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A New Kind of Courage  by Auntiemeesh

Chapter Twenty: Recovery
Beta provided by Pipspebble

Aragorn called on them early the next morning, and after a few pleasantries proceeded to examine Pippin thoroughly. Merry, feeling groggy and out of sorts, stayed wrapped up in his blankets. Heíd slept deeply for a few hours after the nightmare, but other dreams had come along later in the night and each time heíd awakened, Pippin had been at his side, soothing and comforting. He felt guilty now, seeing the shadows under his friendís eyes.

Shivering slightly at the memory of the dreams, Merry huddled deeper in his blankets. Head resting on his pillow, eyes following Aragornís movements without focus, he wasnít aware of falling asleep until he heard his name being gently spoken.

Sighing, he mumbled an inarticulate protest at being awakened.

"I know you are tired, Merry, but we should talk about last night." Aragorn sounded very serious.

Opening his eyes reluctantly, Merry blinked a few times to bring his vision into focus. Aragorn was looking at him with an expression of grave concern. Giving up on the idea of sleep, for now at any rate, he pushed himself up to a sitting position.

"I know," he admitted as he scrubbed his fingers through his hair, automatically turning to check on Pippin. His cousin had curled up under his blankets and appeared to be fast asleep.

Aragorn followed Merryís gaze. "He said that he was up most of the night, sitting with you. Heíll sleep for a little now, but I imagine heíll be up in time for second breakfast, at the latest." The kingís face softened as he looked at the young hobbit. "He is doing very well. He will need to go slowly and rest frequently for several days yet, but Iíve released him from healerís care. Iím relying on you to watch after him and make certain he does not overdo anything." Aragorn laughed, "Well, as much as you can, at any rate. I know how determined he can be."

Merry felt a rush of relief at this good news. "Then he is completely recovered from his injuries?"

"For the most part." Aragornís reply held a cautionary tone. "I meant it, when I said he needs to go slowly and not overexert himself. If he pushes himself too hard, he will find himself back in bed." He held Merryís gaze for a moment, then nodded as though some unspoken communication had passed between them.

"Enough about young Peregrin Took. It is you that I am more concerned about, today. Tell me of your dreams."

Haltingly, Merry described the nightmares heíd had. "I just felt so small and helpless, Aragorn."

"Small you may be, Meriadoc Brandybuck, but helpless you are not." Aragorn put his hands on Merryís shoulders, looking him in the eye. "And you are not even all that small, anymore."

Merry stared at the king, perplexed, as Aragorn continued. "You know youíve grown since drinking the Ent draughts but I donít suppose you realise what a change it truly is." The kingís lips quirked in an amused smile. "Youíll begin to understand what I mean when Frodo and Sam awaken. Which should happen very soon."

"What?" Merry scrambled up, shrugging out from under Aragornís hands. He jumped out of bed and began searching for the clothing heíd discarded the previous evening. "If they are waking I need to be there. Someone should be there"

Aragorn stopped Merryís frantic actions by calmly gathering up the hobbitís clothing and handing them to him. "Merry, they will not wake for several hours at least, and likely not until tomorrow. You do not need to rush about so. Once weíve finished our discussion and youíve eaten something, you may go visit with them for a short time, if Eomer has no need of your presence."

The kingís words helped Merry focus. One thing at a time, thatís what his father had always taught him, and it was as true here as it was back home. Taking a deep breath, he sat down on the edge of his cot, trying not to fidget with impatience, like a small hobbit-child - or like Pippin, come to that.

"Thatís better. Now, let me take a look at your arm. Pippin said it was hurting you last night." Aragorn took Merryís hand in his own, feeling the slight chill that remained in the fingers.

"Sometimes Pip says more than he ought," Merry growled, wanting nothing so much as to be done here, so he could go to Frodo and Sam.

"Sometimes Pippin says exactly what he should," Aragorn countered. "I know you are impatient, Merry, but kindly do not be foolish."

The words had an edge to them that Merry wasnít accustomed to hearing in Aragornís voice and he looked up in surprise, before reddening in embarrassment.

Seemingly content that his admonishment had been taken to heart, Aragorn continued. "Good. Now, can you tell me if there was anything different about this dream you had last night, anything to set it apart from the other dreams youíve had lately, the ones that are just normal nightmares?"

It took only a heartbeat for the implications of that statement to register with Merry. "In other words, this was not just an ordinary nightmare, was it?"

Aragorn didnít reply, simply waited for Merry to answer the question. Muttering something about the inscrutability of kings in general and this one in particular, Merry cast back in his mind to find an answer.

"There was a different quality to the darkness," he finally murmured, almost to himself. "Itís almost always dark in my nightmares, but this one had a different feel to it." He furrowed his brow as he tried to isolate the difference. "Itís as though, in my ... ordinary ... nightmares, the darkness is something that clouds my eyes, but in these other ones, the Shadow touched dreams, the darkness is inside me, something that clouds my whole being, whether there is light to see by or not."

He shivered, suddenly wishing heíd gotten dressed before finishing this conversation. A thin nightshirt did not provide nearly as much protection as he felt he needed.

"Very good, Merry." Aragorn smiled at him approvingly. Standing up, he moved away from Merry to the brazier. Following him with his eyes, Merry became aware that the kettle had been set to heat, and was now steaming cheerfully away. Aragorn crumbled some leaves into a pot and then filled the pot with boiling water.

"Iíll just let that steep for a bit, while you get dressed, then Iíll make you some tea to drink with breakfast." Aragorn came back to Merryís side and settled onto the low cot. "You are right in thinking this was not an ordinary nightmare. The coldness in your arm is enough to tell me that, without anything else. It was a very light touch, however, and the Shadow was unable to take hold, this time."

Merry felt somewhat reassured by Aragornís calm certainty. He had concerns, though, which he voiced as he pulled his shirt and breeches on. "All right, so I should be able to distinguish between a Shadow-touched dream and a regular nightmare, but that doesnít stop them from coming, or help me fight them. I wonít always be able to come to you to make things right." He felt a tickle of fear in his stomach. "When we return to the Shire, Iíll be helpless against the Shadow."

"Do you really think I would send you off, defenceless against this sort of threat?" Aragorn looked hurt that Merry could possibly think this of him.

"Itís not that I think you would send me away, itís that when the others go, I must go with them. I cannot spend the rest of my life in Minas Tirith, lurking on your doorstep or living a half-life in the Houses of Healing." Merryís lip trembled slightly as he said this. He was only just now realising what the consequences of this Shadow might be for him. The thought of not being able to return home with the others was too painful to be borne.

"Oh, Merry, you are not going to have to spend your life in Minas Tirith, although you are most welcome to Ďlurk on my doorstepí for as long as you wish."

Before he knew what was happening, Aragorn had knelt down in front of Merry and wrapped strong arms about him, enfolding him in a warm and gentle embrace. Exhaling softly, Merry rested his forehead on Aragornís shoulder, forcing himself to relax.

After several minutes, he pulled back. "Itís just...I feel so out of control, and it frightens me. How can I take care of Pip and the others when I fall to pieces every time I have a stupid dream?"

Merry waited for Aragorn to give him the standard lecture about not needing to take care of everyone else all the time, but rather surprisingly, the king let that pass by without a word.

"You are right. This is very much outside of your control just at the moment, but that is what we are going to change." Aragorn stood and moved to the brazier, making the promised tea. "Youíve made a good start. You know what the Shadow dreams feel like, you are starting to be able to identify them on your own. The next step is to be aware of your dreams as you dream them. When you have a dream that is Shadow-touched, you need to fight it, conjure up light and joy to combat the Shadow that would suffocate you. I think also that having a loved one, one who knows what is happening, at your side helps you fight the Shadow."

They continued to talk as Merry drank his tea. Aragorn instructed him on how to become more aware of his dreams, warning that it would not be easy and would require much practice.

"Now, I have some things I must see to and you must hurry if you wish not to be late to your duties."

Merry merely nodded, deep in thought and not really aware of what Aragorn had just said. A moment later he jumped up, aghast, as he realized how rude he must have seemed. Aragorn was gone and Pippin was beginning to stir. Flinging the rest of his uniform on rather carelessly, he was almost out of the tent when he heard a sleepy murmur from Pippinís cot.

"Mer, síeverythiní all right?" One green eye poked out from under the blanket, squinting to see against the light coming in through the tent flap.

"Everything is fine, Pip," Merry hastened to reassure him. "Iím just running a bit late this morning. We can talk more when I get back."

Pippin murmured something indistinct and rolled over. Merry smiled to himself, knowing Pippin would most likely sleep another hour or two, recovering from a long night of sitting in vigilance. Not wanting to be any later than he already was, he turned and hurried from the tent.

The king of Rohanís tent was bustling with activity when Merry arrived. For a moment, he was reminded of a hive of very angry bees. It took only a moment to see that despite the hustle, the mood was one of anticipation and excitement, rather than anger. Curious to know what was happening, Merry presented himself to Eomer for duty.

He found the king at the center of the whirlwind. "Ah, good morning, Merry." The greeting, while perfunctory, was warmly spoken. "Iím glad you are here, we have much to do today."

It seemed that a feast was planned for the following afternoon, celebrating the great deeds and recovery of the Ringbearers. Merry was kept busy for several hours carrying messages and summons to all parts of the camp. Although he very much wanted to go see Frodo and Sam, and make sure they wouldnít wake alone, he found himself grateful for the lack of time to think. He had a lot to ponder after his conversation with Aragorn that morning, and he knew that if heíd gone straight to the beech grove, he would have spent the visit brooding over his problems.

Lunch was a hurried affair, with Merry munching on bread and cheese between errands, and his stomach was beginning to protest rather loudly as he returned to Eomerís tent after delivering a message to the prince of Dol Amroth. His stomach gave a particularly loud grumble just as he was handing the princeís reply over to Eomer, and he flushed in embarrassment.

Eomer laughed. "It seems you must be allowed time for a decent meal, Master Holdwine or the grumbling of your stomach will drown out my words." He held up a hand to forestall Merryís protest. "Go. I release you from your service for today. Return at your usual time tomorrow. I will look to see you then."

Bidding Eomer thanks and farewell, Merry debated whether he should go straight to the kitchens or return to his tent first to see if Pippin would like to accompany him. Now that his cousin was free of restrictions, he would be in need of a tour of the camp, and what better place to start than the food service areas? Mind made up, he set his course for the tent.

When he arrived, however, he found that Pippin was already out and about. He felt disgruntled for a moment, but then laughed at himself for assuming Pippin would sit quietly in the tent all morning, waiting for him to return. Of course he was out and about, it was his first day of good health and freedom. He would certainly be taking advantage of it. Chuckling at himself, and suppressing the twinge of loneliness that would rise up despite his best intentions, Merry made his way to the kitchens, intent on getting a late meal to appease his belly.

Forty-five minutes later, having eaten well and soothed the savage beast that was his stomach, he went to visit Frodo and Sam. It was a mild day and nearly all the cloths enclosing the beech grove had been pulled back, leaving only one, angled to prevent too much sun from shining on the sleeping hobbits. As he entered the grove, Merry found Legolas and Pippin playing a game of draughts. Pippin had a look of deep concentration on his face as his hand hovered over the board, finally grunting in frustration and moving a piece. Merry could tell immediately that it had been the wrong move, but then, Pippin had never been the one for games of strategy. He had always preferred riddles and games of verbal logic. There, he outshone the rest of them even on his worst days.

The game was soon over, as Legolas quickly cleared the board of Pippinís remaining pieces. Seemingly unperturbed over the loss, Pippin looked up with a sunny expression. "Did Aragorn tell you, Merry?" he asked excitedly. "Heís declared me recovered. Iím allowed to come and go as I please."

"Yes, he did." Merry bit back a smile. "He also said you were to take it easy and rest often so as not to become sick again."

A slight grimace passed over the younger hobbitís face, quickly replaced by another grin. "And he also said that Frodo and Sam would be waking soon. Tomorrow morning, most likely." Pippinís eyes drifted toward Frodo and Sam as he spoke, a wealth of love in his expression.

This time Merry did smile. He shared Pippinís joy that their friends were nearly recovered. He moved to stand by the bed, studying the features of the sleeping hobbits, as he did each time he visited. They really did look much better than they had a week ago. Merry didnít understand how it had come about, but they had both gained a bit of weight. Not much, to be sure, but enough that they didnít look so horribly gaunt as they had when heíd first arrived. Frodoís hand would likely be bandaged for some time still, but the rest of their wounds were healing nicely, although they would both bear the scars of their experience for the rest of their lives, as would he and Pippin.

Merry felt the moisture gathering in his eyes and fiercely suppressed the tears. He would not cry over them again, not now when they were doing so well. Clearing his throat harshly, he turned back to Pippin and Legolas.

"Has Legolas given you a tour of the camp, yet?"

"I was hoping you would do that," Pippin answered, seeming just a trifle hesitant. "I know youíre very busy with your duties and everything, so I donít mind waiting."

Merry felt the tension leave his shoulders as he smiled at his cousin. He hadnít realised how much he wanted to be the one to show Pippin around until Pippin had spoken. "Iím free for the rest of the afternoon, so why donít we go now. If youíd like, we can start with the kitchens and go from there."

The two hobbits had a pleasant afternoon, strolling through the camp, taking their time. Merry kept a close eye on Pippin to make sure he wasnít getting too tired. They took frequent rests, nibbling on fruit or cheese - theyíd taken some food from the kitchen to munch on while they walked - and sharing the exuberance they both felt. Suddenly, Merry became aware of a certain glint in Pippinís eyes. One he hadnít seen in a long while. Not since Rivendell, he supposed.

"What are you plotting, Peregrin Took?" he asked suspiciously.

The twinkle was quickly extinguished as Pippin put on his most innocent face before replying. "Iím sure I donít know what you are talking about, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and itís a fine thing, I must say, to be suspected of plotting by my own dear cousin."

Merry laughed with joy to see that oh-so-innocent expression on his young cousinís face. "Oh, aye. I donít know what I was thinking. I should know that you are far too mature and grown-up now to be plotting mischief like a mere tweenager."

Pippin simply grinned and stuck his tongue out at his cousin, before jumping up and declaring he wanted to meet the pony Faramir had given Merry. "You named her Hanna?" he asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "Imagine naming a pony after your three-times great grandmother!"

"Yes, well, I was feeling lonely." Merry reddened slightly. "I thought about naming her after you, but she is far too pretty and sweet-tempered to be saddled with such a name."

"Oi!" Pippin gave Merry a good shove for that dig, and Merry was pleased to feel the strength behind the move. Continuing to push and shove at each other, they made their way to the horse pickets. Moving carefully among the large beasts, they found little Hanna at the far end of one of the rows.

Merry pulled an apple out of his pocket and offered it to the pony. Heíd been neglecting her, he supposed, so busy worrying about his cousins and Sam, but it seemed sheíd been receiving good care. Making a mental note to be sure and take a more active role in her care from here on out, he stroked her neck and spoke softly to her for several minutes before they moved on. Pippin was beginning to tire and Merry steered them back in the direction of their tent.

"I think Iíll take a bit of a nap, if you donít mind," he said as they entered the dimness of the tent. "I wasnít able to sleep in this morning, as you did, and Iím feeling rather worn out." This was entirely true, and he was most happy to be able to shuck off his livery and crawl into his cot. He stayed awake just long enough to make sure Pippin was following suit before closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep.

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