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The Last Hour
The great Captains had debated and made their decision, and there was one last hour to pass before the muster of the Armies of the West. Merry was sitting on the edge of his too-large bed in his room in the Houses of Healing. He was only partially dressed: The buttons of his not-quite-the-right-size shirt were just too difficult to manage with one hand still feeling chilled and half asleep, and his arm ached with the effort. There were messy plates and cups and utensils stacked on the table beside the bed, leftover from the second breakfast he had shared with Pippin earlier that morning. He had managed to brush down the sleep-tousled hair on his head and feet, and wash his face one-handed, and the basin of water still sat on the deep, stone windowsill. The sun, dimmed nearly to invisibility by the Shadow that had crept out from the Black Land, was shining on it now, reflecting a faint and trembling patch of light high on the opposite wall.
There was a gentle rap on the wooden doorframe and Pippin looked in and smiled. He had something square and flat wrapped in a cloth under one arm, and a small leather bag clutched in one hand. "Gracious! Still not dressed?"
Merry tried to smile back in return. "Oh, these fool buttons just refuse to cooperate."
"And you never thought to call for someone to help, did you?" Pippin clucked. "Stubborn Brandybuck."
As solicitous as an old hobbit-auntie, Pippin put his things down on the bed, straightened Merry's uneven buttons, smoothed out his collar and stood back. "No waistcoat or topcoat, but I daresay this will do, and if you wear your Elf-cloak when you walk in the gardens today you should be warm enough. How do I look?"
Pippin stood back and struck a pose, and Merry looked him over with a critical eye. He looked exceedingly fine in his black and silver gear, bright helm polished and shining, black gauntlets folded and tucked into his belt, sword at his waist. "A prince among hobbits," Merry said, and he meant it. He gave the objects on the bed a gingerly poke with one finger. "What's all this?"
Pippin took off his helmet and set it on the floor, then climbed up on the bed and whisked the square flat thing out with a flourish. "Draughts!"* he announced, holding up the board. "I thought we might play a game or two, as we used to do back home to pass the time."
"You're a marvel!" Merry said. "I didn't know they knew of this game in Gondor."
"They do indeed," Pippin said, opening the bag and shaking out the pile of round chips. "Or least Bergil does-this is his board. I suppose only children play this game in Minas Tirith. Which do you want, white or black?"
Merry chose black, and he and Pippin bent to their work. It was quiet, or at least as quiet as Minas Tirith ever got, and for a long time there was no great sound except the rustle and click of the wooden chips as Merry and Pippin pushed them to and fro. Merry tried hard to focus and to forget the passing of time, but his arm hurt, and the bit of veiled sunlight, growing ever more pale and dim, moved relentlessly and cruelly down the wall as the sun rose higher into the Mordor-reek that lay over the City.
Pippin beat Merry handily two times in a row. "You're not concentrating, cousin," Pippin said. "I'm not used to winning this easily." He frowned and looked concerned. "Is your arm hurting you? We could stop and have a pipe or two, instead."
"No, no," Merry said. "It's not that bad." And it was true-the pain growing under his heart was greater, for once, than the ache in his arm, and a pipe would give him too much time to think. "Let's have one more game, at least."
Black to white, white to black. The noise of the great city grew outside. Merry's thoughts wandered, and he found himself simply watching Pippin's hands, studying his familiar and well-loved face as he deliberated over a move. Pippin took merciless advantage of Merry's inattention and soon had his last few chips outnumbered and outflanked.
"Be careful," Merry said.
"Hah!" Pippin said. "You should talk! I have you on the run, my lad." He glanced up to find Merry looking at him sadly, his face haunted and his eyes shadowed with the expectation of grief, and knew he wasn't thinking of the game at all.
"I mean it, Pippin," Merry said desperately. The Dark Land was a perilous place, and the battle to come was sure to be huge and terrible, and compared to the Enemy and the tall Men of Minas Tirith, Pippin was so small..."Let the Big Folk do the hard work. Don't be a hero."
"Merry!" Pippin exclaimed, somewhat shocked, but he tried to laugh a little. "My dear Merry, are you asking me to run away?"
Merry shook his head and looked down, and he couldn't speak. His hands were shaking, and Pippin took hold of them both and held them still.
"No, I know that's not what you mean," he said at last, gently, and Merry would always remember how much he had looked like Frodo at that moment: Grave and kind, old and somehow beautiful, a world away from his little Took cousin with the saucy grin and a face smeared with jam. "Nothing is certain, Merry. I'd be a greater fool than the average Took, and a liar as well, if I said I was not afraid. I know that we are all of us riding into deadly danger, and if Frodo doesn't manage what he set out to do, then there is little chance that any of us shall come back from the Black Gate. But I swear that no matter what happens, I shall do the best that I can, and I will fight as hard as I can, for as long as I can. For you, and Frodo and Sam. For the Shire. I'll make you proud, Merry."
"You already have," Merry said. "I only wish I could be there to stand beside you." Sorrow was like a lump of stone in his chest, choking off more words.
Pippin squeezed his hands. "I know."
They sat in silence for so long that when the horn-call for the muster came they both jumped, tipping the board between them and scattering the chips. "Botheration!" Pippin cried. "But this city seems to fairly run on bells and whistles! Why can't they simply have mantle clocks and pocket-watches to tell the time, like sensible folk?" He jumped down off the bed. Merry slid off more slowly.
They stood together a bit more, feeling uncertain. Pippin clasped Merry's hand. "Will you see me off?" he asked, sounding hesitant and painfully young, no more a grave old soldier of Minas Tirith but merely a lonely hobbit-lad far from home, and leaving behind the last thing he held most dear. "I mean, will you watch for me, from the walls? If you're feeling up to it."
"I'll be there," Merry said. "Bergil will stand with me and see that I don't fall."
"I'll look for you, then," Pippin sighed, and Merry saw some of the tension go out of him. "No doubt Bergil is with Beregond now. I'll send him up to you when I see him."
There was another long, unhappy pause as they stood and merely looked at each other. They feared to say farewell, as if to speak the word aloud would be to make it true for all time. They were both soldiers now, and Merry thought they had grown past the careless kisses and flying embraces of hobbit childhood, but now Pippin threw his arms around Merry's neck and kissed his cheek. He held him tight and Merry could feel his heart thudding in his chest, even through his mail-coat. He really is frightened, Merry realized as he put his good arm around him, and the thought pierced him like a sword, and he cried out loud from the pain of it.
"Do stop that, Merry, please," Pippin begged. "Or my mail will rust up tight as a drum and they shall have to saw me out of it."
Merry laughed through his tears. "Or we could set you up as a statue."
"Just what the city needs," Pippin laughed, too, though his face was wet. "A monument to a rusted hobbit!"
There were too many words left to say, and no more time to say them in. Pippin picked up his helm and tucked it under his arm. Merry closed his eyes, unable to bear the sight of Pippin leaving him through the tall doorway. From a distance, from the walls, he could bear it, but for now this second parting was too painful and too close, and Pippin understood. Merry felt him touch his shoulder and his arm was lifted; there was a breath of warmth across the knuckles of his cool right hand, and he knew that Pippin had pressed it to his lips before turning away.
Merry stood with his eyes closed and his head bowed for a long while. When he looked up again the room was empty, as terribly empty as if Pippin had never been, and the thought pained him so much that he gasped. He made his way to the edge of the bed and leaned against it, too weary and heartsick to climb up. The light from the window had almost entirely disappeared, and only a feeble, wintery glow fell on the gameboard and the pile of chips. Merry gathered them up slowly, one by one (they still held faintly the warmth of Pippin's hand,) and put them back in the leather bag, and began to wait.
*Oopsy, forgot to mention this: Draughts is merely an old-fashioned word for a very simple, very common boardgame-Checkers. And since I couldn't call the gamepieces 'checkers', I've called them 'chips'. Checkers, mantle clocks, pocket watches-Ah, I dearly love a good Tolkien-y anachronism:o)
A bit late in the day for this, but I've since added an illustration to this story-see it here:
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