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A New Kind of Courage  by Auntiemeesh

Chapter Twenty-One: The Feast
Betaed by Pipspebble

Merry hurried through the camp, pausing just outside Eomer’s tent to catch his breath and compose himself before entering. Presenting himself to Eomer, he stood as straight and tall as he could. "Everything is well in hand in the kitchens, lord. Is there anything else you need of me?"

"Thank you, Merry, that is all," Eomer smiled at his smallest knight. "I would, however, be very much honoured if you would stand at my side during the feast this afternoon."

"Of course, lord. The honour is all mine." Merry bowed deeply before taking his leave. He headed towards Aragorn’s tent, hoping to find Pippin there. His cousin had been summoned by the king of Gondor early that morning, and Merry had not seen him since, but then, he’d been too busy to look for him, really.

He was surprised, then, to find Pippin standing just outside Aragorn’s tent, wearing his formal livery. "Hullo, Pip. You’re looking rather fancy this morning!"

Pippin grinned. "Aragorn – King Aragorn, I should say – has reinstated me into the Guard. He’s made me a knight of Gondor." His eyes glowed with pride and excitement as he made this announcement.

"Well, of course he has, you fool of a Took." Merry grinned back at his cousin. "Have you been released for lunch, yet?"

"Just now. He said you’d be by soon." Pippin shook his head. "How does he do it, Merry? He seems to know everything that’s happening."

"I don’t know. Part of being a king, I suppose. Eomer seems the same way sometimes, though not quite as grand, if you know what I mean. Come, you can tell me all about it while we eat. I’m guessing you’re to serve Aragorn at the feast, yes?"

Pippin beamed, standing tall and proud. "I am, thank you very much!" His smile faded as he looked at his cousin with determination writ large in his face. "I want to see them, Merry. Aragorn says Frodo woke up briefly, several hours ago, but Sam is still sleeping. I don’t want to wait any longer. I want to go in there right now and wake them up and tell them off for leaving us the way they did. And then hold them close and never let them out of my sight again."

"I know, Pip. I feel the same way, but we just have to be patient. Let the Big People praise them and feast them, and then we can spirit them off and have a good heart to heart." It was good advice, and Merry wished he could accept it as easily as he gave it. It was hard having to wait, and standing at Eomer’s side during the feast guaranteed that he wouldn’t get a chance to do more than give a passing greeting, if that. Still, he’d waited weeks and weeks for this reunion and he supposed a few more hours wouldn’t kill him.

Pushing these thoughts aside, he followed Pippin to the kitchen area. It was still an hour or so before noon, and the cooking staff had been far too busy with the feast to worry about much in the way of lunch, but they’d set up a table with stew, bread, cheese and fruit. Soon the two hobbits had helped themselves to a satisfactory amount of food and wandered off in search of a quiet corner where they could eat in peace, without danger of being trod on.

They took their time, eating unhurriedly and talking quietly. Pippin described his meeting with Aragorn that morning.

"I don’t know where he got this livery from, but it’s not the uniform I had before. It fits perfectly, wherever it came from." He paused a moment to preen in his fine new clothes and Merry laughed at him. Pippin glared at his cousin before joining in the laughter. "You’re just jealous, Meriadoc, because I have fancy new clothes and you have to wear those same sadly mended things you’ve been wearing for weeks now."

It was nearing noon when they finished eating. Both hobbits sensed it was time to move. Standing up and dusting the crumbs off their uniforms, they hurried to the large open field between the camp and the river. All of the knights of Rohan and Guardsmen of Gondor were lined up, waiting for the Ringbearers to make an appearance.

Merry and Pippin split up, each finding the group to which he belonged. It took Merry only a few minutes to find Elfhelm’s eored and he was soon standing with the other Rohirrim. He quickly realised the disadvantage of his position. Surrounded as he was by the tall horsemen, he could see nothing but the backs and legs of his companions. Suddenly, the soldiers on every side were unsheathing swords, shaking their spears and chanting praise to the halflings. Silently cursing his inability to see farther than the man in front of him, Merry nonetheless drew his own sword and joined the chanting.

After a time, everyone quieted and Merry could hear Aragorn’s voice, introducing Frodo and Sam to the gathered armies. Then, in a clear voice that could be heard over all the incidental sounds of several thousand men gathered in one place, a minstrel began to sing the lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom. *

Tears flowed freely down Merry’s cheeks as the minstrel sang, and for once, he made no effort to check them. There was not a dry eye in the company and Merry felt his heart would break, for the pain Frodo and Sam had suffered, and also for the love and honour being shown them now.

At long last, the song ended and the host was dismissed to the pavilions that had been set up for the feast. Merry followed his companions, knowing there was little point in trying to push his own way through the throng. Once at the pavilions, he headed for the serving area, where he found Pippin.

"We’re to serve the wine to King Aragorn and Eomer King, Merry," Pippin announced as his friend came up. "Once they’ve observed the Standing Silence, we’ll go in with the other wine stewards. Then we’ll be expected to stand by and watch everyone else eat, I fear." Pippin grimaced and Merry frowned as well. It was a hard thing for a hobbit, being made to watch and serve while others ate.

"Were you able to see anything?" he asked Pippin curiously, pushing away thoughts of his empty stomach.

"No, my company was well towards the back, despite being in the front lines during the battle. Doesn’t seem fair, does it, Merry? Beregond was able to make it, though. He looked a bit pale but he was there."

Pippin had taken Merry to see Beregond the previous evening and had found the Gondorian soldier recuperating from his wounds. The tall Man was still weak but his injuries were healing well and he’d been very pleased, indeed, to see Pippin and Merry. They’d spent nearly an hour chatting before Beregond had tired.

A horn sounded and everyone stood and faced West for a long, silent moment. Another blast of the horn signalled the start of the feast. Merry looked critically at Pippin as they hoisted their wine flagons. His cousin looked well enough, but Merry determined to keep a close eye on him this afternoon. It wouldn’t do for Pippin to overexert himself and collapse so soon after being allowed up.

Carrying their flagons of wine, they started across the greensward toward the Kings’ Table. Looking up, Merry saw that Frodo and Sam had joined the rest of the Fellowship at the table, and he nearly faltered for a moment. He saw more than heard Sam saying something to Frodo, and Pippin responding, but he was at the far end of the table and could not make out the words. Forcing his attention back to the job at hand, he carefully filled Eomer’s glass and then stepped back to wait upon his lord.

The feast wore on, and as Pippin had predicted, they were forced to stand and watch the others eat, which gave Merry plenty of opportunity to study his friends. Though Pippin seemed to be holding up well under the strain of serving Aragorn, the feast was not yet half over when he was relieved of duty and ordered to find a place to sit down and have something to eat. Knowing Pippin would never disobey a direct order from the king, Aragorn’s directive eased Merry’s concern a great deal.

Frodo and Sam were another matter altogether. Neither of them ate as much as Merry would have liked, though he reasoned that was only natural as they hadn’t eaten anything solid in longer than he cared to think about. It would doubtless take a little while to accustom their stomachs to real food again. They seemed in reasonably good spirits but they both looked a bit overwhelmed by everything.

Merry suddenly became aware of just how hungry and tired he was. He’d eaten nothing since the hour before noon and it was now nearly dusk. He wondered dismally if he would have the energy to eat by the time he was dismissed for the evening, or even if there would be any food left to eat. Something of his worry must have shown itself in his face or posture, for at that moment Eomer looked up sharply and addressed the hobbit.

"Merry! I’m terribly sorry. You must be exhausted. Please, sit and join us for what is left of the meal." The king pulled forth a chair for his esquire and made certain that a server brought Merry a heaping plate of food and a glass of wine before returning his attention to the conversation between Aragorn and Prince Imrahil.

Merry sighed in relief and tucked in, for some time allowing the conversation to wash over him without paying it any heed. When he finally looked up, he found Frodo watching him in concern. "Are you all right, Merry?" his cousin asked softly. Merry didn’t think anyone else heard Frodo, but Sam and Pippin both looked up at him questioningly.

Merry wondered what the others saw in his face to prompt such concern and hastily nodded. "I’m fine, Frodo." He grinned then, rather mischievously. "But since Pippin and I did all the serving, I think we’ll leave the washing up to you and Sam, if you don’t mind. I’m sure you’re up for it, after that nice, long nap you both took."

"In that case," Frodo looked across the pavilion at the very large host gathered there, "I suppose we’ll be ready to join you for a pipe and a chance to catch up in about oh, a week, I’d say."

"Well in that case, I suppose we can find someone else to do it, just this once." The hobbits all laughed, more for the sheer joy of being together and well again than for the rather feeble joke. Soon thereafter, as the last dim rays of the sun disappeared in the west, the hobbits slipped away from the pavilion and went in search of a quiet place to sit and talk.

They ambled slowly across the sward and under the sheltering canopy of the trees until eventually they found a spot that suited them. They halted and just stood looking at each other for a good long moment. Overhead, the moon, large and round, shone through shadowy leaves that fluttered in the gentle evening breeze.

As if upon a silent command, the four hobbits came together, laughing and crying and holding on to one another as if they would never let go. With the contact, Merry felt an easing of the tension he hadn’t realized until now he’d carried in him, and he sighed at the relief of it all. It had been far too public at the feast and they’d all had to constrain their elation at seeing one another again. Now, with just the four of them, all the joy and pain and love and fear and sorrow and regret were unleashed.

It was a good long while before anyone said anything that made any sense at all, but gradually words grew out of the tears and laughter. "Don’t you ever leave us like that again, Frodo Baggins," Merry scolded, face pressed into said Baggins’ hair. "Never again, do you hear?"

"Oh, Merry," Frodo choked, "I so desperately wish I could take away all the terrible things that happened to you and Pippin. And I know that my leaving you like that was one of the terrible things that I’ll never be able to undo. But you know I had to go, and you know why."

"Of course you did, and of course we do," Pippin chimed in when Merry remained silent. "But we wanted to go with you, Frodo, we wanted to help you. Instead, we got dragged across half of Middle-earth like so much unwanted baggage before landing in Minas Tirith and then here. That was the hardest thing of all, being left behind and unable to follow you. That’s what caused us to panic, at Parth Galen."

Frodo pulled back enough to look into Merry’s face. "Why don’t we sit down? I’m starting to get a crick in my neck from looking up at you."

Still silent, Merry nodded and reluctantly released Frodo. The four hobbits sat on the ground, staying in close contact. Merry let Pippin tell the story of the orcs and the crossing of Rohan. He shuddered as Pippin described the groping fingers of Grishnakh and Pippin wrapped a shaking arm around his shoulder, taking comfort as much as giving it. Merry took over the narrative when Pippin had taken the story as far as the eaves of Fangorn forest, and soon felt more like himself as the tale wove on, with Merry and Pippin taking turns, interrupting and redirecting the story of how they wound their separate ways to Minas Tirith. Here they both faltered, but Merry took up the tale, reluctantly.

"I had no business, of course, being there on the field of battle, but it was done and no help for it." He tried to speak nonchalantly but had to hold himself rigidly in check in order to manage a light tone. "For once it seemed an advantage, being small and insignificant, for it made me a less inviting target. I almost thought we were going to make it, until the Nazgul arrived. It was the Lord of the Nazgul, I learned later, the one that attacked you on Weathertop, Frodo. Everything went horribly wrong then. Theoden’s horse, Snowmane, was pierced with a black dart and fell, crushing the King beneath him. Dernhelm and I were thrown from Windfola’s back, as well. I was blind from the horror of it all, and sick as well. I could do nothing, Frodo, nothing. I couldn’t even open my eyes." Merry laughed bitterly, feeling the shame of the moment still.

"The Nazgul...taunted us," he continued, "well, Dernhelm really, as it paid little or no heed to me. He jeered at us, saying he could be killed by no living man. Then I heard the strangest thing of all in that strange hour. Dernhelm laughed and claimed not to be a living man. Eowyn I am,** she cried, and vowed to kill the evil creature if he came between her and her kin. For just a moment, amazement overwhelmed my fear and I was able to open my eyes and look about me. There she stood, long hair loose and flowing around her, with tears on her face and a look of steely determination in her eyes. She took up her sword and faced the Nazgul, ready and willing to do battle. The Nazgul’s great beast sprang at her and in one great stroke she hewed its head from its neck. The Nazgul swung his great mace then and broke her shield, and her arm as well. When she fell to her knees I thought all was lost."

Merry faltered in the telling, just briefly, before regaining his calm. "Something rose up in me, then. I couldn’t let things end like that. I couldn’t. So I gathered up every ounce and shred of courage I had left and, staggering to my feet, I came up behind the evil creature and drove my sword through the sinew at the back of his knee. It wasn’t a mighty blow, by any account, but it was enough to distract him from Eowyn, long enough for her to drive her sword through the Black Captain’s face, or at least, where his face would have been, if he’d had one. When she fell, I was sure she was dead. I crawled over to Theoden and was surprised beyond all measure to find that he yet lived. We spoke, briefly, before he died. I...I don’t really remember much more."

Merry bowed his head. It was still very hard to talk about it all, he found. He was vaguely aware of Pippin’s arm tightening about his shoulders and moved closer to his cousin, seeking comfort. It was several minutes before he returned his attention to the conversation around him, and when he did, he found that Gandalf had joined them and the talk had moved on to other things.

Gradually, all four hobbits relaxed and unwound, leaving the tears behind to make room for laughter, only to find more tears and more laughter to follow. They each had a tale to tell, and none was easy in the telling. Frodo was silent and withdrawn for long minutes after describing the events in the Sammath Naur, before coming out of his pain to listen to an anecdote that Pippin was telling about Treebeard.

"You should have heard him, Frodo. He was really quite delightful, in his own slow way, but really, you’ve never heard anyone talk so slowly in your life. He sang us this beautiful song about the Entwives, and that is a sad tale in and of itself, but the funny thing is, he’s been searching for them all this time, and he doesn’t even know what they look like."

Some time later, Legolas and Gimli joined them and the talk grew lighter, until it became clear that it was getting rather late for those who were newly risen from sick beds. Frodo and Sam allowed Gandalf to escort them back to the beech grove and Merry saw Pippin back to their own tent. He was tired himself, but not ready for sleep just yet. Fetching his pipe, he sat out under the stars and had a good smoke, trying to bring some order to his mind before seeking his bed. It didn’t help much. He lay awake for long hours, staring at the canvas overhead and listening enviously to Pippin's steady breathing. It was long past midnight when his mind finally slowed its frenetic spinning and calm, soothing darkness spread it's blanket over his thoughts.

*From The Return of the King, The Field of Cormallen

**From The Return of the King, The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

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