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A New Kind of Courage  by Auntiemeesh

Chapter fourteen: Relapse
Beta provided by Pipspebble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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