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Chapter Fifteen: One Step at a Time
Over the course of the next several days, Merry fell into the routine of speaking with Aragorn for a few minutes each morning, talking about any dreams he’d had and the feelings they’d evoked in him. It was difficult at first, with Merry fighting against the fear that the Shadow might rise up at any moment and claim him. He found, to his surprise, that the more he talked about the dreams and fears he had, the less purchase the Shadow could find in his heart and mind.
The day after Pippin’s bath, Aragorn decided the young hobbit was recovered enough to take a few steps about the tent. Under the King’s keen eyed watch, Pippin carefully levered himself off the cot and allowed his feet to touch the ground for the first time since his fight with the troll had left him crushed and near death on the battlefield.
"Go very slowly, Pippin," Aragorn cautioned. "Your body is not as strong as you remember it being, so it cannot yet do all of the things you assume it can do."
Pippin nodded, standing slowly and leaning heavily on Merry. The older hobbit could feel the trembling of his cousin’s muscles as he supported him.
"There you go, Pip. That’s not so hard, is it?" he murmured encouragingly. Pippin didn’t answer. He looked pale and was biting his lower lip. Despite this, he pulled himself up until he was standing almost straight, and took his hand off Merry’s shoulder.
He took one step and wavered, but regained his balance before he could fall. "I’m fine," he muttered as both Merry and Aragorn reflexively moved in to catch him.
Merry forced himself to step back, knowing Pippin was determined to do this on his own. He held his breath as he watched his cousin take three or four more steps, swaying alarmingly with each movement. The problem, Merry knew, was not in Pippin’s legs. It was the head wound, which still caused him to get dizzy when he moved around too much.
Pippin moaned suddenly, turning white and buckling at the knees. Merry moved quickly to catch him but Aragorn was faster and had the injured hobbit in his arms before he could fall. Ignoring Pippin’s protests that he was fine, the King carried his patient back to his bed, resting him against the pillows Merry placed behind his back.
"You did very well, Pippin." Aragorn smiled at the exhausted hobbit. "Do not feel discouraged. It will take time to get back to normal, but you are making good progress. Rest for a little while. After lunch, I have a surprise for you."
Merry watched quietly, amused by Aragorn’s handling of his cousin. Somewhere along the way, the King had learned something about hobbits, or at least about Pippin. The combination of ‘lunch’ and ‘surprise’ in one sentence had overcome any inclination he might have been tempted to make about feeling discouraged.
"D’you hear that, Merry?" Pippin asked after Aragorn exited the tent. "Aragorn has a surprise for me. I wonder what it could be?" Pippin grinned up at his cousin, although he was a bit breathless and still too pale for Merry’s comfort.
Merry tried to look as innocent and unknowing as possible. "I’m sure I couldn’t say, Pip. Maybe he’s found you a nice new head. The one you’re using currently seems to be a bit broken."
"Don’t try any of that nonsense on me, Merry," Pippin retorted. "You’re a terrible liar. Of course you know what Aragorn’s surprise is. Well, fine. You can keep your little secret if you like. I shall know soon enough, anyway." He yawned widely, belatedly covering his mouth with a hand that trembled slightly from his earlier exertion.
"Go to sleep, Pippin." Merry watched as his companion’s eyes drifted shut and his breathing evened out. Pippin’s color was already returning and Merry was reassured that he had taken no harm from the morning’s activity.
Merry felt no inclination to rest, himself. He had slept long and deeply the night before, with no dreams that he could remember, and woke feeling rested and strong, ready for whatever might come that day. Now he felt restless. He had no purpose, no job to keep him occupied and the hours stretched ahead alarmingly. He still felt the need to keep busy, so that he did not have too much time for thinking and brooding.
Well, he reasoned, he only needed to occupy himself for a few hours, until lunch. Then he would spend the afternoon keeping Pippin entertained. One thing he could do was visit with Frodo and Sam for a little while. He knew that his friends would be sleeping but it helped him to look upon them and talk to them, to know that they were alive and recovering, even if talking to them did them no good. It did no harm, at any rate, as Aragorn and Gandalf had both assured him.
With this destination in mind, he snagged a piece of fruit off the breakfast tray and headed out, biting into the fresh, juicy apple. Just outside the tent he found the young soldier who’d helped Aragorn with the tub and water yesterday.
"Hullo, Marek," he greeted the young man.
"G...good morning, s..sir," the soldier stuttered, turning red.
"It’s just Merry," he corrected, bowing and introducing himself properly, "Meriadoc Brandybuck, at your service and your family’s." This seemed to make the lad even more uncomfortable, as he mumbled something under his breath that Merry didn’t quite catch. He stared up at the tall soldier speculatively for a moment. Close up, he noted how young this lad was. It was difficult to judge exactly, because Men seemed to age a bit differently than hobbits, but he doubted Marek was yet twenty. Which, if he understood Man terms correctly, put him at about the same age as Pippin. He, like Pippin, had a look in his eye that said he’d seen more than he should and would never be the same for it.
"I would ask a favour of you, if I may," Merry began. When Marek nodded, he continued, "My friend, Pippin, is sleeping. If he wakes while I am gone, would you please tell him I will return before luncheon?"
"Of course, sir...Merry," the lad answered, bobbing his head and straightening to attention.
Thanking him, Merry moved on, making his way to the beech grove. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky today, yesterday’s clouds having blown away in the night. The sun’s rays were warm but a brisk breeze blew in from the north and Merry was beginning to wish he’d brought his cloak with him. Once in the shelter of the trees, however, the breeze was buffered and the air felt warm and welcoming. In the clearing amongst the beeches, Merry found that the gauzy fabric overhead had been pulled back to leave the clearing open to the sky.
Inside, he found Gandalf smoking his pipe and blowing fanciful smoke rings. Merry watched, enchanted, as the wizard puffed out his cheeks and blew his smoke into the shape of an eagle, wings spread wide as he soared on an unfelt wind.
"You know, Gandalf," Merry commented, "if you ever decide to give up the wizarding business, you could move to the Shire and earn a living just blowing smoke rings at the inns. I’m sure the folks at the Green Dragon would pay good money to see that. Not to mention the wagers that would be going on."
"I will keep that in mind, Merry," the old wizard replied, "if I ever decide to give up the ‘wizarding business’ as you put it." Gandalf smiled warmly. "How are you feeling today, my friend?"
"Well, but restless." Merry decided to explain his problem to Gandalf. Maybe he would have a solution. "I have very little to do, and I’m finding it difficult to keep busy. Pippin refuses to let me ‘hover over him’ as he says, and there doesn’t seem to be much else that I’m suited for, here." He didn’t mention how much harder it was to keep the Shadow at bay when he had too much time for brooding, but he suspected that Gandalf understood.
Gandalf looked long at the hobbit, chewing on his pipe stem. "Hm, I may have a thought or two, but I need to think on them a bit longer. Fear not," he said, kindly, "I will find something to help you occupy yourself. For the moment, you can keep busy by visiting with Frodo and Sam. I have some things I must see to, if you would be kind enough to stay with them a short time?"
"Of course, Gandalf." Merry was happy to oblige. "I’ll just sit here and tell them some stories of our travels."
Nodding, Gandalf stood and left the glade. Merry looked at the chair Gandalf had occupied and thought about pulling it closer to the bed. In the end, he decided it would be simpler to just climb up and sit between Frodo and Sam. Moving carefully, so as not to jostle either sleeping hobbit, Merry situated himself comfortably.
"I’m sure the two of you have seen any number of strange things on your journey," he began, "but I would be willing to bet that neither of you saw a talking tree." He spent the next hour or so telling the sleeping hobbits tales of his and Pippin’s adventures, keeping his tone light and his words casual.
"That Ent draught made us grow several inches, Frodo. You won’t believe it when you see us. We might be the tallest hobbits in the Shire, by the time we get back home." The sun moved overhead as he spoke, shining down on the bed full strength. Merry thought about getting up to pull the fabric across the clearing but quickly realized that he could never reach it. It would have to wait for someone taller to return. In the meantime, the warmth was making him drowsy.
"I’d have a good smoke, if I’d thought to bring my pipe," he murmured quietly. Failing the pipe, he thought about nibbling on something. There was a bowl of fruit in a basket beside the bed, but after a bit of debate decided to leave it for now. He was far too comfortable as he was to climb out of the bed for a nibble.
"Faramir said he encountered you somewhere near here," he continued. "I wonder if you saw this grove of trees then. It’s a beautiful spot. It seems restful on the heart as much as the body, if you know what I mean." He chuckled, feeling a bit self-conscious even though there was no one around to hear him. "Anyway, you’ll both fall in love with it when you wake up. I want to explore this whole area with you, when you awake. Legolas says there are some remarkable natural formations here. I think he would like to explore, as well, but he has been far too busy, being nursemaid to all of us."
Merry fell silent, watching the leaves sway and dance in the slight breeze. It was hypnotic, catching and holding his attention. He never noticed when his eyelids grew heavy and slid together, thoughts stilling as he fell into sleep.
He woke some time later, groggy and disoriented, to the sound of someone calling his name. Blinking against the fog in his brain, he tried to focus both his thoughts and his vision, with limited success.
"Pippin’s been awake for nearly half an hour, Merry," a deep voice spoke from somewhere above. "It’s almost luncheon and he’s beginning to wonder where you are." It took Merry a moment to understand that the voice was coming from the figure leaning over him.
"What?" he muttered, still mostly asleep, but as he continued to blink, the figure gradually resolved itself into a dwarf. "I’m sorry, Gimli," he mumbled thickly, trying to gather his wits. "I must have fallen asleep,"
Gimli smiled wryly. "Aye, I suppose you must have. Come on, now, lad. Young Peregrin is wanting you."
"Well then," Merry replied, finally starting to wake up, "I shouldn’t keep him waiting. I shouldn’t keep luncheon waiting either, for that matter." He grinned and carefully disentangled himself from the other sleeping occupants of the bed. "Thank you, Gimli." Standing, he took a moment to work the kinks out of his neck and back, before returning to his Pippin entertaining duties.
At the entrance of his and Pippin’s tent, he paused, shamelessly eavesdropping on his cousin.
"Are you sure I can’t eat at the table today?" Pippin was asking, a wistful tone in his voice.
"Pippin," came Aragorn’s exasperated reply, "you nearly passed out after taking five steps this morning. You are not ready yet." There was a pause, during which Merry could hear the rustle of bedding. "I do understand your frustration, Pippin," Aragorn continued. "But you must allow yourself time to heal. Pushing yourself is good, but pushing too hard will only cause you to hurt yourself further."
It seemed Pippin was having a bad moment, and doubtless the King had other things to do than amuse a bored and frustrated hobbit. Pushing the flap to one side, Merry slipped into the tent.
"Right," he announced. "I was told luncheon was being served, but oddly enough, I don’t see a single crumb. Honestly Pippin, couldn’t you have saved me a little bit?" He turned to the other hobbit, feigning an injured expression. "After all we’ve been through together, I would have thought it was the least you could do."
"Sorry, Mer," Pippin responded with mock concern, his battle with Aragorn forgotten or at least temporarily put on hold. "I thought since you didn’t show up, that meant you weren’t hungry. In which case, your food would have simply gone to waste, and I couldn’t let that happen."
Aragorn sent Merry a grateful look before turning back to Pippin. "Now that Merry has arrived, it is time to tell you of the surprise I mentioned this morning."
Pippin, set to continue the game with Merry, closed his mouth with an audible snap and returned his full attention to Aragorn, who smiled down at him as he spoke.
"After you eat, I thought you might enjoy spending some time outside. There is a nice little stream not far from here that Legolas showed your cousin yesterday. Merry thinks it would an ideal place for you to lie in the sun and get some fresh air."
"That sounds lovely," Pippin sighed. "I would do almost anything to get out of this tent for a little while."
"I’ll remember that tomorrow," Aragorn laughed, "when it’s time for you to practice your walking skills again. Ah, here’s your lunch," he continued as the tent flap opened again, revealing an aide with a laden tray. "Enjoy your repast, both of you. I have a few things to attend to, but will return shortly. When I get back, I want to find this tray empty and you resting, Pippin." Sending the younger hobbit a stern look and resting his hand on Merry’s shoulder briefly, he left them alone with their food.
"What do you think of the surprise, then?" Merry asked as he filled plates for the two of them.
"Oh, I don’t know," Pippin replied coolly. "I would have preferred a new roommate. The one I have now snores something awful. Still, I suppose it will have to do."
Merry threw a roll at his cousin, who caught it midair and took a bite, grinning smugly. Merry sighed. It was going to be a long afternoon.
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