice. I separated you from Pippin. I left you alone and ill in a strange place, not thinking how that might have affected your recovery."

He began to say more but was interrupted by the arrival of a young soldier bearing a tray. "Begginí your pardon, Sire, but Cook asked me to bring this tray for the perian." The Man, not much more than a child, was clearly uncomfortable in Aragornís presence. Bowing, the lad made his way to the small table, but was at a loss how to proceed. The table was occupied with the remains of Pippinís breakfast and the ladís arms were full with the tray he was currently carrying. He stood there, juggling the food and trying not to die of embarrassment on the spot.

He became even more uncomfortable when Aragorn took the tray from him with gracious thanks. Grabbing up the old tray and bowing again, the soldier fled as quickly as propriety allowed.

Merry was torn between hunger and a desire to not be rude. He really did want to hear the rest of what Aragorn had to say, but his appetite, missing for some days now, had returned with a vengeance upon the appearance of food. He felt that it had been weeks rather than days that he had gone without food.

Having spent as much time as he had in the company of hobbits, Aragorn was able to guess his friendís dilemma. "I am sorry, Merry, but I must go check on some of my other patients. I will return shortly to finish this conversation, but in the meantime, please eat. I want you to rest, at least for now. You may get up and move about a bit if you so desire, but donít leave the tent. As for you," he turned his attention to Pippin, "my earlier orders stand. You will stay in bed until further notice. You may sit up to eat, if Merry will help you." He turned back to Merry. "He is recovering much quicker than I would have expected was I not familiar with the resilience of hobbits, but he took a nasty blow to the back of his head. Heís been experiencing frequent nausea and dizziness when he moves his head around, as well as a good bit of pain from his other injuries." So saying, the ranger got to his feet, and with a last look of warning to both hobbits, ducked through the flap and out of the tent.

Sitting up cautiously, Merry was pleased to see that the lightheadedness heíd experienced upon waking was gone. Moving slowly, he got to his feet and walked the short distance to Pippinís bed. "Well then, letís get you up so you can join me in some breakfast, or is it second breakfast for you?" Merry helped Pippin sit up as he spoke, rearranging the pillows behind his cousinís back for support.

"Hm, elevenses, Iíd say," Pippin retorted as Merry turned to the tray of food. "You slept through first and second breakfast."

There was quiet for a time, as both hobbits made inroads on the mountains of food piled on their plates. It was a good half hour later that Merry set his plate aside, feeling full and content for the first time in days. Pippin had eaten nearly as much, despite having already had two meals that morning.

"I started to remember a bit, last night." Pippin sounded oddly subdued as he said this, and Merry turned his full attention on his cousin, forgetting the bit of cheese heíd been nibbling.

"Not a lot, just bits and pieces really. It started with that dream I had. I fell asleep again right away but I woke up a little later. Iíd had the same dream again, or, really, I suppose it was different. It was more memory than dream the second time round, with things in their proper places and all." He looked at Merry imploringly. "Has it all been like that? Frightening and dangerous and... and awful?"

"Most of it, yes." Merry wanted to cry for the pain radiating off his cousin, but no good could come of lying about what had happened.

"I donít think I want to remember the rest, then," Pippin stated. "I think Iíll be a lot happier not knowing all the horrid things that happened to us."

Tears pricked at the corners of Merryís eyes. Moving very carefully, he moved over to the other cot and sat next to Pippin, putting his arms around his friend.

"Oh, my Pip," he whispered sadly, leaning his head against Pippinís, "I wish those horrid things hadnít happened at all. They did, though, and no amount of wishing is ever going to make it all go away." They sat that way for a time, each comforting the other as best he could in the midst of his own pain, until Pippin fell asleep again. Merry settled his friend down on the pillows and returned to his own cot. He was tired, but for some reason, despite his sorrow,†he felt less weighed down than he had in a long time. Lying back, he gazed at the ceiling, content to wait for Aragornís return.

Chapter eight: Echoes of the Past

Merry allowed his thoughts to drift as he rested. He thought back on his conversation with Aragorn, pondering the meaning of the rangerís words. He had not reached any deep understanding, however, when his attention was drawn back to the tent. The sound of ragged breathing reached him from the next cot. Pushing himself up, he hurried over to Pippinís side.

The younger hobbit was curled up on his side, eyes wide and staring, fists clenched tightly in his blankets. As Merry approached, he could see that Pippinís slight frame was wracked with sobs.

"What is it, Pippin? What is wrong?" Pippin didnít reply. Reaching out, he touched one of his cousinís hands, trying to ease open the fist.

"Pippin, look at me," he ordered as calmly as he could. "Youíre not alone now. Iím here with you. Look at me." Still soothing the tightly clenched fist with one hand, Merry smoothed the curls back from the bandage on Pippinís forehead with the other.

"Come on, Pip. Youíre safe, Iím here. Nothing is going to hurt you now." He continued to murmur soothing nonsense as he felt the tension in his cousinís body begin to melt. "Thatís right, Pippin. Your Merryís here now. Iím going to take care of you." As Merry spoke, he kept a close eye on the younger hobbitís reactions but was still caught off guard when Pippin suddenly went completely limp.

"Pippin? Pippin!" he called urgently, fear knotting his insides painfully.

"M..Merry?" The voice was muffled, small and hesitant, and the most beautiful sound Merry had heard in ages.

"Itís alright, Pip. Iím here," he soothed, clasping Pippinís hand and pulling it to his chest. He was relieved to see focus coming back into his cousinís eyes. Pippin shuddered once and then blinked a few times, as though clearing his vision.

"Merry..." Pippin shuddered again and closed his eyes. "Too bright," he murmured, so softly Merry could barely hear him.

"Do you want me to close the tent flap?" the older hobbit asked quietly.

", donít leave me." Pippin gripped Merryís hand tightly. "Iíll be alright in a minute."

Shooting an anxious glance at the tent flap, wishing with all his might that Aragorn or one of the others would return, Merry complied with his cousinís wish. Keeping up a steady murmur of reassurance, he climbed up into the cot, carefully positioning his body so as to block the bright sunlight coming in through the entrance.

After a moment, Pippinís eyes fluttered open again, and he squinted up at his cousin. Merry hoped he was wearing a calm expression, although he felt anything but calm inside. He had no idea what had just happened, but Pippinís behaviour had frightened him badly.

"Better now, Pip?" he asked softly.

"Mm, a bit."

Meeting Pippinís eyes, Merry noticed the pain reflected there. "Is your head hurting?" he asked solicitously.

Pippin hesitated a fraction of a second before answering, "Yes."

"A lot?"

"Um, rather a lot, yes."

"Well," Merry continued, keeping his tone light, "if you will let go of my hand, I can close the tent flap and make you a cup of tea. Then you can tell me what happened. All right?"

Pippin seemed to notice for the first time that he was holding on to his cousinís hand as if for dear life. Sheepishly, he forced himself to unclench his fingers and let Merry go.

"Here, letís get you comfortable first." Merry fussed around with pillows and blankets until he had Pippin propped up slightly and neatly tucked in. Leaving his companionís side, he made his way to the entrance of the tent and released the ties that held the flap back.

Near the center of the now dim tent was a small brazier with a large container of water resting nearby. Quickly lighting a fire and setting water to heat, Merry rooted through his pack, digging out a small tin of tea leaves he had brought with him from Minas Tirith. In short order, he had everything prepared and carried the tea back to the small table between the cots.

"Thereís no honey, Iím afraid," he commented as he sat back down next to Pippin. "Youíll have to drink it bitter."

Pippin smiled shakily. Merry knew he preferred his tea unsweetened but could never understand why, as it tasted so much better with cream and honey. It had become something of a joke between them.

"Better bitter than thick and cloying," Pippin retorted, picking up his mug. He was still shaking and held the mug with both hands to prevent it from spilling.

Aragorn returned from his other duties while they were still bickering over the proper way to make a cup of tea. Merry had found a smidgeon of food left over from elevenses and brought it over to share with Pippin, although his cousin didnít do more than play with the bit of cheese and bread.

Pippin winced when Aragorn opened the tent flap, the light striking his eyes painfully, but didnít say anything. Merry noticed the expression of pain, and felt no compunction about keeping quiet.

"Aragorn, could you please take a look at Pippin? His headache is worse and Iím a bit worried about him." He told Aragorn everything that had transpired. "I was just going to get him to tell me what happened when you came in."

With an expression of concern, Aragorn sat down next to the injured hobbit and looked him over carefully. "Can you tell me exactly what happened, Pippin?"

"I donít know exactly." Pippin faltered. He was still squinting his eyes against the light, a fact that did not escape his companions. When Merry moved to close the flap again, Aragorn halted him. "Here, Pippin, Iíll sit over here to block the light from your eyes. I want to keep the flap open so I can see you while we talk." Merry wanted to protest. Pippin was in pain and it seemed cruel to make him suffer, but Merry also knew that Aragorn would never be senselessly cruel to either of them.

They rearranged themselves and Aragorn asked Pippin to continue. The young hobbit took some time to gather his thoughts. "Iíve remembered a lot more. I dreamed about the ents and Isengard. And," he hesitated. "and the palantir. It came back to me as though it was just now happening. I heard," Pippinís voice lowered to a whisper, "I heard His voice in my head, telling me he was sending for me." He shuddered again, wrapping his arms about himself as though cold. "Merry?" His voice quavered as he turned to his cousin.

"Iím here, Pippin. Youíre safe now." Merry reassured him, trying to stay calm for Pippinís sake, but finding it difficult to contain his worry. He wondered if this was how Pippin had felt when heíd found Merry wandering the streets of Minas Tirith, hurt and confused, after the fight with the Lord of the Nazgul.

"Iím sorry, Merry. You told me to leave it be and I wouldnít listen to you." He closed his eyes and turned his head away, though not before Merry and Aragorn noticed the tears leaking from under the closed lids. "I want to go home," he whispered miserably.

Merry felt a sudden rage for everything that had happened to his innocent young Pippin. He was furious with Elrond and Gandalf for allowing Pippin to sway them in Rivendell. He should have been sent home right then, not allowed to come on this horrific quest. He was most angry with himself, however, for having allowed Pippin to come with them in the first place. Heíd known that it was going to be terribly dangerous, of course, but hadnít understood what that meant. Even though heíd been frightened at the prospect, it still seemed like a grand adventure. Even after Weathertop, it hadnít truly seemed real. Now, looking down at the trembling form of his dearest friend, the reality of it all was inescapable. The rage left him as quickly as it had come, leaving nothing but sorrow in its wake.

"So do I, Pippin. So do I." There wasnít anything else to say, and so Merry sat quietly by, holding Pippinís hand and offering what comfort his presence alone could provide.

Aragorn moved over to the brazier. Finding the water in the pot still hot, he made two fresh cups of tea, which he took back with him to the hobbits.

"Pippin, Iíve made you another cup of tea. This one should help you sleep easier and ease your headache.

Pippin, half asleep already, responded sluggishly.

"Merry, could you lift him up a bit? I want him to drink this before he falls asleep entirely." Aragorn waited while Merry shifted Pippin, then helped the younger hobbit hold the cup. "Drink, Pippin," he ordered gently.

Eyes still closed, mumbling something that neither of his companions caught, Pippin slowly drank the tea. Once the cup was empty, Aragorn moved away and Merry settled his cousin back on the pillows. He sat there, watching as Pippinís breathing slowed and deepened into sleep, not realising how heavy his own eyes were getting until Aragorn startled him by speaking.

"Heís going to be fine, Merry. I promise you. He was frightened by the strength of the returning memories and it has tired him, but he has not taken any further hurt. Come, I made some tea for you, as well. I think it would do you good to have a nap before lunch."

Merry slid off Pippinís cot and walked over to where Aragorn waited, on his own cot. "You said you would finish explaining about the dreams and such, when you came back," he reminded Aragorn.

"Youíre right, I did." The ranger smiled at Merry. "Iíll continue our conversation, but only if you drink this tea." He had decided to use the same negotiating tactics the hobbit had used earlier in the day. Catching Merryís doubtful look, he hastened to reassure him. "Itís only chamomile. It will help you rest but it wonít make you sleep."

Merry eyed the ranger doubtfully, but acceded to his request. Glancing frequently at his younger cousin to be sure Pippin was resting quietly, he made himself comfortable and settled back to hear what Aragorn had to say.

"As I said earlier, I thought that you would recover quickly from the effects of the Black Breath." Aragorn picked up his explanation where he had left off. "It had only been a day and you were already out of bed and walking about. Hobbits have great stamina and fortitude, as Iíve come to discover, but I overestimated how far that would carry you."

The ranger grimaced ruefully. "I have made many mistakes since Moria, and my friends have suffered for each and every one of them. Not least of all, you. Alone and worried for your friends, the shadow of the Black Breath was able to grow within you again. It took your fears and emphasized them, caused them to grow and nearly overcome you."

He fell silent for a time, and Merry realized anew how tired his friend looked. There were dark circles under Aragornís eyes and the hobbit wondered how long it had been since he had slept more than an hour or two at a time. "If you had not come here, where I was able to recognise what was happening and help you, you would eventually have fallen back into a dark dream from which you might never have awoken."

Merry shivered, finding this answer to his questions rather frightening. "Is it gone now, though. The...the shadow?"

Aragorn smiled in reassurance. "Nearly. And with plenty of rest and friends to help you, I think it will be gone completely in a few days time. But you must rest." He turned a stern look on Merry. "For the next few days, you must eat plenty of hearty meals, sleep often, and focus on joyful thoughts. Do not fear anymore. The war is over and a great evil is gone."

Merry could feel the warm heaviness of exhaustion creeping up on him, but before he gave in to Aragornís welcome orders, there was one more thing he had to do. "Now, about Frodo and Sam..."

Chapter Nine: Seeing is Believing

"Yes, Merry?" Aragornís mouth quirked up in a smile. "What about Frodo and Sam?"

"W...well," Merry was interrupted by a large yawn, "I know you said they were slee..." another, equally large yawn interrupted him, ", but I want to see them. Just to know." He struggled to keep his heavy eyelids open as he waited for Aragornís response.

"Just to know what?" The King seemed amused.

"Mmm, know..." Merry had lost the battle with his eyelids and was fast losing the battle of coherency as well. "J...just tíknow.... know theyíre..." he slid off into an incomprehensible mumble, finally sighing in defeat and allowing himself to sleep. His last conscious thought was that he would be sure to take this up again later.

It was quite late in the afternoon before Merry woke again. Lying still, he became aware of voices talking quietly, somewhere nearby.

"There, now thatís taken care of, you should try to sleep some more." Merry recognised Gandalfís deep, rumbling voice immediately.

"Mm. I sípose so," the Tookish lilt was a bit muffled but Pippinís high voice was easily identifiable, and Merry smiled at the reluctance saturating those few words.

"Indeed, Peregrin, my lad. I donít think you have much choice in the matter." Merry easily detected the smirk in the wizardís voice.

He rolled over, opening his eyes to see Gandalf walking away from Pippinís cot, carrying a mug, and Pippin lying back against his pillows. His cousin looked cranky and rebellious, curls dark against the white bandage framing his face. Even as Merry watched, his eyes fluttered once, twice and then closed fully. Letting out a gentle sigh, the younger hobbit relaxed, the lines of pain easing as he settled into the healing sleep his body needed in order to recover.

"How is he, Gandalf?" Merry called softly to the retreating figure.

The wizard turned to look at him, one bushy eyebrow quirked in reproach. "And Ďhelloí to you, too, Meriadoc Brandybuck," he replied, setting the mug down as he approached Merryís cot. Despite the gentle rebuke of his words, his expression was kind. "No, donít fret, my dear hobbit," he hastened to add as Merry flushed uncomfortably. "I understand your concern for your young cousin. Pippin is doing well. He just needs a great deal of sleep right now. More than he likes, I dare say."

Producing his pipe and a small pouch of leaf from a hidden pocket of his robes, Gandalf took a few moments to go through the ritual of packing, tamping and lighting his pipe. Merry watched in silence, until he remembered the promise he had made to himself.

"I would like to see Frodo and Sam now, if I may." He asked politely but had no intention of taking Ďnoí for an answer.

"Yes, Aragorn thought you might," Gandalf responded. He gestured with his pipe to a well-laden tray sitting on the small bedside table. "He told me it would be perfectly all right, as long as you have something to eat first."

Feeling suddenly as though he hadnít eaten in a week, rather than the few hours that had passed since elevenses, Merry obediently tackled the meal provided. Some time later he settled back, holding an apple in one hand and a large chunk of cheese in the other, taking small, neat bites of each, allowing the flavors and textures to blend in his mouth. When he had finished, he found that he felt much better.

"Well, I suppose that will do, for now." Gandalf seemed displeased at the amount of food still sitting on the tray, but made no further comment.

"Can I see Frodo and Sam, now?" Merry asked hopefully and, receiving Gandalfís nod, stood up, slipping an apple and a heel of bread into his pocket as the wizard caught his eye. "Just in case," he said with a shrug.

Nodding approval, Gandalf stood and moved to the entrance of the tent, holding the flap open for Merry, who moved slowly and carefully, still quite weary despite all the sleep heíd had in the last two days. A thought struck him as he stood at the entrance and he halted, looking back at his young cousin, still asleep in his cot, oblivious to the activity around him.

"Gandalf, is it all right to leave Pippin alone? What if he wakes up and needs something?"

The wizard chuckled, tapping the side of his nose and winking at the worried hobbit. "Trust me, Merry. Young Peregrin will not wake for several hours, at least. Most likely, not until morning."

Merry was unconvinced, and stood his ground. Seeing this, Gandalf smiled reassuringly and clapped him on the shoulder. "He will be fine for the short amount of time we will be gone, but just in case, I will make certain a guard is stationed outside the tent to listen for any call that might come from within."

Merry surmised that Gandalf had given Pippin something to encourage this sleep, and feeling relieved, he followed the wizard through the flap. The sun, hovering low in the western sky, sent forth beams of light which shone golden against every surface they touched. Looking around, he saw rows of tents stretching out far to his right. On his left there was a wide gap between the row he was in, and further rows of tents. Beyond the gap, many men were in view; some sitting around fires, talking and singing loudly, and others moving about in the spaces between the tents. There was much less activity on this side of the gap. As they passed the tent next to his, Merry heard a muffled groan and he realized they must be on the edge of an area set aside for those who had been injured in the battle.

Rather than entering one of the tents nearby, however, Gandalf led Merry away from the encampment altogether, taking him a short distance away, into a stand of beech trees. Here, Merry found that a lightweight cloth had been draped from tree to tree around and over a small clearing to form an airy structure. Gandalf held a swath of the cloth aside, motioning for Merry to precede him into the tent. Merry stepped inside and then came to a halt, unprepared for the sight that met his eyes. Bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, the enclosure was small but warm and glowing. The air was filled with the mingled scents of trees, flowers, grass and other smells he couldnít identify. But what captured his full attention was the sight of two beds, pushed together, near the back of the clearing.

Two forms lay in those beds, unmoving, wasted and terribly small, and Merryís heart lurched with fear that maybe Aragorn and Gandalf were wrong. What if Frodo and Sam were worse than heíd been led to believe? But in the next moment he caught the faint sound of snoring and his lips quirked in a smile, recognizing the unmistakable sound that had followed Merry into sleep every night of the Quest. He hadnít realised until now just how much he had missed that sound.

A strong hand squeezed his shoulder, offering reassurance and also urging him forward. Looking back, he saw regret and pity flash across Gandalfís face, gone so quickly Merry wasnít at all sure that he had not imagined it. Following the wizardís urging, he moved closer to the beds.

As he approached, he noticed for the first time someone sitting in a chair to the left of the beds. As the figure stirred, he saw that it was Gimli.

"Meriadoc," the dwarf nodded, "it does my heart good to see you looking better."

Merry reddened, ducking his head for a moment before raising it and meeting the dwarfís eyes. "Please forgive my behaviour yesterday, Gimli," he began in apology. "I donít know what came over me. Frodo would have flogged me if heíd been there." So saying, he glanced in the direction of the beds, trying to determine which of the two figures lying there was his cousin.

Careful scrutiny revealed that the bed closest to Gimli held Sam, although the gardener looked much different than he had just a few weeks earlier. His face was gaunt and drawn, plainly marked with pain and suffering. A light blanket was drawn up to his once robust chest, now substantially thinner, and, looking further, Merry could see that bandages covered the hobbitís arms and body. Turning, reluctant to see the same marks on his cousin, he steeled himself to look at the other recumbent figure.

Frodo, too, was covered with the marks of suffering, particularly the heavy bandaging on his right hand, which appeared to be missing a finger. Despite the evidence of his terrible journey there was nonetheless a look of peace in his cousinís face that took Merryís breath away. The cursed Ring was gone, and his long struggle over.

Tears sprang to Merryís eyes and this time he made no effort to check them. He had thought never to see Frodo again, and seeing him now, so thin and pale, with all the bandages, and yet that clear indication of inner peace, so totally unexpected, nearly undid him.

Gandalf and Gimli moved away, allowing Merry privacy for the long-awaited reunion, one-sided though it might be, and he was thankful for some time alone with his companions. Moving around to the other side of the bed, he gingerly climbed up to sit next to Frodo. Taking the uninjured hand in his own, Merry spoke quietly, telling Frodo all the things he needed to say, knowing that Frodo could not hear him and also knowing that it mattered not.

"I am so proud of you, Frodo," he told his older cousin, tears falling unheeded down his face. "You did something that none of the high and powerful could do. Just you and Sam. You made it all the way to Mordor and through to Mount Doom. I so wanted to help you. I would have gone to the mountain with you. So would Pippin. I know you were trying to protect us, but we wanted to help."

Merry smiled sadly, stroking Frodoís hand softly. "Youíll be so proud of Pippin when you wake up, Frodo. Heís grown up in the last few weeks. Heís a guard of the Citadel in Minas Tirith, although he doesnít remember that. He even killed a troll. All by himself. He doesnít remember that, either. I tried to watch out for him but Iím afraid I didnít do a very good job. I couldnít protect him from all the dangers. I couldnít protect you either." Merry stopped himself, aware that he was babbling. Gently kissing the hand he held, he carefully placed it back on the coverlet. "Iím going to let you sleep now, Frodo, but Iíll be back tomorrow."

Wiping his face free of tears, he slid off the bed and returned to Gandalfís side. The trauma of seeing his well-loved companions in such a weakened state was exhausting and Merry suddenly wanted nothing more than to return to his cot and find his own healing sleep.

He allowed Gandalf to lead him back to the tent he shared with Pippin, whom he was glad to note still slept peacefully. Pushing his exhaustion to the side for a moment longer, he sat next to his younger cousin, taking one of Pippinís hands in his own.

"Iíve just seen Frodo and Sam, Pippin." The sleeping hobbit stirred slightly, but showed no further response. Speaking softly, Merry continued. "They are going to be fine. You donít need to worry about them anymore. Just rest easy and concentrate on getting well, yourself. Iíll be right here if you need me." With that, he leaned over, kissed Pippinís brow and laid his hand back on the cot. Even as he did so he felt a slight pressure from the otherís hand and knew that Pippin had understood.

Making his way back to his own cot, Merry wearily climbed upon it, lay down, and closed his eyes, feeling hopeful for the first time in longer than he could remember. With one final tired sigh, he sank into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Beta by Pipspebble

Chapter Ten: Promises

Merry woke the next morning to the sound of someone moving around the tent. Opening his eyes, he found that it was still quite dark and a shadowy figure was bent over the brazier. After a brief moment of alarm, Merry realized it was Aragorn.

The King turned with a smile, greeting the hobbit quietly. "Good morning, Merry. I trust you slept well last night?"

"Very well, thank you," Merry replied, pushing his blanket back and sitting up. Stretching, he noticed that his right arm was completely free of the slight ache heíd barely noticed yesterday. Grinning, he stretched a bit more vigorously, enjoying the freedom of movement.

"I was just going to set some water for tea. Would you like some?" Aragorn poured water into the kettle as he spoke, and at Merryís nod, he added an extra measure.

ĎNow, let me just take a look at you while the water is heating." So saying, Aragorn moved to Merryís side carrying a lamp which he set down on the far side of the hobbitís cot. Lighting the lamp, he set the wick so there was just enough light for him to see Merry, without flooding the tent with light and waking Pippin.

"Any nightmares?" he asked as he looked in Merryís eyes, checked his pulse and felt his head for fever.

Merry searched through his mind. There had been dreams, certainly, half-remembered images of home and friends, but nothing unsettling or frightening. "I think I dreamed that Pippin stole my pipe. I donít suppose that counts as a nightmare, though."

"It depends on how much value you place on the pipe, I suppose." Aragorn laughed softly. "Still, try to be aware of your dreams for the next few weeks, at least. If they become disturbing or dark, I want you to come to me immediately. This is very important," he added when Merry tried to dismiss his concern. "Iím willing to wager that you started having dark dreams before you had any other indication that you were unwell, yes?"

"Well, yes, I suppose so," the hobbit muttered, not really wanting to think about those dreams if he could avoid it. "It seems only natural, though, to have nightmares after the things Iíve seen the past few months."

"That is true, but if the Shadow should begin to return again, it will most likely show itself in your dreams first. The sooner I know about it, the sooner I can help you." Aragorn waited for Merryís response.

Merry looked at the king enquiringly. "How am I supposed to tell the difference between regular nightmares and these, these," he groped about for an appropriate term, "these Shadow-touched dreams?"

"I suspect regular nightmares will seem less frightening to you than the horrors that have been running through your mind for the last week or so," Aragorn replied gravely. "However, I think it best, at least for now, that you see me about any nightmare. Please promise me that you will not hold back for fear of bothering me or being a nuisance."

"Very well. I promise that at the very first hint of a nightmare I will come to you directly." Merry hoped that he would not have any more of those hideous dreams, but Aragornís words made perfect sense.

"Thank you," the King replied, before moving on to complete his examination of the hobbit. "Ah, very good. You are looking nearly your old self again." He clapped Merry on the shoulder. "I would like to see a bit more color in your cheeks, but I think that can be accomplished fairly easily. Some time spent out in the sun should get you looking rosy again in no time. I donít see the need for any further restriction of your activity. You are free to come and go as you please, Master Brandybuck."

Merry bowed in acknowledgment and then proceeded to dress himself as Aragorn checked the water before turning his attention to Pippin. "Would you please bring the lamp over here and turn it up a bit?" the king asked, indicating the small table between the beds.

Merry obliged, setting the lamp in the indicated spot and turning the wick until the tent was filled with a cheery glow. Wanting to be close, but not in the way, Merry returned to his cot and watched as Aragorn examined the other hobbit, who was beginning to stir with the increased light and activity in the tent.

"Hello, Pippin. How are you feeling this morning?" Aragorn asked quietly. Pippinís mumbled reply was too soft for Merry to hear, but he noticed Aragornís response with a twinge of concern. The King frowned ever so slightly and put a hand to Pippinís forehead.

"Mm, yes, you are running a slight fever. I think yesterday was, perhaps, a bit too exciting." The King smiled reassuringly. "Iíll make you some elderberry and peppermint tea. That should help you feel better."

After examining the hobbitís various bruises and cuts, he announced that Pippin was healing well. "Still, I think Iíll put a poultice on this cut again today," he remarked, gently touching the bandage around Pippinís calf. "One more day should do it, however."

Aragorn moved away from the cot and began pulling out herbs and ointments. He beckoned Merry over. "I know you, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and I can tell that you are already working yourself up to a fine worry, before you even know what is wrong." Merry opened his mouth to protest but was given no chance, as Aragorn continued "I do not want you hovering over Pippin and worrying him with your anxiety." Merry frowned and Aragorn relented a little. "He really is going to be well, Merry. This fever has been coming and going for several days, and is not serious. He is simply overtired. Re-experiencing those memories yesterday, on top of fretting over your health the past two days, has worn him out. He just needs to rest a bit."

Merry had a hundred things he wanted to say to this. He bit them all back and nodded. "Very well, Aragorn, I will try not to hover." At least not too much, he amended to himself. Aragorn was correct in one thing. He was feeling very worried, in spite of the Kingís reassurances. Pippin hadnít had a fever yesterday or the day before, so this seemed like a major setback to Merry. He was determined to stick close to his cousin until he was sure the younger hobbit truly was well.

"Thank you." Aragorn eyed Merry as if trying to determine how sincere he was. "Now go entertain your cousin while I mix up his medicines." He clapped Merry on the shoulder before giving him a slight nudge in the direction of Pippinís cot.

Merry obligingly sat on the edge of the cot, looking down at the ill hobbit. Pippinís eyes were closed, lashes dark against the pallor of his skin. He wasnít asleep, Merry could tell, as his breathing was too uneven.

"Hullo, Pip," he said as cheerfully as he could when Pippinís eyes fluttered open.

"Hílo, Merry," the younger hobbit whispered groggily. "What time is it?"

"Itís early. Not yet time for first breakfast."

Pippin managed a half-smile. "Youíve been spending too much time with the big people, Merry." His voice grew clearer as he spoke. "Whenever you wake up is time for first breakfast."

"Not according to these Gondorian cooks." Merry was very glad to see Pippin teasing, even a little. "Still, I suppose I could try to round something up for you, if itís an emergency."

"What is this emergency?" Aragorn asked, coming up and hearing only the last few words.

"Pippin was asking about breakfast, Aragorn." Merry turned to the King, allowing his frustration to show in his face. "You should have brought some food with you."

Aragorn sighed, giving Merry a stern glance. "I cannot be forever thinking of nothing but hobbit stomachs."

"Did I just hear something about hobbit stomachs?" Legolas asked as he entered the tent, carrying a well-laden tray. "I thought there might be need for provender, once you had awakened these two." Smiling at the hobbits, Legolas set the tray down and stepped back. "I thought I might explore the area, this morning, and I was wondering if you would like to accompany me, Merry?"

"Thatís very kind of you, Legolas, but I think Iím going to stay here today." Merry ignored the look sent to him by Aragorn. "Pippin isnít feeling well and I want to keep him company."

Aragorn shook his head in gentle reproach. "Merry, just two minutes ago you made a promise to me that you would not hover over Pippin this morning."

"Iím not going to hover, Aragorn," the hobbit replied indignantly. "I have plenty of things I can do to keep me busy. All of my clothing needs mending and I daresay Pipís could use some mending, as well. That alone should last me through the morning."

"Merry," Aragorn shook his head. "I applaud your dedication to your cousin, but I am thinking of you now, as much as him. You have spent too much time worrying over others and not enough time taking care of yourself." The King sat down on the edge of a cot and placed both hands on Merryís shoulders. "You need to spend some time out of this tent. Go with Legolas. Walk around for a few hours. Come back for lunch and if Pippin is feeling better, the two of you may spend the afternoon together." He raised a finger to emphasize his point. "That is, if Pippin is allowed to rest this morning and his fever is down."

Merry wanted to argue. He wanted to protest that Pippin should have someone with him in case he needed anything, that as the ladís older cousin, he should be allowed to stay. After all, he was the one who would have to face Aunt Eglantine and Uncle Paladin if Pippin didnít make it back home, not Aragorn, King though he may be.

"Donít be stupid, Merry," Pippin intervened before Merry could speak. "Iím not a child. Iíll be fine on my own for a few hours." The younger hobbit sounded tired and cross. "Now, if youíre all done arguing, Iíd like some breakfast and then I think I want to sleep some more."

Merry stared at Pippin, quite taken aback. He could have argued with Aragorn all morning and not given in, but somehow, he couldnít find it in him to go against Pippin. Giving vent to a small sigh of defeat, he turned to the elf. "Very well, Legolas, I would be most pleased to spend the morning exploring with you."

"Good. I am taking another tray to Gimli." Legolas said. "He spent the night with Frodo and Sam. Why do you not come join us after you have eaten?"

After bidding Legolas farewell for the nonce, Merry turned back to Pippin. "What would you like to eat, Pip?" he asked a bit hesitantly, afraid his cousin might growl at him again.

"Oh, I donít know. Iím not terribly hungry, really." Pippin eyed the tray thoughtfully. "Maybe just a bit of fruit and some toast. And some of that cheese? Oh, and Iíll have a bit of the egg, as well, and that scone looks awfully tasty. No bacon, though. I donít think I could face bacon this morning."

Ignoring Aragorn, who was chortling over something in the background, Merry carefully helped the younger hobbit sit up, setting pillows behind for him to lean against, before filling a plate with the foods he had requested. He then filled his own plate with a good bit more of the same things and set to.

Despite his worries, Merry was pleased to see that his own appetite was back to normal this morning. It didnít take him long to clear his plate. He was disappointed with how little Pippin managed to eat, however. The younger hobbit managed a few bites of each food, but finished nothing.

Once the food was cleared away, Aragorn stepped in again. "Here, drink this down, Pippin," he said, handing the hobbit a cup. Pippin scrunched his face up in distaste, but obeyed Aragorn without comment. The King then handed him a cup of tea generously laced with honey.

"Merry, you may visit with your cousin a few minutes more and then he needs to be left alone so he can sleep." With a stern look at Merry, Aragorn waited until he received a reluctant nod before picking up the now empty tray and exiting the tent.

"Iím sorry, Mer," Pippin whispered sleepily. "I didnít mean to be cross, but Aragornís right. You canít just sit here all day, watching me sleep. I donít," he hesitated a brief moment, "I donít want to talk this morning, Merry. My head hurts, and my legs ache, and I donít feel well. Youíre not angry with me, are you?" He suddenly sounded very young and insecure and Merry hastened to reassure him.

"My dear ass, of course I am not angry with you." A faint smile flickered across Pippinís face at having his own words thrown back at him by the very person to whom heíd addressed them just a few short weeks ago, when Merry lay ill in the Houses of Healing.

"Just be glad Aragorn allows you to wake up from time to time," Merry advised. At Pippinís look, Merry continued. "I saw Frodo and Sam yesterday afternoon. Somehow, our cousin and his faithful servant have merited themselves an airy little bower in the midst of a beech grove, while we get to sleep here in this smelly old tent in the middle of a noisy encampment." Merry began with a grin, but sobered as he remembered his visit.

"Everyone assures me that they are going to be well, but Aragorn is keeping them asleep for now. He wonít let them wake up at all until they have recovered from their injuries and gained a lot of strength. Although how they are to do that when they arenít allowed to wake up long enough to eat is beyond me." Merry wondered about Aragorn sometimes. There were moments when he thought the King had learned nothing about hobbits during their time together.

Before he could mention this thought to Pippin, however, Gimli stuck his head inside the tent. "There you are, young hobbit. The elf is waiting for you, and Aragorn has asked me to remind you of your promise, whatever that means." Gimli looked disgruntled to be passing along messages that he didnít understand. "Go on with you now, Iíll spend some time with young Peregrin, here."

Not having any choice, Merry turned back to Pippin. "Get some rest, Pip. Iíll be back for luncheon."

Feeling terribly torn, Merry strode out of the tent. He stopped once outside the flap, fighting the desire to look back in and make sure Gimli was getting Pippin settled properly. Setting his jaw and forcing his hands to unclench, he turned and made his way to the beech grove housing Frodo and Sam.

Beta provided by Pipspebble

Chapter eleven: Interlude

"I donít know as I feel right comfortable with all oí this, Mr. Merry." Sam tightened his grip on the half-pint of beer he held. "Itís all well and good for you to go spying on Mr. Frodo, you beiní his cousin aní all. If I were to get caught, my old Gaffer would skin me alive, not to mention what Mr. Frodo would have to say on the matter. Itís not proper."

Samwise Gamgee would say no more on the matter, no matter how eloquently Merry pled his case. An hour later, having exerted himself to no avail, Merry paid the bill and gathered up his pony. He would ride to Whitwell tonight and visit with Pippin for a few days before returning to Brandy Hall. Maybe Pip would have some ideas about how to keep tabs on their older cousin.

Pippin had several ideas, all of which were farfetched and impractical, the least unlikely involving adoption scenarios.

"Frodo is not going to adopt you, Pippin," Merry snorted in disgust.

"Whyever not?" Pippin exclaimed indignantly. "Youíre not an orphan, for one thing," Merry answered tartly, "and for another, youíd be too much work for him. After having you about the smial for a month or two, heíd flee the Shire just to get a little peace and quiet."

Merry had been at Whitwell for less than two days when a message came for him in the Post. He took the letter from Aunt Eglantine with a curious look. The envelope was addressed to Mr. Meriadoc Brandybuck, in neat, upright letters.

Raising an eyebrow at Pippin, Merry opened the letter to find it was from Sam.††††††††

Dear Mr. Merry,

I have been giving your plan some more thought. Mr. Frodo had Mr. Bilboís old maps out today and he was measuring distances, though he tried to hide it from me. I think you†are right. Heís planning to leave the Shire. Iíll send you as much information as I can†about his plans, without betraying his trust.

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Sincerely,

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† S. Gamgee

"Thatís how it all started for you, wasnít it, Sam?" Merry sat between the two cots, glad of the chance to visit with Frodo and Sam for a few minutes before taking a walk through the camp with Legolas. Sitting here, in this airy pavilion that had been set up for the two recovering hobbits, heíd begun to think about how this whole thing had started, and for Sam, it had been that conversation in the Green Dragon. If he hadnít been eavesdropping for Merry and Pippin, he wouldnít have been caught by Gandalf and forced to come along on this terrible Quest. But then, would Frodo have survived without faithful Sam at his side?

Merry wished he knew what had happened to these two, but knew that would have to wait until they woke up. If they woke up. No, he corrected himself sternly, they would wake up, it was only a question of when. Already, they were beginning to heal. The wounds were closing and the bruises fading. Soon they would be up and on their feet again.

"Coming, Merry?" Legolas interrupted Merryís thoughts.

"Yes, Legolas, just a moment." Merry turned back to the sleeping hobbits. "Rest well, Sam. Youíve truly earned it."

He shifted his gaze to his cousin. He tried to find something lighthearted to say, but for once, was unable to find the words. "You just rest easy, Frodo," he finally said, instead. " Iíll take care of things until you are ready to wake." Clearing his throat and rubbing surreptitiously at his eyes, he gently patted Frodoís hand, stood and followed Legolas from the pavilion.

Merry and Legolas wandered through the camp companionably, speaking little. The hobbit was content to look about him and note the few places of interest that Legolas pointed out. Eventually, the elf steered him away from the tents of men and into a lightly wooded area not far from the camp.

"This grove is well within the perimeter of the guard, but it is very quiet and peaceful," Legolas explained as he led Merry to a small, swift stream that flowed down to meet the Anduin. There, under the shade of a drooping old willow, the two settled down for a rest. Merry, remembering his experience in the Old Forest, could not help but feel a bit uneasy about resting at the foot of another willow.

"Do not fear," Legolas said, apparently sensing the hobbitís discomfort. "This is a sleepy old tree, her thoughts full of sunshine and squirrels. I sense no darkness in her."

Putting one hand on the trunk, Merry thought he could feel the warmth and contentment of the tree. Trusting Legolasí judgment completely, he sat with his back against the curve of the trunk and allowed himself to relax fully. Eyes closing sleepily, he thought he might even nap for a bit.

He rested like that for over an hour, basking in the quiet contentment of the secluded corner, aware only of the chatter of the stream and the call of birds. Finally, feeling much refreshed, he opened his eyes and looked about.

Legolas had wandered a bit upstream and was standing with his head cocked slightly to one side. Merry had the impression that he was listening to the stream and he wondered what the elf heard in its babble.

Standing and stretching, he moved to join his companion. "What do the waters say to you, Legolas?"

"They speak of the joy and sorrow of this land." Legolas answered quietly. "Joy that a great evil is gone from the world, and sorrow that so much irreparable damage has been done."

"Tell me about the battle," Merry said, suddenly feeling a strong need to know. He needed to know what had happened to Pippin and to the others, while he was sitting safe in the Houses of Healing.

"No, Merry. It is still too close for me, and you are not yet ready." Legolas smiled gently, but there was a deep sorrow in his eyes that spoke more than words of the horror of war.

"Itís not a matter of me being ready, Legolas," Merry protested, determined to know. "I canít help Pippin with his memories unless I know what happened to him."

"Surely Aragorn told you what happened?"

"I donít know, I suppose he might have." Merry hated to admit that he couldnít really remember much of what Aragorn had said that first night. "I was so tired that I donít think I really heard much of what he said, beyond that Pippin was alive and would recover but that he couldnít remember anything after Bree." He shrugged, embarrassed at this failure of his memory.

"I do not honestly know much of what happened to Peregrin." Legolas frowned thoughtfully. "Gimli and I stood with Aragorn and Gandalf. Pippin was in a group of Gondorian soldiers standing with Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth. The last time I saw him, he was standing beside his friend, Beregond, in the front ranks. When the battle was ended, he could not be found." The elf paused, looking into Merryís eyes as if trying to judge how much the hobbit before him could stand to hear.

"Aragorn was called away to tend the wounded but spared several soldiers to search for young Peregrin. Gimli and I, having received little or no injury in the battle, aided the soldiers. We searched for several hours, gradually losing hope of ever finding him. I was searching through a pile of orcs and Rohirrim, dreading what I might find at the bottom, when Gimli called to me. He was pushing and pulling frantically at a large troll, muttering something incoherent about hobbit feet. Together, we were able to move the beastís carcass off to one side and there, just as Gimli said, was your cousin. We lifted him up and carried him to Aragorn, who bound his wounds and set watch over him."

Legolas paused in his narrative, bending to the stream and scooping up a handful of water. He drank, then continued his tale. "Pippin had taken a bad head wound and Aragorn was very worried for him. He wrote that note to you and sent if off with the messengers to Minas Tirith, but he didnít want to say too much, not knowing what Pippinís condition would be when you arrived. And then, too, Frodo and Sam had just been brought in by the eagles and no one knew if they would survive. It was a long night for Aragorn, but in the morning Frodo and Sam were sleeping peacefully and Pippin woke not long after sunrise. He had no memory of us or where he was, which naturally upset him a great deal, especially as his cousins were not there with him. I donít think he relaxed at all until you arrived two days ago."

Merry was quiet for a long while, absorbing all that he had been told.

"He killed the troll, you know." Legolas gently inserted. "When we looked at the beast, we found Pippinís sword stuck in its vitals. There is no doubt that it was Pippin who killed it. That is quite an accomplishment, even for a Man. For a hobbit, it is something remarkable, something to be proud of, indeed."

Merry stared at Legolas, struck dumb with amazement, and pride in his cousin. Then he grinned. "Well of course he killed the troll. I would expect nothing less from that particular Took. Heís been trying to outdo the Bullroarer since he was a small lad. What better way to do that than to kill a troll?"

The two companions lingered by the stream for a little while longer, until the rumbling of Merryís stomach reminded him that he had missed both second breakfast and elevenses. It was time to return to the tent and see how Pippin was getting on.

Chapter twelve: Putting the Pieces Together
Beta provided by Pipspebble

Merry passed the afternoon quietly, sitting tailor fashion on the ground near the entrance to the tent, patching his and Pippinís clothing. Pippin had awoken briefly, shortly after noon, eaten a small lunch, drunk more of Aragornís tea, and immediately gone back to sleep. His fever had broken shortly thereafter, and heíd come awake once or twice but each time, heíd been groggy and soon fallen back to sleep. Aragorn assured Merry that this was perfectly normal, and that later in the evening, Pippin would be feeling much more alert.

The sun had long since passed overhead and disappeared behind the tent. Judging by the lengthening shadows, the afternoon was moving on apace when Merry folded up the last pair of breeches and put his sewing kit away. His stitches were not as neat as his motherís, but they would hold the clothing together until he and Pippin could get new ones made. For that small mercy, he was glad his mother had insisted that even lads should know some basic sewing skills.

Standing, he stretched and dusted himself off before going to check on Pippin. As he moved to the back of the tent, he became aware of sounds of distress coming from his cousinís bed. Hurrying to his side, Merry found Pippin caught in the grip of another nightmare, thrashing from side to side and calling out in fear.

Worried that the fever had returned, he felt Pippinís forehead and was relieved to find that his cousinís skin felt normal to the touch. It was just a nightmare then, such as could only be expected after all the experiences the young hobbit had endured. Settling himself on the edge of the bed, Merry carefully gathered his cousin in his arms and held his thrashing limbs still, all the while whispering words of reassurance.

After several minutes, Pippin ceased thrashing. His ragged breathing gradually slowed and became steady, and Merry thought the younger hobbit had fallen back into a deeper sleep. He was surprised when Pippin stirred, movements more deliberate this time, and opened his eyes, looking up blankly.

For just a moment, Merry feared that Pippin did not recognise him but then the younger hobbit blinked and brought his gaze into focus.

"What a terrible dream I had, Merry," he mumbled, still not entirely awake. "Evil things dragging us across an endless plain. You were so pale and I couldnít get to you..." his voice trailed off, and his eyes closed. "So pale," he mumbled again.

"Shh," Merry soothed. He rocked his friend gently while running one hand comfortingly through matted curls. "Donít fret, Pippin. Go back to sleep."

Yawning, Pippin muttered something inarticulate before giving in to Merryís urgings. Soon his breathing was once again deep and even, and Merry gently eased him back on the bed, to sleep undisturbed.

"You handled that very well, Master Meriadoc." Gandalfís voice came from behind, surprising Merry, who had not heard the old wizardís approach.

The hobbit turned to face his old friend. "I hate this, Gandalf," he stated quietly but with passion. "Itís so hard to watch him experience all these things again. Canít you do something to help him?" He looked imploringly at the wizard, who ruefully shook his head.

"I am sorry, Merry, but this is something that Peregrin needs to work through on his own. All any of us can do is give him our love and support, which you are already doing admirably." Gandalf offered Merry a reassuring smile but the hobbit turned away, looking back at Pippin, sleeping quietly now.

"Heís a mess," Merry muttered, running his fingers through Pippinís lank curls. "Thereís dried blood all through his hair." Merry turned to Gandalf, his eyes wide and brimming with unshed tears. "Why has no one washed the blood out of his hair, at least?"

"Meriadoc Brandybuck, we have all had rather more pressing things to think about than one injured hobbitís hygiene, important as that may be," Gandalf retorted acerbically. "If you are so concerned with the state of Pippinís hair, then wash it yourself."

"You are right, Gandalf." Oddly enough, the telling off helped Merry rally his spirits. "I do apologise. Legolas explained some of what happened to Pippin, this morning. His nightmares and then seeing the blood just now, seem to have brought home to me everything heís suffered." Merry felt sober, but the tears that had come out of nowhere to threaten his composure had disappeared again.

"I apologise as well, my young friend," Gandalf said. "It is good that you are here to tend Pippin. We have all had far too many worries these past few days."

Impulsively, Merry grabbed the wizardís hand. "You are far too good to us Ďrag-tagí hobbits, Gandalf, and I know that Frodo and Sam, when they wake, will appreciate your efforts as much as Pippin and I do."

"There is nothing Ďrag-tagí about any of you, my dear Merry. It is my pleasure to know you and to help you as I can." The wizard smiled. "But now, I fear, I must go tend to some of those other concerns that have been keeping me occupied these last few days." With a pat on Merryís shoulder, Gandalf turned and ducked through the tent flap.

Several hours later Merry woke from a light doze, thinking heíd heard his name. Looking about the tent, blinking sleepily, he at first did not see anyone. He only slowly realised that Pippin was watching him from the other cot.

"Iím sorry, did I wake you?" Pippin asked, looking rather pleased with himself. Merry simply grunted in response. "Donít be angry, Merry," the younger hobbit said, more seriously. "I wanted to talk with you, and one or the other of us has been sleeping nearly every minute since you arrived."

"Iím not angry, Pip," Merry replied, "just sleepy. Give your old cousin a moment to wake up and then weíll talk all you like." He had been wanting to talk with Pippin as well, of course, and was pleased to see him looking so alert.

Getting up, he walked over to Pippinís cot and helped his cousin sit up before making them both a cup of tea. When they were both settled to his satisfaction, he looked at Pippin. "What did you want to talk about, then?"

"Iíve been lying here, while you slept, trying to put all the bits and pieces Iíve remembered together into a whole, and they just donít seem to fit, somehow. I want you to help me put everything together."

"All right. Why donít you tell me what youíve remembered, so far, and Iíll try to fill in the holes for you." Merry took a sip of his tea, waiting as his friend took a few minutes to put his thoughts in order.

"Well, I think I remember everything up to Bree; the Black Riders, Tom Bombadil, the Barrow Downs and all. I remember the Midgewater Marshes and all the Ďkneeker-breekersí as Sam called them. They practically ate us alive and you had such a bad reaction to them. It would have been funny if those bites hadnít been so painful.

"Then it gets pretty confused for a while. Frodo was sick, I think, or hurt; Iím not sure which, and there were Black Riders and an elf. Not Legolas, but I donít remember his name. I know we must have been in Rivendell at some point but I donít really remember it, except for an image of a great hall, and an old hobbit, Bilbo I think. There was a mountain and a fire and Black Riders again, and Gandalf setting the sky alight with his staff. It was cold on the mountain, and sometimes I remember snow and other times the ground was dry.

"Then there was Moria. I remember most of Moria, and Lorien. There were boats, werenít there? I definitely remember boats. Poor Sam was scared nearly out of his wits. I remember all of the Fellowship; Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir. Boromir feathered with arrows as he tried to protect us from the Uruk-hai. Being taken by them." Pippinís voice lowered to a husky whisper as he raised a hand and touched the scar on Merryís forehead. "You were so pale, Merry, and you didnít move at all. It scared me." Clearing his throat, Pippin took a sip of his tea before continuing.

"Of course, I already told you that I remembered the Ents. Dear old Treebeard, I wonder how he is getting on in Isengard?" His lips quirked in a smile as he thought of the old Ent. The smile was short lived, however. "I also remember the Palantir, and having to leave you behind when Gandalf took me with him. I donít remember much of that ride, but I do remember arriving in Minas Tirith and meeting Denethor. I pledged myself to him. The rest is just snippets really, half-seen images and snatches of conversation that donít mean anything by themselves.

"Something terrible happened in Minas Tirith, something right on the edge of memory. I should remember what happened." Pippin was becoming agitated and Merry was concerned, not knowing how best to help. "Something... Denethor... I donít know, Denethor did something," Pippin was beginning to shake with the effort of trying to remember and Merry took his hand and squeezed reassuringly. "He, he thought... thought that someone was dead. Boromir?" he shook his head. "No, it couldnít have been. He knew Boromir was dead, he told us so when Gandalf and I met him."

"Itís all right, Pippin. You donít need to push. It will come back to you in time." Merry wondered if he should tell Pippin about Faramir, or wait for his friend to remember on his own. Oh, why wasnít Gandalf or Aragorn here now? They would know what to do.

"No. I canít... I have to remember." Pippinís face was white with strain but there was a determined look in his eye which Merry knew all too well. His cousin would not give up this battle.

"Faramir!" Pippin shouted in sudden memory. "Denethor thought Faramir was dead and tried to burn him." The hobbitís voice sank to a whisper. "There were flames in the first level and I had to find Gandalf because Denethor was going to kill Faramir. There was a, a Black Rider there and Gandalf was shouting at him and he went away. And Gandalf went with me to Rath Dinen and saved Faramir," the words flowed quickly now, as the memory returned to Pippin in force, "but Denethor threw himself on the pyre and would not be saved." He turned his head and hid his eyes in the pillows, the horror of the moment returning with the memory. "Faramir wasnít dead, but he was burning, burning with fever and there was nothing we could do to help him."

Merry gathered Pippin to him and held his now sobbing friend close. "Shh, Pip. Itís all over. Faramir is safe, thanks to you. And he is also well, thanks to Aragorn." He didnít know what else to say and so contented himself with crooning gently and rocking Pippin back and forth until his cousin calmed down a bit.

"You were sick, too, werenít you, Merry?" Pippin pulled back to look into Merryís face. "I remember seeing you in the Houses of Healing. You were all grey and I thought you were dying, but Aragorn said he had called you back, and that you were simply weary and grieved. had done something. Something great, I think, that no one else could do, but I canít remember what." He laid his head back against Merryís shoulder, closing his eyes.

"It was stupid, really, more than great." Merry told Pippin about his ride with the Rohirrim, culminating in the fight with the Lord of the Nazgul and Theoden Kingís death. "I was left behind when they took Theoden and Eowyn up into the city. My arm had gone numb and my head was full of fog. I was wandering blindly when you found me. I thought... I donít know. I thought I was dead, maybe. You tried to lead me to the Houses of Healing but I couldnít walk any further. I donít really remember any more until I woke up to find Aragorn bending over me, and you standing by, looking so worried I had to say something foolish to ease your fear."

"You asked me if I was going to bury you," Pippin replied soberly, much calmer by this time. "Your arm was cold to the touch, like Frodoís, when he was sick. I was so afraid that I was going to lose you." He shuddered, and Merry tightened his grip.

"I wonít be got rid of that easily." He thought back to those days when he had thought Pippin dead, and Sam and Frodo as well. His will to live had been much lower than heíd realised, in the grip of the Shadow as heíd been and there had been moments when he resented Aragorn for calling him back. He said nothing of this to Pippin, however, not wanting to upset the younger hobbit more than he already was.

"When I woke up, here," Pippin continued, "the first person I saw was Gimli and I didnít know who he was. He tried to talk with me, but I was rather frightened, I must admit, as well as in a great deal of pain, and he soon left me alone. He was hurt, I think, that I wouldnít speak with him, but I was too scared and confused to understand what he was trying to say."

There was silence for a time as the two hobbits tried to absorb all that had been said in the past half hour. They began to speak more lightly then, Merry filling in some of the holes and straightening out the crumpled pathways of Pippinís memories.

It was quite dark in the tent when they were brought back to the present by the arrival of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Between the three of them they were carrying a large tray of food, several flasks of wine, and plenty of water for tea.

"I thought that we might take our evening meal together, tonight," Aragorn explained as he moved about the tent lighting the lamps, "as you are both awake at the same time for a change."

No one said anything about the traces of tears on the faces of both hobbits, and Merry quickly slipped off the bed and settled Pippin back against the pillows, making sure his cousin was comfortable before straightening his clothes and wiping surreptitiously at his face.

The evening passed pleasantly, with the five friends sharing stories about their lives before the Quest began. Merry was pleased to note that the weight of care seemed to have lifted slightly from Aragornís shoulders and the King seemed less weary this night. The small party broke up when Pippinís attention began to drift and his head lolled to one side. Aragorn gave the injured hobbit a cup of medicated tea and helped him lie down before preparing to leave for his own tent and some much needed rest.

"Aragorn?" Merry asked, following him to the entrance.

"Yes, Merry?" Aragorn paused in the act of ducking through the flap, pulling his head back into the tent and straightening up.

"I wanted to wash Pippinís hair tomorrow morning, but I thought I should check with you first, and make sure itís safe, with his wounds and all," Merry explained. "I know he hasnít complained, but I know Pippin, and I know that he would be more comfortable if he were cleaned up a bit."

Aragorn smiled. "That should be fine, Merry. I will speak with you more about it after I examine him in the morning, but I donít foresee any problems."

Merry returned to the others, bidding the elf and the dwarf good-night as they, too, returned to their own tents. He put out most of the lamps, leaving only one lit by his cot. He sat down and contented himself with simply watching Pippin sleep, until his own eyes grew heavy. Then he put out the light, changed into his nightshirt and crawled into bed, falling asleep almost immediately.

Chapter thirteen: Near Drownings
Beta provided by Pipspebble, who was especially helpful with the bath scene.†

He was running. Running over moist grass through a misty night, barely illumined by the crescent moon sinking in the west. His hands were bound in front of him, making it hard to maintain his balance as he ran. His head hurt and he felt weak and tired but there were orcs all around, jeering at him and flogging him on every time he stumbled. They had gone no more than a mile, although it seemed much longer than that, when the land dipped down into a large hollow, where the grass was slick with moisture and the air nearly as damp. It became more difficult for him to stay on his feet as he slipped over the wet grass. He fell once and the sting and burn of the whip lashing against his legs hurried him to his feet.

A moment or an hour later, he didnít know which, there came a shout to halt. Gasping in relief, he allowed himself to fall to the ground, ignoring the orcs all around him, pushing and snarling at each other. He jerked back to full awareness, however, when he heard a cry, quickly stifled but full of pain, that could only have come from Pippin. "Enough," a large orc shouted as he ran past, "heís still got to run a long way yet. Make Ďem both run. Just use the whip as a reminder.*"

A helpless rage filled him. Someone was hurting Pippin and there was nothing he could do about it. The anger gave him the strength to find his feet before the whip-wielding orc could prompt him, and kept him on his feet as dizziness threatened to engulf him. As the company around him began running again, he settled into the fastest jog he could manage, castigating himself as he went. Not only had he failed Frodo by losing his head and running off, back at the river, he was failing utterly at protecting his young cousin. Now, when Pippin needed him most, he could barely stay on his feet and his mind remained stubbornly empty of any plan for escape. The strength born of anger lasted only a few short minutes and soon, he was running through a grey fog, barely aware of the whip blows that came more frequently as his pace slowed. Finally, the fog solidified to a wall of black that was impenetrable and he fell, knowing nothing more.

He came awake, gasping like a drowning person who has breathed in expecting suffocating water to fill his lungs, only to receive a lung full of fresh, clean air. Heíd expected to wake up in the midst of the orcs, still running across the plains of Rohan. It took a moment to accept that he was in a quiet tent, amongst friends. He couldnít tell which was dream and which was reality.

A hand touched his forehead and he jerked away instinctively before forcing himself to lie still. He recognized the touch. It was gentle and soothing, and with it came the barest glimpse of time stretching ahead and behind, bending and flexing in ways totally unfathomable to a hobbit. The hand stilled for an instant, and then resumed soothing away the fear and pain.

Merry reached up blindly and clasped the arm of the shadowy figure. "Legolas," he murmured hoarsely. "What...what are you doing here?" He flushed even as he said it, knowing how rude it must sound. "Iím sorry," he apologized, "I didnít mean to...what I meant was..." he trailed off, sleep and nightmare befuddling his thoughts still.

Legolas laughed softly. "It is quite all right, my friend," he answered in a silvery whisper. "I told Aragorn I would check in on you and Pippin before taking my turn watching Frodo and Sam."

"Um..." Sleep was crowding in around Merry, but he was fighting it, not yet ready to face the orcs again.

"Shh, go to sleep, Merry," Legolas soothed. "It was just a dream, it will not bother you again."

Merry wanted to believe that, tried to believe that as his eyes refused to stay open any longer. He still feared, though, that he would find this was the dream and the orcs the waking reality. As sleep eroded his strength, he felt his grasp on the elfís arm weaken. Gasping, he clutched at Legolas, afraid to let go. "I am here, Merry," his companion whispered, bringing his free hand up to clasp Merryís as the hobbitís grasp weakened again.

"Pippin," Merry whispered, trying desperately to stay awake, to stay in this safe, peaceful place.

"Pippin is safe and asleep. Now you must sleep as well." There was a note of command in the elfís voice, and Merry was unable to resist any longer. Giving in to his weariness, he allowed his thoughts to slide away.

It was bright in the tent when Merry woke the next morning. Yawning and stretching, he sat up in time to see a young soldier, the same one as the other day, he thought, enter the tent with a laden tray. Appearing more comfortable without the presence of the King, the lad walked over to the table, set the tray down, nodded to Merry and Pippin, who looked on from the other bed, and left the tent without saying a word.

Merry turned to Pippin, sharing a smile with his cousin.

"Are you going to tell Aragorn?" Pippin asked, staring intently at Merry while waiting for an answer.

"Tell him what?" Merry asked, getting up and reaching for his clothing. "That his soldiers are in such awe of him it turns them into bumbling idiots?"

Pippin gave an exasperated sigh. "Sometimes I think you are the bumbling idiot," he retorted, scowling at his cousin. "Are you going to tell him about the nightmare you had last night?"

"Oh, that." Merry paused in the act of pulling his shirt over his head. He hadnít actually remembered the nightmare until Pippin mentioned it. Even now the details were vague and blurry, with only the broad outlines remaining. "I thought you were asleep," he muttered as he resumed getting dressed.

"I heard you and Legolas talking." Pippin stared long at Merry, measuring his intent. "You are going to tell Aragorn, arenít you? You promised him, after all."

"I know," Merry answered, trying to shrug off the effects of the dream, returning more strongly now that he had been reminded of it. He would just as soon forget it again. "But I think this was just a normal nightmare. It was more of a memory, really, not anything like the dreams I was having before."

"Merry, you know Aragorn wants to hear about any nightmares you have, whether you think they are significant or not."

"Donít worry, Pip. Iíll tell him," Merry assured his cousin, more to appease him than because he really wanted to have that conversation with Aragorn. Seemingly satisfied, Pippin let the matter go, allowing his attention to shift to the food awaiting them.

The next few minutes were quiet as the two hobbits ate their breakfast. Pippinís appetite was much improved over the previous day, and he looked much better in general. The bruises had begun to fade from the vivid blues and purples of a few days ago, the cuts were healing, and he seemed stronger and less dizzy as he sat up by himself to eat.

They were just finishing their meal when Aragorn entered the tent, followed by several heavily burdened young Men. Merry grinned and Pippin looked on in confusion as the King directed the placement of a copper tub near the injured hobbitís bed. Bucket after bucket of hot water was poured into the tub and several full buckets were placed to one side.

"Ah, good, Merry. You are awake." Aragorn smiled. "I did not want to wake you earlier. Legolas said you had a rough night." He raised a hand to forestall Merryís protest. "We will talk about that later, after Pippinís had his bath."

Pippin was looking from one to the other, with confusion and slight traces of alarm evident on his face. "Merry, whatís going on?"

"Itís all right, Pip," Merry soothed. "I mentioned to Aragorn that you might appreciate a bit of a wash. I hadnít really thought he would go for a full bath, but I daresay youíll feel the better for it."

"And whoís going to give me this bath, then?" Pippin asked, seemingly unconvinced that this was an acceptable plan.

"Merry is," Aragorn replied. "I will help you get moved into the tub, but I trust Merry to be careful with your injuries and I think youíll feel more comfortable with him."

Pippin still looked sceptical. "Are you sure thatís wise? He nearly drowned me the last time he tried something like this."

Merry shot a quelling look in Pippinís direction as Aragorn raised an inquiring brow.

"I did not Ďnearly drowní him, Aragorn," Merry defended himself. "I only wanted to."

Seeing that further explanation was necessary, he continued before Pippin could give his side of the story. "Last winter, Pippin broke his leg. I was visiting the Smials at the time and stayed on a bit to help keep him entertained while he was stuck in bed. Not an easy task, I might add. Usually, Uncle Pad or Aunt Teenie took care of baths and such, but after a week or so, they declared they were tired of being soaked by his incessant splashing and they left the job to me.

"Honestly, Aragorn," Merry added with a touch of exasperation, "you saw what heís like, when we were in Rivendell. You put him in water and he splashes. I donít think he has any control over it." At the Kingís amused nod, he continued. "Well, after he had thrown water all over me, I finally got a wee bit frustrated and splashed him back. Apparently he wasnít expecting it and a good bit went in his mouth. He thought he was drowning and put up quite a fuss." Merry laughed at the memory, still finding it funny. "He made so much noise that Aunt Teenie came running to see what was happening. When she finally understood the situation, she nearly fell over, she was laughing so hard."

"I see," Aragorn commented, a smile lurking in his eyes, although he kept his face straight. "Well, I think we can do without the splashing, this time. Pippin, if you endeavour to keep all the water in the tub, I think that Merry might manage not to drown you."

Pippin, trying without much success to pout, nodded. "Iíll do my best," he answered in a rather unconvincing tone. Merry had a feeling he was going to be very wet, indeed, by the time this bath was finished.

While Aragorn removed the bandages from around Pippinís head and leg, and prepared the patient for his bath, Merry fussed at the tub, placing a well-folded cloak over the rim at one spot, for Pippin to rest his head against. He checked the temperature of the water and made a point of placing the towels well away from the splash zone.

When all was ready, Aragorn gently lifted Pippin and carried him the few feet to the tub, easing him carefully into the warm water. The injured hobbit sighed as the water surrounded him, letting his head fall back to rest on the cloak.

"Send Marek," Aragorn gestured to the young soldier standing just outside the entrance, "when you are done. Iíll return to help you get Pippin back to bed. And then, Meriadoc, I will want to sit down with you for a few moments. Legolas told me about last night."

Merry nodded, biting back a rather snide comment about elves poking their finely shaped noses into other peoplesí business. He knew Legolas was merely concerned for him, as was Pippin, and he appreciated it, even when it seemed a bit unnecessary.

After a few further instructions, Aragorn left Merry alone with Pippin, who looked drowsy and contented in the warm water. Merry allowed him to soak for several minutes, the two friends speaking lightly, in hobbit fashion, of things large and small. When nearly a quarter of an hour had passed and the water was beginning to cool slightly, Merry handed a flannel and a small bit of soap to Pippin, who reluctantly sat up to take the items.

"Here you go, then, Pip. I think you are recovered sufficiently to wash yourself." Merry stepped back and sat on the edge of Pippinís cot, far away from the tub.

"Coward," the younger hobbit growled cheerfully as he wet the flannel and soap and began washing away the grime and dirt. Despite Merryís dire predictions, Pippin barely splashed as he scrubbed at himself, only a small amount of water surging over the edge of the tub onto the ground. Soon all of him was clean except his hair and he lay back, resting his head, clearly tired out by the simple activity.

Merry, worried that the bath was proving a bit much for his still-recovering friend, moved over to check on him. Pippin gave a vigorous splash, pushing the water out with both hands just as Merry reached the edge of the tub, soaking him thoroughly.

"That was for telling that ridiculous story to Aragorn." The younger hobbit smirked in spite of obvious weariness as Merry shook the water out of his hair.

"It seems to me you are in a rather precarious position for one who is trying to gain revenge, dear cousin," Merry countered with a glint in his eye. "After all, you are not quite done with your bath yet."

"You wouldnít!" Pippin exclaimed, looking a trifle more pale than he had a moment before.

Taking in Pippinís exhaustion, Merry reluctantly decided to let it go this time. "Relax, Pippin," he said. "Iím just going to wash your hair. That was the whole point of this bath, after all."

He helped a still wary Pippin to sit up again, then took a dipper and scooped water over the injured hobbitís head until his hair was saturated, curls hanging lankly against his neck. Taking the soap into his hands, Merry worked up a good lather before carefully running his soapy hands through Pippinís hair, avoiding, as much as he could, any contact with the still large lump on the back of Pippinís head, as well as the healing cut on his forehead. Despite his care, a sudden hissing intake of breath warned him that he had brushed against the bruise. Murmuring an apology to his cousin, he continued, the pads of his fingers rubbing gently at Pippinís scalp to loosen the dried blood before working their way out to the tips of his curls, rubbing the ends together.

When he was satisfied that Pippinís hair was as clean as it was going to get, Merry brought the buckets of fresh water over, setting them down by the tub.

"Lean forward a bit, Pippin," he ordered, pushing gently on his friendís back as he spoke. Pippin complied and Merry sluiced clean water over his cousinís bent head several times, until all the lather had been rinsed out and the curly hair was squeaky clean.

"There, thatís done, then," Merry said in satisfaction as he helped Pippin lie back against the rim of the tub.

Turning and raising his voice slightly to be heard outside the tent, he called, "Marek?" The young guard poked his head in through the flap.

"Yes, sir?"

"Please tell Lord Aragorn that we are ready for his assistance." Marek nodded and pulled his head back out of the tent.

Merry reached for one of the towels he had set aside earlier and turned back to Pippin. His cousin had closed his eyes and looked to be nearly asleep, and Merry wasnít sure what course of action he should take. He wanted to drain the tub and try to get Pippin dry before Aragorn returned, but realised immediately that there was nowhere for the water to go but all over the floor of the tent, which was already muddy from the water Pippin had splashed earlier.

Shaking his head in resignation, he tackled what he could take care of, Pippinís hair. Very gently, he wrapped the towel around his cousinís wet head and began to squeeze the water out, rubbing very lightly to get as much moisture as he could out of the hair without hurting Pippin.

"Mmm," Pippin protested inarticulately, but did not open his eyes.

"Shh, Iím just drying your hair," Merry murmured. "Go back to sleep, if you want."

Pippin opened his eyes and frowned blearily up at his cousin. "Shouldní sleep in the tub," he mumbled. "Mighí slip in aní drown."

Merry smiled, running his fingers through the now clean curls to work out the knots, massaging Pippinís scalp soothingly at the same time. "Close your eyes and sleep," he whispered. "Iíll be right here. I wonít let you drown."

"...know you wonít," Pippin sighed, eyes already closed again.

Merry had just finished drying Pippinís hair when Aragorn returned. Taking in the scene at a glance, the King rolled up his sleeves, then nodded for Merry to take up another towel. As the King lifted Pippin from the tub, Merry quickly held the towel under the dripping hobbit and pulled the edges up to wrap around his scarred body. Moving slowly so as not to wake the patient, the King took the few steps to the bed. Pippinís eyes fluttered and he stirred slightly as Aragorn settled him into the bed, but he did not wake, even as Merry dried him off and dressed him in the clean nightshirt Aragorn passed to him.

His task accomplished, Merry lingered by the bed for a moment, paying little heed when Aragorn turned away. He was content, now, to simply watch Pippin sleep. He was reminded, just for a moment, of when they were children. After a busy morning, Pippin would nap in Merryís bed, sleeping contentedly in the warm security of knowing his older cousin was close by, protecting him from all the monsters in the wardrobe and under the bed. Merryís thoughts began to darken as he thought of all the monsters he had failed to protect his cousin from.

A strong hand on his shoulder turned Merry around so that he faced the King, whose face was solemn and determined. "Now, Merry," he said in a tone that brooked no argument, "I think it is time for us to talk."

*The orcís speech is from the chapter ĎThe Uruk-Haií from ĎThe Two Towers.í

Chapter fourteen: Relapse
Beta provided by Pipspebble

"Let us go to my tent for a bite to eat and a few words, while Marek and the others remove this tub and put the tent to rights. One of them will call us if Pippin wakes and needs anything," Aragorn added before Merryís automatic protest could pass his lips.

Merry nodded in defeat. He had promised that he would tell Aragorn of any nightmares he had, but felt that the dream heíd had the night before was not worth taking up the Kingís valuable time. It had been nothing more than a memory, lacking the powerful urgency and stomach churning fear of those other, Shadow touched dreams.

Checking on Pippin one last time, Merry reluctantly followed Aragorn out of the tent. The morning was hazy, with a thin layer of cloud covering the sky. A single beam of light broke through the clouds as Merry exited the tent, finding his eyes with a blinding flash. He lowered his head, blinking furiously to clear his sight as he followed Aragorn.

The King led him to a large tent not far away, set near the healing tents and the grove that housed Frodo and Sam. Merry had only the vaguest memories of his last visit here and looked around curiously.

While the tent was spacious, most of itís interior was taken up by a large table, covered with maps and scrolls of paper. There was a smaller table, set to one side, with several chairs. The back of the tent was curtained off and Merry surmised this to be Aragornís private sleeping area. Aragorn gestured Merry to sit at the smaller table, where he found fruit, cheese and bread awaiting him, as well as a decanter of wine.

"Please help yourself to some lunch, Merry." Aragorn seated himself and gestured to the food.

"Thank you." Merry responded politely but made no move toward the food. His stomach was already stirring in anticipation of the conversation to come and he thought it might be best to not throw food into the mix.

Ignoring his guestís reluctance, Aragorn poured them each some wine and then settled back in his chair. Merry waited for him to say something, but he seemed content to sit and drink his wine in quiet solidarity. Feeling twitchy and uncomfortable, the hobbit picked up his glass and took a sip of the wine. It was very light and just slightly dry, quite pleasant. He took another sip. Still Aragorn said nothing. He took another sip of the wine, and then another. Soon his glass was empty and Aragorn refilled it.

He was already feeling the wine slightly, and thought it would be good to stop drinking now, but soon found himself finishing the second glass as well. By the time he was well into his third glass, he was feeling much more relaxed. Without thinking about it, he reached out and helped himself to a pear and a wedge of cheese. When they were gone, he took a slice of bread, well-buttered, and ate that as well. He wasnít sure when the steaming bowl of some hearty stew had appeared before him, but he began spooning it up, finding it just to his taste. When he was sated, he leaned back in his chair, still sipping at his wine. He idly wondered how much heíd had to drink but had lost count of the glasses.

"I suppose you want me to tell you all about my dream, now," he remarked, feeling remarkably undisturbed by that thought.

"Hm, yes, I think it might be time."

Aragorn moved to fill Merryís glass again, but this time the hobbit caught him at it and covered the glass with his hand. He was not entirely drunk and he wanted to stay that way.

"It really was just a memory, I think." He spoke quietly, allowing his thoughts to drift back to the nightmare. "We were being driven across Rohan by the orcs. Iíd been hit on the head," he gestured to the scar on his forehead, "and I was still very foggy. To be honest, I donít suppose I would have escaped at all, if it hadnít been for Pippin. I know heíd been knocked out as well, but he recovered much more quickly than I did. He was able to think still, which was more than I was able to do. When an opportunity presented itself, he took it. I didnít know what was happening, at the time, of course. I heard a shout and a commotion. Everyone stopped and I was simply grateful for the chance to sit down. All I wanted was a little rest and I really didnít care what the shouting was about, as long as it meant that I didnít have to run any more."

Merry paused. The pleasant buzz from the wine seemed to be evaporating and he wasnít sure he wanted to continue this conversation. The past couldnít be altered and dwelling on it did no good. He picked up his glass (when had Aragorn filled it again?) and took a large swallow. It seemed that getting drunk might be a better idea than heíd thought at first.

"It wasnít until Pippin cried out that I realised he was involved in the commotion. I didnít know what was happening, but it was unmistakably a cry of pain that I heard. Pippin was being hurt and I couldnít get to him, or help him in any way. I didnít even know what was wrong."

Merry closed his eyes, rubbing his fingers over the lids. "He should never have come with us. I knew it even before we left the Shire. He was much too young to face the dangers I knew we might face. But he wouldnít be left behind. He found out about the conspiracy almost before it was formed." Merry laughed humourlessly. "I never was any good at keeping secrets from him. When I tried to prevent him from coming, he threatened to tell Frodo that I had subverted Sam. I had no choice but to include him. Or at least, thatís what I told myself."

Disliking the images his mind summoned up, Merry opened his eyes again, gazing at Aragorn angrily. "I wanted him to come. We had always talked about the grand adventure we would take one day, and this was it. It seemed wrong to me to try to deny him what we had planned for so long." His voice bitter and full of self-contempt, Merry looked down, not able to face Aragorn. "Itís all my fault," he muttered, "I should have protected him. It was my job to protect him and I failed. I failed them all."

He drank more of the excellent wine and tried to gather his thoughts. Heíd been telling about the dream and had gone off track. It did no good to go down that road, it only led to more pain than he was willing to feel, right now or ever. Rubbing his fingers over his eyes again, he found his place.

"I was confused and angry, but mostly I was frightened and tired and in pain, and I just didnít know what to do. I needed to help Pippin and I couldnít. They made us run again, then. They had whips and they lashed us whenever we slowed down or fell. I donít remember what happened after that. I suppose I fell, eventually, but the waking nightmare was indistinguishable from the sleeping one, so that I couldnít tell when one ended and the other began." He looked up, facing Aragorn for the first time since he had begun to speak. "Thatís all. Thatís when I woke up."

He found that he wasnít nearly as drunk as he would like to be and made a grab for the wine bottle, but now, when he really wanted it, Aragorn moved it away.

"I think youíve had enough wine, Merry. It has served its purpose." The King moved around the table until he could kneel in front of the hobbit, who was withdrawing into himself, wrapping himself in a miserable little ball on the chair.

Merry wanted nothing more than to slide into a wine induced coma and know nothing more for at least a week. It seemed that he kept fighting the same thoughts and fears over and over, and he was tired of it all. He hadnít known the depths of his own anger at himself until heíd begun speaking. Now he just wanted to escape from the pain and the self-recriminations, find a nice, quiet little place where he could lose himself forever. He was prevented from doing this, however, by a pair of large, strong hands gently cupping the sides of his face and tilting his head up.

"Merry, look at me." How could Aragornís voice have such compassion in it, when he knew what Merry was truly like? Against his will, his eyes focussed on the King.

"Merry, none of this is your fault." Aragornís words carried conviction, but Merry did not intend anyone to take this responsibility away from him. Before he could argue, however, the King continued. "Even Gandalf and Elrond, two of Middle-earthís wisest minds, were unable to deny Pippin the right to be a part of the Fellowship. He had a role to play and the war may have gone much differently had he not been there to play it."

It would be so nice if it was that simple, if he could allow all the responsibility to fall to someone else, but he knew he could never do that. Weary, he allowed his eyes to fall away from Aragornís. The King sighed and muttered something that Merry didnít hear, caught up as he was in his own misery. He was succeeding in sliding away but suddenly it was not a peaceful slide into wine-induced oblivion.

The Shadow that heíd thought defeated had returned and Merry struggled, trying to escape the hateful Darkness. He found himself cocooned in a thick, cloying blackness that cut off all his senses and numbed his thoughts for an immeasurable time. Gradually, however, he became aware of the barest whiff of scent. It caught his attention, without lending itself to identification. There, he caught another trace of the elusive scent. Suddenly the fragrance was all around him. It reminded him of home, windblown leaves, woodsmoke, and the familiar scents of his motherís cooking. The blackness was lightening and he heard a whisper, calling his name. Listening intently, he heard the whisper again, calling to him insistently.

"Merry, come back now. Open your eyes, Meriadoc."

Had he closed his eyes? He didnít remember doing that. Maybe he should open them again. Blinking rapidly, he found himself staring up into the eyes of a very worried Aragorn.

"What..." His throat was dry and his head pounding. Clearing his throat painfully, he tried again. "What happened?"

Aragorn helped him sit up and held a cup to his lips before answering. "I am not certain. Something that should not have happened."

Merry moistened his lips with the water and then took a long drink. He was grateful for Aragornís help, as his hands shook when he raised them to hold the cup. He didnít lower the cup until it was empty. Aragorn set it to one side and Merry looked around for the first time. He was sitting on a large camp cot in a dim room, and he decided he must be in the rear part of Aragornís tent. A small brazier in the corner smoldered and a pot of water simmered over it. Merry recognized the scent of athelas and began to get a glimmer of what had happened.

"I donít understand, Aragorn," he said. "The Shadow crept up on me so slowly before. How did it hit so fast this time?"

"I wish I had an answer for you, Merry." Aragorn looked concerned. "I will have to think on this for a time." He took a moment to look the hobbit over. "How are you feeling, now?"

Merry thought about that. He had a headache, due to the wine heíd drunk earlier, but despite that, his thoughts were clear and he felt much steadier, less anguished.

"Confused. Frightened, if you must know. The...the Shadow almost had me, and I didnít even recognize it until it was almost too late to fight against it." He stared at Aragorn in dismay. "Is it always going to be like this, with every nightmare I have?"

"It is my hope that this will not follow you forever, Merry. But I just do not know. For now, it is more important than ever that you come to me any time you have a nightmare. It is important that you not try to face this alone."

Merry could see the sincerity on the Kingís face, and forced himself to accept that, indeed, for now, he could not deal with this thing all by himself. "Youíre right," he said. "I donít think I even want to try."

"Good." Aragorn stared measuringly at Merry. "Now, I think it would do you good to sleep for a time. You may stay here until you are feeling better."

Merry was grateful for Aragornís suggestion. The Shadow was gone, for now, but he felt very tired. It seemed, suddenly, like far too much effort to remain sitting, let alone walk all the way back to the tent he shared with Pippin.

He lay back on the bed, closing his eyes and sighing in weariness, before suddenly opening his eyes again. "Aragorn," he asked hesitantly, "will...will you be here?"

"Do not fear, Merry," Aragorn replied reassuringly, "you will not be alone. Someone will be here while you sleep."

Feeling much reassured by this, Merry finally allowed the world to slide out of focus, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Fifteen: One Step at a Time
beta provided by Pipspebble

Over the course of the next several days, Merry fell into the routine of speaking with Aragorn for a few minutes each morning, talking about any dreams heíd had and the feelings theyíd evoked in him. It was difficult at first, with Merry fighting against the fear that the Shadow might rise up at any moment and claim him. He found, to his surprise, that the more he talked about the dreams and fears he had, the less purchase the Shadow could find in his heart and mind.

The day after Pippinís bath, Aragorn decided the young hobbit was recovered enough to take a few steps about the tent. Under the Kingís keen eyed watch, Pippin carefully levered himself off the cot and allowed his feet to touch the ground for the first time since his fight with the troll had left him crushed and near death on the battlefield.

"Go very slowly, Pippin," Aragorn cautioned. "Your body is not as strong as you remember it being, so it cannot yet do all of the things you assume it can do."

Pippin nodded, standing slowly and leaning heavily on Merry. The older hobbit could feel the trembling of his cousinís muscles as he supported him.

"There you go, Pip. Thatís not so hard, is it?" he murmured encouragingly. Pippin didnít answer. He looked pale and was biting his lower lip. Despite this, he pulled himself up until he was standing almost straight, and took his hand off Merryís shoulder.

He took one step and wavered, but regained his balance before he could fall. "Iím fine," he muttered as both Merry and Aragorn reflexively moved in to catch him.

Merry forced himself to step back, knowing Pippin was determined to do this on his own. He held his breath as he watched his cousin take three or four more steps, swaying alarmingly with each movement. The problem, Merry knew, was not in Pippinís legs. It was the head wound, which still caused him to get dizzy when he moved around too much.

Pippin moaned suddenly, turning white and buckling at the knees. Merry moved quickly to catch him but Aragorn was faster and had the injured hobbit in his arms before he could fall. Ignoring Pippinís protests that he was fine, the King carried his patient back to his bed, resting him against the pillows Merry placed behind his back.

"You did very well, Pippin." Aragorn smiled at the exhausted hobbit. "Do not feel discouraged. It will take time to get back to normal, but you are making good progress. Rest for a little while. After lunch, I have a surprise for you."

Merry watched quietly, amused by Aragornís handling of his cousin. Somewhere along the way, the King had learned something about hobbits, or at least about Pippin. The combination of Ďlunchí and Ďsurpriseí in one sentence had overcome any inclination he might have been tempted to make about feeling discouraged.

"Díyou hear that, Merry?" Pippin asked after Aragorn exited the tent. "Aragorn has a surprise for me. I wonder what it could be?" Pippin grinned up at his cousin, although he was a bit breathless and still too pale for Merryís comfort.

Merry tried to look as innocent and unknowing as possible. "Iím sure I couldnít say, Pip. Maybe heís found you a nice new head. The one youíre using currently seems to be a bit broken."

"Donít try any of that nonsense on me, Merry," Pippin retorted. "Youíre a terrible liar. Of course you know what Aragornís surprise is. Well, fine. You can keep your little secret if you like. I shall know soon enough, anyway." He yawned widely, belatedly covering his mouth with a hand that trembled slightly from his earlier exertion.

"Go to sleep, Pippin." Merry watched as his companionís eyes drifted shut and his breathing evened out. Pippinís color was already returning and Merry was reassured that he had taken no harm from the morningís activity.

Merry felt no inclination to rest, himself. He had slept long and deeply the night before, with no dreams that he could remember, and woke feeling rested and strong, ready for whatever might come that day. Now he felt restless. He had no purpose, no job to keep him occupied and the hours stretched ahead alarmingly. He still felt the need to keep busy, so that he did not have too much time for thinking and brooding.

Well, he reasoned, he only needed to occupy himself for a few hours, until lunch. Then he would spend the afternoon keeping Pippin entertained. One thing he could do was visit with Frodo and Sam for a little while. He knew that his friends would be sleeping but it helped him to look upon them and talk to them, to know that they were alive and recovering, even if talking to them did them no good. It did no harm, at any rate, as Aragorn and Gandalf had both assured him.

With this destination in mind, he snagged a piece of fruit off the breakfast tray and headed out, biting into the fresh, juicy apple. Just outside the tent he found the young soldier whoíd helped Aragorn with the tub and water yesterday.

"Hullo, Marek," he greeted the young man.

"G...good morning, s..sir," the soldier stuttered, turning red.

"Itís just Merry," he corrected, bowing and introducing himself properly, "Meriadoc Brandybuck, at your service and your familyís." This seemed to make the lad even more uncomfortable, as he mumbled something under his breath that Merry didnít quite catch. He stared up at the tall soldier speculatively for a moment. Close up, he noted how young this lad was. It was difficult to judge exactly, because Men seemed to age a bit differently than hobbits, but he doubted Marek was yet twenty. Which, if he understood Man terms correctly, put him at about the same age as Pippin. He, like Pippin, had a look in his eye that said heíd seen more than he should and would never be the same for it.

"I would ask a favour of you, if I may," Merry began. When Marek nodded, he continued, "My friend, Pippin, is sleeping. If he wakes while I am gone, would you please tell him I will return before luncheon?"

"Of course, sir...Merry," the lad answered, bobbing his head and straightening to attention.

Thanking him, Merry moved on, making his way to the beech grove. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky today, yesterdayís clouds having blown away in the night. The sunís rays were warm but a brisk breeze blew in from the north and Merry was beginning to wish heíd brought his cloak with him. Once in the shelter of the trees, however, the breeze was buffered and the air felt warm and welcoming. In the clearing amongst the beeches, Merry found that the gauzy fabric overhead had been pulled back to leave the clearing open to the sky.

Inside, he found Gandalf smoking his pipe and blowing fanciful smoke rings. Merry watched, enchanted, as the wizard puffed out his cheeks and blew his smoke into the shape of an eagle, wings spread wide as he soared on an unfelt wind.

"You know, Gandalf," Merry commented, "if you ever decide to give up the wizarding business, you could move to the Shire and earn a living just blowing smoke rings at the inns. Iím sure the folks at the Green Dragon would pay good money to see that. Not to mention the wagers that would be going on."

"I will keep that in mind, Merry," the old wizard replied, "if I ever decide to give up the Ďwizarding businessí as you put it." Gandalf smiled warmly. "How are you feeling today, my friend?"

"Well, but restless." Merry decided to explain his problem to Gandalf. Maybe he would have a solution. "I have very little to do, and Iím finding it difficult to keep busy. Pippin refuses to let me Ďhover over himí as he says, and there doesnít seem to be much else that Iím suited for, here." He didnít mention how much harder it was to keep the Shadow at bay when he had too much time for brooding, but he suspected that Gandalf understood.

Gandalf looked long at the hobbit, chewing on his pipe stem. "Hm, I may have a thought or two, but I need to think on them a bit longer. Fear not," he said, kindly, "I will find something to help you occupy yourself. For the moment, you can keep busy by visiting with Frodo and Sam. I have some things I must see to, if you would be kind enough to stay with them a short time?"

"Of course, Gandalf." Merry was happy to oblige. "Iíll just sit here and tell them some stories of our travels."

Nodding, Gandalf stood and left the glade. Merry looked at the chair Gandalf had occupied and thought about pulling it closer to the bed. In the end, he decided it would be simpler to just climb up and sit between Frodo and Sam. Moving carefully, so as not to jostle either sleeping hobbit, Merry situated himself comfortably.

"Iím sure the two of you have seen any number of strange things on your journey," he began, "but I would be willing to bet that neither of you saw a talking tree." He spent the next hour or so telling the sleeping hobbits tales of his and Pippinís adventures, keeping his tone light and his words casual.

"That Ent draught made us grow several inches, Frodo. You wonít believe it when you see us. We might be the tallest hobbits in the Shire, by the time we get back home." The sun moved overhead as he spoke, shining down on the bed full strength. Merry thought about getting up to pull the fabric across the clearing but quickly realized that he could never reach it. It would have to wait for someone taller to return. In the meantime, the warmth was making him drowsy.

"Iíd have a good smoke, if Iíd thought to bring my pipe," he murmured quietly. Failing the pipe, he thought about nibbling on something. There was a bowl of fruit in a basket beside the bed, but after a bit of debate decided to leave it for now. He was far too comfortable as he was to climb out of the bed for a nibble.

"Faramir said he encountered you somewhere near here," he continued. "I wonder if you saw this grove of trees then. Itís a beautiful spot. It seems restful on the heart as much as the body, if you know what I mean." He chuckled, feeling a bit self-conscious even though there was no one around to hear him. "Anyway, youíll both fall in love with it when you wake up. I want to explore this whole area with you, when you awake. Legolas says there are some remarkable natural formations here. I think he would like to explore, as well, but he has been far too busy, being nursemaid to all of us."

Merry fell silent, watching the leaves sway and dance in the slight breeze. It was hypnotic, catching and holding his attention. He never noticed when his eyelids grew heavy and slid together, thoughts stilling as he fell into sleep.

He woke some time later, groggy and disoriented, to the sound of someone calling his name. Blinking against the fog in his brain, he tried to focus both his thoughts and his vision, with limited success.

"Pippinís been awake for nearly half an hour, Merry," a deep voice spoke from somewhere above. "Itís almost luncheon and heís beginning to wonder where you are." It took Merry a moment to understand that the voice was coming from the figure leaning over him.

"What?" he muttered, still mostly asleep, but as he continued to blink, the figure gradually resolved itself into a dwarf. "Iím sorry, Gimli," he mumbled thickly, trying to gather his wits. "I must have fallen asleep,"

Gimli smiled wryly. "Aye, I suppose you must have. Come on, now, lad. Young Peregrin is wanting you."

"Well then," Merry replied, finally starting to wake up, "I shouldnít keep him waiting. I shouldnít keep luncheon waiting either, for that matter." He grinned and carefully disentangled himself from the other sleeping occupants of the bed. "Thank you, Gimli." Standing, he took a moment to work the kinks out of his neck and back, before returning to his Pippin entertaining duties.

At the entrance of his and Pippinís tent, he paused, shamelessly eavesdropping on his cousin.

"Are you sure I canít eat at the table today?" Pippin was asking, a wistful tone in his voice.

"Pippin," came Aragornís exasperated reply, "you nearly passed out after taking five steps this morning. You are not ready yet." There was a pause, during which Merry could hear the rustle of bedding. "I do understand your frustration, Pippin," Aragorn continued. "But you must allow yourself time to heal. Pushing yourself is good, but pushing too hard will only cause you to hurt yourself further."

It seemed Pippin was having a bad moment, and doubtless the King had other things to do than amuse a bored and frustrated hobbit. Pushing the flap to one side, Merry slipped into the tent.

"Right," he announced. "I was told luncheon was being served, but oddly enough, I donít see a single crumb. Honestly Pippin, couldnít you have saved me a little bit?" He turned to the other hobbit, feigning an injured expression. "After all weíve been through together, I would have thought it was the least you could do."

"Sorry, Mer," Pippin responded with mock concern, his battle with Aragorn forgotten or at least temporarily put on hold. "I thought since you didnít show up, that meant you werenít hungry. In which case, your food would have simply gone to waste, and I couldnít let that happen."

Aragorn sent Merry a grateful look before turning back to Pippin. "Now that Merry has arrived, it is time to tell you of the surprise I mentioned this morning."

Pippin, set to continue the game with Merry, closed his mouth with an audible snap and returned his full attention to Aragorn, who smiled down at him as he spoke.

"After you eat, I thought you might enjoy spending some time outside. There is a nice little stream not far from here that Legolas showed your cousin yesterday. Merry thinks it would an ideal place for you to lie in the sun and get some fresh air."

"That sounds lovely," Pippin sighed. "I would do almost anything to get out of this tent for a little while."

"Iíll remember that tomorrow," Aragorn laughed, "when itís time for you to practice your walking skills again. Ah, hereís your lunch," he continued as the tent flap opened again, revealing an aide with a laden tray. "Enjoy your repast, both of you. I have a few things to attend to, but will return shortly. When I get back, I want to find this tray empty and you resting, Pippin." Sending the younger hobbit a stern look and resting his hand on Merryís shoulder briefly, he left them alone with their food.

"What do you think of the surprise, then?" Merry asked as he filled plates for the two of them.

"Oh, I donít know," Pippin replied coolly. "I would have preferred a new roommate. The one I have now snores something awful. Still, I suppose it will have to do."

Merry threw a roll at his cousin, who caught it midair and took a bite, grinning smugly. Merry sighed. It was going to be a long afternoon.

Chapter sixteen: Fishing
beta provided by Pipspebble

"Master Brandybuck, sir?" Marek entered the tent hesitantly.

Merry looked up from the game he and Pippin were playing. "Just Merry, remember, Marek?" he responded. "What can I do for you?"

"I have a message for you from Lord Aragorn, si... Merry." The soldier reddened slightly as he continued. "Thereís a bit of a crisis in the healing tents. Nothing to do with your friends," he added hastily, as Merry looked up in concern. "One of the lads is in a bad way and Lord Aragorn asked me to lend ye a hand this afternoon, as he thinks it likely heíll not be free for some hours, at least."

"I see." Merryís heart had frozen for just an instant, fearing that Frodo or Sam had worsened. Shaking off the sudden fear, he looked at Pippin, trying to gauge his cousinís response to this news. Pippin looked about ready to get out of bed and try walking to the stream, despite Aragornís warning. He clearly didnít care who took him out, so long as he was able to get away from the dark, stuffy tent for a little while.

"Very well," Merry said, smiling his gratitude at the soldier. "Aragorn was going to carry Pippin outside this afternoon, but Iím sure you can do that as well as he." Issuing directions and gathering up pillows and blankets to take with them, Merry soon had the little group organized to his satisfaction.

Marek was a bit awkward as he slipped his arms under Pippin and picked the hobbit up, jostling him slightly, causing Pippin to yelp and close his eyes. "Oh, Iím...Iím sorry, sir," Marek exclaimed in dismay, shifting his grip to hold Pippin more securely.

"No matter," Pippin replied faintly, "Iím just a bit dizzy, is all." He clutched Marek tightly and kept his eyes closed. "And itís just Pippin," he added, "Pippin Took, at your service."

Merry, who had managed to not interfere only by dint of great self-control, breathed easier when it was clear that Marek was not going to drop his cousin, or hurt him further. Picking up the makeshift bundle of pillows and blankets, he led the way to the small grove of trees by the stream.

Once there, Merry searched for the best place to set up, and soon found a shady spot under the fringe of the old willowís branches, and not far from the stream. Quickly shifting rocks and sticks out of the way, he spread a blanket on the ground and threw the pillows on it, gesturing to Marek that he could set Pippin down.

"Díyou think you could do us one more favour, Marek?" Merry asked with a smile. "It would be lovely to have our tea out here, if you could bring us a tray."

"Of course. Right away, sir .... Merry." Marek saluted smartly and turned back to the camp.

Merry turned his attention to Pippin, who was looking about the area with an indefinable expression on his face and a slight tension in his body language.

"A willow, Merry?" he asked, quirking one eyebrow at his cousin.

"Sheís a harmless old tree, Pip," Merry answered calmly. Moving closer to the tree, he placed a hand on the trunk, somehow sensing once again the contentedness of the ancient willow. "Remember when Treebeard was telling us about the trees, how some of them seemed hale and strong but were rotten in the core, and others that looked old and rotten were still very gentle and good? Well, this is one of the good ones. Even I can feel it. Legolas said all sheís thinking about is sunshine and squirrels."

Pippin sent him a look which clearly said if Merry wanted to believe such nonsense, that was all well and good, but Pippin was not such a gullible fool.

"Come away from the tree, Merry," he said, "and sit beside me." He tossed a pillow in Merryís direction and patted the ground at his side.

The two friends sat quietly for a time, content to bask in the warm spring air, listening to the chatter of squirrels in the branches of the trees, the scolding of an unseen bird, and the hum of insects. They remained like this until Marek returned with a tray, well-laden with food and drink.

"Please, join us," Merry invited as Marek set the tray down and stepped back. The young soldier hesitated only a moment before lowering himself to the blanket. Merry eyed the food on the tray and sighed. Tea would be more in the nature of a snack, he thought, rather than a full meal today. Still, any food at all was to be gratefully received. Heíd learned that, if nothing else, during the course of this miserable Quest.

He moved to fix a plate for Pippin, only to find it unnecessary. Pippin was for once within easy reach of the tray and was serving himself handily.

"You know, Merry," Pippin announced around a mouthful of bread and cheese, "Iíve just about had enough of this camp food."

"Pippin!" Merry admonished. "Thereís nothing wrong with this food." Aside from the fact that it was bland, tasteless and hard to chew, he reflected as he tore a bite of bread off a small loaf. Still, it was what they had, and heíd been hungry often enough in recent months to take what he could get.

ĎOh, I know," Pippin answered reflectively. "I just miss my mumís cooking, I guess. Or, well, Asterís cooking, at any rate." This last was added with a rather provoking grin.

Merry scowled. Everyone knew that Aster Twofoot was the best cook in the Shire and somehow Paladin Took had managed to steal her away from Brandy Hall three years ago. The Brandybucks had not yet forgiven the Tooks for this offense. Normally, Pippin was polite enough to refrain from bringing up this sore point between their families.

"Really Pip, I think all this fresh air has gone to your head," Merry muttered repressively. "Perhaps you should lie down now."

Pippin grinned unrepentantly, "Now, cousin. You donít want to smell of sour grapes, do you?"

"Speaking of sour grapes," Merry came back, "does Aster still have that little drinking problem? I remember two years ago at Yule, when she came out of the kitchen screaming that the Yule pig was trying to gore her, despite itís already roasted state."

Now it was Pippinís turn to scowl. There had, indeed, been several such incidents, which the Tooks tried to keep quiet.

Marek, who had taken a single pear and a small wedge of cheese, and not touched either, was looking between the two hobbits with growing discomfort writ large on his face. Catching his glance, Merry smiled reassuringly.

"Tíis an old argument, and one that wonít be resolved here." Eying the tray for another little tidbit, Merry saw that it was nearly empty, only one small cake left. Picking it up, he broke it in half, offering one of the pieces to Pippin; a peace offering.

The mood had become distinctly uncomfortable, however, and something needed to be done. Thoughts of home were all well and good but home was far away and it would be a long time before they returned to the Shire. Listening to the water rushing past, he remembered that last night in the Shire and softly began to sing, sending a look to Pippin, inviting him to join in.

"Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
That washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,
and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
but better than rain or rippling streams
is Water Hot that smokes and steams.

O! Water cold we may pour at need
down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
but better is Beer, if drink we lack,
and Water Hot poured down the back.

O! Water is fair that leaps on high
in a fountain white beneath the sky;
but never did fountain sound so sweet
as splashing Hot Water with my feet!" (1)

They finished the song together, laughing breathlessly.

"I could do with a bit of beer right now," Pippin stated, "but I suppose Water cold will have to do." Picking up his cup, he drained it before pouring more water from the flask.

"Right, itís your turn now, Marek." Pippin looked at the young soldier earnestly. "Iím sure you know many songs that weíve never heard before."

Marek looked from one to the other. "Aye, I know plenty of songs. Let me think now." He was quiet a moment, face drawn inward, before beginning to sing.

"A maid walked out one day, one day
She met an aged man by the way.
His head was bald, his beard was grey
His clothing made of the cold earth and clay,
His clothing made of the cold earth and clay.

She said, "Old man, what man are you?
What country do you belong unto?"

"My name is Death. Hast heard of me?
All Kings and Princes bow down unto me.
And you, fair maid, must come along with me."

"Iíll give you gold, Iíll give you pearls.
Iíll give you costly rich robes to wear,
If you will spare me a little while.
And give me time my life to amend.
And give me time my life to amend.

Iíll have no gold, Iíll have no pearls.
I want no costly rich robes to wear.
I cannot spare you a little while,
Nor give you time, your life to amend,
Nor give you time, your life to amend.

In six months time this fair maid died.
"Let this be put on my tombstone," she cried.
"Here lies a poor distressed maid,
for in her prime she was snatched away.
Her clothing made of the cold earth and clay." (2)

The song was strange to Merryís ears and the slow, mournful sound of it made him slightly uneasy. Still, he thought, it was likely that one day, when death was a bit further removed than it had been these past few weeks, it might be a nice song to sing around a warm, cozy fire on a cold, winterís night. He had Marek repeat the song a few times, until he had it memorized. Then it was time for another song.

"How about this one, Merry? I learned it from Beregond on the march. Itís in a very old dialect, but he says the song is still quite popular in Minas Tirith." Pippin took another sip of water before beginning to sing.

"I have a yong suster
Fer biyonde the see;
Manye be the druries
That she sente me.

She sente me the cherye
Withouten any stoon,
And so she dide the dove
Withouten any boon.

She sente me the brere
Withouten any rinde;
She bad me love my lemman
Withoute longinge.

How sholde any cherye
Be withoute stoon?
And how sholde any dove
Be withoute boon?

How sholde any brere
Be withoute rinde?
How sholde I love my lemman
Withoute longinge?

Whan the cherye was a flowr,
Thanne hadde it no stoon;
Whan the dove was an ey,
Thanne hadde it no boon.

Whan the brere was unbred,
Thanne hadde it no rinde;
Whan the maiden hath that she loveth,
She is withoute longinge." (3)

Marek nodded his head in recognition as Pippin began to sing, and joined in with him on the second verse. When they had finished, it was quiet in the little grove of trees, but the atmosphere was genial and comfortable again.

"Do you remember the march, then?" Merry finally asked, unwilling to disturb the peace, but curious to know whether Pippin had recovered more of his memories.

Pippin didnít respond right away. He played with his pillows, rearranging them so that he was lying on his back, staring up at the willow fronds over his head. He looked drowsy and Merry thought he might fall asleep without answering at all.

"I think I remember almost everything, now, save the last day or so before the battle." He paused a moment. "Itís been quite an adventure, hasnít it, Merry?"

"It has, indeed." Merry forced a smile. "Just look at us. Valiant heroes of the War of the Ring. Theyíll write songs about us, Pippin, my lad, just you wait and see."

"Mm, Iíd like that," Pippin murmured, eyes shut. He said nothing more after that and a moment later he was asleep.

Merry covered his cousin with a light blanket and stood up to stretch his legs a bit. Taking the dirty dishes to the stream, he spent a few minutes scouring them out with sand and set them in a patch of sun to dry. Aware that Marek had settled against the willow, he rolled the cuffs of his breeches up and sat on the bank of the stream, dabbling his feet in the water.

He was half asleep, himself, when he felt the nibble on his toes. Coming awake with a splash, he saw the fish. Suddenly, he had a powerful desire to have fried fish for supper. Slipping his feet out of the water, he searched about in the grass until he found a long, sturdy stick. Taking his knife, he whittled the end of the stick into a sharp point. It wasnít the best fishing stick ever, he thought ruefully, but it should do the trick, if he was careful not to hit any rocks and shatter the point.

Walking very quietly back to the bank, he hovered, still and silent for a long moment, waiting for the perfect opportunity. When it came, he was a blur of movement, spearing into the water and pulling out a large trout. Half an hour later, there was a nice sized pile of fish at his side. Marek had seen what he was doing, and had joined him, and although the Man was not as fast with his spear, still he had added at least two fish to the pile.

Merry grinned up at his companion before pulling out his knife once more, this time to prepare the fish for cooking. Without speaking, Marek moved about the grove, gathering firewood and preparing a firepit. By the time all the fish were ready, Marek had a good fire going. Lacking a frying pan, they found a large flat rock to set in the fire. The aroma of cooking fish soon filled the grove and it wasnít long before Pippin began stirring.

"Wake up, lazy hobbit," Merry called, stretching out a foot to gently nudge Pippinís leg.

Pippin sprang into full wakefulness, slapping at Merryís foot and opening his eyes. "I smell fish," he announced with a happy grin.

"That you do, Pippin my lad. Marek and I have been hard at work while you slept the afternoon away. If you would care to sit up, we may be inclined to spare you a bite or two."

Merry helped Pippin rearrange his pillows again, then brought him a plate of hot, flaky fish, and a cup of cool water. He and Marek filled their own plates and the three sat in companionable silence for a time, as they ate their supper and watched the sky sink in the west, bringing their afternoon outing to an end.

After they ate, it was time to return to the camp. Merry bundled up the pillows and blankets while Marek lifted Pippin, much more smoothly and gently this time. They talked and laughed softly on the walk back, not wanting to disturb any of the patients in the healing tents. After Marek settled Pippin on his bed, he bid the two hobbits good evening, showing much more comfort with them than heíd done earlier that day.

Merry and Pippin continued to talk for an hour or so, but Pippin looked tired, and Merry did not want him overdoing it. Turning down the lamp, he ordered his cousin to sleep, and settled himself in his own bed, lying back and staring at the ceiling. It had been a good day. Pippin was healing well and would soon be on his feet again, Merry was sure. He was feeling well, himself, today, and he allowed himself to think that maybe he wouldnít have to worry about things so much now. Sinking back into his pillow, he closed his eyes and drifted off, the song heíd learned from Marek drifting through his thoughts like a gentle lullaby.

1. From The Fellowship of the Ring- A Conspiracy of hobbits, by J. R. R. Tolkien

2. Death and the Lady - medieval ballad of late 16th century origin- this version by John Fleagle, off his recording, "Worldís Bliss - medieval songs of love and death"

3. I Have a Yong Suster - middle English verse, anonymous author, dated to 1430

Chapter seventeen: The Giving of Swords
Beta provided by Pipspebble

Agonized screams rent the air, waking Merry once again. He climbed out of bed and trudged over to Pippinís cot, the third such trip heíd made since seeking his own bed not long ago. Judging by the faint glow of moonlight seeping in through the opening of the tent, it was not yet midnight.

Reaching his cousinís side, he found him already awake, weeping quietly into his pillow. Merry lighted the lamp and poured some water into a mug, offering it to the other hobbit. Speaking calmly and quietly, he got Pippin to sit up and drink some of the water. When the mug was empty, Pippin lay back down, rubbing a sleeve across his reddened eyes

Merry frowned, torn between worry and exasperation. "Will you tell me, this time?" he asked, with no great hope of success.

Pippin, face still pale and tear streaked, shook his head. "Itís nothing, Merry. Just a bad dream." He looked away, refusing to allow eye contact.

Merry wanted to argue, but Pippin was still trembling in reaction to the dream and Merry knew that now wasnít the time to make him talk. "Iíve certainly kept you up enough nights lately that I canít complain about the noise. I think youíd feel better if you talked about your dreams, but I wonít press you, not now. We can talk about it in the morning."

Pippin looked as though he might dig his heels in, but nodded slightly. His trembling had eased and he was starting to look sleepy again.

"Back to sleep with you," Merry ordered. "Iíll be here if you need me." Pippin obediently closed his eyes, releasing a final, quivering sigh before falling asleep. Resolving to stay close for the rest of the night, in case Pippin needed him again, Merry dragged a chair next to the bed. Taking a blanket from his own cot, he settled himself into the chair and blew out the lamp, plunging the tent into darkness.

It was a long night. Pippin had intermittent nightmares until nearly dawn. He finally slipped into a deeper, dreamless sleep just as the stars began to fade and sounds of life rose in the camp. Merry had got very little sleep and was feeling out of sorts as he moved about the tent, doing mindless morning chores. He was just giving some thought to lying down again and sleeping a bit longer himself when the sound of heavy footfalls approaching from behind caught his attention.

Spinning, he saw Gimli entering the tent with a laden tray, which he placed on the table. "Iíve brought ye some breakfast, although it looks like Iím a tad early this morning." He glanced at Pippin, wrapped up in a swirl of tangled coverings.

"Heís had a bad night," Merry said in response to the dwarfís unspoken question. "Soíve I, come to that. Pippin kept us both up with screaming nightmares until just about an hour ago."

"And how about you, lad?" Gimli asked in concern, looking at the elder hobbit with a practised eye. "Did you have any more nightmares, yourself?"

Merry shook his head with a rueful grimace. "No. I didnít get enough sleep to have nightmares. Pipís were enough for both of us, though."

"Well, Iíll leave you then. Mayhap you can find a little more sleep while the day is young." Gimli headed for the entrance, but turned back just as he was leaving. "Oh, I almost forgot. Aragorn said heís running late this morning, but heíll be along before too much longer, to check on you both."

"Thank you, Gimli." Merry looked at the untidy state of the tent, at the tray of food, and then at his cot. He wanted to get the place straightened up before Aragorn arrived, and the food smelled delicious, but he was dreadfully tired and the thought of catching a bit more sleep was very appealing. Yawning until his jaw cracked, he decided that sleep was more important than tidiness, or even food, at least today. Tossing the blanket heíd just folded onto the cot, he lay down and closed his eyes, falling asleep immediately.

The sound of voices woke him after what seemed only a few beats of his heart. Groaning, he rolled over and pulled his blanket up over his head, trying to deny that he was awake, but it was no good. The voices, while low, were persistent and could not be ignored. Throwing the blanket off, he sat up, blinking groggily in the light of the tent. He must have slept longer than heíd thought, as it was full morning, with bright sunlight shining in through the open tent flap.

"Good morning, Merry," Aragorn greeted him with a smile, handing him a mug of tea.

Merry took several sips of the hot beverage, trying to ease his grogginess. "What is the time?" he asked, when he had begun to feel a bit more alert.

"Mid morning," Aragorn answered as Pippin responded from his own cot, "Well past breakfast, Merry, but Iíve saved you a smidgen, out of respect for the fact that very old hobbits, such as yourself, do need more sleep than us younger fellows." Pippin seemed very perky, in spite of shadowed eyes, testament to the little sleep heíd had the night before.

"A very old hobbit am I?" Merry asked indignantly. "Well, I might be very old, but you are very loud. I donít think I want to share a tent with such a noisy hobbit any more. Aragorn," he asked, turning to the king, "can you think of anyone quieter who might have a bit of space to share? Thereís plenty of room in the beech grove, isnít there? Maybe I could move in with Frodo and Sam. They wouldnít keep me up all night and then eat all the breakfast when I pass out from exhaustion."

He climbed out of bed as he spoke, hurriedly dressing and moving to the table. Contrary to Pippinís words, there was a loaf of bread, a large wedge of cheese, several pieces of fruit, and even some sausage waiting for him.

"I take it all back," he exclaimed as he helped himself to more tea and sat down to eat. "You are indeed a prince among hobbits, Pippin, and I would be happy to share a tent with you anytime."

Aragorn smiled at the jesting but Merry noticed that the king looked exhausted himself, with a stoop to his shoulders that Merry had rarely seen. He wondered how late it had been before Aragorn had left the healing tents yesterday, and how his patient fared.

Aragorn finished his examination of Pippin as Merry ate. "You are healing quite well, Pippin. That lump on the back of your head is nearly gone and the cut on your leg is looking much better. You may always bear a scar there, but I think it will not trouble you. Are you ready for your walk?"

Pippin, looking determined, sat up and slid his legs over the side of the bed. "Iím ready, Aragorn."

"Very well," Aragorn answered with a smile, "I think that you should be able to make it as far as the tent flap this morning. What think you?"

Pippin eyed the tent flap and nodded. "That shouldnít be too hard."

Merry, finished with his food, took his place at the entrance while Pippin carefully stood up. Taking one slow step at a time, Pippin made his way over to where Merry stood. As he came to a halt, Pippin looked up and flashed a triumphant grin. Although his face was a bit pale and sweat beaded on his forehead, he looked to be in fairly good shape, and Merry grinned back at him. Growing overconfident from his success, Pippin turned too swiftly and lost his balance, wavering for a heartbeat. Merry jumped to his side, catching him as he fell and offering support while Pippin clutched at his arm, cursing in frustration. After a moment, the younger hobbit pushed himself upright and stepped away from Merryís grasp, wobbling back to his cot, where he collapsed in an ungainly heap.

"Blast it all!" Pippin muttered, "How long is this dizziness going to last, Aragorn?"

"Give yourself time, Pippin." Aragorn sat on the edge of the cot, offering the young hobbit some water. "You did much better today than you did yesterday. As you get up and move around more often, you will regain your strength and the dizziness will continue to fade."

Pippin accepted the mug with a grimace, although whether for the beverage or the advice, Merry couldnít say. He, too, wanted to know how much longer it was going to be before Pippin was well, but knew there could be no rushing of recovery from the wounds his cousin had sustained.

"You should rest for a time," Aragorn continued, ignoring the grimace, "and then, if you feel up to it, I see no reason why you should not be able to sit at the table for luncheon today. This does not mean," the king continued as Pippin looked up in surprised glee, "that you are healed. I will continue to monitor your progress, but I think that a few short walks during the day, as long as they are closely supervised, will do you good. Short meaning inside the tent, only," he added as a precaution, before Pippin could form any plans to charge out of the tent. "And if you get tired or start to feel dizzy, you need to return to your bed, at once."

Pippin nodded agreement to all of Aragornís stipulations, although Merry felt sure his cousin would be trying to get around them the first chance he got. He would have his work cut out for him, the next few days, keeping Pippin in line.

Looking up, Merry saw that Aragornís gaze was fixed on him and as he looked, the king quirked an eyebrow. Nodding, Merry motioned that Aragorn should lead the way. "Iíll be back in a few minutes, Pip," he said as he followed behind the king. "As I didnít have any dreams last night, I donít suppose this conversation will take long."

Arriving at Aragornís tent, the king motioned Merry to sit, offering him a drink of water. "I understand from Pippin that you did not get much sleep last night. How are you feeling, now?"

"Tired," Merry admitted with a wry grin. "I didnít have any dreams though, so I suppose thatís one good thing."

Aragorn regarded his patient with shrew eyes before returning his smile. "Are you experiencing any anxiety, or unusual anger today?"

Merry took a moment to seriously examine his thoughts before answering. "Nothing unexplainable. Iím worried about Pippin. He had terrible nightmares all night, and he wouldnít speak of them to me. He wouldnít even look at me. Is it possible for him to be affected by the Shadow as Iíve been?"

"I know about the dreams Pippin had last night," Aragorn answered. "He spoke to me about his nightmares this morning, before you woke up. He has asked me to keep our conversation private, but I can assure you that he is not touched by the Shadow. He thinks only to save you additional worry, by sparing you the details of dreams that you cannot alter anyway."

"And did you tell him how stupid that is?" Merry asked. "Does he really think that Iíll worry less, not knowing what heís dreaming about?"

"I understand that this is difficult for you, Merry," Aragorn said. "But I suggest you give Pippin a little time. As long as he is willing to speak with someone about his dreams, try not to fret overmuch that he is not speaking about them to you."

Merry started to object but paused, not knowing how to respond to this. His first instinct was to say that it was his job to take care of Pippin and so he should know what was going on, but he stopped himself before voicing this thought. Pippin was an adult in all the ways that counted and he had the right to make his own decisions, whether Merry agreed with them or not. Still, it was hard to be shut out.

He finally nodded in resignation. "Iíll try, even if I do think heís being wrongheaded and stubborn about this." Merry managed a small, reassuring smile, to let Aragorn know he wouldnít do anything rash.

He and the king spoke for only a few minutes more before separating, Aragorn heading to the healing tents and Merry back to the tent he shared with Pippin.

When he arrived, he found Gandalf inside, escorting Pippin from his cot to the small, curtained off area at the back of the tent where the chamber pot was kept. Pippin returned from his short excursion looking very pleased with himself. Gandalf helped him to a seat at the table on the far side of the tent, which held a luncheon tray, and then motioned to Merry.

"I have a task for you this afternoon, Meriadoc, once youíve eaten," he rumbled. "Please attire yourself in your armour and the livery of Rohan, and meet me outside the tent of Eomer King in one hour." With that, he nodded to both hobbits and left the tent. Merry looked questioningly at Pippin, who returned his gaze with a quirked eyebrow.

"I suppose Iíll find out what thatís all about later," he finally said with a shrug, before turning his attention to the food on the table. Although he had eaten breakfast only a short time ago, Merry found himself ravenously hungry. In true hobbit fashion, silence reigned for several minutes as the cousins concentrated on eating.

When they were both finished, Merry helped Pippin back to bed and settled him in, tucking the covers around the clearly exhausted younger hobbit. Although Pippin fussed at Merryís attention, he was too tired to give much protest.

"Now," Merry said, pointing his finger in his best older cousin manner, "take a nice long nap and Iíll see you when I get back from whatever it is Iím doing this afternoon."

Pippin nodded acquiescence as he watched Merry don his leather jerkin. "You should wear your sword," he mumbled sleepily, and Merry looked at him, surprised he was still awake.

"Donít you remember, Pip? I lost it during the Battle of the Pelennor, in Minas Tirith. It ... melted away... like Frodoís did at Weathertop."

Pippin frowned. "Oh. No, I donít really remember that. Still," he continued after a momentary pause, "you should have a sword with you. You can take mine if you like. Itís around here somewhere. I know Gimli brought it back from the field of battle. He made a huge deal of presenting it to me. Of course, at the time, I didnít know who he was or why he was giving me a sword, and I paid very little attention to what he did with it."

Merry was torn between amusement at Pippinís anecdote, and sorrow for all that his cousin was still missing. Shaking his head, he looked about the tent, and finally found the sword and sheath, stored next to Pippinís pack and armour. Taking it up, he pulled the blade from the sheath and tested the edge. It had been cleaned and sharpened, no doubt by Gimli. Satisfied that it would serve any purpose required of it, Merry slipped the blade back into its sheath and affixed it to his belt.

Several weeks had passed since heíd worn his armour and heíd grown unaccustomed to it. It felt decidedly odd to wear a sword again, and he wasnít sure he liked the sensation. Shaking off the uneasy feeling, Merry turned to thank Pippin for the use of his sword, only to find that his cousin was on the cusp of sleep, eyes closed, his breathing becoming deeper, soon turning into a gentle snore. Smiling fondly, Merry bent to kiss him lightly on the forehead in farewell and left the tent to meet Gandalf.

The wizard was waiting for him just outside Eomerís tent. "Ah, Meriadoc, right on time, I see. Good, good." He motioned with one hand. "Come inside. Eomer King would like to speak with you."

Following behind the wizard, Merry found himself in a tent that, while large, seemed small and overcrowded due to the number of Riders congregating there. Gandalf made his way through the group of men until he stood in front of the king.

"Eomer King, here is Meriadoc Brandybuck, as you requested."

Merry looked askance at Gandalf, wondering at the formality, but quickly collected his wits at a sharp glance from the wizard, and bowed deeply to Eomer. "My lord."

The king of Rohan rose and approached Merry. "It is good to see you looking so well, Master Holbytla. I confess, you still looked quite ill when we set out from Minas Tirith."

"Thank you, my lord," Merry responded, not quite sure where this conversation was going. He felt uncomfortable, standing in front of the Rohirrim in his Rohirric garb, as he was no longer in service to the king.

"I believe we have some unfinished business," Eomer continued, his expression stern. "I know that my uncle, Theoden King, released you from your service to him, ere we left Dunharrow, ordering you to remain behind, with my sister. Yet you disobeyed this last order of the king and found a way to accompany the army in spite of his wishes. What say you to this?"

Taken aback, the hobbit stared up at the king and stammered a reply. "I...I told Theoden King that I would not be left behind, and I meant it, although Iím sure I didnít have a thought as to how I would accomplish such a thing as following after the army. But you must know, lord, that your sister, the lady Eowyn, came to my aid, although I did not know her true identity at the time. She spoke to me, in the guise of a young Rider, and said that if I would, I should ride on her horse, with her."

Merry paused for just a moment before continuing in a voice laced with sadness. "You know that I was with Theoden King ere he died. I begged his forgiveness, which he granted freely."

"It is well, Meriadoc." Eomer smiled, letting all hints of displeasure slide from his face. "Your Ďdisobedienceí saved my sister and many others, and this I know well. You need fear no censure from me." Beckoning an attendant to bring over a small cask, Eomer continued. "What I wish is to rectify the error my uncle made in dismissing you from his service."

Opening the cask, the king removed a small sword of different make†from the blade Merry had received from the barrow, but elegant in design and most efficient in purpose.

Eomer extended the blade to Merry. "I would be honoured if you would take this sword, and agree to be my liegeman."

The hobbit swallowed the sudden lump in his throat, blinking away the moisture that threatened to cloud his eyes. Kneeling, he accepted the sword and bowed his obeisance to the king, who placed his hand on the small knightís head. Merry was sharply reminded of another king who, just a few short weeks ago, had performed this same ritual.

"Rise, Meriadoc, knight of Rohan," Eomer said. "May this blade bring you as much fortune as did your previous sword."

Merry rose and removed Pippinís sword from his belt, handing it to Gandalf, who stepped forward to receive it. He then placed his new sword on the belt, feeling keenly the honour bestowed upon him by the king of Rohan.

"Come now, my friend," the king commanded, his face relaxing into a warm smile of welcome, "let us sit and talk for a time. I would hear more about your home and people. You promised to tell my uncle all about this leaf you smoke. I would learn about it as well."

Merry soon found himself seated by a warm fire, with the king of Rohan on one side and Gandalf on the other as he told tales of the Shire. He spoke of pipeweed and other herbs of interest, and reminisced about the small adventures heíd had, growing up in Brandy Hall. He listened as Eomer related what it was like growing up on the plains of Rohan, learning to ride before he could walk, playing at swords with the other children from the time he was old enough not to hurt himself, and always preparing to defend against the growing threat to the south and east.

The sun rode low in the afternoon sky when Eomer finally dismissed his newest knight, with the promise of duties to come on the morrow. Merry was almost glad to find Pippin sleeping when he returned to their tent, for he had much to think over, and needed some time alone. Setting Pippinís sword back with his pack, he reassured himself that his cousin slept peacefully before turning and leaving the tent again.

Of a mind to check on Frodo and Sam, he headed for the peaceful solitude of the beech grove. He hadnít seen them yet today and looked forward to a nice, quiet visit. Talking to them always helped to clear his head.

He returned to his tent much later that afternoon, having once again fallen asleep while sitting between his two friends. The nap had done him as much good as the thinking and he felt greatly refreshed, ready to face whatever came his way next.

Chapter eighteen: The Morning After
Beta provided by Pipspebble

Entering the tent, Merry found his cousin sitting at the table, reading through a stained, leather-bound journal. Pippin looked up at Merryís entrance, his face a mix of emotions. "I found this in my things," he said. "Iíd forgotten all about it. I thought Iíd remembered most everything, but thereís a lot in here that I still donít remember. Little things, mostly. I do seem to recall the big events pretty well."

Merry sat at the table, next to Pippin. "I know it must be frustrating, Pip, but you know, we all forget the little things. Thatís why you kept the journal in the first place. You told me you wanted to be able to tell your grandchildren, some day, about everything that happened. Not just the big, exciting or dangerous things, but what it felt like to sleep on an ant hill or how big the moon looks at night, when youíre a hundred leagues from anywhere."

"I do understand that, Merry. But, this isnít like just forgetting and then being reminded, which is what Iíd intended when I wrote this. This is forgetting like it had never happened. I donít remember after reading the things in here. I donít remember the night Sam fell into a gully because he was so tired he couldnít keep his eyes open. Iím sure I should, itís written right here that it happened, but I really donít." Tears shimmered in Pippinís eyes as he spoke. "And what about the things that I didnít get a chance to write down? Iíll never even know that things are missing, except that Iíll always wonder."

Merry had no ready answer for this. He sincerely hoped that as time went by, Pippin would remember more and more, so that someday, there would be no gaps in his memory at all. But until then, there were bound to be days like this, when it all sat far too heavily on his friendís shoulders. All he could do was sit with Pippin, and try to fill in the gaps that were concerning him most, giving him knowledge, even if he could not have memory.

They talked for a long while. At first they paged through Pippinís journal, looking over the adventures, big and small, that theyíd had since leaving the Shire. After a time, they began to speak more desultorily, about anything and everything, friends they missed, adventures they hoped still to have. Finally, they began to speak of the things that lay closest to their hearts, concern for Frodo and Sam, wonder at the idea they could possibly have won this unwinnable war, and their joy, in the midst of this chaos, to have survived everything and still have each other.

"When I thought you were....dead," Merry faltered, "I tried imagining going home and having to face your parents. I couldnít do it. There was just no imagining it. My mind shut down every time I tried. I was so afraid that I would have to return to the Shire alone, and I didnít think I would be able to do so." Now it was Merryís turn to have tears in his eyes. He rubbed at them roughly, determined not to fall apart.

Standing up, he began to pace the tent. So much for feeling refreshed, he thought almost angrily. Pippinís voice interrupted his thoughts. "Merry, youíre exhausted. Why donít you try to get some sleep before supper?"

"No!" he almost shouted. "I donít want to sleep, right now," he added, trying to soften his tone as much as he could. There was no use shouting at Pippin. "I just," he trailed off, not sure what it was he wanted to say. Sitting back down at the table, he forced a smile for his cousin.

"Iím sorry, Pippin. Sorry for being such a bad-tempered old bear. I always seem to end up taking my temper out on you, and you deserve it least of anyone."

"Donít apologize, Merry." Pippin looked distressed, but sounded quite calm and undisturbed. "You must know that I donít mind. Now, you try shouting at Frodo like that, and heíll hand you your head on a silver platter, but thatís a different story altogether. Iím much more understanding than dear old Frodo."

Merry was unable to suppress a snort of surprised laughter. "Well, I suppose Iíd best keep my temper under tight control around Frodo, then."

"Yes, I suppose youíd best," Pippin agreed with a straight face.

It wasnít much longer before Legolas arrived with the supper tray. Gimli was right behind him, with several flasks of wine. Soon Gandalf and Aragorn had arrived as well, and glasses of wine were poured out. The hobbits stared at their friends in surprise, as this was the first time in days that everyone had been gathered together like this.

"I do believe a celebration is in order," Aragorn stated as he handed the glasses around. Once everyone was served, he held his glass high. "To Meriadoc Brandybuck, Knight of Rohan!"

Everyone echoed him as they raised their glasses, and Merry looked about with grateful eyes. The rest of the evening was spent drinking wine, eating, and laughing. The anger and melancholy Merry had been feeling earlier were forgotten, at least for now.

The party was not allowed to go very late into the evening, however, as both Merry and Pippin were still tired from the previous night, and Merry had to be up early the next morning. Aragorn had brought word that Eomer would be expecting Merry one hour after sunrise. This meant that Merry would have to rise early, as he would need to meet with Aragorn first.

After everyone had gone, Merry helped Pippin to his cot. While seeming quite weary, Pippin was in much better spirits than heíd been earlier.

"I havenít been dizzy at all, tonight, and Iíve been out of bed for several hours. Thatís a good sign, donít you think, Merry?" he asked hopefully.

"Indeed, you silly Took, I think that is a very good sign." Merry grinned at his friend. "I, on the other hand, am feeling dizzy enough for us both. I think I might just possibly have had a little too much to drink."

Once Pippin was settled, Merry blew out the lamps and dropped heavily onto his own bed. Sighing in relief at being able to close his eyes against the spinning of the room, he gratefully welcomed the oblivion of sleep.

The following morning, Merry bitterly regretted the wine. His head ached, his mouth was dry, and his eyes felt gritty and sore. To add insult to injury, heíd had a terrible night, again. This time it had been his own dreams disturbing his sleep. Fortunately, they hadnít been bad enough to cause him to wake up screaming, but he had been tormented by vague shadows and unpleasant thoughts all night, leaving him feeling more tired than before he sought his cot.

Dragging himself out of bed, he washed and dressed, moving as carefully as possible. Glancing out the tent flap, he saw that the sun had already poked her nose over the horizon. Grimacing in dismay, he realised he didnít have time to make a proper cup of tea before meeting Aragorn. Sighing in distaste, he dipped himself a mug of tepid water from the bucket and quickly downed it before reaching for his cloak.

Pulling his cloak over his uniform, he stepped out of the tent, squinting to shield his overly sensitive eyes from the growing light of the morning. Head down, he trudged to Aragornís tent, slipping in through the flap and cursing at the brightness. It seemed that Aragorn had every lamp in the place lit up, and the tent practically glowed.

"Are you trying to blind me?" he growled in surly tones as he hauled himself up into his customary chair.

Taking one look at Merryís reddened eyes, Aragorn turned the lamps down until the level of light was more bearable for the suffering hobbit. He turned to the brazier, where a kettle of water was steaming, pouring hot water over a mix of herbs and handing the resulting tea to Merry.

"Drink this, it should help with your headache."

Merry scowled up at his friend. "Is this a new game for you, Aragorn, getting me drunk? Because you are very good at it."

"I take full responsibility for the first occasion," Aragorn answered with a barely suppressed smile. "But I think this one is all on you, my friend."

Merry didnít respond, contenting himself to drink the tea. It was bitter and had a strong aftertaste, but he barely noticed. When the mug was empty, Aragorn took it back and made him another serving, this one more pleasing to the taste.

"Are you ready to talk?" he asked after Merry had sipped at the new tea for several minutes.

"I suppose," Merry looked up, meeting Aragornís eyes. "I was chased by dark dreams all night. It was not...pleasant. Truthfully, I prefer the hangover to the dreams." He attempted to smile but wasnít sure it came across very well.

"Tell me about the dreams, Merry," Aragorn commanded and so Merry went on to describe them in detail. They had all been vague, full of ominous shadows, but no clear threat. A sense of loss that couldnít be overcome, fear of things behind and before him, and a feeling of loneliness that brought Merry nearly to tears just in the telling of it.

When the hobbit was done retelling his dreams, Aragorn put one hand to Merryís forehead and closed his eyes. After a moment, he allowed his hand to drop and looked at Merry. "I sense no Shadow this morning. I deem these dreams were just that, ordinary nightmares brought on by too much wine." He smiled gently as he spoke.

Merry was relieved. He hadnít even allowed himself to think about the dreams until heíd spoken with Aragorn, for fear of what might happen. Knowing they were normal nightmares took much of the fear from them, leaving them powerless to bother him. His headache was much better as well, he noted. He supposed that was the result of the tea Aragorn had given him. All in all, he was feeling much more equipped to face the day.

Thanking Aragorn and bidding him farewell, Merry rose and left the tent. The light still hurt his eyes a bit but it wasnít as bad as before. Cautiously looking at the sky, he saw that he was in danger of running late, and so hurried on to Eomerís tent.

The rest of the morning passed quickly, with Eomer keeping Merry busy with many tasks. He was released from duty in midafternoon, with orders to return at the same hour the next morning. He returned to his tent to find Pippin alone, in bed, looking very mutinous.

"Itís about time someone came," he declared. "Iíve been abandoned here, alone, for hours."

Merry, finding a mug of tea that was still warm, sitting on the table, smiled. "Hours, is it?"

"It feels like hours," Pippin muttered. "Iím going to burst if I donít go soon, but Iím not allowed to get out of bed when Iím alone, remember?"

Merry laughed. "Well, Iím here now. Go, please, before you burst. It would create an awful mess and I, for one, donít want to have to clean it up."

Making a face at his older cousin, Pippin slowly levered himself off the cot, taking a moment once on his feet to make certain of his balance before walking to the back of the tent. Merry followed close at his friendís side, but was pleased to see that Pip was able to handle everything on his own.

Upon completion of his mission, Pippin led Merry to the table, where both hobbits sat down. Merry yawned widely, apologizing for his rudeness once he was able to speak.

"I hesitate to suggest this, in light of your response yesterday," Pippin put forth, "but why donít you take a nap?"

"What, and leave you all alone again? I wouldnít dream of it." He caught the concerned look sent his way by Pippin. "Really, Iím fine. Iíll sleep better tonight if I stay awake now." Pippin looked dubious, but Merry ignored him. Getting up, he announced that he was off in search of a late lunch, but that he would be back shortly. "Do you want anything?"

"I had lunch a few hours ago, but I wouldnít say no to a little something," the younger hobbit answered.

Merry nodded, having expected that answer. Pippin, like all sensible hobbits, never turned down a chance to eat. Making his way to the kitchen area, he filled a tray with stew, bread, and fruit before snagging a flask of fresh water and returning to the tent. Half an hour later, sated and content, he sat back from the table.

He watched Pippin, who was still nibbling on a crust of bread. He was pleased to see that his cousin was looking much stronger and healthier. He had been far too thin when Merry arrived, but heíd already started gaining weight and soon, if he kept it up, he would start to look like a normal hobbit again. He was still a bit too pale, but that was due mainly to his enforced stay in this tent.

"Iím going to ask Aragorn if we can go out to the stream again tomorrow afternoon," Merry announced suddenly.

Pippin looked up with an eager glint in his eyes. "That sounds like a good plan. Maybe this time, I can help you catch some fish."

"Maybe, if I can make up a fishing pole for you. I was spearing them the other day, and I donít think youíre quite up for that yet. But you should be able to manage a pole and line with no problem."

Pippin walked about the tent for a bit after that, stretching his legs, he said. He took his time, careful to make no sudden shifts or turns, but Merry thought he was looking much steadier. After a time, he settled back into his bed for a short nap, and Merry decided it was a good time to visit Sam and Frodo.

"Iíll probably be back before you wake, if I can manage to stay awake, myself," he said with a laugh. "I tend to find the beech grove very relaxing. I start out talking to Frodo and Sam, and the next thing I know, Iím waking up and itís an hour later."

Pippin looked wistful. "I would like to visit them, myself," he said quietly. "I want to see for myself that they are really alive and healing. I know youíve been keeping me updated, but itís not the same."

"I know, Pip," Merry answered. "Maybe we can stop on the way to the stream, tomorrow, so you can visit with them for a time. Iíll speak to Aragorn about it."

Pippin smiled in thanks as he snuggled down into his pillow and closed his eyes. Feeling confident that his cousin would sleep for an hour or more, Merry left the tent, heading for the beech grove. After saying hello to the sleeping hobbits, and telling them about his day, he settled down to share a pipe with Gimli, who had just started his turn at watching Frodo and Sam.

He allowed the dwarf to wax poetical about the wonders of the Glittering Caves for nearly half an hour, before suggesting a game of dice. This kept them occupied for another hour, until Merry deemed it time to check on Pippin. "I donít know how much longer heíll put up with the restrictions Aragorn has placed on his movements," he said, worry over his cousinís possible misbehaviour starting to nip at the back of his mind. "Heís starting to feel very restless."

"Donít worry yourself over it, Merry," Gimli rumbled. "Iíll look in on the rascal tomorrow morning and do my best to keep him occupied. Your excursion to the stream should be enough to keep him distracted tomorrow afternoon. And I suggest we not worry about the next day until it is here.

"Right." Merry stood up decisively. "Thanks for the game, Gimli. Iíll see you tomorrow." Feeling weary but pleased, he made his way back to his tent, looking forward to the distractions of the coming day.

Chapter Nineteen: Turn and Turn About
beta provided by Pipspebble

Aragorn thought another visit to the stream was an excellent idea. "The fresh air will do you both good," he pronounced when Merry proposed the idea the next morning. "In fact, I was planning to have Pippin spend some time outside today, anyway. I would like him to have a chance to walk about in the sun and gain some color in his cheeks."

"Is it safe for him to walk that far, do you think?" Merry asked, voicing his only concern. "He hasnít done much walking yet, except the little bit youíve allowed him, and that only in the tent."

"He should be fine as long as you take it slow," Aragorn reassured the hobbit. "My main concern these last few days has been the dizziness which was left over from the blow to his head. Heís been doing very well, and has learned to go slow and be careful of sudden movements. He may tire easily, but I donít foresee any problems with a him taking a short walk."

Merry relaxed, allowing Aragornís reassurance to ease his concern. "He mentioned wanting to see Frodo and Sam. If we go there first and rest for a time, that should make the walk easier, as well."

Aragorn nodded. "I will ask Legolas to accompany you, also. If Pippin should tire too much or get dizzy, I donít want you trying to bring him back on your own."

Merry readily agreed, and from there it took very little time for final arrangements to be made. While Merry carried out his duties to the king of Rohan, Legolas would escort Pippin to the beech grove. Merry would meet them there and they would go on to the stream together. Aragorn would see to it that a picnic lunch was prepared and delivered at the appropriate time.

Feeling quite cheerful, Merry whistled one of his favourite springtime songs as he headed off to Eomerís tent. He was feeling rather less cheerful a few hours later. His duties this day had consisted of standing by Eomerís side while the king met with various people. He was occasionally called upon to fill a wine glass or talk a bit about hobbits or the Shire, but mostly he just stood. At first he paid close attention to the way Eomer spoke and handled various situations, knowing this was an invaluable chance to learn how others governed, which could stand him in good stead when he took up the Mastership of Buckland. Most of Eomerís talk was of the distribution of horses and such, however, and Merryís attention waned after an hour or so. By the time he was dismissed he had a rather large headache. He was also very hungry, as heíd been called upon to serve Eomer during the kingís lunch, but had not had a chance to eat anything himself.

Rubbing at his temple as he walked, he headed back to his tent to change out of his uniform before going on to meet Legolas and Pippin. He quickly shucked off his leather jerkin and his livery and dressed in his plain breeches and tunic, but buckled his new sword around his waist before leaving. He was already getting reacquainted with the feel of a sword at his side and found himself loathe to leave it behind.

As Merry approached the beech grove, he was surprised to see Legolas approaching, alone, from another direction.

"Hoy, Legolas!" he called quietly.

"Hello, Merry," the elf greeted him. "How fare you, today?"

"I am well, thank you," Merry paused just a moment. "Forgive me for being so blunt, but where is Pippin? He is not in our tent and I thought he was to be with you."

The elf smiled. "He is inside. I took him off Gimliís hands an hour or so ago, and brought him here to visit with Frodo and Sam. He requested some time alone with them, so Iíve been seeing to a few things and now Iíve returned."

Merry flushed slightly, knowing he must seem overprotective to the others, but unable to help himself. Nonetheless, he was reassured by Legolasí explanation. "That is good. He should have had time enough by now to say the things he wanted to say. Shall we join him?"

The two friends entered the tent quietly and paused at the sight that greeted them. Pippin had climbed onto the bed, lying in the same spot that Merry frequently occupied when visiting the two sleeping hobbits. Much like him, Pippin had fallen asleep and looked quite cozy, nestled in between the other two.

Merry couldnít help but smile as he turned to Legolas. "I suppose our picnic can wait an hour or so."

Legolas smiled back. "Yes, I suppose it can." The elf gestured to the table. "Would you care to play a game of draughts while we wait? I understand itís quite a popular game with hobbits."

A glint came to Merryís eyes as he glanced speculatively at the board. "Yes, I suppose I could be talked into a game or two as we wait." Just then his stomach rumbled loudly, reminding him that heíd missed lunch and that the picnic had been delayed.

Legolas laughed, a gentle silvery laughter that filled the tent with a sense of joy. "Youíll wake Pippin with that growling. I suppose it would be best to find you something to eat before you become desperate and decide to find out what elf tastes like."

Fortunately, there was a small tray of food that was kept filled for whichever guardian was in the tent with the recovering hobbits. Merry helped himself to a small loaf of bread and a fat carrot as Legolas set up the game.

The hobbit and the elf were well into their second game when Pippin began to stir. Legolas had found Merry an able opponent, but the elf had been playing this game and variants on it for long hundreds of years and had outwitted Merry in the first game. Now Merry was concentrating intently on his next move, determined not to let Legolas beat him a second time. He was, therefore, almost disappointed when Pippin sat up, running his fingers through his hair and blinking fuzzily.

"Hullo, Merry, Legolas," he murmured. "How long have I slept?"

"Not much more than an hour," Merry answered absently, chewing on his thumb as he mentally tried and discarded several moves. Ah, he thought in triumph, moving one of his pieces and capturing one of Legolasí that had been worrying him. Flashing the elf a grin, he turned his full attention to Pippin.

"Are you feeling rested?" he asked casually.

"Yes," Pippin responded. "I see why you find it so soothing to come here. I had no intention of sleeping, mind you, but it did seem so tempting to just lie down and close my eyes for a moment." His eyes took on a wistful expression and he laughed softly. "It reminds me very strongly of that stand of beech trees along the Water in Hobbiton. You remember it, Merry. Itís a very restful, peaceful place, and I always fall asleep there."

"I know where you mean," Merry replied. "I hadnít thought of it before but youíre right, of course. Frodo showed me that stand of trees when I was very young, shortly after he had moved to Bag End. We had a picnic by the riverbank and played in the water all afternoon. Or rather, I played in the water all afternoon. Frodo splashed about for a bit and then found a nice, sunny spot to take a nap. Got a dreadful sunburn, if I remember correctly." Merry smiled fondly as he looked over at his sleeping cousin. "Such an appropriate place for him to be resting now, donít you think?"

"Merry?" Legolas called his name quietly to get his attention. "It is your turn, unless you would like to call it a draw? Iím sure that Pippin is hungry, and I know that carrot was not nearly enough to assuage your hunger."

At the mention of food, Merryís stomach growled again, loudly, and he laughed. "A draw it is, but only if we can continue this another time. The honor of the Shire is at stake."

The game was quickly put away and the three friends departed the tent. Legolas led them at a leisurely pace, carefully matching his stride to that of Pippinís. The younger hobbit was well rested and able to walk at a good pace, if not what it would have been under normal circumstances. As they approached the spot along the stream where they had picnicked before, Merry turned to approach the water, only to be stopped by Legolas.

"I thought you might like to see another place Iíve found. Itís just a bit further up the stream."

First reassuring himself that Pippin was able to keep going, Merry shrugged in agreement and rejoined the other two. He saw a hint of something in Pippinís face that told him the younger hobbit was just as glad to move on, away from this spot. Puzzled, Merry mulled this thought over for a few minutes, until he was distracted by Pippinís hand on his arm.

"Look, Merry."

Merry lifted his gaze and nearly gasped aloud at the sight he beheld. Legolas had brought them to a large meadow, through which the stream ran in happy little leaps and bounds, before disappearing into the trees that bordered the meadow. The grass was long and green, spotted with random clumps of blue and purple wildflowers, with vivid patches of yellow or red scattered about. The buzz of bees filled the air and as Merry watched, he saw a butterfly fluttering from flower to flower.

"This...Legolas, this is beautiful." He almost hated the thought of spreading a blanket over the grass and flowers, in order to have their picnic, but he found there was no need to worry, as Legolas led them closer to the stream. There they found a large slab of rock rising from the grass, smooth and nearly flat. Beside the rock was a large basket and a folded blanket. At Legolasí gesture, Merry also noticed several leather flasks cooling in a shallow pool at the edge of the stream.

Ordering Pippin to sit and rest, Merry and Legolas quickly spread the blanket over the rock and set out the food. Soon the meal was prepared and the three friends dug into the food with lively appetites. Merry retrieved one of the flasks from the stream and poured it into mugs, finding it contained a rich, fruity wine.

Merry woke some time later, from an unanticipated nap, feeling much refreshed. Rolling lazily onto his side, he looked about for Pippin, and found him sitting with Legolas, engaged in earnest conversation. They were speaking in low voices, and while Merry could hear them like a gentle hum, he could not make out the words. Not wanting to interrupt them, he flopped over onto his stomach, resting his chin on crossed arms and staring at the flowers nodding their sleepy heads at him. Yawning, he debated whether he should go back to sleep or get up and join his friends.

A loud laugh broke his train of thought and he looked over at Pippin, who was grinning with delight over something Legolas had said. His decision made, Merry stood and walked over to join them. Pippin looked up as he approached.

"Feeling better?" he asked with a smile.

Merry blinked at him. "What do you mean, Pip?"

"Donít play innocent with me, Merry," Pippin retorted. "Youíve had a headache all afternoon. I could see it in your eyes. Has it gone?"

"It has, as a matter of fact." Pippin knew him far too well, Merry reflected as he sat down next to his cousin. "I feel much better, thank you for asking."

"Good, because I want to do some fishing, and you promised that you would make me a fishing pole."

The rest of the afternoon passed in a carefree haze of fishing and quiet conversation, until Merry noticed that Pippin was looking rather tired. Packing up the remains of the picnic, they took their time walking back to their tent, stopping to rest several times along the way. Legolas offered to carry Pippin, but the young hobbit refused, wanting to make it back on his own. Smiling in understanding, Legolas contented himself with carrying the basket and blanket, leaving Pippin in Merryís capable hands.

They reached the tent shortly before the sun set, and Merry ordered Pippin to change into his nightshirt and climb into bed. "Take a little nap while I go get us some supper," he said as he turned to go. "Never fear, Iíll wake you before the food is all gone. Or at least save you a scrap or two."

Pippin muttered something Merry couldnít make out, looking petulant, but obeyed his orders, sliding down in the cot until his head rested on the pillow. He was asleep before Merry had left the tent.

Merry allowed Pippin to sleep for a good hour before gently waking him to eat some supper. Pippin was still tired after eating and Merryís headache had returned sometime during the early evening. They pulled out their pipes and had a smoke, sitting in companionable silence for a time, before Merry announced that they were both in need of an early night.

Blowing out the lamp, Merry stretched out on his cot, closing his eyes against the darkness. Pippinís breathing settled into soft snores within minutes, but it took Merry much longer, tossing fitfully for nearly an hour before sleep finally claimed him.

Merry groaned, thrashing in his sleep. He was in a cold, dark place, and hard, rough hands grabbed at him, clawing and pawing their way over his body, searching and then hitting when they didnít find what they were looking for. Merry tried to curl up around himself, protect himself against the cruel blows, but his body was being held and he couldnít move. He cried out, trying to free himself but finding he could not.

"I have you, Merry, youíre safe now."

Gasping, he grabbed onto the warmth and security in those few words and tried once again to free himself from the bonds that held him.

"Shh, hush now, Merry. Stop fighting, itís just me. Iíve got you."

He knew that voice. It was a good voice, full of love and a barely contained fear. He stilled as the words penetrated his confused mind. Blinking groggily, he saw that he was not on the plains of Rohan, as heíd thought. As his eyes focussed, he found himself staring into Pippinís wide, worried eyes.

"All right?" Pippin asked hesitantly. "Are you awake, now?"

Nodding, not trusting himself to speak yet, Merry tried to still the trembling of his body, with little success. He was covered in a cold sweat and his teeth were beginning to chatter. Seeing this, Pippin grabbed the blanket off his own cot and added it to the one heíd already wrapped around Merry.

"Your hand is cold," Pippin said as he tucked Merry up. "Does your arm hurt?"

"Mm, a little," Merry replied, as he took stock of himself. In fact, his arm felt a bit cold and achy, but not icy or numb. "I suppose Aragorn will have something to say about this in the morning." He attempted to smile, but was still too shaky to do a convincing job of it.

"Iím certain of it." Pippin did a better job with his smile. "Here, drink some water." He held the mug to Merryís lips and Merry drank gratefully.

When the mug was empty and Pippin had set it back on the table, Merry snaked his good arm out from under the blankets and grasped Pippinís hand. "Thank you," he murmured. The trembling was beginning to ease off, and he thought he might be able to sleep again, soon. "Iím sorry to have wakened you."

"Nonsense." Pippin shook his head in amusement. "Turn and turn about. I kept you up all night, just a few days ago. Itís only fair that you disturb my slumber this time around. Iím sure it will be me again, next time. Now, close your eyes and go to sleep. Iíll be right here if you need me."

Merry followed this advice hesitantly, suddenly afraid the orcs would be waiting for him in the dark. Even as he closed his eyes, however, he heard Pippin humming an ancient lullaby and found his fears dissolving. Unable to resist the gentle urging of Pippinís song, he slid quickly into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Chapter Twenty: Recovery
Beta provided by Pipspebble

Aragorn called on them early the next morning, and after a few pleasantries proceeded to examine Pippin thoroughly. Merry, feeling groggy and out of sorts, stayed wrapped up in his blankets. Heíd slept deeply for a few hours after the nightmare, but other dreams had come along later in the night and each time heíd awakened, Pippin had been at his side, soothing and comforting. He felt guilty now, seeing the shadows under his friendís eyes.

Shivering slightly at the memory of the dreams, Merry huddled deeper in his blankets. Head resting on his pillow, eyes following Aragornís movements without focus, he wasnít aware of falling asleep until he heard his name being gently spoken.

Sighing, he mumbled an inarticulate protest at being awakened.

"I know you are tired, Merry, but we should talk about last night." Aragorn sounded very serious.

Opening his eyes reluctantly, Merry blinked a few times to bring his vision into focus. Aragorn was looking at him with an expression of grave concern. Giving up on the idea of sleep, for now at any rate, he pushed himself up to a sitting position.

"I know," he admitted as he scrubbed his fingers through his hair, automatically turning to check on Pippin. His cousin had curled up under his blankets and appeared to be fast asleep.

Aragorn followed Merryís gaze. "He said that he was up most of the night, sitting with you. Heíll sleep for a little now, but I imagine heíll be up in time for second breakfast, at the latest." The kingís face softened as he looked at the young hobbit. "He is doing very well. He will need to go slowly and rest frequently for several days yet, but Iíve released him from healerís care. Iím relying on you to watch after him and make certain he does not overdo anything." Aragorn laughed, "Well, as much as you can, at any rate. I know how determined he can be."

Merry felt a rush of relief at this good news. "Then he is completely recovered from his injuries?"

"For the most part." Aragornís reply held a cautionary tone. "I meant it, when I said he needs to go slowly and not overexert himself. If he pushes himself too hard, he will find himself back in bed." He held Merryís gaze for a moment, then nodded as though some unspoken communication had passed between them.

"Enough about young Peregrin Took. It is you that I am more concerned about, today. Tell me of your dreams."

Haltingly, Merry described the nightmares heíd had. "I just felt so small and helpless, Aragorn."

"Small you may be, Meriadoc Brandybuck, but helpless you are not." Aragorn put his hands on Merryís shoulders, looking him in the eye. "And you are not even all that small, anymore."

Merry stared at the king, perplexed, as Aragorn continued. "You know youíve grown since drinking the Ent draughts but I donít suppose you realise what a change it truly is." The kingís lips quirked in an amused smile. "Youíll begin to understand what I mean when Frodo and Sam awaken. Which should happen very soon."

"What?" Merry scrambled up, shrugging out from under Aragornís hands. He jumped out of bed and began searching for the clothing heíd discarded the previous evening. "If they are waking I need to be there. Someone should be there"

Aragorn stopped Merryís frantic actions by calmly gathering up the hobbitís clothing and handing them to him. "Merry, they will not wake for several hours at least, and likely not until tomorrow. You do not need to rush about so. Once weíve finished our discussion and youíve eaten something, you may go visit with them for a short time, if Eomer has no need of your presence."

The kingís words helped Merry focus. One thing at a time, thatís what his father had always taught him, and it was as true here as it was back home. Taking a deep breath, he sat down on the edge of his cot, trying not to fidget with impatience, like a small hobbit-child - or like Pippin, come to that.

"Thatís better. Now, let me take a look at your arm. Pippin said it was hurting you last night." Aragorn took Merryís hand in his own, feeling the slight chill that remained in the fingers.

"Sometimes Pip says more than he ought," Merry growled, wanting nothing so much as to be done here, so he could go to Frodo and Sam.

"Sometimes Pippin says exactly what he should," Aragorn countered. "I know you are impatient, Merry, but kindly do not be foolish."

The words had an edge to them that Merry wasnít accustomed to hearing in Aragornís voice and he looked up in surprise, before reddening in embarrassment.

Seemingly content that his admonishment had been taken to heart, Aragorn continued. "Good. Now, can you tell me if there was anything different about this dream you had last night, anything to set it apart from the other dreams youíve had lately, the ones that are just normal nightmares?"

It took only a heartbeat for the implications of that statement to register with Merry. "In other words, this was not just an ordinary nightmare, was it?"

Aragorn didnít reply, simply waited for Merry to answer the question. Muttering something about the inscrutability of kings in general and this one in particular, Merry cast back in his mind to find an answer.

"There was a different quality to the darkness," he finally murmured, almost to himself. "Itís almost always dark in my nightmares, but this one had a different feel to it." He furrowed his brow as he tried to isolate the difference. "Itís as though, in my ... ordinary ... nightmares, the darkness is something that clouds my eyes, but in these other ones, the Shadow touched dreams, the darkness is inside me, something that clouds my whole being, whether there is light to see by or not."

He shivered, suddenly wishing heíd gotten dressed before finishing this conversation. A thin nightshirt did not provide nearly as much protection as he felt he needed.

"Very good, Merry." Aragorn smiled at him approvingly. Standing up, he moved away from Merry to the brazier. Following him with his eyes, Merry became aware that the kettle had been set to heat, and was now steaming cheerfully away. Aragorn crumbled some leaves into a pot and then filled the pot with boiling water.

"Iíll just let that steep for a bit, while you get dressed, then Iíll make you some tea to drink with breakfast." Aragorn came back to Merryís side and settled onto the low cot. "You are right in thinking this was not an ordinary nightmare. The coldness in your arm is enough to tell me that, without anything else. It was a very light touch, however, and the Shadow was unable to take hold, this time."

Merry felt somewhat reassured by Aragornís calm certainty. He had concerns, though, which he voiced as he pulled his shirt and breeches on. "All right, so I should be able to distinguish between a Shadow-touched dream and a regular nightmare, but that doesnít stop them from coming, or help me fight them. I wonít always be able to come to you to make things right." He felt a tickle of fear in his stomach. "When we return to the Shire, Iíll be helpless against the Shadow."

"Do you really think I would send you off, defenceless against this sort of threat?" Aragorn looked hurt that Merry could possibly think this of him.

"Itís not that I think you would send me away, itís that when the others go, I must go with them. I cannot spend the rest of my life in Minas Tirith, lurking on your doorstep or living a half-life in the Houses of Healing." Merryís lip trembled slightly as he said this. He was only just now realising what the consequences of this Shadow might be for him. The thought of not being able to return home with the others was too painful to be borne.

"Oh, Merry, you are not going to have to spend your life in Minas Tirith, although you are most welcome to Ďlurk on my doorstepí for as long as you wish."

Before he knew what was happening, Aragorn had knelt down in front of Merry and wrapped strong arms about him, enfolding him in a warm and gentle embrace. Exhaling softly, Merry rested his forehead on Aragornís shoulder, forcing himself to relax.

After several minutes, he pulled back. "Itís just...I feel so out of control, and it frightens me. How can I take care of Pip and the others when I fall to pieces every time I have a stupid dream?"

Merry waited for Aragorn to give him the standard lecture about not needing to take care of everyone else all the time, but rather surprisingly, the king let that pass by without a word.

"You are right. This is very much outside of your control just at the moment, but that is what we are going to change." Aragorn stood and moved to the brazier, making the promised tea. "Youíve made a good start. You know what the Shadow dreams feel like, you are starting to be able to identify them on your own. The next step is to be aware of your dreams as you dream them. When you have a dream that is Shadow-touched, you need to fight it, conjure up light and joy to combat the Shadow that would suffocate you. I think also that having a loved one, one who knows what is happening, at your side helps you fight the Shadow."

They continued to talk as Merry drank his tea. Aragorn instructed him on how to become more aware of his dreams, warning that it would not be easy and would require much practice.

"Now, I have some things I must see to and you must hurry if you wish not to be late to your duties."

Merry merely nodded, deep in thought and not really aware of what Aragorn had just said. A moment later he jumped up, aghast, as he realized how rude he must have seemed. Aragorn was gone and Pippin was beginning to stir. Flinging the rest of his uniform on rather carelessly, he was almost out of the tent when he heard a sleepy murmur from Pippinís cot.

"Mer, síeverythiní all right?" One green eye poked out from under the blanket, squinting to see against the light coming in through the tent flap.

"Everything is fine, Pip," Merry hastened to reassure him. "Iím just running a bit late this morning. We can talk more when I get back."

Pippin murmured something indistinct and rolled over. Merry smiled to himself, knowing Pippin would most likely sleep another hour or two, recovering from a long night of sitting in vigilance. Not wanting to be any later than he already was, he turned and hurried from the tent.

The king of Rohanís tent was bustling with activity when Merry arrived. For a moment, he was reminded of a hive of very angry bees. It took only a moment to see that despite the hustle, the mood was one of anticipation and excitement, rather than anger. Curious to know what was happening, Merry presented himself to Eomer for duty.

He found the king at the center of the whirlwind. "Ah, good morning, Merry." The greeting, while perfunctory, was warmly spoken. "Iím glad you are here, we have much to do today."

It seemed that a feast was planned for the following afternoon, celebrating the great deeds and recovery of the Ringbearers. Merry was kept busy for several hours carrying messages and summons to all parts of the camp. Although he very much wanted to go see Frodo and Sam, and make sure they wouldnít wake alone, he found himself grateful for the lack of time to think. He had a lot to ponder after his conversation with Aragorn that morning, and he knew that if heíd gone straight to the beech grove, he would have spent the visit brooding over his problems.

Lunch was a hurried affair, with Merry munching on bread and cheese between errands, and his stomach was beginning to protest rather loudly as he returned to Eomerís tent after delivering a message to the prince of Dol Amroth. His stomach gave a particularly loud grumble just as he was handing the princeís reply over to Eomer, and he flushed in embarrassment.

Eomer laughed. "It seems you must be allowed time for a decent meal, Master Holdwine or the grumbling of your stomach will drown out my words." He held up a hand to forestall Merryís protest. "Go. I release you from your service for today. Return at your usual time tomorrow. I will look to see you then."

Bidding Eomer thanks and farewell, Merry debated whether he should go straight to the kitchens or return to his tent first to see if Pippin would like to accompany him. Now that his cousin was free of restrictions, he would be in need of a tour of the camp, and what better place to start than the food service areas? Mind made up, he set his course for the tent.

When he arrived, however, he found that Pippin was already out and about. He felt disgruntled for a moment, but then laughed at himself for assuming Pippin would sit quietly in the tent all morning, waiting for him to return. Of course he was out and about, it was his first day of good health and freedom. He would certainly be taking advantage of it. Chuckling at himself, and suppressing the twinge of loneliness that would rise up despite his best intentions, Merry made his way to the kitchens, intent on getting a late meal to appease his belly.

Forty-five minutes later, having eaten well and soothed the savage beast that was his stomach, he went to visit Frodo and Sam. It was a mild day and nearly all the cloths enclosing the beech grove had been pulled back, leaving only one, angled to prevent too much sun from shining on the sleeping hobbits. As he entered the grove, Merry found Legolas and Pippin playing a game of draughts. Pippin had a look of deep concentration on his face as his hand hovered over the board, finally grunting in frustration and moving a piece. Merry could tell immediately that it had been the wrong move, but then, Pippin had never been the one for games of strategy. He had always preferred riddles and games of verbal logic. There, he outshone the rest of them even on his worst days.

The game was soon over, as Legolas quickly cleared the board of Pippinís remaining pieces. Seemingly unperturbed over the loss, Pippin looked up with a sunny expression. "Did Aragorn tell you, Merry?" he asked excitedly. "Heís declared me recovered. Iím allowed to come and go as I please."

"Yes, he did." Merry bit back a smile. "He also said you were to take it easy and rest often so as not to become sick again."

A slight grimace passed over the younger hobbitís face, quickly replaced by another grin. "And he also said that Frodo and Sam would be waking soon. Tomorrow morning, most likely." Pippinís eyes drifted toward Frodo and Sam as he spoke, a wealth of love in his expression.

This time Merry did smile. He shared Pippinís joy that their friends were nearly recovered. He moved to stand by the bed, studying the features of the sleeping hobbits, as he did each time he visited. They really did look much better than they had a week ago. Merry didnít understand how it had come about, but they had both gained a bit of weight. Not much, to be sure, but enough that they didnít look so horribly gaunt as they had when heíd first arrived. Frodoís hand would likely be bandaged for some time still, but the rest of their wounds were healing nicely, although they would both bear the scars of their experience for the rest of their lives, as would he and Pippin.

Merry felt the moisture gathering in his eyes and fiercely suppressed the tears. He would not cry over them again, not now when they were doing so well. Clearing his throat harshly, he turned back to Pippin and Legolas.

"Has Legolas given you a tour of the camp, yet?"

"I was hoping you would do that," Pippin answered, seeming just a trifle hesitant. "I know youíre very busy with your duties and everything, so I donít mind waiting."

Merry felt the tension leave his shoulders as he smiled at his cousin. He hadnít realised how much he wanted to be the one to show Pippin around until Pippin had spoken. "Iím free for the rest of the afternoon, so why donít we go now. If youíd like, we can start with the kitchens and go from there."

The two hobbits had a pleasant afternoon, strolling through the camp, taking their time. Merry kept a close eye on Pippin to make sure he wasnít getting too tired. They took frequent rests, nibbling on fruit or cheese - theyíd taken some food from the kitchen to munch on while they walked - and sharing the exuberance they both felt. Suddenly, Merry became aware of a certain glint in Pippinís eyes. One he hadnít seen in a long while. Not since Rivendell, he supposed.

"What are you plotting, Peregrin Took?" he asked suspiciously.

The twinkle was quickly extinguished as Pippin put on his most innocent face before replying. "Iím sure I donít know what you are talking about, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and itís a fine thing, I must say, to be suspected of plotting by my own dear cousin."

Merry laughed with joy to see that oh-so-innocent expression on his young cousinís face. "Oh, aye. I donít know what I was thinking. I should know that you are far too mature and grown-up now to be plotting mischief like a mere tweenager."

Pippin simply grinned and stuck his tongue out at his cousin, before jumping up and declaring he wanted to meet the pony Faramir had given Merry. "You named her Hanna?" he asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "Imagine naming a pony after your three-times great grandmother!"

"Yes, well, I was feeling lonely." Merry reddened slightly. "I thought about naming her after you, but she is far too pretty and sweet-tempered to be saddled with such a name."

"Oi!" Pippin gave Merry a good shove for that dig, and Merry was pleased to feel the strength behind the move. Continuing to push and shove at each other, they made their way to the horse pickets. Moving carefully among the large beasts, they found little Hanna at the far end of one of the rows.

Merry pulled an apple out of his pocket and offered it to the pony. Heíd been neglecting her, he supposed, so busy worrying about his cousins and Sam, but it seemed sheíd been receiving good care. Making a mental note to be sure and take a more active role in her care from here on out, he stroked her neck and spoke softly to her for several minutes before they moved on. Pippin was beginning to tire and Merry steered them back in the direction of their tent.

"I think Iíll take a bit of a nap, if you donít mind," he said as they entered the dimness of the tent. "I wasnít able to sleep in this morning, as you did, and Iím feeling rather worn out." This was entirely true, and he was most happy to be able to shuck off his livery and crawl into his cot. He stayed awake just long enough to make sure Pippin was following suit before closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep.

Chapter Twenty-One: The Feast
Betaed by Pipspebble

Merry hurried through the camp, pausing just outside Eomerís tent to catch his breath and compose himself before entering. Presenting himself to Eomer, he stood as straight and tall as he could. "Everything is well in hand in the kitchens, lord. Is there anything else you need of me?"

"Thank you, Merry, that is all," Eomer smiled at his smallest knight. "I would, however, be very much honoured if you would stand at my side during the feast this afternoon."

"Of course, lord. The honour is all mine." Merry bowed deeply before taking his leave. He headed towards Aragornís tent, hoping to find Pippin there. His cousin had been summoned by the king of Gondor early that morning, and Merry had not seen him since, but then, heíd been too busy to look for him, really.

He was surprised, then, to find Pippin standing just outside Aragornís tent, wearing his formal livery. "Hullo, Pip. Youíre looking rather fancy this morning!"

Pippin grinned. "Aragorn Ė King Aragorn, I should say Ė has reinstated me into the Guard. Heís made me a knight of Gondor." His eyes glowed with pride and excitement as he made this announcement.

"Well, of course he has, you fool of a Took." Merry grinned back at his cousin. "Have you been released for lunch, yet?"

"Just now. He said youíd be by soon." Pippin shook his head. "How does he do it, Merry? He seems to know everything thatís happening."

"I donít know. Part of being a king, I suppose. Eomer seems the same way sometimes, though not quite as grand, if you know what I mean. Come, you can tell me all about it while we eat. Iím guessing youíre to serve Aragorn at the feast, yes?"

Pippin beamed, standing tall and proud. "I am, thank you very much!" His smile faded as he looked at his cousin with determination writ large in his face. "I want to see them, Merry. Aragorn says Frodo woke up briefly, several hours ago, but Sam is still sleeping. I donít want to wait any longer. I want to go in there right now and wake them up and tell them off for leaving us the way they did. And then hold them close and never let them out of my sight again."

"I know, Pip. I feel the same way, but we just have to be patient. Let the Big People praise them and feast them, and then we can spirit them off and have a good heart to heart." It was good advice, and Merry wished he could accept it as easily as he gave it. It was hard having to wait, and standing at Eomerís side during the feast guaranteed that he wouldnít get a chance to do more than give a passing greeting, if that. Still, heíd waited weeks and weeks for this reunion and he supposed a few more hours wouldnít kill him.

Pushing these thoughts aside, he followed Pippin to the kitchen area. It was still an hour or so before noon, and the cooking staff had been far too busy with the feast to worry about much in the way of lunch, but theyíd set up a table with stew, bread, cheese and fruit. Soon the two hobbits had helped themselves to a satisfactory amount of food and wandered off in search of a quiet corner where they could eat in peace, without danger of being trod on.

They took their time, eating unhurriedly and talking quietly. Pippin described his meeting with Aragorn that morning.

"I donít know where he got this livery from, but itís not the uniform I had before. It fits perfectly, wherever it came from." He paused a moment to preen in his fine new clothes and Merry laughed at him. Pippin glared at his cousin before joining in the laughter. "Youíre just jealous, Meriadoc, because I have fancy new clothes and you have to wear those same sadly mended things youíve been wearing for weeks now."

It was nearing noon when they finished eating. Both hobbits sensed it was time to move. Standing up and dusting the crumbs off their uniforms, they hurried to the large open field between the camp and the river. All of the knights of Rohan and Guardsmen of Gondor were lined up, waiting for the Ringbearers to make an appearance.

Merry and Pippin split up, each finding the group to which he belonged. It took Merry only a few minutes to find Elfhelmís eored and he was soon standing with the other Rohirrim. He quickly realised the disadvantage of his position. Surrounded as he was by the tall horsemen, he could see nothing but the backs and legs of his companions. Suddenly, the soldiers on every side were unsheathing swords, shaking their spears and chanting praise to the halflings. Silently cursing his inability to see farther than the man in front of him, Merry nonetheless drew his own sword and joined the chanting.

After a time, everyone quieted and Merry could hear Aragornís voice, introducing Frodo and Sam to the gathered armies. Then, in a clear voice that could be heard over all the incidental sounds of several thousand men gathered in one place, a minstrel began to sing the lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom. *

Tears flowed freely down Merryís cheeks as the minstrel sang, and for once, he made no effort to check them. There was not a dry eye in the company and Merry felt his heart would break, for the pain Frodo and Sam had suffered, and also for the love and honour being shown them now.

At long last, the song ended and the host was dismissed to the pavilions that had been set up for the feast. Merry followed his companions, knowing there was little point in trying to push his own way through the throng. Once at the pavilions, he headed for the serving area, where he found Pippin.

"Weíre to serve the wine to King Aragorn and Eomer King, Merry," Pippin announced as his friend came up. "Once theyíve observed the Standing Silence, weíll go in with the other wine stewards. Then weíll be expected to stand by and watch everyone else eat, I fear." Pippin grimaced and Merry frowned as well. It was a hard thing for a hobbit, being made to watch and serve while others ate.

"Were you able to see anything?" he asked Pippin curiously, pushing away thoughts of his empty stomach.

"No, my company was well towards the back, despite being in the front lines during the battle. Doesnít seem fair, does it, Merry? Beregond was able to make it, though. He looked a bit pale but he was there."

Pippin had taken Merry to see Beregond the previous evening and had found the Gondorian soldier recuperating from his wounds. The tall Man was still weak but his injuries were healing well and heíd been very pleased, indeed, to see Pippin and Merry. Theyíd spent nearly an hour chatting before Beregond had tired.

A horn sounded and everyone stood and faced West for a long, silent moment. Another blast of the horn signalled the start of the feast. Merry looked critically at Pippin as they hoisted their wine flagons. His cousin looked well enough, but Merry determined to keep a close eye on him this afternoon. It wouldnít do for Pippin to overexert himself and collapse so soon after being allowed up.

Carrying their flagons of wine, they started across the greensward toward the Kingsí Table. Looking up, Merry saw that Frodo and Sam had joined the rest of the Fellowship at the table, and he nearly faltered for a moment. He saw more than heard Sam saying something to Frodo, and Pippin responding, but he was at the far end of the table and could not make out the words. Forcing his attention back to the job at hand, he carefully filled Eomerís glass and then stepped back to wait upon his lord.

The feast wore on, and as Pippin had predicted, they were forced to stand and watch the others eat, which gave Merry plenty of opportunity to study his friends. Though Pippin seemed to be holding up well under the strain of serving Aragorn, the feast was not yet half over when he was relieved of duty and ordered to find a place to sit down and have something to eat. Knowing Pippin would never disobey a direct order from the king, Aragornís directive eased Merryís concern a great deal.

Frodo and Sam were another matter altogether. Neither of them ate as much as Merry would have liked, though he reasoned that was only natural as they hadnít eaten anything solid in longer than he cared to think about. It would doubtless take a little while to accustom their stomachs to real food again. They seemed in reasonably good spirits but they both looked a bit overwhelmed by everything.

Merry suddenly became aware of just how hungry and tired he was. Heíd eaten nothing since the hour before noon and it was now nearly dusk. He wondered dismally if he would have the energy to eat by the time he was dismissed for the evening, or even if there would be any food left to eat. Something of his worry must have shown itself in his face or posture, for at that moment Eomer looked up sharply and addressed the hobbit.

"Merry! Iím terribly sorry. You must be exhausted. Please, sit and join us for what is left of the meal." The king pulled forth a chair for his esquire and made certain that a server brought Merry a heaping plate of food and a glass of wine before returning his attention to the conversation between Aragorn and Prince Imrahil.

Merry sighed in relief and tucked in, for some time allowing the conversation to wash over him without paying it any heed. When he finally looked up, he found Frodo watching him in concern. "Are you all right, Merry?" his cousin asked softly. Merry didnít think anyone else heard Frodo, but Sam and Pippin both looked up at him questioningly.

Merry wondered what the others saw in his face to prompt such concern and hastily nodded. "Iím fine, Frodo." He grinned then, rather mischievously. "But since Pippin and I did all the serving, I think weíll leave the washing up to you and Sam, if you donít mind. Iím sure youíre up for it, after that nice, long nap you both took."

"In that case," Frodo looked across the pavilion at the very large host gathered there, "I suppose weíll be ready to join you for a pipe and a chance to catch up in about oh, a week, Iíd say."

"Well in that case, I suppose we can find someone else to do it, just this once." The hobbits all laughed, more for the sheer joy of being together and well again than for the rather feeble joke. Soon thereafter, as the last dim rays of the sun disappeared in the west, the hobbits slipped away from the pavilion and went in search of a quiet place to sit and talk.

They ambled slowly across the sward and under the sheltering canopy of the trees until eventually they found a spot that suited them. They halted and just stood looking at each other for a good long moment. Overhead, the moon, large and round, shone through shadowy leaves that fluttered in the gentle evening breeze.

As if upon a silent command, the four hobbits came together, laughing and crying and holding on to one another as if they would never let go. With the contact, Merry felt an easing of the tension he hadnít realized until now heíd carried in him, and he sighed at the relief of it all. It had been far too public at the feast and theyíd all had to constrain their elation at seeing one another again. Now, with just the four of them, all the joy and pain and love and fear and sorrow and regret were unleashed.

It was a good long while before anyone said anything that made any sense at all, but gradually words grew out of the tears and laughter. "Donít you ever leave us like that again, Frodo Baggins," Merry scolded, face pressed into said Bagginsí hair. "Never again, do you hear?"

"Oh, Merry," Frodo choked, "I so desperately wish I could take away all the terrible things that happened to you and Pippin. And I know that my leaving you like that was one of the terrible things that Iíll never be able to undo. But you know I had to go, and you know why."

"Of course you did, and of course we do," Pippin chimed in when Merry remained silent. "But we wanted to go with you, Frodo, we wanted to help you. Instead, we got dragged across half of Middle-earth like so much unwanted baggage before landing in Minas Tirith and then here. That was the hardest thing of all, being left behind and unable to follow you. Thatís what caused us to panic, at Parth Galen."

Frodo pulled back enough to look into Merryís face. "Why donít we sit down? Iím starting to get a crick in my neck from looking up at you."

Still silent, Merry nodded and reluctantly released Frodo. The four hobbits sat on the ground, staying in close contact. Merry let Pippin tell the story of the orcs and the crossing of Rohan. He shuddered as Pippin described the groping fingers of Grishnakh and Pippin wrapped a shaking arm around his shoulder, taking comfort as much as giving it. Merry took over the narrative when Pippin had taken the story as far as the eaves of Fangorn forest, and soon felt more like himself as the tale wove on, with Merry and Pippin taking turns, interrupting and redirecting the story of how they wound their separate ways to Minas Tirith. Here they both faltered, but Merry took up the tale, reluctantly.

"I had no business, of course, being there on the field of battle, but it was done and no help for it." He tried to speak nonchalantly but had to hold himself rigidly in check in order to manage a light tone. "For once it seemed an advantage, being small and insignificant, for it made me a less inviting target. I almost thought we were going to make it, until the Nazgul arrived. It was the Lord of the Nazgul, I learned later, the one that attacked you on Weathertop, Frodo. Everything went horribly wrong then. Theodenís horse, Snowmane, was pierced with a black dart and fell, crushing the King beneath him. Dernhelm and I were thrown from Windfolaís back, as well. I was blind from the horror of it all, and sick as well. I could do nothing, Frodo, nothing. I couldnít even open my eyes." Merry laughed bitterly, feeling the shame of the moment still.

"The Nazgul...taunted us," he continued, "well, Dernhelm really, as it paid little or no heed to me. He jeered at us, saying he could be killed by no living man. Then I heard the strangest thing of all in that strange hour. Dernhelm laughed and claimed not to be a living man. Eowyn I am,** she cried, and vowed to kill the evil creature if he came between her and her kin. For just a moment, amazement overwhelmed my fear and I was able to open my eyes and look about me. There she stood, long hair loose and flowing around her, with tears on her face and a look of steely determination in her eyes. She took up her sword and faced the Nazgul, ready and willing to do battle. The Nazgulís great beast sprang at her and in one great stroke she hewed its head from its neck. The Nazgul swung his great mace then and broke her shield, and her arm as well. When she fell to her knees I thought all was lost."

Merry faltered in the telling, just briefly, before regaining his calm. "Something rose up in me, then. I couldnít let things end like that. I couldnít. So I gathered up every ounce and shred of courage I had left and, staggering to my feet, I came up behind the evil creature and drove my sword through the sinew at the back of his knee. It wasnít a mighty blow, by any account, but it was enough to distract him from Eowyn, long enough for her to drive her sword through the Black Captainís face, or at least, where his face would have been, if heíd had one. When she fell, I was sure she was dead. I crawled over to Theoden and was surprised beyond all measure to find that he yet lived. We spoke, briefly, before he died. I...I donít really remember much more."

Merry bowed his head. It was still very hard to talk about it all, he found. He was vaguely aware of Pippinís arm tightening about his shoulders and moved closer to his cousin, seeking comfort. It was several minutes before he returned his attention to the conversation around him, and when he did, he found that Gandalf had joined them and the talk had moved on to other things.

Gradually, all four hobbits relaxed and unwound, leaving the tears behind to make room for laughter, only to find more tears and more laughter to follow. They each had a tale to tell, and none was easy in the telling. Frodo was silent and withdrawn for long minutes after describing the events in the Sammath Naur, before coming out of his pain to listen to an anecdote that Pippin was telling about Treebeard.

"You should have heard him, Frodo. He was really quite delightful, in his own slow way, but really, youíve never heard anyone talk so slowly in your life. He sang us this beautiful song about the Entwives, and that is a sad tale in and of itself, but the funny thing is, heís been searching for them all this time, and he doesnít even know what they look like."

Some time later, Legolas and Gimli joined them and the talk grew lighter, until it became clear that it was getting rather late for those who were newly risen from sick beds. Frodo and Sam allowed Gandalf to escort them back to the beech grove and Merry saw Pippin back to their own tent. He was tired himself, but not ready for sleep just yet. Fetching his pipe, he sat out under the stars and had a good smoke, trying to bring some order to his mind before seeking his bed. It didnít help much. He lay awake for long hours, staring at the canvas overhead and listening enviously to Pippin's steady breathing. It was long past midnight when his mind finally slowed its frenetic spinning and calm, soothing darkness spread it's blanket over his thoughts.

*From The Return of the King, The Field of Cormallen

**From The Return of the King, The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

Chapter Twenty-two: Victory
Beta provided by Pipspebble

Merry wandered the streets of Minas Tirith, alone, cold and afraid. His arm had gone numb and his mind had seemingly gone numb as well. Just moments ago heíd been with the others escorting Theoden King and Eowyn into the city, but now he couldnít see them. He had turned himself around somehow, so that he now walked down and out of the city, back onto the field of battle. And then, suddenly, he was standing over Snowmaneís body, looking down on Theoden King.

Merry blinked in confusion. Hadnít his knights already taken the king into the city? Or was that still to come? The thought passed and Merry forgot his confusion as he heard a sharp cry behind him. Turning he saw Dernhelm confronting the Lord of the Nazgul. "But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomundís daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him. *

"Foolish child! Think you that I care for your wordplay? I will sweep you out of my way, as I have done to all these others." The Nazgul laughed and swung his great black mace and Eowyn crumpled to the ground, open eyes-- already glazed over in death-- staring directly at Merry.

"No!" Merry shouted in horror. This wasnít right, a tiny voice in the back of his mind whispered, it wasnít supposed to happen this way. "No!" he shouted again. He tried to raise his sword but his arm was still numb and cold, and would not obey him.

This isnít right, the voice in his mind said again, slightly louder this time, this is a dream, thatís all. A dream, Merry thought, clinging to that thought like a lifeline. This is only a dream. And suddenly he knew what to do. Closing his eyes, he concentrated fiercely on his memory of what really happened here, Eowyn shouting her defiance and killing the great beast the Nazgul rode. He fixed this image firmly in his mind and opened his eyes, forcing the scene before him to mold itself to the scene in his mind.

Eowyn rose slowly, until she was once again standing tall and proud before the Nazgul, and the Black Captain was silent before her. The scene played itself out as he knew it should. As the Nazgul brought his mace down on Eowynís shield and prepared to deliver the final blow, Merry crept up behind and dealt his own blow. Even as his sword sheared through the cloth and sinew, the scene before him wavered and dissolved.

Merry awoke with a great gasp, sitting up and staring about wildly. Light flooded the tent, too much light for his sleep-sensitive eyes and he squinted painfully, trying to understand what was happening.

"Easy, Merry," a calm, soothing voice spoke to him out the glare, and Merry was able to make out the figure of Aragorn. Blinking repeatedly until his eyes adjusted to the light, he looked about in confusion. Aragorn was seated on the edge of his cot, and the light was coming from a single lamp placed on the small table between the beds.

Scanning the room, he spied Pippin hovering near Aragorn, looking very pale and frightened. "Whatís happened? Is something wrong?" His voice shook, and he slowly realized that the rest of him was shaking as well.

Ignoring his question, Aragorn placed a warm mug in Merryís hands, wrapping his own large hands around the hobbitís shaky ones. "Drink this down and then we shall talk."

Not having much choice, Merry allowed Aragorn to guide the cup to his lips and drank. The tea was only warm, not hot, and tasted comfortingly of chamomile. By the time heíd emptied the mug, his trembling had stopped and he felt a bit more coherent. His thoughts were gradually becoming more cohesive and he remembered the dream.

"I Ė I did it, Aragorn! I fought the Shadow, in my dream."

"I know," the king replied gravely. "Pippin sent for me when he couldnít wake you. He was quite frightened, I think." Aragorn spared a reassuring glance at Pippin before continuing. "When I realised that you were fighting the Shadow on your own, I did not intervene, but simply watched to be sure of the outcome. You did very well, Meriadoc. I am most proud of you." He smiled warmly at Merry.

There was a small choking sound from Pippin and Merry opened his arms to the younger hobbit, who fell into them, embracing him fiercely. "I was so scared, Mer," Pippin choked, around sudden tears. "You were shouting and crying out in pain and I couldnít wake you. You just kept shouting. I was so afraid you werenít coming back this time."

Merry tightened his arms around Pippin and held him while his cousin cried himself out. He turned to Aragorn. "How long...?"

"I have been here for several hours," the king answered solemnly. "It is nearly morning." Merry was amazed and appalled that the dream, which had seemed to take only a few minutes, had lasted that long.

"But, that doesnít seem possible," he murmured, shifting slightly as he tried to make himself more comfortable. Pippin had become a dead weight in his arms and looking down, he found his cousin had fallen asleep, tears still wet on his cheeks.

"Donít wake him," he whispered when he saw Aragorn also glancing at Pippin. "I donít think Iíve ever seen him looking so scared," he continued, struggling to understand everything that had happened.

"Neither have I," Aragorn answered. "He sent a guard to bring me, and when I got here, you were shouting and thrashing about, and Pippin was nearly frantic because he had not been able to wake you. The only other time Iíve seen him that pale was when Gimli brought him in from the battlefield."

Merry bit his lip, hating to think heíd brought such pain to his friend. Looking up at Aragorn, he braced himself for a difficult question. "Is the Shadow gone for good, now?"

"I wish I could answer that question for you, my friend," the king replied, just a hint of regret coloring his voice. "All I can see is that the Shadow was defeated for this time. Whether it will return or not will only be known with the passing of time. We will continue to talk of your dreams, for as long as you feel it necessary, but I think," and he smiled encouragingly, "that you are more than equal to whatever may come."

That answer wasnít entirely what Merry had wanted to hear, but he supposed it would do. "Thank you, Aragorn," he whispered.

"Now, I suggest that you get some sleep while you may. Morning will be here soon."

Merryís eyes slid closed even as Aragorn stood up. More dreams might come, but he was no longer afraid of them. Having come to this acceptance, he slept deeply and dreamlessly for the remainder of the night.

When he awoke, daylight suffused the tent. Rolling over to check on Pippin, he found no sign of his younger cousin, aside from a rumpled blanket pushed low on the other hobbitís cot. Instead, his glance settled upon a pair of thick-soled feet propped on the edge of his bed. Looking further, he found the feet attached to Frodo, who leaned back in a chair, looking very comfortable indeed, as he waited for Merry to wake up.

"Hoy!" Merry exclaimed in mock indignation. "Get your great muddy feet off my bed. Have you no manners?"

Frodo smirked but removed his feet. "Youíre a fine one to talk, sleeping until all hours of the day. Is this how you behave when no one is around to keep you in check?"

"ĎAll hours of the day!í" Merry snorted, "Itís barely eight oíclock, judging by the light, which means youíre up rather early for a Baggins. I suppose Sam rousted you out of bed, so youíve came to pester me out of bed as well."

"Yes, so get up, you lazy log of a hobbit!" Frodo grinned and swatted at Merry with his good hand. "Actually, Iíve just come from Aragorn. When I said I was coming to get you, he asked me to let you know that Eomer wonít expect you for duty until after lunch today."

"Thatís good to know, as otherwise Iíd already be late." Merry observed with a self-deprecating laugh.

Frodo stood to walk around the tent, stretching his legs. "Aragorn said you had a rough night," he commented pensively.

"Whereís Pippin?" Merry asked, ignoring the implied question. He didnít think it was time, just yet, to talk about the Shadow with Frodo.

"He and Sam have gone off to fetch us breakfast. I was going to bring some myself, but I donít know my way about camp yet and couldnít find the kitchen area." Frodo smiled ruefully as Merry laughed. "I want to talk with you while theyíre gone," he added when Merry had quieted.

Merry was disconcerted by the sudden shift in Frodoís mood. He had gone quite serious all of a sudden. "Talk about what?"

"I wanted to thank you, first of all, and to apologize. I should never have allowed you and Pippin to come along on this Quest. It was terribly selfish of me to allow either of you to be put in such danger as you were."

Though he tried, Merry couldnít stifle the laugh that burst from him at Frodoís apology. "Iím sorry, Frodo," he gasped as he caught his cousinís slightly offended look. "Itís just that Iíve been saying the same thing about Pippin for weeks now, and I never realised how ridiculous it sounded until just now." Calming down, he continued, "You canít lay that burden on yourself and apparently, neither can I, anymore. We all made the choice to be here and no one can change that now, simply by wishing things were different. What we can do, what weíve been doing, is help each other face the consequences of the choices weíve made."

Whatever else Frodo wanted to say would have to wait, as a shadow fell across the opening of the tent, followed by the cheery voices of Sam and Pippin. They shortly entered the tent with two large, nearly overflowing trays, and the four hobbits sat down to breakfast. They kept the conversation light and minimal while they ate, but as they began to fill up and settle back to pick and nibble, Merry raised his cup of tea.

"I would like to propose a toast," he announced. "To Frodo and Sam, for showing us that sometimes a foolís hope is the only hope."

"To Frodo and Sam," Pippin repeated, and all four hobbits took a sip of their tea.

Then Frodo raised his cup. "I would also like to propose a toast. To Pippin, for the incredible bravery he showed throughout this Quest, but most especially for killing a troll, a feat that has never been rivaled by any hobbit, including the Bullroarer."

Once everyone had cheered, he continued. "And to Merry, for his bravery in facing the horror of the Black Captain, and most especially for having the courage to do what he must, even when it meant allowing the rest of us to go into danger without him."

Merry raised his glass with the others and drank the tea, but he remained silent, remembering the conversation heíd had with Faramir, seemingly a lifetime ago, when the Steward had talked with him about courage. "I think," Faramir began haltingly, "that these times call for a new kind of courage from us, Merry. The courage to face our own weakness and accept it. The courage to accept that in this instance, someone else is better suited to the task. There is no shame in this. You helped to rid the world of a great evil and suffered greatly in the doing. Now it is time to rest and heal." **

Merry smiled, finally understanding what Faramir had meant. He looked at his friends and felt his heart bursting with love and a great joy that they were all together once more, but certain now in the knowledge that even if they should be separated again in the future, in their hearts they would always be together.

The End

* The Return of the King, The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

** This quote was taken from Chapter two of this story.

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