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Starlight at Eventide  by Ariel

Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 1

The face that stared at Estella Brandybuck out of the mirror looked ghastly.  Wisps of straggling brown were all that was left of her once thick, umber curls and cheeks that had once sported the bright rose of a maiden's blush were pale and hollow.  Even her eyes had faded, their whites yellow from illness, and there were dark hollows around them, giving her the appearance of a macabre skeleton.  If she'd had the strength to, she'd have dashed the looking glass to the floor in horror.

"I'm here, love.  Don't tax yourself.  Mother has made a bonnet for you."

"Bonnet?"  Estella now realized others were in the room with her.  "Why do I need a bonnet?  Where did my hair go?" 

"It fell out, my dear," said a kind, motherly voice.  "Merry wants to take you out into the sunshine for some fresh air - now that you're on the mend at last."

"I've been ill?" she asked, wonderingly.

Merry knelt before her and gently took the mirror from her hand.  His face was much more lined than Estella remembered it and pinched with pain and fear.  "Very ill, my love," he said softly, "but you're doing much better now.  The doctor says all you need now is fresh air and gentle exercise to get your strength back."

Memories were clicking back into some semblance of their proper order.  She had sat on this bed before today and her husband had fed her porridge.  Before that there had been the high, gurgling cry of an infant followed by silence.

"The baby?"  Fear made her heart flutter and pain lanced her chest.

"He's doing wonderfully, beloved," Merry answered quickly.  "Celandine has been nursing him and he's recovered splendidly.  You can see him when you're better.  We… we can't let you have too much excitement right now.  The doctor has forbid it."

Estella could hear the words her husband was speaking but they didn't make sense to her.  "Forbid me from seeing my own child?"  Her attempt at indignation came out breathless and feeble.  "I want to feed him," she argued.  "Why must Celandine do it?"

"Because your milk dried up weeks ago, dear," came the older voice.  Now Estella recognized Esmeralda.  Her mother in law was tying the bonnet under Estella's chin.  She was smiling, but there was worry her eyes too.  "The fever took both your hair and your milk.  But Celandine's nursling was starting to take biscuits and she had more than enough for little Eadoc."

"Eadoc?" she whispered, and then the rest of what the lady had said filtered through her confusion.  "Weeks?"

"Months, actually."  Merry slid his arms under his wife's legs and, supporting her back, lifted her as if she were no more than a babe herself.  She felt dizzy. 

"I've been ill for months?" she repeated, laying her head against her husband's chest as he walked.  She could hear the thrumming beat of his strong heart and burrowed against it as best she could.  It was a sound that comforted her and made her feel safe.  She reached up to touch his face, but hesitated when she caught a glimpse of her hand; thin, translucent, with the purple tracery of veins like spiders webs running over it.  "Months?" 

Memories continued to fall into place and, as they did, Estella began to understand what had happened.  The baby was born early and sickly, but she had not been able to so much as hold him before falling ill herself.  The doctor was called and the last lucid memory she had was of his familiar voice saying that he knew what ailed her and that he would do everything he could.

Threading through every fragment of consciousness thereafter was Merry; his rich voice soothing her through fever, his broad hands washing her body with a tenderness that belied his strength, and his arms holding her as he slept.  He must have lain beside her every night, for she remembered the drumming of his heartbeat as an enduring rhythm in her ear.  It had kept her anchored to this world.  Her hand fell to his chest and spread wonderingly over the fine cotton of his shirt.  The steady beat was still there, still constant and still strong.  She sighed and closed her eyes.

"I love you, Merry Brandybuck."

And the great heart skipped a beat under her hand. 



Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 2


She'd done nothing but sleep, for years it seemed, but he was always there, holding and encouraging her, his loving voice and gentle hands always at the ready.  She snuggled against his warmth.  The slow swaying of the hammock might have lulled her, but she had no desire to close her eyes again. 

She was feeling well at last.  Though the doctor had pronounced her cured, not without some lingering effects, many months before, she hadn't begun to really feel well until summer came.  At that very moment, she felt positively lively.


"Hmm?"  He did not open his eyes.

"How are you feeling?" she asked softly.  He smiled and cuddled her closer, but still did not stir.  She canted an eyebrow as if at a challenge and squirmed against him to get a better vantage.  Her struggles did rouse him then and he looked down at her curiously through veiled lashes. 

She had never been able to resist him; not from the first moment they met, when decorum and reason told her she must, nor at any time after.  And now, with his soft mouth innocently relaxed, his cheeks charmingly sun kissed, and his glimmering copper curls toppling boyishly into his eyes, and all of those delights and more wrapped lovingly about her, she couldn't help but respond.  She kissed him hungrily, clearly inviting him to reciprocate.  He grunted in surprise, but she did not relent and soon had her arms wrapped around his neck and her tongue teasing the roof of his mouth. 

He returned the kiss, but she could feel that he was startled by her actions.  He had not expected this maneuver and there was a strange sort of hesitation in his touch.  At last he broke off and looked down at her, relieved but subtly uneasy.

"Well, now," he cried, sitting up in the hammock and taking her into his arms.  "You must be getting better if you are entertaining those sorts of thoughts!"  He laughed out loud and hugged her, then bent and gave her a tender kiss of his own; a jubilant, amused but oddly chaste touch, on her cheek.  "We must tell mother!" he grinned.

"Tell her what?" Estella laughed. 

"Why, that you are nearly back to your old self again, of course!  I've been putting off a trip into the Southfarthing and Tuckborough for months because I couldn't bear leaving you feeling so poorly, but..." He paused and then a hopeful smile crossed his face. "If you are indeed feeling that much better, perhaps you could go with me?  Diamond and Pippin would be so grateful to see you.  They've been dreadfully worried.  Do you think you'd be able to manage it?"

He looked so like one of her boys begging for a treat that she laughed out loud. 

"I would love to accompany you," she said.  "I feel perfectly fine.  It's true, I still need a bit of feeding up, but I can do that as well at Great Smials as here."

His blue eyes glittered with delight and he held her close.  "Good," he sighed.  "I doubt I could have left you here anyway.  You were dear to me before this illness, but you are a treasure now."  And then he bent and this time kissed her lips.

Estella again felt his strange reservation.  His touch was sweet and loving, but it was a kiss he might give a sister, or daughter, or invalid, not a wife.  There was no answer to Estella's newly reawakened desire in it. 

She was being rebuked, albeit very gently.  In twelve years of marriage, though she'd rarely had to ask, he had never before refused her affections.  The summer breeze suddenly felt chill on her skin.  Perhaps he did not feel this was the time for pleasure?  He had, after all, given all of his energies to seeing to her needs these past months.  Perhaps there were duties he had long forsaken that needed his attention now?  She drew back and hastily composed herself again.  That had to be what the matter was.  She let him help her to feet.  She had voiced her readiness; perhaps when the Hall's affairs were in order once again, he would come to her.

She licked her lips, savouring his kiss as they walked down the slopes of Brandy Hill.  He smiled at her, innocently, cheerfully even, as if unaware of the significance of what he had done.  Her discomfiture grew.  There was no promise in his eyes either.  She stumbled on the path and his hand was instantly at her waist, guiding her, his warm voice encouraging and sweet, but though his touch was gentle, there was no passion in it.  She thanked him automatically, but the chill was settling in her heart.  What had happened between them?  Her memory of both the fever and the weeks after it were still hazy, but she could recall no change that would have foretold his strange temperance. 

Fear made her clutch his hand, but it felt as if that for which she had playfully reached was already lost to her.  Had she done something wrong?  Had her long illness changed her so much that her husband didn't want her anymore?  The thought lingered in her mind like a secret shame and fed on the self-doubts and vanities of youth that she had almost forgotten.  Surely it could not be.  They were husband and wife, deeply in love.  How could she doubt it?  He drew her on with the same kind of gentle encouragement she had seen him use with their sons, the same loving murmur he'd used to entice Theoden to take his first steps and Peradic to mount his pony.  

But one could love without desire. 

The breeze became positively frigid.


Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 3


"That dress will never fit you again, Stella.  Please, let me make you a new one."

As she stood before Diamond's drawing room mirror, eyeing the drape of the fabric, Estella knew her friend was right.  The doctor had warned that she might never regain her former figure.  It had taken nearly eight months of work to put the colour back in her cheek and brightness in her eye, but her once lush, fruitful form seemed to have dried up for good, the soft curves that once filled her bodice and swayed enticingly under her skirt replaced by a lean hardness that reminded her of one of her husband's hunting hounds. 

"What use is a new dress?" she sighed, dropping onto the divan.  "It's the body inside it that he doesn't want."

Diamond looked up from her patterns and frowned.  "Is Merry still being difficult?"

Estella picked idly at the curtain lace.  "He's a wonderful hobbit.  The best father any child could ever ask for.  He makes time for the boys every single day, no matter what else he is doing."  She met Diamond's eyes.  "And he does love me.  He has devoted everything to seeing me well again; he even had Esmeralda take over the keeping of the Hall again.  He'd turn Buckland on its head if I asked…"

"But?" prompted Diamond, pouring Estella a tea and dosing it with honey. 

Estella looked at the mirror again and sighed.  "But he no longer seems to want me as wife."  She brushed the hair away from her face.  What had grown back was no match for the luxuriant ringlets she had lost.  Still too short to tie back, the strands that weren't prematurely grey were finer and straighter than the locks that had once cascaded down her back.  Falling in dark waves against her head, her new hair only served to make her gaunt face seem even thinner.  She hated it.  "Though I can't say as I blame him," she finished.

"Now I'll have none of that!" scolded Diamond, handing her the tea.  "He just needs time, Stella.  You don't realize how very near you came to dying.  He's just got to come 'round and trust that you're not sick anymore and that you will be all right."

Estella stared at her reflection contemplatively.  "I won't be all right, you know," she whispered.  "I heard the doctor.  My fever was too high for too long.  That's why I was out of my head for so long afterwards.  And I'll never have another child."

"And four lads isn't plenty?"  Diamond shook her head.  "I've only the one and he is headache enough!"

The bright, vivacious Diamond could always coax a smile out of her.  "Well, I was trying for a daughter," Estella answered, sheepishly, "though I suppose you are right.  Four strapping lads are more than many may boast.  I should consider my blessings." 

Diamond sat beside her on the seat and opened her arms, and Estella settled into their comfort like a child crawling into its mother's lap.  Diamond stroked her hair gently.  "You frightened him, love," she whispered.  "You frightened all of us, quite frankly.  I know Pip was terrified.  He loves you, but he was more worried for Merry.  If you had died, I don't think your husband would have been long behind you."

Estella closed her eyes, knowing her friend spoke from the heart.  It was very soothing to lie in the arms of one who did not ask anything of her; she had done little else all winter, but despite the tenderness of Merry's loving embrace, she had lost a part of her marriage in it. 

"Maybe that would have been better," she sighed.

Diamond stiffened and tightened her arms around her.  "No, it wouldn't." 

Estella could feel the shiver run down her friend's spine.  As she was Merry's heart, so Merry was Pippin's right arm.  There was no one the Thain trusted, or loved, more than the Master of Buckland except, perhaps, Diamond herself.  Losing Merry would destroy him and without Pippin…  Estella was one of the few who knew how tightly Diamond's wild spirit was bound to the Thain's. 

"But what can I do?" she cried.  "He handles his ponies with more passion than he touches me!  Of course, he loves me, but he doesn't want me the way he used to…"  She buried her face in Diamond's bosom.  "And I am sorry but I need him to, Di.  I can't go on for the rest of our lives without him ever…"  She sighed.  "I just can't!"

Diamond hugged her friend close and placed a kiss on her brow.  "No, you can't.  And I wish I knew the words to bring him back to you, but I don't.  I only know that he loves you and someday, he will come back to your bed.  Your illness has wounded him terribly - perhaps as deeply as that Black Rider once did.  He needs time to heal too.  He'd just lost Saradoc, and then very nearly you.  Why, I don't think he's over the loss of his cousin Frodo yet!"

"That was nearly fifteen years ago.  I can't wait that long for him to love me again."  Estella wiped her eyes.  "I don't know what I am to do."

"Why don't you just ask him for it?"

She blushed and hid her face against Diamond's bosom again.  Diamond laughed. 

"I am not so bold as you, Mrs. Took!" Estella retorted, scarlet to the ears.  "I've never had to ask for anything from Merry."  She frowned.  "That's probably why I hesitate to do so now.  What if his desire for me really is gone?  What if my appearance now is so repulsive to him that he can't feel what he once did?"  She looked up into her friend's troubled face.  "I love him too much to leave him bound for the rest of his days to someone he can find no pleasure in."

Now it was Diamond's turn to flush red.  She pushed the startled Estella out of her lap and waved a scolding finger at her.  "Now that will be quite enough of that!  Not desire you?  Poppycock!  Maybe you should get his opinion before you speak his mind on the matter?  Then he'd tell you that he lives and breathes by your slightest whim and if you didn't know that already, then your brain is still fever-addled!" 

Estella gaped, astonished at her friend's outburst, but Diamond was not finished.  She looked Estella very seriously in the eye.

"You must find the courage to talk to him.  You have too much to lose and everything to gain.  He needs to see that he can love you again, that he can trust you not to die as Saradoc did or slip away like Frodo Baggins.  He needs to know that he can give you his heart again without having you rip away another piece of it."

Estella trembled, feeling trapped and yet exhilarated by Diamond's fury.  Her friend was right, of course, but Estella had never spoken to Merry that way.  There had never been any need.  He had always done exactly what was necessary; exactly the way she should have wished him to.  She could not have imagined a hobbit she could admire more or who was a better husband or lover.  But that very compatibility had meant that she had never had to confront him or approach him for anything he was unwilling to give her. 

Diamond, seeing her fear, reached for her hand.  "I'll help you as best I can, Stella, but this is something only you can do.  Do you love him enough to fight to keep him?"

That did strike a nerve.  "Yes," she whispered, "I do."

Diamond smiled.  "I know you do."  She patted her hand.  "Now, what about this dress?  I have some gorgeous material Pip got from the South - it shimmers like moonlight on the river and the blue would match your eyes.  Let me make a dress for the King's reception ball that will take everyone's breath away!"  She popped up from the divan and returned to a careful scrutiny of her patterns. 

Estella let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding and clenched her fists determinedly.  "He's to arrive just after the harvest.  I don't doubt your stitching, but do you think you'll have time enough to make something so spectacular that they will overlook the waif wearing it?"

Diamond tossed the seat cushion at her but grinned.  "You just take care of your husband.  I'll take care of the dress."  She cocked an eye.  "I think I'll also put in a word with Pippin, if you don't mind.  He has a way with Merry.  I don't think the poor fellow can refuse him."

At that Estella laughed.  "No one can refuse Peregrin Took, my dear."  She threw the pillow back.  "Not even you." 



Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 4


"Now maybe we'll have a shot of beating the Buckland ponies at the fair."

Merry looked sidelong at Pippin across the fence rail, his blue eyes twinkling with challenge.  "A shot, perhaps, but not for a couple of years."

"Aye," agreed Pippin, leaning against the paddock, "but then, watch out!"

Merry laughed and shook his head.  His dun stallion pranced eagerly before Pippin's chestnut mare, its jet-black forelock falling over its eyes like the unruly shock of an amorous tween's hair and its tail raised in excitement.  Pip had put a lot of thought into his choice of broodmares to send to Merry's Rohan bred stud.  This little chestnut had fine, straight legs and a long back, both necessary for speed, but Merry noted she was straighter in the shoulder than his own stock and that meant her reach, and that of her colts, would suffer.

"The sire is only part of the answer, Pip.  The real secret is the mare."  He winked knowingly and Pippin rolled his eyes. 

"Stybba was a good pony, I'll grant you that.  His get are of undeniable quality, but give the good old Shire stock their due!  They're still going strong when these flashy beasts of yours are flagging."

Merry put a blade of grass between his teeth, not conceding in the slightest.  "Roany'll add endurance to whatever he's bred to," he said, indicating his stallion, "you watch.  With his fire and will and the speed of Buckland's mares, you'll be playing catch up for many more years yet."

The chestnut mare squealed as the stallion approached her side.  He tried to arch his neck over her withers, but she would have none of it and, with a little buck, ran to the far end of the paddock, the stallion in pursuit.

"She's going to play hard-to-get, I see," commented Pippin, pulling out his pipe and a soft, leather pouch of pipe-weed.  "Care for a smoke?"

"I've not been taking a pipe lately," answered Merry, keeping his voice carefully light.  "Thank you, though."

"Not taking a pipe?"  Pippin packed his and walked past Merry to the forge shed to light it. 

Merry shrugged.  "The doctor suggested I refrain while Estella was ill and I haven't picked up the habit again."

"But surely she's recovered!  It's been nearly a year, hasn't it?"

"Not quite.  She's doing very well, but the illness cost her a great deal.  I don't think she'll ever be really strong again."  Merry looked down.  "The lack of pipe-weed is a small price to pay."

Pippin returned to the fence but he stared curiously at Merry.  The other hobbit didn't meet his eyes, but could sense the Thain was preparing to speak.  At last, Pippin took the pipe from his mouth.

"Di said something to me that I didn't think was my business, but now I wonder if she was right in mentioning it."

"Your Di has always been bolder than was proper."

Pippin grinned, nodding.  "Yes, that is what I love about her.  She puts her foot in it even more than I do.  But she's also right more often than not."

Merry still didn't look at him.  The horses were nuzzling on the far side of the paddock.  The mare gave a squeal and struck out with her foreleg, but Roany was too fast for her.  He dodged the blow with a little rear, danced about to her side and dropped down, his head resting on her hindquarters.  The mare gave another little squeal, but one of invitation, not outrage.  Roany's courtship had won her and she stood for him at last.

"There you go," nodded Merry.  "I told you you'd be able to take her home today.  He's covered her three times already so I'd say there's a very good chance she's in foal.  Next spring, you'll have your first hopeful."

"You're changing the subject, Merry."

Merry shot him a glance but Pippin hadn't taken his threats seriously as a child either. 

"What did you mean by 'a small price to pay'?" the Thain pressed.  "For what?"

Merry shifted, looking annoyed, but knew Pippin would not let the matter rest.  "I've had to give up a few things," he began after a moment.  "Since Estella's been ill, I've not dared make any long trips, or even spent evenings at the inn.  And the pipe-weed, of course, but she's given me four wonderful children at great sacrifice to herself.  It's but little inconvenience comparatively."

Pippin blew out a cloud of fragrant smoke.  "Diamond had a long talk with her the last visit you made to us.  They are tight as a pair of cockle-burs when they get together.  She's worried about her friend, and not for any physical frailty."  He punctuated his comment with the stem of his pipe.  "She's of the opinion you have given up a few things you oughtn't."  Merry didn't seem to follow his hint.  He leaned closer.  "She suggests your lass is unhappy with herself and has got it into her head that you find her repugnant."


Pippin put up his hands.  "She knew it was ridiculous too, but Estella seems fixed on the idea.  Something to do with a lack of your attention?"

"I have attended her night and day!"  Merry's face began to redden.  "She's not had a moment that either my mother or I have not been with her!"  He sagged against the fence, disbelieving.  "'Lack of attention'?  Pip, I couldn't leave her.  Not for a minute.  I was so afraid she'd slip away on me.  Like father, like King Theoden, like…"  He drew a breath to steady himself.  "I couldn't hold onto her tightly enough - and she says I have not attended her?"

Pippin took Merry by the shoulders and looked him seriously in the eye.  "Merry lad, easy!"  A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.  "You've missed my point entirely and now it seems I must I be indelicate."  Merry was brought up short by the mischievous twinkle in his cousin's eye.  "I am sure you were most attentive," continued Pippin, trying so furiously not to grin that his own cheeks flushed, "but consider, perhaps, that wasn't the kind of 'attention' your lady wife was starting to feel the lack of?"

Merry's blush lit up his ears.  He understood plain enough then.  "Pippin!" he said, aghast, but his cousin was laughing with uncontained glee. 

"Really, old fellow, all those boys of yours running about and you'd no idea what I was referring to?"  Pippin tsked at him.  "I think it's wonderful she's starting to think about such things again."

"That's a private matter, Peregrin Took, and I'm not keen on discussing it even with you."  Merry's glare was most decidedly serious.  Pippin checked his grin, but did not let go of his cousin. 

"Then with whom will you discuss it, Merry?  Because you ought.  You've got that poor lass believing you don't want her anymore and I know that's not what you want her to think.  It might not be seemly to think of a lady desiring such things, but you and I are married hobbits and we certainly know better."  The grin came back to the corner of his mouth.  "I may not know your Estella as well as you do, but four children in twelve years tells me something about you two."

"Mind your tongue, Took," Merry growled, growing really angry.  "You'll not speak of my wife in that manner."

At his tone, Pippin's smile did fade.  "I'm sorry, Merry.  That was crass of me.  I apologize."  He released his arm and the other hobbit turned brusquely away.  Pippin winced with the rebuke, his sharp, still youthful face crestfallen, like a boy who'd been punished for what he'd thought a clever game.  "Merry!" he cried.  When Merry refused to answer, he hesitated and then came to stand beside him at the fence.  "I'd thought Di was overreacting or that Stella was just tired of being cooped up sick, but there's really something wrong isn't there?"  He leaned against the fence and tried to catch Merry's eye.  "You and I have been through thick and thin together, cousin.  You've saved my life and I've saved yours.  We've seen things few other hobbits ever will and been through danger much blacker than anything the Shire could ever see."  He touched Merry's arm again this time in a gentler, more uncertain gesture.  "If you can't tell me what is troubling you, whom can you tell?"

It took a moment, but Merry's shoulders did relax, however he did not turn to face Pippin. 

"Please Merry, can't you talk to me about it?"

"I don't know, Pip.  I just don't know what to do."

Pippin eyed his broad back calculatingly.  He nodded his head as if deciding and slipped his arm under Merry's.

"I do.  Come on.  We'll put the mare in a stall; she'll need to settle for a bit before I take her home anyway, and then, I am taking you to the Golden Perch.  I need a good beer and it sounds like you are long overdue for one too."




It took a bit more convincing than Pippin's arm, but after returning to the Hall and announcing to all and sundry that the Thain was taking the Master off for a ride and a brew, Pippin finally did get Merry to agree to join him.  He even fancied there was a spark of hope in Estella's eye as she bade them goodbye and he tried to let her know by the kiss he left on her hand that he would do his best on her behalf.

They crossed the Ferry in late afternoon and reached the Perch just as the lamps were being lit.  There was a small but merry crowd when they situated themselves in the back corner booth and it grew quite boisterous over their mutton stew and bread.  By the time Pippin began feeling his ale, the din of the place was loud enough that he knew that none of their talk would be overheard.

"Now, Merry," he began, "I know your family is your own affair, but Di wouldn't have said anything to me if she wasn't really concerned.  She is bold, I'll agree, but Stella knows that as well as you do.  Why would she have brought up the subject if she wasn't hopeful it would get 'round to you somehow?"

Merry paused while putting a forkful of stew to his mouth.  Pippin knew he'd caught the fellow with his logic when Merry frowned, popped the morsel into his mouth and chewed very deliberately. 

"I guess I have a hard time thinking of her that way anymore.  I know they say, 'once in love is always', but so much has happened this past year.  She's simply no longer the robust and lively girl I wedded."

"Merry!  We were different when we came back too," Pippin reminded him.  "People might have had to crane their necks a bit, but they treated us fairly.  Doesn't Estella deserve that?"

"That's not how I mean," Merry shot back seriously.  "I saw you three when I got to Cormallen, Pip.  You were still unconscious, but at least you didn't look as close to death as…"  Merry pushed his plate back and turned away.  The leaded glass at the back of their booth opened out onto a courtyard.  They'd dropped the transom above it to let in the fresh night air.  A star twinkled innocently in the very centre of the open pane. 

"She looks like he did, Pip.  Like Frodo.  I'd never seen anyone so close to death as he was, until now.  Even in Rivendell, with that morgul knife burrowing into his shoulder and those Elves cutting him open to get it, I didn't feel as close to losing him as I did in Cormallen."  Merry shivered.  "There I could almost see his lifeline, stretched taut and golden, and the only thing holding it to the earth was his love for us.  And even that wasn't enough in the end.  That was how it was with Estella.  I couldn't leave her for a second, I still can hardly bear to let her out of my sight.  I'm too afraid I'll wake up and find her gone; and Gandalf's not around anymore to give me fair warning of it."

"But, unlike Frodo, Estella is getting better."

Merry gave him a sharp look.  "Have you seen her?  She's skin and bones, Pip!  She eats as well as ever but gains not an ounce.  I've had mother bake her favourites and slip extra cream and butter into her cakes, I've even talked Diamond into plying her with sweets, but none of it does any good.  There is still something terribly wrong.  You don't come that close to death and return unscathed.  I am afraid…"

"Afraid to love her?"

Merry pulled his ale towards him, unable to look Pippin in the eye.  "Afraid I'll hurt her even more than I have already."

Pippin put down his drink and shook his head to clear it.  "Whoa there, cousin.  How have you hurt her already?"

"If you must know, by the same act you are trying to encourage me to resume doing," he said softly.

"What?"  Pippin

Merry's eyes were bright but ale had not yet clouded his faculties.  He stared levelly at Pippin, the seriousness in him even more palpable than it had been by the paddock.  "You weren't here when she was at her worst, Pip.  We'd been using the midwife, but when Estella took her turn, we called for old Dody.  It's a good thing, too.  He knew what was wrong with her.  Said it sometimes happened to mothers who'd had difficult births or tears inside.  If he hadn't gotten there when he did, I am certain we'd have lost her."

Pippin shivered.  He'd heard what condition his cousin's wife had been in.  Infection, they'd said, birth fever perhaps, or something else.  The baby had been whisked away immediately and had suffered little ill effect, but that was the only good news that had come out of the Hall for many weeks after.

"The doctor was worried about her heart; the fever, the stress of childbirth.  He's checked her since and says she sounds all right, but I can still see the worry in his eyes.  Or at least I think I can."  He sighed.  "Part of me says to take him at his word, but the other part can't help but think he's assuring me because there's nothing else he can do."

"She'd always been so strong, Pip," Merry continued.  "I never worried about her.  She was always tough and lively, a rock I could anchor myself to.  It wasn't until her illness that it dawned on me that I'd been taking a little bit of her vitality each time I got her with child.  What was a moment's pleasure for me each time might have been her death.  I don't regret my sons and I know she considers the children are well worth the price she's paid, but I felt like a fool for never really weighing what my loving was doing to the one I held most dear."

Pippin thought back on his own wife's birthing bed, her pallor and weariness, the labour that seemed to last an eternity.  Diamond had had a very rough time of it according to the midwives, and in the deep of that anxious night, he remembered that the thought had crossed his mind that he had placed her, however willing, into this situation.  He did not know what to say to Merry.

"It just feels wrong to think of loving her that way any longer.  She is my life, Pip, but the way she looks now just serves to remind me that, after all, I did this to her.  I just don't have the right to risk her life again, Pip." 

"But I thought she couldn't have any more… Di said…" 

Merry snorted.  "I meant she's grown so frail, I'd probably smother her in the act."  He shook his head sadly.  "But you're right.  She's wanted a daughter since Theoden was born.  Loving me has even denied her that." 

In the weighty silence that followed, Pippin drained his mug and called for another round.  "After Faramir," he said, "Diamond said she wouldn't have another, or at least not for a long time.  He took a great deal out of her.  I would hear him wake at night and she would stir, sit up and feed him.  She's so small she couldn't lie down to do it and I remember more than once her falling asleep sitting up as she nursed."  He tasted his new ale.  "I don't think I ever told her how beautiful she was to me then, even haggard and sleepless."

Merry looked out at the star.  "It was the year after Frodo left," he whispered.  "I was alone in a field of corn and the sunlight had turned it all to gold.  I was supposed to be seeing if it was ready to harvest, but it was so incredibly bright I hadn't the heart to cut it yet.  I remember going out to an old elm tree in the middle of the field and letting the corn tickle my fingers as I walked.  I was in a sea of golden light and was indescribably happy.  I don't know why, but I was.

"Then, from across the field, I saw a lass walking towards me.  She had dark hair and bright blue eyes and a green bodice that was near to bursting.  She walked right up and, do you know, she looked to me like one of those entwives old Treebeard told us about!  Red cheeks and sun browned shoulders and freckles across her nose.  She smelled of good dark earth and sun warmed wildflowers and… Well, I kissed her." 

He looked over at his friend and Pippin smiled, almost able to see the bright gold and the lush maiden in his mind.

"It was the most unforgettable kiss I'd ever had.  She was like a creature of sunlight and good soil and I wanted to crawl inside her and wrap her essence around me.  I was in love with her before the kiss had ended and I think she knew it."

"And that was Estella?"

"Yes."  Merry turned back to the star.  "I've told that story before, but never what happened after the kiss.  She's a proper lass, my Stella, but I think she could tell there was something magical about that moment."  He closed his eyes and cupped the tankard in his two hands as if he were holding something much more precious.  "She was so soft, Pip.  I don't know what bade me ask such a forward question, but she nodded 'yes'.  I could not believe it, nor, I think, could she!  Right there in the cornfield and the sun.  I'd not been with a lass since returning, not that I hadn't had offers!, but I'd always worried…  We've grown so tall I thought…"  Merry blushed and quickly swallowed another draught of resolve.  "Well, she had no trouble at all.  No matter how vigorous I was, Estella was strong enough to endure it, relish it even, I fancied.  But, now…"  He shook his head.  "I don't dare risk it."

Pippin again didn't know what to say.  He thought back on his own courtship with Diamond.  Their betrothal night she had not been of age, but the headstrong girl had pulled him, not unwilling, into an empty smial.  She had had no trouble either, though he wondered that he had not considered himself a risk to her.  For injury or pregnancy.  Either would have given them away.  He warmed at the memory.

A long, thoughtful silence fell between them and it was Pippin who broke it.  "Merry?" he said.  "I can't speak for your lass, but I know Diamond.  She was such a wild thing, independent and outspoken; I'd have never pictured her a mother, but she has no regrets over Faramir.  For all she endured, she would do the same had she to do it over.  You say you were responsible for Estella's illness, but do you think she would have done anything differently?  Given a choice to bear your children or remain safe and healthy, which path do you think she'd choose?"

Merry stared into his ale and sighed.  "She would have them, of course.  There's no question of it.  But part of that decision was mine, Pippin, and it should have been made with a better understanding of what I risked.  She would give her whole being to her children, and to me.  Her love is boundless, but I must love her enough to take only what she can spare."  He sighed and looked back into his drink.  "And because of me, that's not very much anymore."

Pippin nodded.  He should have known Merry would have thought these things through.  Talking always helped Pippin to see matters more clearly, but Merry's waters ran deeper and flowed more quietly.  Too quietly, Pippin mused, for this particular situation.

"I can't fault your thinking, cousin dear.  It seems flawless, as always.  But it doesn't solve the problem, does it?  You know, you and Estella have always been so perfectly suited that I'll bet you've rarely had to even talk to one another!  Think about it: How many times have you sat down and actually discussed something?  Argued?  Hmm?  Well, it's high time for it, if you ask me."  Pippin raised his mug.  "All your thoughtfulness and self-admonishment aren't making Estella happy, Merry, so perhaps you'd better start asking her what will?"



Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 6


It had been Mirabella's study, and then Menegilda's.  Now Esmeralda kept it.  Even when she'd given over the running of Brandy Hall to the new Master's wife, his mother had retained the room for her personal matters, her writing and the histories she maintained.  It had proven quite convenient when she'd had to return to running the Hall again after Estella had fallen ill. 

Merry noted the lines on his mother's face as she scanned the King's missive; the dates he would arrive, the requests for the supplies he would need, accompanied by a generous pouch of gold to pay for them, and the events he had planned for their stay.  Aragorn would not enter the Shire itself, but would remain encamped in the vast fields east of the Brandywine Bridge.  He'd need a steady supply of provender for men and animals.

"How good it will be to see your friend again," his mother said, scanning her calendar and penning the dates with her precise script.  "I won't deny being curious about this fellow myself, after all you and young Pip have told us about him."

"It will be a very important occasion, and a merry one, I hope.  Will we be able to accommodate his requests?" Merry asked.

"It's nearly a month away!  Of course we will, dear.  I could supply this list from our current larder and the harvest's not even in yet.  By the time this King comes back, we'll have more than enough to welcome him quite properly."

"You've worked very hard on this event, Mother.  I worry you've overextended yourself."

"Yes," she answered, "you do an awful lot of worrying."  She grinned and her eyes sparkled.  "Quite a bit more than is good for you."

"But I don't want you to overdo, mother.  This is quite an affair to be running single-handedly."

"I can do it quite well, thank you very much.  Besides, it's only for a little while longer.  Your Estella runs this Hall adeptly.  After all, I trained her for years before relinquishing the position.  Before you know it, she'll be back in the driver's seat and I'll be able to hand the reins to her again, only helping out when I am needed.  I can handle all that needs handling till then.  Now, you go take this note to your lady wife so she can keep abreast of the goings on.  You don't want to overwhelm her when she does resume her duties."

Merry knew better than to argue. 


He made his way to the Master's smial, which Esmeralda had relinquished to her son and his wife upon Saradoc's death.  It sat at the very top of Brandy Hill and its terraced front garden looked out over the fields and forests between Bucklebury and the Brandywine River.  In the sunny front room, he found Estella with Celandine and their young son Eadoc, now nearly ten months old.  The two youngest children, Seradoc and Peradic were with the nanny; Merry could hear their youthful voices raised in good-natured argument from the back of the hall.  Theoden, his eldest, would have been taking his lessons at that time of day.

"Merry!" Estella's eyes were positively shining as he bent to kiss her cheek.  She held their son, but the lad's eyes were on Celandine and he was fussing to get to her.  He might have gotten used to his mother's touch, but he still preferred Celandine for comfort.

"You won't believe what has happened, Merry!  I've finally started making milk again!  Celandine's been helping me encourage the baby to suckle and it's finally working!" 

Merry started at that.  "I didn't know that was possible," he stammered, unsure how to respond to the news.

"It takes a great deal of perseverance," said Celandine, taking Eadoc, "but your lady wife is nothing if not determined."

"I don't make much, but with a supplement of goat's milk or whatever Celandine can spare as she's trying to wean, I should be able to feed him myself."  Her thin face was radiant with the kind of satisfied joy Merry hadn't seen on it for many months.  "Isn't it wonderful?"

Merry tried to smile, as they seemed to be expecting him to.

"I've just never heard of such a thing, that's all," he answered. 

Celandine nodded to the master and hoisted the baby onto her hip.  "I must be going.  I'll return next time he's hungry.  Till then."  And she was out of the door with a wink.

"She's been wanting to try to have another child, Merry," said Estella.  "I've not weaned any of mine before they were three and I don't want to have to with Eadoc, but I can't ask for two more years from Celandine.  It would not be fair.  This will be an excellent solution if I can do it."

"But is it wise, love?  Considering your health and what you've just come through - wouldn't that be demanding too much of your body?"

She looked down, but her smile didn't dim.  It was the expression Merry had learned meant she would be immovable on the subject and that he might as well just get used to it. 

"My body is producing milk, so it must not be too taxing," she said simply.  "I've not got much yet, but it's a start and as I grow healthier, there will be more, I feel sure of it.  And…"  The smile faded a little.  "He's my last child, Merry.  I want to care for him as I ought."

Merry felt the weight Estella put into the statement.  He had seen the looks of quiet desperation on her face as she watched Celandine mothering Eadoc.  She'd understood the necessity, of course, and begrudged neither wetnurse nor baby, but he could sense the ache in her heart. 

Just as Diamond was an unlikely mother, Estella was as Yavanna incarnate.  She lived for her children; giving all that she had to them.  The boys respected and loved their father, but they adored their mother.  The softest word from her and they fell over themselves to do her bidding.  It was a power Merry suspected would have rivalled even old Gandalf's magic. 

"Stella," he began.  She'd caught the hesitant tone in his voice and settled back in the chair she'd been preparing to get out of.  "I had a chance to talk with Pippin the other evening."

Her expression sharpened and she sat up stiffly in the chair.  "How is the Thain?  And my friend, Diamond?"

Pippin might have criticized Merry and Estella's lack of verbal communication, but what he didn't understand was that there was very little they had ever needed to discuss aloud.  Merry could read volumes in his wife's merest glance, the way she held her body and the words she did not say between the few she did.  She'd already sensed what his and Pippin's conversation had been about and was both interested in and guarded about its outcome. 

"They are well.  Diamond sends her regards.  She wishes to come to visit before the month is out, if she may."

A nod.  Estella seemed to have known about the plans for the visit. 

"Pippin came to retrieve his mare, the chestnut one we bred to Roany."

Dismissal.  There was a matter at hand that was more compelling to her than the details of Merry's breeding programme.  He shuffled his feet and looked around.  The door was half open.  He shut it, turning back to Estella's raised eyebrow.  Then he paused at the window.  The birds were singing merrily in garden's late summer sun, but there was no one listening at the eves of Brandy Hall. 

"I've a little matter to discuss with you, my love, but I am not certain how to broach it."

She surprised him by speaking up first.

"Then may I?" she asked and folded her hands in her lap.  "Much has changed over the course of this year," she began.  "And though I've tried diligently to regain my health, I have suffered some more lasting effects from my illness.  I may never again look as I did.  I know you still love me, Merry, and I still love you, but I fear you may have lost your desire for me."  She held up her hand quickly as he moved to answer.  "I've tried to read your heart the way I've always done, but I can't see what is written there this time.  Just when I think I've made it out, you give me some sign that contradicts what I thought - so I must ask you outright.  Please think before you assure me, beloved.  I need no empty promises.  I'll not fault you or leave you, but I need to know the truth, plainly spoken."

She did not beg, but looked at Merry with sympathy and understanding.  It was a look that respected but also demanded respect and truth in return.  He knew this was part of why his sons obeyed her so diligently. 

"Then I will tell it to you, if I can, though the truth is, I don't entirely know why I haven't come to you."  He stuffed his hands in his pockets, fingering the oddments that he had collected over the course of the day: a pebble, a bit of string, an apple.  None of them made his mind any clearer on the subject.  "But what I do know is this; I've not lost my love for you.  You've become even dearer to me, if that's possible."  He sighed.  "It's not for anything you've done or become, but rather for the guilt I feel for the wrong I've done to you."

"Done to me?"

"I know you live for the children and that you'd've done no differently if you'd known the outcome of this last confinement beforehand, but, beloved, have you ever thought how I felt?  I had to watch you slowly dying in my arms, knowing I'd put you there in that deathbed."

Surprise.  Merry could see it was something she hadn't considered.  She blinked, frowned in deep thought, opened her mouth and then shut it again. 

But there was more to it.  In talking with Pippin, he had come to realize something he hadn't even been willing to admit to himself and had withheld from his cousin, but this lady, his dutiful and devoted wife, deserved the whole truth. 

"But I've got to be honest with you and myself," he continued, taking her hand, his face red with shame.  "Guilt keeps me from your bed, as does my fear you're not yet well enough yet to endure me, but…" he hesitated, drew a breath and pushed on.  "You were so ill and frail.  Of course I did not think of pleasures with you then, but it is even now an effort for me to do so.  Perhaps some part of me does mourn the loss of your softness, the gentle curve of your breast and richness of your mouth."  He bowed his head.  "Forgive me."  He placed a kiss on the back of her hand.  "I know it is a petty thing, and I'll learn to desire you again because I love you, but I've got to have time to grieve, it seems, to beg your forgiveness for what I've done to you and to rekindle that part of our love." 

He looked at her, but could not read the expression on her face.  She was not hurt, nor angry, but taking in his every word.  She seemed to be assessing this new information, expanding her mind to take it in and accept it.

"That makes a great deal of sense," she said after a long silence.  She reached up and gently stroked his cheek and the gesture pained him more than if she had slapped his face.  He knelt and laid his head in her lap, feeling love and regret wash over him. 

"I know that was hard," she continued, "but thank you for telling me the truth."  Her face was still pensive and her back still straight, but she cradled him as she might have one of the boys, protectively, effortlessly, as the rock they had all once clung to.  Merry crept closer and wrapped his arms around her waist. 

But she was so thin, so very frail.  He could feel her ribs and her backbone hard under his hands and hear her faint heartbeat.  She had gained more flesh in these last months of recovery, but she was still delicate and lean, a body assaulted by fire and pain.  This was no longer the maiden he had taken in the sunlit corn. 

"Most couples have years to grow accustomed to the changes age brings," she said thoughtfully.  "The changes are gradual and both husband and wife have some cause for disappointment.  I've aged 20 years in one and you're still as sweet as the day we married."

Merry laughed then but tears sprang to his eyes.  "I've grown a little greyer since then, my love, but no wiser it seems.  You deserve a better husband than I've proven to be."

Her arms tightened fiercely around him and Merry marvelled at the strength still in her frame.  "No," she said with absolute conviction.  "You're the only hobbit I've ever wanted, and the only one I'll ever love.  I'd've left your bed had you asked and never sought your touch again.  I'd've done it because I love you, but I won't ever love another.  Don't ask me to.  That's the only thing I'd ever refuse you." 

Unwavering determination.  Merry understood her perfectly.  She meant every word of it. 

"Then I'll never ask you to.  But I can't come to you until I've let go of these regrets.  You deserve to have my whole heart without them."

She pushed him back and held his face in her hands, staring into it, thoughtful again.  "I don't think I really appreciated how badly I frightened you, Merry.  Diamond and Esmeralda and even the children have told me I did, but I don't think I quite understood before."  She stroked the brown mark on his brow.  "I need to heal that scar, I see it now.  I need to regain your trust."

"You've done your part already by getting well, beloved.  You live; the rest of the work is mine.  Though I'll beg your forgiveness and ask for your patience while I try to speed some sense into this slow pate.  Will you grant me it?"

She nodded and smiled, but her mind was no longer on his words.  Her eyes fixed piercingly on him and Merry felt a sudden strange thrill, as if he was seeing into a room of her being that she had never before held open to him.  It was vast and strange and within it he felt he would be as a feather at the mercy of a mighty wind. 

"I will," she said absently, and then the depths in her eyes were veiled, but not gone.  He knew they were there now.  He had seen the infinite in her and would never again view her in the same light.



Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 7


September of 1436 was a glorious month with just the right touch of chill at night and golden afternoons that could still put warmth into the bones.  The harvest was shaping up splendidly too, with the last of the summer vegetables picked and those that would be left till the first frost burgeoning on the stalk. 

With all the demands on his time during that busy season, Merry had little left to devote to reacquaint himself to his lady.  Though he had had every intention of seeing to it straight away, there always seemed to be something else that needed doing first.  In the end, he knew he would have to get away from Brandy Hall entirely if he was to have any hope of it.

Though it had long since been cleared of his cousin's things and he and Pippin's residence there had erased nearly all memory of him, Merry had kept Crickhollow as a place he could go when he most particularly missed Frodo's quiet wisdom and sharp wit.  It was also his refuge when he needed the kind of solitude he couldn't find in Brandy Hall.  After the harvest was in and Aragorn had gone back to Lake Evendim, he would clean up the place; fill the larder, stock the firewood shed and bring in new beds and linens to replace ones that would surely have grown musty.  And then he would bring Estella.  He planned to stay there with her for the winter and perhaps then they would learn to love again. 

At least he hoped that it would be so easy.  He still worried about her health and her ability to bear him.  And there was a stubborn streak in him that still yearned for the riches that had once been his, but the greatest obstacle, he was beginning to realize, was going to be rekindling his desire.  Perhaps he had stoically accepted that life would continue without pleasures of the flesh, but, as he'd found with the pipe-weed, it was almost easier to give up the thing than to begin it again.  But he did not want to deprive Estella.  His desire might have diminished, but he had not stopped loving her.  He would learn to appreciate her body again, perhaps even to want it.  They had made magic once and even if she could no longer endure the full measure of his passion, they would do so again.

For her part, Estella kept much to herself during that month.  Her attempts to encourage her son to nurse had not gone well.  The baby began to resent being tricked and stubbornly refused to suckle on his mother no matter how sweetly Celandine cajoled or how patiently Estella waited.  After a week, the meagre supply Estella had managed to encourage dried up for good and she had to admit defeat.  Merry, who had not been keen on the project to begin with, was not sorry to see it end.  He still feared it would tax her body unduly and could not understand her determination to feed the baby herself when there were other, safer alternatives.

In the end, they hired the cook's daughter, whose baby was just weaning, as Eadoc's wetnurse for the next year.  That way, Celandine could continue her plans for her family and the young maid, Buttercup, could make a handsome wage.  Merry thought the issue resolved quite satisfactorily for all concerned, until he woke one night to the sounds of stifled sobs from the parlour.  He rose to see what the matter was, but stopped at the door.  Through the tiny crack that remained open, he could see Estella curled up in the rocking chair by the fire, the one she had always used to rock her little ones, and weeping so quietly that if he had slept any sounder, he would not have heard her at all.  Deep and bitter was her pain, but something stopped him from opening the door and going to comfort her. 

He'd lamented what Estella's illness had deprived him of, but from the raw ache that eked out between her clenched lips he began to wonder he'd understood all it had taken from her.  His experience as father to his newest son had been little different from what it had been with his other children; he had loved and protected him, and seen the child was well provided for.  Estella clutched the pillow she had laid her infants on.  But this child's first year had been very different for his wife.  He stepped back from the door, feeling suddenly hesitant.  What was she grieving so bitterly?  Missing the first few months of his life?  Or was there something else in the bond between mother and infant child?  Merry shook his head.  Naturally, he had spent less of their babyhood with their sons than his wife had, but he was a devoted, loving father and his bond to them was as strong as hers.  He frowned at the fleeting feeling of irritation.  Perhaps there was something more to motherhood, something mysterious and fleeting and, if not stronger, fundamentally different than fatherhood?  He thought suddenly of that part of her being he had had but a glimpse of and wondered if its roots lay in that place.  The idea intrigued him.  There had been a time when he'd thought he understood his lady's heart, that they were bound uniquely and inextricably, but he was beginning to see that there were depths in her, and perhaps in all of womankind, that he'd never imagined existed.


Aragorn arrived on a Thursday, a most particular Thursday, since it was also the twenty-second of September, the Ringbearer's birthday.  Heralds announced the approach of his retinue to the Buckland gates and hobbits for miles around the Marish and the Southfarthing, hearing their trumpets, strained to catch a glimpse of the King.  The Master and the Thain, their mail gleaming in the sun, were there to greet him and stood in the open gate like a pair of tall princes before their people.  The Mayor and his wife, were also there and behind them a phalanx of bright hobbit children, Gamgees all.  While the rest of the hobbits gazed at the procession with awe, the three Travellers bore grins that nearly split their faces and Pippin was fidgeting even worse than his son Faramir, whom Diamond had had to keep both hands on.  When the standard of the White Tree came to a rest just outside the bounds of the Shire proper, the Thain could hold himself back no longer.  With Merry and Sam, he ran forward into the arms of a tall Man who suddenly stepped from the crowd and stooped to embrace them.  Diamond was even more astonished by the enthusiasm of their greeting, as they hugged and thumped each other so vigorously they nearly knocked each other to the ground.

She and Rosie looked at each other nervously, wondering if this constituted some breach of protocol, but then the man's rich, hearty laugher rang out along the street and it was clear he was not at all displeased.  They shrugged, gathered up the Travellers' children, and came forward to greet him.

Diamond spent most of that day trying to keep Faramir and Theoden out of the King's wagons and tents, but she did get to meet the King and Queen; an occasion she would not soon forget.  She'd been brought before their 'court' in a little glade east of the gate where hundreds of tents had been set up for them and their retainers.  The two of them sat on plain chairs before a large and richly decorated coach, and staff and courtiers fanned out beside them to encircle the glade.  Colors of every conceivable hue clothed the ladies and knights of Gondor and amid them, the hobbits stood out to Diamond as splashes of normalcy in a great sea of strangeness.  Merry and Pippin sat on the royal couple's left and Sam on their right, and all three were engaged in the excited talk of old friends long apart. 

To her eyes, the King was huge and though he had a stern and menacing face that looked as if it were chiselled from stone, his grey eyes were merry and he laughed as often as he spoke.  His garments were rich and well tailored and all but his worn and scuffed boots were new and bright.  He wore no ornamentation save a green stone set in a simple necklace and a large ring on his finger, but his beneficent and kingly manner would have marked him in any crowd.  She decided that she liked him then, though she was not the sort to grant her preference easily.

The Queen of Gondor was tall and slim and crowned with a fall of hair like black water.  She was possibly the loveliest creature Diamond had ever seen.  Her eyes were grey, like her husband's, but deeper and filled with subtly veiled sorrow, except when she smiled, and then her joy was so genuine it was as if the sun had come out and bathed the world in light.  She wore a dress of deep blue, as rich and striking as a summer night, girdled by a simple silver belt with links shaped like the flowers that grew under the Party Tree near the Gamgee home.

Diamond stood before them both and curtsied.  Faramir and Theoden, her charges for the day, looked up at the regal couple in awe, their mouths hanging open fish-like until she prodded them to bow.  The King laughed and beckoned the children to join them and the boys rushed forward into the laps of their respective fathers.  Samwise Gamgee had his son Frodo by his side already.  Diamond curtsied again, thinking herself dismissed, but the Queen stood and approached her. 

"You are the wife of Peregrin Took, Knight of Gondor?"  Her voice was resonant but merry as a girl's.  "You have introduced yourself and your son, but the other child was Merry Brandybuck's; I can see the stamp of his father writ clear on his face.  Is his lady unable to join us?" 

Diamond cleared her throat, finding speech an effort before the stately lady.  "As a matter of fact, my Queen, I wished to speak with you about her."  She blushed.  "I know you and your husband are dear friends of Merry's.  Estella Brandybuck is a dear friend of mine.  She is but lately recovered from a serious illness and has suffered much.  Though she would not ask for herself, I wish to beg you for your aid in her cause."

The Queen's clear gaze captured her and, for a second, Diamond felt as exposed as if she had walked naked into the clearing.  She could have kept nothing from this Elf-woman, even if she had tried.  The lady then smiled and Diamond blushed at the warm regard evident in her face and voice.

"Peregrin's chosen possesses in good measure the courage for which her people gained renown."  She curtsied to Diamond.  "If there is any way I can help, I will be happy to do it."



Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 8


The King and Queen hosted a gala that evening in honour of the Travellers.  Prominent citizens of Bucklebury and the Marish, many who had only half believed their tales, listened with curious ears as new songs were sung in tribute to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.  Unlike the Ballad of Frodo of the Nine Fingers, Merry thought these melodies sounded Elvish and sad, but also hopeful, as of someone who must leave the familiar behind but keeps his heart open to whatever the future might hold.  He found them quite appropriate to honour his lost cousin.  The other hobbits, though they had never heard any music not made by their own art, were moved by the strange songs, and as they ended, Merry saw more than one eye turn thoughtfully in his direction. 

Estella had begged off this first day's festivities, but Merry was not concerned.  There had been a twinkle in her eye when she'd explained she did not feel up to such excitements and Diamond, too, had looked at him with calculating amusement.  They had some mischief planned.  Even Queen Arwen, returning to the celebration from a talk with the Thain's lady, seemed just on the brink of laughing when she spied him.  Apparently they'd let her in on their scheme too.  Merry assumed an indifferent air, unwilling to be baited, but was eager to see what the ladies had in store.

The last time Merry had been as truly happy as this was on the Field of Cormallen, watching Frodo being honoured by the legions of Middle-earth.  At every occasion since, he'd keenly felt his beloved cousin's lack.  But Aragorn, Arwen, Sam and Pippin now shared the grief, making it lighter, and with the lords and ladies from Gondor showing them such honour, Merry's heart was eased.  He knew Frodo would be remembered long after all others of his race had been forgotten.  The knowledge gave him great comfort. 

At full dark, the torches were lit and Aragorn stepped forward onto the field.  He had drawn Sam Gamgee with him and had laid his arm around the hobbit's shoulders. 

"If I might have your attention, gentle folk?" he called over the crowd.  His voice carried well and the attending hobbits grew quiet.  "We dedicate this celebration to those members of our beloved Fellowship whose honour we have sung, and whose people we have had the pleasure of meeting this day.  Seeing their happiness and prosperity brings us great joy."  He paused and his eyes sought out Merry and Pippin where they stood at the forefront of the crowd.  He smiled.  "We, the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, owe our very freedom to their courage.  When all of the land was in danger, a hobbit took upon himself a great and terrible quest to try and save the land and people he loved.  Against all odds, he completed his task, but he could not have managed it without the help of those who loved him and whose bonds of friendship took them to the ends of the earth with him."

"It grieves me beyond measure that Frodo Baggins can no longer be with us, that I cannot exalt him before his people as he deserves, but I do not believe such a ceremony would have been to his liking in any case. 

"Frodo gave his all so that his people could live on as they always had; in peace.  We may celebrate his life tonight, but the greatest tribute we can give him is to live in a way that honours his sacrifice."  Aragorn drew Sam closer and Merry saw the fellow wiping his eyes.  "He would be well pleased, I think, to see how you have thrived."

Then Aragorn took a medallion from his shoulder and bent and whispered something in Sam's ear.  Sam nodded, blew his nose and stood a little more stiffly at attention.  The King raised the token above his head so that the crowd could mark it.

"In honour of Frodo's memory and in gratitude for all that Samwise Gamgee himself has done, for his courage and faithfulness and his unwavering heart, I do now bequeath to him the Star of the Dunedain.  It is a mark of my house and a symbol of my kinship.  No other outside of my realm has ever worn this symbol.  Until now, none have ever been deemed worthy enough." 

And then he carefully pinned the emblem to Sam's coat.  The poor hobbit tried gamely to stand fast, but by the time the king had finished, his cheeks were shining with tears again.  Aragorn, tears in his own eyes, bent down and embraced him.  "He would be well pleased indeed, Sam.  I have no doubt of it."

After the ceremony, the musicians began to play livelier tunes for dancing.  The attending hobbits clapped and cheered and many a furry foot began to tap in eager anticipation.  Aragorn took his lady's hand for the first dance of the evening and led her into the centre of the green field.  The firelight glinted off of Arwen's hair and glimmered along her flawless arms as she circled her lord.  Merry had been blessed to see them dance once before in the stately courts of the Citadel, but in the flickering torchlight and the shadows of the forest night, with a carpet of verdant green beneath her feet, he saw more clearly than ever Tinúviel reborn before him.  And Aragorn, with the Ring of Barahir glittering on his finger, might have been Beren himself.  She whirled in the dance and her husband caught her deftly about the waist, gazing into her eyes with clearly evident adoration.  The joy they took in each other's company warmed the heart, but it brought unbidden to mind a chant Merry had heard a world and lifetime away.

…and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinúviel
That in his arms lay glistening…

Merry's eyes filled with tears, he dashed them away before they could be seen.  This was a night for joy, not sorrow, but he could not help remembering the price Arwen had paid for love.  It was strange how mortality seemed so much more tragic for her than it did for those beings born to it. 

Arwen spun away from her husband, laughing, her dress floating about her like dark faerie's wings.  She had made her sacrifice freely, for love, but it still saddened Merry that one of the Elven kindred would someday succumb to the ravages of time.  The First Born were supposed to be eternal, the light and spirit of the world that could never die.  Mortals were the ephemeral ones, knowing they must celebrate life and joy while they might, just as Arwen did now.  The thought pricked his conscience uncomfortably.  She was living the life she had chosen and to the fullest measure, giving all she could to those she loved while it was in her power to do so. 

Was that not all that Estella had wanted too? 

A small figure clothed in shimmering blue walked to the edge of the circle of onlookers.  She looked like an Elf-maid, but was hobbit-sized, as sharp and bright as a diamond.  The song ended, Arwen and Aragorn's last promenade had deposited them in front of her, their faces glowing with exertion and delight.  Unexpectedly, they beckoned the lady forward.  A curious murmur flitted among the crowd.  Merry looked up again to see a young lord standing before him, bowing and suggesting the King and Queen would be honoured if the Master of Buckland would take the floor with them.  Sam was already guiding an astonished Rosie, and Diamond, looking determined not to be intimidated, followed Pippin into the circle's centre.  Merry shook his head.

"I have no partner for this dance, good sir.  My lady-wife is poorly this evening."

Rather than accepting his excuse, the man smiled gently.  "With all due respect, my lord Holdwine," he winked, "she is awaiting you and looks quite hale to me.  Though perhaps you should judge for yourself?"

Merry started.  He looked to where the man indicated and there, in the centre of the grassy field, standing between the King and Queen of Gondor, was Estella.

Her new dress flattered her lean body, its flowing fabric clinging to her waist and arms and defining her elegantly in silver and shadow.  Falls of rich silk fell from her waist and shoulders, giving the impression of cascading pools that rippled as she moved.  In her hair, a scattering of tiny diamonds glittered like a field of stars.  A circlet of the precious stones graced her neck and one brilliant gem sparkled in the point of each ear.  Merry stared gape-mouthed. 

She was astonishingly beautiful

It was as if a shadow had been lifted and he saw her with new eyes.  Like the Queen at her side, Estella looked almost ethereal, a melding of starry sky, somnolent forest and the swift river running into shape that was both familiar and unfamiliar at once.  He had grieved the loss of Estella's rounded, very hobbit-like features, but it seemed that beneath the soft, solid lass that he had treasured was a creature of elegance and grace, almost Elvish in her bearing, as perfectly and precisely cut as the sparkling diamonds she wore.

He came to stand before her, entranced.  A subtle Elvish fragrance teased his memory and mingled with her warm and comforting scent.  His stunned reaction might have suited the earlier amusement Diamond and Arwen shared, but he could see Estella had not come this night for folly.  She had never been more in earnest.  She took a step toward him.  The pride and confidence of the harvest maid of yore was gone.  Her heart was in her hands. 

This was no wasted and sickly matron.  The illness had merely burned away all baser matter leaving resolve and a strength that Merry had rarely glimpsed.  Here was a slim, bright blade, tempered in the hottest flame his pastoral land could produce.  Her clear and honest gaze pierced him.  He could still read it perfectly.  She desired him, but she had not come to beg, nor to tease him back to her bed.  She would accept his choice with grace, whatever it was, but she would let him know her mind without any doubt before he made that decision. 

The sheer force of her conviction struck him like a physical blow and left him speechless.  There was strength in her not unlike that which Frodo possessed; to endure, accept and go on.  He had never imagined, while he'd held her flickering life in his arms, that such reserves existed, but he could not deny they fed the spirit that looked unwaveringly back at him.

"And now," Aragorn called out to the crowd, "the remaining members of the Fellowship shall join me in The Harvest Reel!"

Numbly, Merry moved into position for the ancient dance.  Taught to hobbits by Men, it was little changed from the dance the Elvish children had learned for millennia.  The four couples lined up as if they'd been dancing together for many years.  First the lasses would step into the centre and, arm in arm, would circle round.  Then they would step back and the lads would come forward.  Next would come the pinwheel, and the couples would break off and move to separate corners of the dance floor.  After that they danced as couples, coming closer and closer to each other till they met in the centre once more.  They would then repeat the dancing steps as two separate groups of two couples each, and then again as a single group they would start over from the beginning.

It was well the dance was a simple one, for Merry found it increasingly difficult to pay attention to the movements.  Whenever they required him to hold his wife, he could feel her trembling.  Exertion might have explained the roses in her cheeks, but she'd lit up like a tween when he took her hand, and the feel of her strangely firm body electrified him in a way it hadn't in years.  He spread his hand wonderingly across her back.  Through the thin material of her dress he could feel the heat from her body and the regular rhythm of her heartbeat.  It was steady and strong.

He had denied his desire in an effort to protect her, to keep her with him always, but now he saw the actions that had so long seemed both eminently logical and noble were a fallacy.  There was nothing he could do to slow the inevitable march of time, no sacrifice he could make to gain more of it.  All he would have of his lady was the time that was allotted to her.  To them.  There could be no more.  He had a choice: To squander that time or use it to celebrate life and love while they might. 

He had been squandering it.

As the other dancers spun around them, he drew her close and in that envelop of privacy in the midst of merriment he kissed his beloved wife.

In that touch was his answer.  She was his life, the flame that warmed his night and the sun that guided his day.  She was the bountiful harvest and the warm sunshine from which all good things sprang.  Time might have left its mark on her, but she was still beautiful and he was bound not by her health or beauty, but by her unique and inviolate being… and always would be.

A convulsive shiver rippled through her body.  He could almost taste her relief, sharp and sweet, like the traces of the half-remembered flavour that lingered on her lips. 

"If I don't ask for the next dance now, I fear I'll never have the chance." 

The Harvest Reel had ended and more dancers, hobbits and Gondorians, were filling the field.  Aragorn smiled down at him from behind Estella who blushed like a maiden and released Merry.  The King chuckled.

"May I have the honour of this dance, Lady Brandybuck?  Merry has been far too jealous with your favour, though now that I see you, I understand why."

Estella's blush deepened but she nodded and took the King's hand.  Merry, his mouth still tingling from the kiss, stepped back.  He did not begrudge Aragorn a turn with his lady, though he resolved the King would partner her for no more than one dance.  Buckland's Master had unfinished and decidedly urgent business with its Mistress.

"They look like a father and daughter dancing," he grumbled, sounding more petulant than he felt.

Arwen, behind him, laughed.  "Ah, but she has a wisdom in her eyes no child would have.  She is a very worthy lady."  She smiled down at him.  "You are lucky to have her."

"I haven't appreciated that very well lately, my lady."

She nodded, her smile becoming kindlier.  "I saw that in both of you.  But do I now sense a change of heart?"  She nodded again in satisfaction, the merry twinkle returning to her eye.  "It is good to know I have not lost my talent for bringing forth loveliness and rekindling wayward affections."

"You've sensed aright," laughed Merry and then he looked at her thoughtfully, "but maybe your sight could set my heart to rest as well.  You've seen into it, you say.  Can you tell me ought of hers?  I have been terrified of losing her, you see, and though I know now that I cannot let that fear destroy what time we have left together, it would be a relief to know if, well, if she's really going to be all right now." 

Arwen looked out at the dancers milling merrily about and was quiet for a long while.  Merry wondered if he had asked more than was within her power, or right, to tell, but at last she spoke. 

"She is hale enough," she said softly.  "Her illness has cost her much, but she will not be taken from you for many years.  Love her while you can, Merry." 

She spoke with a poignancy that struck an all too familiar chord.  With sudden and sombre insight, he saw that she was not at all as Estella, embracing the time she had left to her, but was more like himself, desperately treasuring a beloved she would one day outlive.  Frodo had once hinted that it might be so, saying that though the Queen was now mortal, her heritage would probably give her a longer life than Aragorn would enjoy.  At the time, Merry had not appreciated what Frodo had meant.  Now he realized that Arwen Evenstar understood his sorrow very well. 

"I will," he answered in the same tone she had used.  "And you must do the same with him." 

The King's laugh rang out as he tried to duck under his dance partner's arm.  Arwen placed a hand Merry's shoulder and gave it an eloquent squeeze.

"I shall," she said. "Thank you, Meriadoc Brandybuck."



Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 9

(Warning: This chapter contains adult material.  If if you find such offensive or are not of age, you may skip this and the next chapter by assuming that, yes, they made up.)  ;)


Aragorn would not take 'you are much too generous, my lord' nor 'I couldn't possibly' for an answer. 

Estella had brought a satchel with blankets and a bit of food and drink in the event the evening went as she had hoped.  It was, perhaps, wishful thinking, but she had wanted to be ready if her husband felt inclined to slip off into the starlit fields with her.  Arwen was apparently quite confident of their success and had arranged to give the couple the use of the special sleeping coach the King had designed for her.  Estella had not felt she had even the option of refusing, but when she stepped inside the luxurious little cabin and saw the expanse of red satin bed sheets and the softly padded headboards, she felt like sinking into the floorboards.  It was embarrassingly clear what the coach's main and perhaps only purpose was. 

The little satchel dangled forgotten from her shocked hand.

"Well!" said Merry, his face reddening so that she could even see it in the lantern light.  "Isn't this an inviting little place?"

"Merry!" she hissed, certain her face was redder than his.  "We can't accept this!  It's positively indecent!"

"My dearest wife." Merry put his hands on her shoulders and bent so that his warm breath tickled her diamond-trimmed ears.  "I would settle for a hayloft in a barn at this moment, but as the Man I hold dearest in all the world has offered me the use of this delightful accommodation, I feel it would be an insult to refuse him."  His lips traced around the edge of her ear with a teasing, feather light touch. 

"There's a coachman!" she groaned.  "You can't expect me to…"

"And he's been instructed to drive us to the edge of the encampment, unhitch the horse and to bed down in sight but out of earshot for the evening."  He found her neck under the mass of fine curls.  "Aragorn is a capital fellow and would have thought of everything, love.  I'd even wager we'll find a hobbit-sized breakfast delivered in the morning."

Each word's breath stirred the hairs on her neck, but she no longer cared what they meant, only that her beloved's cheek stroked hers as he spoke and his chin rested possessively over her shoulder.  There was more than promise in his eyes now.  The blue fire that had set her heart ablaze the first time they'd met had returned. She could feel his essence in her very soul, invading and claiming it, as it had that day in the meadow.  They had not had the will to stop then and now there was no need.

"Oh Merry," she said through clenched teeth.  She melted in his hands, as she always had.  It was as though she was a moth drawn to that unquenchable flame, both powerless to resist and empowered by his love for her.  She turned in his embrace and eagerly sought his mouth and the soft lips that could make any part of her body they touched sing with ecstasy.

"I beg your pardon, Master and Mistress." 

The young driver bowed, keeping his eyes decorously focused away from the entrance to the coach.  Estella jumped in surprise, but Merry would not let her back out of his arms.  Without even a smirk in response to ruffle his professional demeanour, the Man continued.  "My Lord King Elessar has commanded that I take you to a little place he knew of old.   My own father took me there once while we were guarding the Shire borders.  It's a pretty place, safe and very secluded.  Just a little ways inside the land you call the Old Forest."  Estella tensed, but Merry ran a warm hand up her back and comforted her with such untroubled ease that her fear faded.

"That'll be perfect," answered Merry. 

"There's food and drink in the trunk there beside the bed and lantern oil and candles, should you need them, in the boot.  I'll unhitch the horse and leave him with you, in case there is an emergency.  Is there anything else I can do before we set out?"

Merry looked down at his wife, a salacious grin tugging at his lips.  "I think we've everything we could imagine needing." 

The driver allowed himself a smile then, but respectfully said nothing as he closed the coach door and set up its steps.  They heard him doing a last check of the vehicle and speaking gently to his own horse, tied to the rear of the coach, before climbing into the driver's seat.

Merry had Estella in another eager kiss when the carriage jolted to a start.  She lost her balance and fell against him, but Merry was as steady as a rock.  Estella tried to calm her breathing, they were not even alone yet, but the feel of his arms, ardently firm rather than patiently gentle, enflamed her desire.  It didn't even daunt her that he was unlacing her thin dress before they'd even made it out of the King's encampment.

Diamond had also made Estella a new cotton corset since all her others were now comically too big.  Merry paused upon seeing the delicate garment and ran a hand over her supported breast in wonder.  She watched the movement, captivated both by his touch and by the love with which he caressed her.  The weight she had lost had revealed itself most disappointingly in her breasts.  Once firm and large, they had only now begun to plump again, but without corset, they would not have displayed the enticing roundness that Merry now touched.  He hesitated a moment and looked into her eyes.  He understood her reasons for wearing it and was grateful for her thoughtfulness, but he shook his head with a smile.

"You were truly worried, weren't you?" he whispered.  "I'm sorry I allowed you to question.  I could never forsake you, no matter what changes the years bring, Estella. You could never lose your beauty, but what binds us is deeper than just skin.  Maybe I needed tonight to prompt me to action, to remind me to open my mouth and say it, but I never really forgot it."  He cradled her face in his hands, lifting her chin till she met his clear, steady gaze.  "You have a strong hold, my love.  Never doubt it."

It wasn't his looks alone that had bound her either, but Oh! how he looked at that moment!  His broad shoulders and powerful body thrummed with desire and on his face was an expression of such tenderness that it almost brought tears to her eyes.  She would have thought herself lucky had she only had the children and the memories of their love, but to have him back like this...

"Too much talk," she gasped, unable to produce anything more articulate.  Deep laughter boomed in his chest and he clasped her to him.  She gave a startled exclamation at the abruptness of his movement and then covered her mouth with both hands, remembering that they were not alone.  That made Merry laugh more heartily still and he lifted her off her feet and tumbled with her into the bed.

The coach was so solidly made that it didn't even rock.


She was vaguely aware that the coach had stopped, but the sound of the coachman's discrete departure was lost in a haze of pure pleasure.  Merry hadn't even undressed her beyond the corset, but his hands and mouth were playing her like a familiar and well-loved instrument.  She doubted there was an exposed inch of her skin that he hadn't nuzzled, kissed or explored with his demanding tongue. 

Their lovemaking had always been intensely passionate, but now she felt every nuance as she never had before.  Perhaps her leaner body, the long anticipation or something else intensified all sensation, but his first caress had left her gasping and trembling like a maid.  Her fervid reaction also seemed to charge him as it hadn't in years.  He manoeuvred her with familiar confidence and yet the barely contained excitement of a lovers' first embrace.  She shivered.  It made her want him so desperately she would not have cared if the coach's broad windows had been wide open to the world.

He had taken off his waistcoat and shirt and his braces hung forgotten from the waistband of his unbuttoned trousers.  Estella buried her face in his chest and delighted in the tickle of the few golden hairs on his otherwise smooth, downy skin.  He let out a shuddering breath and drew her up to deliver another searing kiss.  This one continued down her neck, to the hollow of her throat and into the shadowed valley between her breasts.  His hands encircled her waist and settled her where he could further delve into that tempting cleft. 

Only then did he attend the corset.  It was laced in the back, but a row of tiny hooks kept the front bound.  With delicate care and talented teeth he set to work loosening them.  His not-so-incidental movements were driving Estella mad; it was nearly impossible for her to keep still enough for him to finish the job.

"Careful there, love, this is a treasure I must unwrap slowly."

"If you wait too much longer, its coverings will erupt in flame!" she panted. 

"Hmmm," he murmured through a mouthful of cotton.  The catch released and cool air hit the damp fabric making her squirm.  "I might enjoy seeing that."

"Merry!" she pleaded in exasperation. 

He chuckled but did not relent, diving enthusiastically into her soft bosom and working his way downward.  It was almost more than she could take.  The building sensations seriously threatened the control she had of her body but she did not want him to stop.  It was like sledding down a steep, snow-covered hill; the exhilaration of the moment was more than worth the tumble and crash at the bottom.  She giggled, thinking of the analogy and that one moment's inattention did her in.  Merry was nuzzling her inner thigh when she suddenly arched, drew in a ragged breath and felt the first inexorable ripple clench her belly. 

Too soon, she thought as waves of sensation passed through her.  Merry would not think so.  He loved watching her peak, knowing that he had caused it, and would take advantage of her incapacity to insure she sustained that pinnacle.  She hissed a word that would never have passed her lips at any other time as he expertly did so. 

Shaking with too much pleasure to be really angry, she batted at him.

"You did that a-purpose," she scolded.

"I did.  It was quite rewarding too."

"But I'm not even undressed!  We've the whole night ahead of us and you've gone and spent me.  However am I going to reach such heights again?"

Blue eyes glittered knowingly above ruddy cheeks and wetted lips.  In the lamplight, he looked like a wild thing, as yet caged, full of power and excitement, and she suddenly knew her worries were groundless. 

"Leave that to me, my dear."



Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 10


In the depths of middle night, Merry felt the great bed move.  He roused from his light doze but did not stir, not wanting her to think she’d awakened him.  Estella rose quietly and he heard her depart the coach.  She was only taking a sniff of the air, he guessed, though this forest was not the safest place even for that.  When she returned unhurriedly through the little clearing several moments later, he relaxed.  The trees had not made a sound.

Merry was glad to see her wake.  It meant there was a chance the evening might continue where they’d left it off. 

He had taken great pleasure and no small amount of pride in showing his lady just how well he remembered how to love her, but after thrilling him with another aided climax, she had grown weary and asked if she could just be held for a time.  It hadn’t taken long for sleep to claim her.  Merry had waited, trying not to be concerned, or disappointed, hoping she would wake and feel up to resuming their lovemaking, but he would not push the matter.  This night was more for her than for him.

She went to the window and he heard the soft whisper of curtains being drawn back.  Light from the newly risen moon spilled into the coach drowning the glow from the coach’s small brazier.  She came back to the bed and sat beside him.  For a very long time, she didn't move, but Merry could almost feel her eyes on him, trailing over his naked body as he lay, stretched out on the bed.  He was just preparing to turn to her when he felt slender fingers gently stroking him, trailing over his back, buttocks and thigh.  He smiled, giving up his pretence of sleep.  She chuckled and started kneading those fingers into the corded tissue of his shoulders.

Merry sank back down with a very contented sigh.  It had been ages since she'd rubbed his back!  She was very good at it and had always been able to soothe the accumulated tensions of sword practice or a day in the field better than a cold brew or a pipe ever could.  And his tensions were long overdue being subject to her capable attention.  He grunted with pleasure as she pushed down onto his shoulder blades. 

Her fingers had lost none of their power and skill, Merry was delighted to note.  She climbed onto his back and used all her weight and an elbow to apply pressure to a spot on his right shoulder that always gave him trouble.  The resulting burst of almost painful warmth made Merry groan again. 

She had donned his abandoned shirt to go outside and the tickle of it gliding across his back as she moved was almost as enticing as the wonderful heat from where she sat upon him.  They both were such titillating diversions that it was becoming very difficult to focus on enjoying the massage and not being distracted by the lithe body giving it. 

It was strange how familiar and yet how different she felt.  Hobbits, by nature, tended to give their whole heart once they’d fallen in love and they rarely remarried, even after the death of a mate.  Perhaps the germ of Merry's arrested desire had lain in that inclination?  He did not know.  She was so changed from the sturdy lass he had known.  But the touch of her hand, the way she moved and the tender care with which she caressed him were unmistakable.  Like seeing the features of a long lost friend in the faces of his surviving kin, he was rediscovering his wife in this vibrant and slender body.  And he had missed her. 

He rolled beneath his lady and drew her down to lie beside him.  Moonlight bathed her face in shades of blue and silver and ignited an indigo fire in her eyes.  A tiny diamond, still clinging gamely to a strand of her hair, glittered in the light.  She looked even more ethereal and Elvish than she had standing beside Arwen, but as he gazed lovingly down upon his wife, her breath hitched in a sob and Merry saw a tear glitter down her cheek.

He kissed it away. 

More came, salty and bitter.  He attended them as he had the first, cradling her head in his broad hands and kissing her with deep and abiding passion, giving the most earnest promise he could make: she need never fear, for he would not refuse her again.

Her crying quieted and she tentatively returned his kiss, but there was uncertainty in her touch and, somehow, deep sorrow.  Merry paused and pulled back. 

"What’s the matter, my love?" he asked.

She bit her lip and reached up to stroke his cheek.

"I tricked you into coming here,” she whispered.  “It was unworthy of me.”

More tears.  Merry wiped them away with his thumb.

“I am glad you did,” he said.  “It seemed I had lost my way.”

Her eyes travelled over him again as if memorizing his features.  He could feel the longing in her gaze. 

"Some would say there was more to life than the sweetness of a lover’s embrace," she whispered softly.  "They would say that once the children were begot such sport was a waste of time."

"And you feared I felt that way?"

She smiled a little.

"For once, I couldn’t tell."

He grinned back.  "Pippin once chastised me for expecting you to read my thoughts."

She looked away, unable to meet his eyes.  "I'm glad you couldn't read mine."

"Estella?"  Merry drew her chin gently back towards him.  "Maybe it is time for us to begin to talk to each other more?  Things have changed, in many ways.  There was a time when I knew your heart as surely as I knew my own, but that voice in my ear speaks less often now.  I think we've become, as good friends will, so comfortable with one another that we no longer feel the need for words.  But I don't want that easy quiet to become an empty silence."

Tears glistened in her eyes again.  She nodded unhappily and kissed his palm.  He felt the dampness of her cheek and knew he need only be patient.  She was a quiet lass, but there was a weight in her heart so heavy he could almost feel it.

“Do…do you know, when I was sick,” she began, “the one thing that kept me here was your heartbeat.  It was constant, never faltered, never failed.  It was my… tether to this world.  I held onto it as tight as I could because I didn't want to lose you."

Her arms slipped around his great chest as if to illustrate her claim.  He settled her protectively into the hollow of his shoulder, tucking her head under his chin, as was his long habit.

“I'm not strong, Merry," she continued.  "You and the boys thought of me as some kind of rock, but it was an act.  All of my strength comes from you.” 

Merry opened his mouth to speak, but then shut it.  These were words that had been pent up inside her for a long time.  It would be wisest to let them flow while they might.  He stroked her hair gently and listened.

"Diamond once told me that you would not be long for this world if I died, but I don't think that's true.  Such a cowardly course.  No.  While so many others relied upon you, you would not be so selfish." 

Her inference was that she would not be as strong.  Merry's heart gave a sudden flutter like the beating of a moth's wing. 

"You used to put spiders into my hair."  She struggled to smile.  "And yet, when I saw you standing there, full grown in that open field, I thought you the princeliest hobbit I had ever seen.”  Her voice grew surer.  “There was something vast in your eyes, like a cornfield that stretched from horizon to horizon, all touched with golden fire."  She rubbed her cheek devotedly against his chest.  "You were so wild, fierce and dangerous, yet I'd never felt so completely safe in anyone's company.  You filled a great emptiness that I'd never even known I had.  And when you touched me…" 

She sighed and moved in memory of that long ago dance.  The motion sang a siren's song to his body. 

But when he stirred to answer it, she checked herself; there was more she would say.  She held him at arm’s length, studying his face as if for answers written there.  "How could any lass not love you?" she whispered at last.  He felt her falling back into a quiet, distant place, that strange, vast room of her spirit, that part of her he did not understand.  As closely as they lay entwined, it now yawned like a chasm between them.

"You've seen such wondrous things,” she went on.  “Beauties like Queen Arwen, heroes like the King, and places beyond my dreaming.  I don't think I really grasped the reality of it all before."  She looked about the moonlit cabin.  "It's so much grander than anything in the Shire.  How could I hope to keep you in the face of such wonders once my duty was done?" 

"Duty?"  Merry's voice was sharper than he'd intended.  "You never saw our sons as a duty."

"No," she agreed quickly, "I never did.  And I never will.  But I didn't come here for such a noble cause as begetting the future Masters of Buckland.  I came to you tonight, dressed like this and armed with Elvish potions for a very selfish purpose."  After a moment, she drew a breath and seemed to draw the courage to continue from it.

"I came because I couldn't bear facing a lifetime without you, without this."  She stroked his cheek and the heat in her touch was unmistakable.  Her hand dropped onto his chest and the fingers spread wide across it.  "Not exactly an admirable calling, is it?"

"Admirable or not, I am glad you did it."  He covered her hand with his own to assure her.  "Would you have nothing for me to look forward to of an evening but a pint and a pipe?  And Pippin for company?" 

She chuckled, but the bitterness was still in her. 

"It has long been time to talk, Merry.  I am guiltier of this silence than you.  I was afraid…no, terrified of what you might tell me.”  She drew a deep breath and he felt her move further away.  “But… I must find the courage to hear the truth,” she said in a voice as soft as a whisper.

Merry sat up on the bed.  Had his lack of desire truly made her feel so vulnerable?  He had worried about her physical ability to withstand him, but had not taken into account how his abstinence might make her feel.  She was right, he had thought of her as a rock.  He who still pined a cousin fifteen years gone, whose fear had swallowed his desire, had thought her an emotional tower of strength.  It was little wonder her grief over Eadoc had so confounded him.

“If you want me to tell you that truth with words, I will,” he said looking her firmly in the eye.  “Though I doubt I could speak plainer than my presence here tonight does.  But if it's words you want to hear, then I will speak them.”  A slow, joyful light came into his blue eyes.  If her strength came from knowing he loved and wanted her, then he would make her into a tower again.  He drew her up into his arms.  “You didn’t trick me, lass,” he whispered, so close to her hair that her curls tickled his lips.  “I needed time to think and now I have.  You’re a part of me, Estella, the other half of my soul.  I love you more now than I ever have and, yes, I want to make love to you.  I’ve never bedded you to make babies, though that’s been a blessed result.  I married you because I wanted you, wanted to celebrate what we had, you and me.  Just as I do now, and always will.”  He lifted her chin and found it trembling.  “I give you my vow again; I want to grow old with you, I want you beside me, in my heart and in my bed for as long as we both will live.” 

He didn’t need words to know how ardently she accepted it. 


He had missed this. 

He had almost forgotten how good she felt, smelled and tasted, and how wonderful it was to lose himself to passion.  His body had awakened easily to her touch and her slender fingers were no less skilled in arousing him than they had been at working the knots out of his back.  They had always been forceful in their lovemaking, but Merry had started this evening gently, testing his mate’s mettle, feeling his way.  She proved still to be a very physical lover, but her slender body now had a feral quickness she had never shown before.  It electrified him more than he had anticipated. 

Sweat-slicked legs slipped around his back and clutched him about the waist as Estella writhed against him.  As self-controlled and equable as he was in his every day life, he stirred to almost animal intensity at her touch.  Teasing, stroking, suckling and straining, they charged the air in the sumptuous coach with crackling tension.  He revelled in it.  It was his escape from the constraints of his position as Master of Buckland, his reminder that part of his heart remained in the wild, open fields of Rohan.  He pinned her still for a moment and took a kiss, plunging his tongue deep into her mouth. 

She answered by arching up and wriggling playfully from beneath him till he had to release her.  With her legs wrapped around him, she could control the teasing game somewhat, at least to the point of keeping his mouth and other equally eager parts just out of reach of their goals.  He growled hungrily and latched onto what was still within his grasp, a reddened breast, drawing as much of it as would fit into his mouth and flicking the end with a maddened tongue.  Estella gasped and rolled them both onto their sides, though the position gave her no advantage in their lustful game and even gained him a sweet inch beyond her guard.  She jumped and tried playfully to squirm away, but he held her fast and pushed his way into her depths. 

She hesitated in surprise and he rocked back, withdrawing.  The angle of their bodies made a deep penetration impossible, but he knew she could feel every inch of him gliding along her engorged folds.  Her grip on his waist slackened and she drew a ragged breath that let him know his tactic had caught her attention.  With a wolfish grin, he rocked back in.  She was usually the master of this game, despite her smaller size, able to teasingly deny him until he almost burst from need, but this time he would turn the tables.  He would bring her to such heights as she had never known before. 

With fluttering quickness, he began a shallow rhythm, pushing only a little way into her before rocking back out again.  It had the desired effect.  She drew in another searing breath and her eyelids fluttered as if she were spellbound by the sensation.  He granted her nothing but teasing, quick and regular thrusts while doggedly denying his own urge to plunge deeper. 

She whimpered, but still he held back.  A frown of deepening concentration fixed on her face and her body began to move with his.  She was so warm and soft, and keen, and so completely alive in his arms.  He feasted upon her neck and the hollow beneath her ear, letting the salty taste of her body and the musk of their passion infuse his senses.  He was vaguely aware that he had already shattered her saucy defiance, but it took most of his focus to hold himself back, to resist the now almost overpowering need to bury himself in her. 

Her whimper became a soft, breathy, undulating cry that swelled in time with his thrusts.  It he could just hold out a little longer she would peak.  A memory of their first blissful union suddenly came keen and clear to his mind; Estella, her long hair tumbled about her on the flattened corn, her sweet depths pulsating around his flesh at their culmination.  Not yet!  He fought the urgent longing to feel her warmth around him again, as glorious in the springtime of their love as in its eventide. 

With a gasping cry, Estella suddenly pulled herself closer, drawing him in with frantic urgency.  The motion undid the last of Merry’s tenuous control and he fell upon her, unrestrained and hungry, covering her body with his own and plunging into her all the way to the hilt. 

Conscious thought held little sway in the depths of their passion.  Merry moved as instinct and pleasure bade him, exploring the treasured spirit in his arms with more than touch.  Her cries were louder now, a keening song, punctuated by his mighty thrusts, the voice of a passion he both shared and observed from somewhere beyond.  They settled into a vigorous but perfect rhythm as if no time had passed since their last encounter, two straining forms matched in fervour, escalating to a fever pitch.  And still they rose higher, ascending together, locked as one, eager now to reach the heights they had once known so well. 

The first thrill of his own culmination crested within him.  When they were in tune like this, Merry could sense her spirit; a solitary beacon of white light, infinite in patience and strength, and blessedly unchanged despite the trials of that last devastating year.  It reached out and bathed him in its glow.  While his body strained, slamming heavily into hers in the raw heat of their lovemaking, he embraced her soul with tenderness.  She arched and gave a visceral cry, not a scream or whimper, but a sound unique to herself and to that moment.  He loved hearing it.  It meant joy, utter, primal exultation and deep satisfaction.  It was a sound only his love could draw from her.  She fluttered around and under him and at last, with the blood hammering in his ears and the fire of it igniting every fibre of his body, he let himself go.

She was with him in that place of ecstasy too.  It was as if they possessed one mind, the thoughts of one seeming echoed in the mind of the other.  It had been a very long time since she last joined him so.  He felt the bright spirit of the one he loved, and yet this night, as her essence filled his heart, he was also aware of what lay beyond her; a vast, windswept hollow where stars raced by high above. 

It was the place he had seen in the depths of her eyes. 

He now understood what he could not before.  This was Estella, the fearless dark under the stars.  This was the rich womb that had given life to his sons, the source of her mystery and the essence of her being. 

The stars!  His thought was jubilant. 

I have never seen them, came her answer, though not formed of words. 

But they are you.  He was confused.

I… had hoped they were there.  Most women dare not even do that much. 


He cradled her spirit and gazed up at the vast, bejewelled heavens.  They are beautiful.  How can you not see them?

Her spirit gave a shudder like a sigh.  We have been the defeated for so long, we have forgotten even the rumours of what we once were.  But it is no matter.  What I see is beautiful too. 

Suddenly, he saw in his mind this joyous realm as she perceived it; a vast, endless plain of gold under the roof of a clear blue sky.  And in the centre was a brilliant golden light; his light. 

Perhaps it is good that we cannot see our own true natures?  But I see you, Merry Brandybuck.  And that is why I love you.

The moment was fading, they were returning to the world of life and rumpled satin.  Merry, trembling from the aftershocks coursing through his body, gathered up his spent wife and drew her tight to his chest. 

He had no words that would not seem clumsy or inadequate after the meeting of their minds and he did not know what he should say if he did.  She did not see the power and majesty of the dark under the stars, did not know her own precious nature, but she saw him. 

Perhaps she saw him greater than he was, but he felt humbled and honoured by her vision.  She had painted such a grand picture, greater than a humble hobbit could ever aspire to, but even as she placed him on high shecould not see the wonder that was within herself.  It tore his heart.  She could not see!  Within his wife's being he had seen the dark under the stars of the world’s beginning.  Perhaps all women held, unrealized to themselves, some morsel of that power that brought the world into being, he did not know, but he did know what a treasure Estella was even if she did not realize it. 

It was a revelation he would need to think on and to ponder the meaning of her haunting words, but one course he had already decided: he would teach her to see those stars.  He would open her eyes and she would know the treasure that she was.  In the time that was left to them, he would find some way to teach her to know her own worth. 

“I think… I think I’m glad I took the Queen up on her offer.”  Estella was getting her breath back and the smile growing on her face warmed Merry’s heart.  She hadn’t looked so deliriously happy in a very long time.  He supposed he hadn’t either.

“What offer?  The coach?”

“She gave me a phial, said I was to take just a sip…”

The hairs on the back of Merry’s neck rose.  He thought of the strangely familiar flavour he had tasted on his wife’s lips. 

“She told me that it was given her in Imladris, by her grandfather, but I’ve already forgotten the strange sounding name.”

Merry shook his head.  It couldn’t be…

“It wouldn’t, perchance, have been miruvor, would it?”

Her glistening face brightened with recognition.  “Yes!  That was it!  You know of it?”

He chuckled and kissed her long and deeply.

“I do indeed,” he said.  “And I don’t think this night is quite over yet.”



The End

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