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"Oh Merry!" Frodo said, waking up to his cousin coughing and struggling in his blankets. Reflexively Merry wanted to wrap his arms around himself, but he was trapped between Frodo and Pippin, and couldn’t get the arm Pippin was resting on out from beneath his cousin. Frodo sat up, disentangled him, and drew Merry up into a sitting position, holding him.
Displaced and hearing his cousin´s distress, Pippin woke too. "How is he?" He asked Frodo, brushing Merry´s curls out of his hot face.
"He´s not doing well. He doesn´t have much strength to fight with. All the walking has tired him out, and I think that he has been unwell for longer than he will admit."
"Yes. I suspect it started even before I got that little cold, he did after all get just as wet as me and he hadn’t seemed himself even before that."
“I think you should get Strider, Pip.” Frodo didn`t have to say that he didn`t like this at all, Pippin`s eyes were wide and he looked scared, and Frodo felt a little scared himself.
Pippin rose and tucked the blankets around Merry before walking to where the Ranger slept. “Strider! Wake up. Merry`s worse.”
Aragorn rose and walked on silent feet over to the hobbits` sleeping place. Sam snored on.
"Merry? How are you doing?" Merry was coming back to himself as the coughing subsided, and he only shook his head, breathing not quite under control again.
"`M sorry" he got out between heaving for air.
"Sssh Merry-lad. `Tis not your fault."
"Yes it is."
"Merry, listen to me" Frodo put his cousin down on the bedding again, laying him on his back and putting his head in his lap, giving Aragorn room to check on Merry. "Pippin wanted to fish, you overreacted, but it´s never your fault when you get sick. Understand? It is true, you should have used your head a little more, but I understand your reaction, and had you not been here, I might have done the same. You could have been more careful, but you didn’t know that you were going to be sick. And I think from the way you haven’t seemed yourself for a few days before that maybe you were unwell already, and the soaking you got just brought this to a head. Here, drink a little." Pippin grabbed the nearest water bottle when Frodo gestured for it and lifted his cousin’s head, helping Merry to drink, emptying the bottle. Frodo sighed, watching Merry´s eyes close and his breathing slow. "Dearest Merry-lad. there was nothing you could do to prevent it. Just rest now."
Aragorn put his ear to Merry`s chest. Frodo watched with a concerned frown on his face, stroking Merry`s curls as Aragorn listened. Pippin sat beside them, his eyes going from Aragorn to Merry to Frodo to Merry. Merry’s eyes fluttered closed.
Aragorn took Merry from Frodo and put him down, tucking the blankets snugly about him, Pippin and Frodo watching closely. They could hear his difficult breathing but at least he was asleep for now.
Seeing their silent question he said “I believe he`s caught a chest cold, but he will be fine. Wake me if he wakes up coughing again. Try to get some rest.” Aragorn gave Pippin and Frodo each a pat on the shoulder and went back to his bedroll.
Seeing his cousin asleep again, Pippin laid down, wrapping an arm over Merry to protect him, frowning a little at the heat emanating from his body. In a few breaths he was asleep too.
Frodo lay awake a little longer. For once the Ring´s presence wasn’t as demanding as it usually was. It wasn’t whispering that his cousin getting sick was his fault, but Frodo had no problem thinking that on his own. They were his responsibility, both Pippin and Merry, and they should have stayed in Rivendell or gone home. But, without these two young ones and his dear Sam, he would be so lost, so alone amongst these big people and Gandalf.
The next time Merry awoke coughing, Sam woke up at the same time as his master and Mr. Pippin.
“Sam, would you get Strider?” Frodo said, sitting up. Sam nodded and walked over to where Mr. Strider was sleeping. Mr. Merry didn’t sound well at all, and Sam thought the Ranger might want to do something about it. If someone got seriously ill on the road... He didn’t want to finish that thought.
"Mr. Strider, sir. Please wake up. It´s Mr. Merry."
"I’m coming Sam. Thank you for waking me. Would you see about getting some water boiling and get me some cold water too?" Sam nodded. "Thank you, Sam." Rising from his bedroll, Aragorn clasped Sam on the shoulder, smiling gently, before walking over to the other hobbits. He needed to make Merry some tea now, as Merry’s cough was getting worse.
Pippin had Merry in his lap, holding his arms around Merry`s shoulders to keep him upright while he coughed and whispering soothing noises in his ears to reassure him of his presence. Frodo was rummaging through the packs, searching for a cloth and a full water bottle.
The Ranger sat down on the nest of bedrolls and put his hand to Merry´s brow. "He´s warmer," Pippin said. "He´s getting worse, Strider." Traces of tears were evident in Pippin’s eyes, his voice soft. Why had Merry got so much worse in only a few hours? When he woke up the last time he was hot, but not this feverish. Merry was finished coughing now and Pippin laid them both down, still holding Merry, his head on Pippin`s shoulder.
"He´s not doing so well, no. But I´ll see what I can do to make him better." Aragorn cursed himself for not staying awake and watching over Merry.
Frodo had found what he was searching for, and came back to the bedroll. He wet a cloth with the water from the bottle and washed Merry´s face and neck. Worried lines creased his brow, as Merry lay unresponsive to the treatment, focused on struggling with his labored breathing.
Again Aragorn listened to Merry´s breathing and checked his pulse. There was no doubt Merry´s lungs were badly congested.
"I´ll make something for him to drink, but first we must try to cool him down." Pippin eased out from under Merry and sat up, putting Merry`s head in his lap. Aragorn stretched his legs, but crouched down again, shaking Merry a little. "Merry?" Merry had fallen asleep as soon as he finished coughing and his breathing slowed.
"Why do you need to wake him? He´s exhausted and sick!" Pippin said softly so not to wake Merry. He was getting angry. Strider was a healer wasn’t he? Didn’t he see for himself that Merry needed to rest?
"Sssh Pip. Just let Strider work, he knows what he´s doing." Frodo wrapped his arm around Pippin, drawing him into a gentle hug, but watched the Ranger´s movement with a keen eye himself.
"I know, Frodo, I’m just worried."
"I’m worried too Pip, but Strider really does know what is best for Merry."
"I wanted to see how coherent he is now that his breathing has slowed. But he´s sleeping, and I´ll let him rest for now."
"Mr. Strider, sir?" Sam said, coming over to the others after preparing the hot water. "The water is ready now, if you will."
"Thank you Sam. You can go back to sleep now if you want. There are still a couple of hours before we have to move on."
Sam sat down, then thought for a second. "Who´s watching the camp?" He mused.
"Legolas is, so you needn´t worry."
Sam lay down, but shot a look over at Mr. Merry. "How is he?"
"He´s not well, but I´ll make a tonic for him now. You just sleep."
After a few minutes a strong smell made its way around camp, and shortly after Aragorn walked back to the hobbits with a steaming cup. All four hobbits were asleep now, and very gently he eased Merry out from the three others, watching them nestle closer together but not waking. He sat down against a tree and lifted Merry onto his lap, cradling his head on his chest, making the hobbit lie in a semi-upright position.
When the tonic had cooled down a little he slowly tipped the cup to Merry´s mouth, making him drink the whole cup without waking him. Even if the tonic smelled bad, it didn’t taste vile. Aragorn knew that from experience himself and from what Frodo had told him in Rivendell. Lord Elrond had pressed large amounts of tonics down Frodo, and this particular one was one of the less foul tasting.
He sat with the hobbit in his lap for a while, wrapping Merry snugly in blankets and frequently washing his face with a cool cloth. Now that Merry was half sitting, his breathing didn’t sound as labored, but he was very hot. Aragorn thought it better for him to be held against another body than lie on the cold, damp earth, bedroll and cousins or not.
It was a little strange he had to admit that. Sitting here with the hobbit that overall seemed strongest and most capable of taking care of himself and the others. But Aragorn had known the hobbits for a while now, and knew that looks were deceiving and that Frodo and Pippin were as capable as Sam and Merry. Merry`s chances of fighting an illness were stronger than Pippin or Frodo`s though. But then again, the hobbits resilience surprised him time after time.
Merry muttered a little, and he shifted him about, adjusting his head against his chest. Aragorn looked at his charge for a moment. Merry was young, he had to remember that. He was considered a grown hobbit, but still, he was only a very few years into his majority. In a human lifespan he could be considered perhaps twenty-two or twenty-three years old. Asleep and ill he looked even younger. Finally sleep overtook the Ranger too, and he nestled down as comfortably as possible, hoping that Merry didn`t wake up before they had to break camp.
”I suggest we carry him,” Gimli said, as they ate breakfast. “He needs all the rest he can get.”
“Yes” Gandalf said. “Meriadoc might be strong and a fighter, but we cannot take risks with his health. Boromir, will you take him?”
“Of course. I`d be happy to.”
The other hobbits listened in silence to this and looking at each other they all knew that as they couldn`t stop (Pippin had asked Gandalf while making tea), the best thing for Merry was to journey on in someone`s capable arms.
He had woken up a little when Pippin gently teased some tea into him, but he didn`t talk to them or come completely awake.
“How is he?” Gandalf asked after they had walked for some hours. Boromir had carried Merry for most of the trek, and Aragorn was now taking the sleeping hobbit from him, laying him on a spot of grass to have a look at him and get some broth into him. The other hobbits crowded close.
“He sleeps unaware, his fever is still high, and I do not like the sound of his breathing. I need to prepare something for him to help him breathe easier.”
Aragorn used what remedies he had already carried in his pouch, and others he had found while they walked, occasionally also sending Sam out under the protection of Boromir to find something he needed. The teas he made helped some, but he needed something more to help Merry breathe easier. The hobbit was struggling and his breathing was getting more labored as the hours passed by. Boromir had carried him with Merry`s head on his shoulder, to ease his breathing, but it was not making enough of a difference. Merry really needed to lie in peace to battle this. Even journeying in Boromir`s arms was drawing energy from him, however gentle the Man was.
Thinking through his knowledge and the lore of Elves, he decided upon making an herbal poultice. Finding a clean cloth he set to making the medicine and wrapped the herbs inside the cloth before cooling it a little and placing it on Merry`s chest.
“What are those herbs he’s using, Frodo?” Pippin whispered, sitting beside Frodo with one of Merry`s hands between his own, stroking or patting it gently while softly crooning words of reassurance and nonsense to let his cousin know he was there, while the Ranger worked on helping Merry. “It doesn’t smell like that stuff the healers put on me when I had the Winter Sickness.”
“I do not know what your Winter Sickness is, Master Peregrin, but I can assure you that this will help him a great deal.” Aragorn said, fastening Merry`s clothes back up and pulling the blankets snugly in around him.
Pippin looked from Aragorn to Frodo and frowned. What if Merry had the Winter Sickness? He shuddered at the thought, praying for it not to be. Frodo`s eyes mirrored his own worry.
“Hoy, Pip,” Frodo said softly, reading the youngsters thoughts. “It can`t be that. Merry-lad’s not that ill.” Expectantly both hobbits looked at Aragorn, but the Ranger was at a loss to what they were talking about.
“He`s not so ill that it can`t be this Winter Sickness? What is this illness? I don`t know it by that name.”
“We have no other name for it, but your lungs fill up and hurt and you can`t breathe, and you`re feverish, and… and. Well some people die from it.” Pippin said softly. “I had it several times when I was little. Once I almost died.” Frodo pulled Pippin to him, the memory of that time very clear. It had been a near thing.
“I`m sorry Pippin, I didn`t know. I think I know the illness you describe, it`s an inflammation of the lungs.” Aragorn looked at Merry again. “We must be careful.” He said. Frodo and Pippin looked at each other. Aragorn had not confirmed that it was that bad, but he hadn`t denied it either. And Merry`s breathing sounded awfully labored, and all three cousins knew how bad it could be. Frodo drew Pippin in for a tight embrace, kissing his forehead. “He`ll be just fine, Pip. I`m sure he will.” He whispered in Pippin`s pointed ear, low enough for only him to hear.
“I hope that you know that we are here, Merry. And we will do everything we can to make you better, dearest.” Frodo said, stroked Merry`s cheek with a finger, frowning at the heat there, and the unresponsive hobbit.
For two nights and three days Merry was floating around in a world that alternated between burning heat and freezing cold, his chest and throat aching unbearably, his lungs tearing apart and his head pounding. Dimly he was aware of being carried and little pieces of conversations came to his ears from time to time. He was aware of Frodo or Pippin making him drink endless amounts of teas or water or broth, but he couldn`t piece the time together in days and nights. And why was he sleeping while it was light and being carried through the dark? And who was carrying him? He had been too old to be carried for a long time, hadn’t he? And who did the huge hands that he felt upon his body belong to? The answers to his questions floated around at the edge of his mind, but each time he tried to grab the thoughts, they slipped away.
His sleep was restless and full of dreams, but when he tried to think about them later, they were all muddled up and only made him more confused. He swallowed as best he could when fluids trickled down his throat, not really aware of his surroundings. He tugged at his clothes and blankets when he had the strength to, trying to avoid the burning heat, and the next minute to burrow down in them again because he was suddenly shivering with cold.
When they walked, Frodo, Sam and Pippin always were in hearing and touching distance of their sick one. As soon as the company halted, the one that carried Merry was almost overturned by the hobbit attack that came as blankets were spread and Merry was laid down on the driest and softest spot their path or shelter could provide.
When the coughing fits shook the little body, the one who carried him stopped and sat down with the little one in his lap, holding the shuddering body and congregating hobbits took turns washing his face and neck when he was finished, lying limp and unresponsive to their ministrations. On a few occasions Merry woke up enough to respond to a question or two or ask for water, but usually he dwelt in a world that hovered between wakefulness and sleep, never really resting.
Silently Sam wished they had brought some honey or lemon so he could make Strider’s teas even more soothing, but there was none, and Mr. Merry had to make do with ordinary tea or water. When it was deemed safe to light a fire, Sam made Mr. Merry strengthening broth from the stews he prepared.
During the days, Merry was placed gently in the nest of blankets and bedrolls the hobbits shared, and cocooned snuggly in between Frodo and Pippin, so that they could help him if he woke coughing. Often, after Merry had fallen into an exhausted sleep after a coughing fit, the other hobbits would sit around him and talk quietly while trying to ease Merry`s fever as much as possible, a water bottle and a soft cloth ever present.
This would have been so much easier if they had been home in the Shire and had a nice featherbed to put Merry in and could help him to get better in their own fashion. Mr. Strider did do a good job at helping him, still he did not do things the way hobbits like to do them, Sam thought, refilling the water bottle again after another round of washing Mr. Merry down.
The howling wind and the cold of the winter had proved a challenge when it came to keeping Merry warm but not overheated. As the weather itself was no help in this, they had wrapped him up in several blankets, frequently changing his sweat soaked clothes as the fever raged on.
Gimli was concerned for the hobbit, and hoped the water he fetched would ease the raging fever that Merry battled. If it got much worse Aragorn had said they would have to try dunking him in a stream to lower his fever. Merry was a funny fellow, and Gimli had grown quite fond of the little mischief-maker. His mix of cheerful spirit and ability to think strategically and come up with unexpected and unconventional solutions was fascinating to the stoic dwarf. Besides, no one else had the patience for or knew quite how to handle the usually exuberant Pippin as well as Merry. Although that was not an issue now. Gimli had not heard Pippin so much as laugh since Merry had been struck down.
As he carried Merry, Legolas again thought about mortality. Idly he mused that he had been doing a lot of that lately, with having only mortal companions surrounding him, except for Mithrandir of course. He marveled again over the different races of the world. He had come to grow fond but a little breathless of the hobbits, and he had found to his surprise that he even could endure the dwarf. As he walked with the slight weight of the hobbit in his arms, he thought about the Shire he had heard so much about and all that Frodo had left to save Middle-Earth. He secured his grasp around Merry tighter, knowing how much he meant to Frodo, to himself, and to the whole Fellowship.
Suddenly Merry started to shudder and cough, and Legolas had to sit down quickly to not lose his hold of him. Pippin rushed over with the water and a cloth and when Merry had finished coughing, he dampened it and traced it over his cousin`s beloved features. Legolas put one of his hands to Merry`s brow and gently caressed his face, hoping that his Elven touch would give him some relief.
“Merry’s not doing any better, is he?” Pippin said, his eyes full of tears, his faced strained and lined with worry.
“I`m sure he will make it through Pippin.” Legolas sincerely hoped that he could bring the tweenager some comfort with his words, but Pippin only nodded and walked back to Frodo and Sam, a few feet away, watching as Legolas stood and made Merry more comfortable in his arms.
“Sssh Pippin” Frodo said and looped his arms round Pippin`s heaving shoulders, but he looked at Aragorn and Gandalf with eyes full of desperation and plea for them to do something.
“Let me take him for awhile,” Gandalf walked up to Legolas and lifted Merry out of his arms. Feeling the raging heat of the little body in his arms he walked over to Aragorn. “We need to do something drastic to cool him down soon. Would it be too risky to bathe him now in a stream, as you had debated doing?”
Aragorn felt Merry`s face, and was shocked at the heat. They had been walking since their mid-march break, and when he had checked on Merry then, he had been no warmer than he had before, but now he was much worse. Listening carefully he heard that Merry’s breathing had changed too, and was there a faint hint of blue around his lips? In the moonlight it was hard to tell, but Aragorn feared it was so.
“Let`s walk a little further, there`s no safe access to the stream here. It might be best if we found a rocky hollow we could fill with water to act as a tub, as the stream itself is too icy.”
“Could we not wash him down again?” Frodo had come over to them now, hearing them discuss his cousin. “He was cooler when we did that yesterday.” Careful of not getting Merry chilled, Frodo and Pippin had washed each limb while Sam tucked blankets in around the rest of Merry`s body so that he would not be too cold.
“We might have to do that if we can`t find something in which to immerse him. I would have wished for warmer weather too. This sharp wind is not good for him.”
Gandalf had watched out for the hobbits with a keen eye since leaving Rivendell. Frequently his gaze and thought fell on Frodo, and almost just as often on the other three hobbits. Now he carried Meriadoc in his arms and the state of the little one concerned his wise heart. He had full confidence in Aragorn`s healing methods and knew that Merry would fight with every breath he had in his small body. But still he was filled with fear for this little one.
Walking on he looked at the sky and the horizon and knew their journey had been slowed by Merry`s illness. Still, he would have it no other way. They could not risk losing him. In his mind, Gandalf played the scene before his mind’s eye, of the other hobbits returning home without him, and brokenheartedly telling the Master and his wife that their beloved only son and longed for heir was lost to the ravages of the Winter Sickness barely a fortnight into the Quest. That would just not do.
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