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The One that Didn't Get Away
Merry awakened to a tickling sensation in his ear. He started to slap it away, only to be answered by a giggle. He knew that giggle. With a moan, he pulled the pillow over his head and rolled away. Funny, he fancied he could still feel the tickle in his ear.
He felt the bed shift slightly, and then a weight landed on top of him, something about the weight of... a certain six-year-old cousin, perhaps. The weight commenced to wiggle and bounce, and someone was trying to pry the pillow out of his determined grasp.
In spite of himself, Merry began to laugh. He ought to be furious, to be rooted out of bed like a truffle discovered by a hog, but Pippin always made him laugh, somehow. He allowed the pillow to be thrust aside, and then a little voice whispered sibilantly in his ear. 'Merry! 'Tis time to get up! We're going fishing!'
Merry groaned, remembering his rash promise of the day before. 'I didn't say today...' he protested.
'Yes you did! When I asked you yesterday, you said...'
'I said we'd go fishing sometime!'
The bouncing commenced again. 'And that means today!' Pippin crowed softly, then clapped his hands to his mouth, eyes wide. He knew if anyone wakened, they would frown upon six-year-old Pippin going out into the dark, cold morning. They'd probably insist that he wait until the Sun rose from her bed and warmed the air a bit, and everyone knew that all the fish would have gone back to sleep by then!
Merry threw his arm over his eyes. Why did he do this to himself? He never could say no to his baby cousin. Well, almost never. They were going to get in trouble again, he just knew it.
Pippin saw the smile crease the corner of his cousin's mouth, and he knew he'd won. 'Come on, Merry!' he said. 'I've already packed our breakfast. Let's go before anyone else wakens.'
Merry understood the need for secrecy, and hauled himself out of the bed. He stuck a finger in his ear, trying to rub away the tickle, then gave it up. He'd give it a good wash later; today was bath day, after all. He quickly dressed, fetched his fishing gear from the corner, and the two crept from the Hall.
In the stables, whilst Merry saddled his pony, Pippin picked up the bag of worms he'd dug from the compost pile the day before, after winning the promise from Merry. He packed the worms in one saddlebag and their breakfast in the other.
To avoid too much noise, the lads led the pony across the yard, mounting only when they had gone beyond the paving stones. Merry felt Pippin giggling between his arms; he rested his chin in his cousin's curls and squeezed his legs against the pony's sides to move him into a smooth canter. The chill breeze of pre-dawn blew past them, and he shook his head in irritation as the tickle in his ear grew worse.
It took nearly an hour to reach the best fishing spot, a stretch of fast water emptying into a deep pool. Merry tied the pony, took off the saddle, got out the gear, just as the sky began to lighten. By the dim light, he baited Pippin's hook while his little cousin watched solemnly. 'Does it hurt?' he asked with a quaver in his voice.
'No, of course not,' Merry answered. 'It's just a worm, after all.'
'How d'you know?' Pippin wanted to know. 'Did you ever ask?'
'It doesn't hurt, Pip. Worms were put in the ground just for hobbits to use in fishing. That's what my father told me.'
Pippin nodded, reassured. Uncle Saradoc knew everything there was to know. Another question occurred to him. 'Who put them there, then?'
'Shhhhh,' Merry cautioned softly. 'You'll scare the fish!' He baited his own hook and helped Pippin cast his line. Then he helped Pippin cast his line again. Then he cut the tangled line, affixed another hook, and baited it for his cousin, who was perfectly willing to dig for worms but not so sure about impaling them.
Merry got a nibble, but was too busy minding Pippin's line to do any serious fishing. Besides, he was rather hoping his little cousin would have the first catch of the day, what a golden coin that would be for his treasure box of memories!
Pippin gave a sudden yell as his pole bent, the line taut. 'I've got one!' he yelped.
'Steady,' Merry said. 'Don't jerk the line, now, just a nice steady pull.' He put a hand on the line to help his cousin.
'It's heavy!' Pippin said excitedly. 'It must be a really big one!' Merry said nothing. It didn't feel right, not like a fighting fish at all...
Pippin kept up a steady pull, bringing in the line, until something dark broke the surface. His cheers stopped as he stared in puzzlement. 'What is it?' he said, more curious than disappointed.
Merry grabbed the line to pull in the catch. As soon as it was in his hands, he began to laugh.
'What is it, Merry?' Pippin repeated. 'What?' When Merry didn't answer quickly enough to suit him, he butted his head into Merry's chest.
'Och, don't do that!' Merry protested, sitting down suddenly.
'What did I catch, Merry?' Pippin persisted.
'It's... it's... an old boot!' Merry said, and began to laugh again.
'A what?' Pippin said. 'What's a boot?' He gazed at his catch, perplexed.
'You put it on your foot!' Merry gasped.
Pippin's eyes narrowed and a furrow appeared on his forehead. 'Whatever for?' he asked in disgust.
When Merry had regained enough breath, he explained how some Bucklanders used boots to protect their feet, when even tough hobbit feet might not be tough enough. Pippin looked skeptical, but was distracted by the rumbling of his stomach. 'I'm hungry!' he said suddenly.
'Fishing is hungry work,' Merry agreed. 'How about that breakfast?'
Pippin proudly brought out the bag. The sandwiches were stale, bread obviously cut the day before, cheese hard, and the butter scraped thin over too much bread, but Merry forced himself to down his portion with as much feigned enjoyment as he could muster. At least there were apples to help him choke the sandwich down. 'That... that was very good, cousin,' he said when they were finished, and Pippin preened.
'I wager you didn't know I could cook!' the six-year-old said.
'I surely didn't,' Merry said honestly. The sun was rising now, the sky a brilliant scarlet, Sun illuminating heavy-hanging clouds. 'Pip, I'm sorry to have to say this, but I think we ought to go back to the Hall now.'
'But we haven't caught any fish,' Pippin protested.
'No, we've caught something much better,' Merry said, when a sudden flash and boom scared them both to silence. 'It's thundering, Pip, we've got to go now.'
Another bright flash, accompanied by the loud tearing noise of lightning striking close by, and the pony screamed in fear, rearing, jerking its reins loose. Merry watched in dismay as it galloped up the path. Pippin was clinging to him, shaking, terrified, and he held his cousin close. 'It's all right, Pip, I won't let it hurt you,' he said over and over, until he began to believe it himself. The clouds opened, and the rain came down, hard and stinging. Pippin yelped, and Merry doffed his own cloak and wrapped it around his cousin for a double layer of protection. He was old enough to stand a little rain; he wouldn't melt, after all.
The rain was short but intense, and when it was over, Merry was soaked and shivering, but Pippin was relatively dry, well-protected by the double layer of oiled wool cloaks.
'What are we going to do now?' Pippin wanted to know.
'We are going to walk back towards the Hall,' Merry said. 'The pony, of course, will run back, and once they find you missing, they'll know you're with me, and...'
'And we're going to be in very-very-bad trouble,' Pippin said softly. As opposed to bad trouble or very-bad trouble...
'I think you have the right of it, cousin,' Merry said. 'No cake for tea today, I'm afraid.' He sighed in spite of himself. His mother had planned seedcake for tea, he knew, because it was Pippin's very favourite treat. He took his cloak back from Pippin and slung it about his shoulders, but it did not feel warming at all.
Merry picked up the saddle and Pippin got the fishing poles and saddle bags and they began the long trudge back to the Hall. What took an hour pony-back would be considerably longer afoot. Ah, well, the exercise would be warming, anyhow. Merry could not stop shivering, and the tickle in his ear was becoming steady discomfort.
'Did you happen to tell anyone we were going fishing?' he asked Pippin.
His little cousin shook his head. 'Of course not!' he said. 'What do you take me for, a fool? They wouldn't have let us go!' Merry sighed. He was afraid of that. When the pony came back riderless, they'd search, of course. But they wouldn't know which way to search. He wondered if they'd have to walk all the way back to the Hall; he was feeling worse by the moment.
They'd walked about an hour when he said, 'Pip? I think it might be good to take a rest now.'
'I'm not tired,' Pippin said stoutly.
'All right, cousin, but you don't want to get tired, either, and there's still a long way to go,' Merry said. He dropped the saddle and flopped onto the ground. In truth, he was feeling dizzy, and the vertigo made his stomach hurt, unless it was the sandwiches, and the pain in his ear was beginning to pound. It was the kind of pain he could not ignore, because it was inside his head, there was no getting away from it or trying to think of something else.
He opened his eyes at a plucking at his sleeve. 'Merry,' Pippin whispered. 'I have to go.'
'Go on in the bushes, then,' Merry answered. 'I'm not going to leave without you.'
Pippin went into the bushes until he couldn't see his cousin anymore, took care of business, and came back out again. He found Merry curled up on the ground, arms hugging his head.
'Merry!' he cried. 'Merry, what's wrong?' He tried to pull one of Merry's arms away, but Merry only groaned.
'Merry, tell me!' Pippin begged.
'My ear,' Merry managed to gasp. 'Someone's stuck a knife in my ear and he's twisting it cruel.'
Pippin looked around wildly, then grasped Merry's shoulder. 'I'll go for help!' he said desperately. He knew that all he had to do was follow the path and he'd end up back at the Hall.
Merry grabbed his wrist. 'No!' he gritted between his teeth. 'No, Pip, you mustn't wander by yourself, you might run into a fox.'
'I'm not afraid of a fox,' Pippin said bravely.
'You ought to be,' Merry said. 'A fox killed Meledoc last summer.' He'd been seven. Little hobbits weren't allowed to wander without larger brothers or cousins, but sometimes they forgot. 'You stay here,' he insisted. Another piercing pain struck and he grabbed his head. 'They'll find us soon,' he managed to gasp, then had to clamp his jaw against the nausea that accompanied the pain in his ear.
Pippin sat down and pulled Merry's head into his lap. 'How can I help?' he asked.
'Tell me a story,' Merry whispered. 'You're good at stories.'
Pippin thought for a moment. 'Two cousins went a-journey in the Wilds of Middle-earth upon a time; d'you remember their names, now?'
'Pippin,' Merry whispered.
'Yes, Pippin was one or them, and the other was...'
'Merry,' Merry said. The pain eased slightly, then came back with a vengeance. He felt Pippin softly rubbing at his head, back and shoulders by turn as the story continued.
Pippin spun a fantastic yarn of troll and dragon, wolves and eagles, gold and elves. Merry recognised elements of cousin Bilbo's stories, though his young cousin wove them into an entirely new tale. The adventurous cousins confounded a troll and found bright swords in the creature's treasure hoard, slew wicked spiders to save an elven prince, were flown by eagles over sharp-toothed mountains, befriended a talking wolf which rewarded them with gold for taking a thorn from its paw.
By the time the two intrepid lads were returning in triumph, having eluded a greedy dragon desiring their gold, Pippin heard ponies' feet on the path and yelled. He heard the ponies coming faster, and soon his father and his uncle and a number of cousins were gathered around them.
His Uncle Saradoc bent to them, face anxious. 'What's happened to Merry?' he asked.
Pippin shook his head. 'I don't know,' he said. 'He grabbed his head and won't let go.'
Saradoc gently tried to pry Merry's arms loose. 'Let me take a look, Son,' he said. Merry moaned and held tighter. 'Tell me what's wrong,' his father insisted. Merry mumbled something, and Saradoc nodded. 'His ear,' he said.
'Merimas had an earache last week,' Marmadas Brandybuck said. 'The insides burst and came out, 'twas that bad.'
'We've got to get him back to the Hall, get warm oil into that ear,' Paladin said. Saradoc nodded and lifted Merry from Pippin's lap, and Paladin picked up his own son.
'I told him stories,' Pippin said.
'I'm sure you did,' his father answered. 'You've a tongue hinged on both sides, you do.' They galloped back to the Hall at the ponies' best speed.
Although Pippin was barely damp, his mother and aunts insisted on soaking him in a hot tub, then wrapping him up well and putting smelly stuff on his chest and throat and tucking him up in bed with flannel wrapped heated bricks all 'round. They wouldn't let him go to Merry, which is what he really wanted, but they did give him some seedcake after all when teatime finally came.
They left one of the older aunts to sit with him through the night. He waited until she started to snore, then crept from the bed. Cautiously, he slipped from shadow to shadow until he reached Merry's room. Easing the door open, he saw his cousin, asleep, a wad of something white sticking from one of his ears.
He climbed softly onto the bed. 'Merry!' he hissed. He shook his cousin's shoulder until the other groaned. 'Merry!' he said again. His cousin opened one eye.
'What is it, Pippin?' he said sleepily.
'Merry, can we go fishing again tomorrow?'
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