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Breath of Winter  by Cuthalion

For Ruby Nye, and also for Novia (who had the idea)

1. Remembering the frost...

You are so cold.

We have wrapped you in every single blanket from our packs; in the first hours you tossed your head restlessly and I could see your eyes move under the pale lids. But now you lie still. Your face is lifeless like polished stone. I took your hand a while ago, but I wasn’t able to warm it, and now I am shivering myself instead.

I’ll never forget the consuming panic I felt when you vanished before my very eyes this last accursed evening… something dark and horrible leaned over you like a black shade of despair, and then I heard you cry out words I couldn’t understand. I stumbled around, helplessly screaming your name, and then Strider was there, his blazing torch the only light in the blinding darkness.

„Keep him warm.” Strider said before he went away. There is some hot water in the pot over the small fire, and Pippin and I are taking turns in washing that cruel wound in your shoulder with a clean, soaked cloth. And I can still feel the fear linger in my mind… will they come back, those Riders, now that we’re alone and without someone who can really handle a sword to protect us? Will Strider return?

I would give a lot to know what Strider said to Sam before he left. Sam has been staring at that big, strange, weathered Man with distrustful eyes, day after day since we left Bree. There was a lot of muttering under his breath, things like: “Where is he goin’ to lead us, that strange fellow we don’t know nothing about?” or „This will end up in a terrible sort of mess, and no mistake.” I’m pretty sure Strider has heard most of it, he has astonishingly sharp ears. But he doesn’t seem to mind at all. He simply kept walking on those long legs, and I’m sure without him we would have been lost in this wilderness long ago.

„Merry…?”

Your voice, hoarse and confused. I lean over you and touch your brow.

„I’m here, Frodo. How do you feel?”

I want to kick myself. What a silly question - as if I couldn’t see how the pain eats you up. Once more I take your hand, and once more I shy back from the coldness, flowing down from your shoulder and burning my skin like ice.

A sudden memory crosses my mind, seemingly pointless, but strong and vivid like a blow. When I was a child in Buckland, in one of the two really cold winters I remember, we hacked a hole in the frozen trout pond near Bucklebury and filled the chunks of ice into an old bucket. Then we stood around it, betting who could stick his hand in for the longest time. And I didn’t want to lose, perhaps because of Pippin. He was five years old then, and I was his hero, and his eyes didn’t leave my face for a second. First I lost all feeling in my fingers, followed by a growing ache rising in my arm and making my eyes water. When we returned to Brandy Hall, my hand looked like something that didn’t belong to my body any more. While my mother completely lost her poise and yelled for warm blankets and hot tea, you only shook your head, hurried out again and filled that fateful bucket with snow. You rubbed the mistreated hand with fists full of snow until the blood started to circulate again and I sat on your lap, whimpering, my face buried against your shoulder. Finally you took one of the blankets, wrapped me in und told me a story about a brave hobbit farmer, his dog and a dangerous giant, and I forgot the stinging pain, the fear and the creepy sight of my nearly frozen fingers and fell asleep in your embrace.

I gaze into your tired, pale face. It is strange… though Pippin is as close to me as if a whimsy of creation had made us one being with two heads and bodies, you have always been someone very special for me… the first one to rescue me and lift me up from the floor when I stumbled out of the nursery and along the long corridor while my mother took a well deserved nap and had no idea of my first venturous trip. You sang me songs, first those from Gaffer Rory, then those from your legendary cousin Bilbo. You already lived over in Hobbiton then, and I missed you terribly and bore Bilbo not a small grudge that he had abducted you from Brandy Hall. You wrote me long letters, including illustrated tales about elves and dragons, and when I found out about the ring, I was not very surprised… it felt right that you had inherited a part of ‘Mad Baggins’ legend.

And now this heirloom, this simple band of gold has turned out to be a horrible danger, a powerful toy of the Dark Lord, and it threatens to destroy Middle Earth. And – what’s much more important for me, even if this may be silly and selfish – it threatens to destroy you… my cousin, my friend, my beloved brother at heart.

I wished Strider would finally return.

******

You have slept a little, and Pippin changes the bandage of warmed cloth around your shoulder. Sam has brewed some tea over the small, flickering fire. He helped you to drink, holding your body as careful as a father would hold his suffering child, and there’s no tea for anyone else of us until he hears your whisper that you have enough. I accept the steaming mug thankfully and lay my hands around it to warm my fingers.

You whisper something. Your face is losing more and more of its color, and when I lean over you, I only catch a few words.

“… like in that winter. So cold…”

Did your thoughts take the same way back as did mine?

“What an I do for you? Do you want more tea?”

You furrow your brow and I feel Pippin beside me, his fear and insecurity so strongly radiating from him that I turn my head to look at his face. I can see the muscle twitching in his cheek… a clear, well-known sign of his panic. I lay one hand on his shoulder and give it a reassuring squeeze.

Again I hear your voice, a hoarse sigh that sounds like the torn fragment of a… a song? I lean in as close as possible, and Pippin does the same; his curls tickle my cheek, smelling of wood smoke and sweat as we both try to understand.

“Breath of winter, so cold and white…”

Pippin gives a short, sharp gasp. Our eyes meet over your body, and I see the flash of memory mirrored in his gaze... the memory of the second cold winter in Buckland, one year after the first and that incident with the ice bucket. Frodo came from Hobbiton for a visit; he had moved there six years ago. I was fourteen and Aunt Rosamunda Bolger gave me a proper earful, and with good reason.

„Meriadoc Brandybuck...“

*****

„…Meriadoc Brandybuck, what’s got into you, you incorrigible lout?!? When my daughter slipped into her new embroidered blouse, she found out that someone has stitched up the sleeve – both sleeves.” she corrected herself. „And two of the maidens swear that they have seen you hanging around near the guest rooms. How on earth could you do something like that?”

Merry stood in front of his voluminous aunt (well, not really his aunt, but he was too young yet to understand the complicated ramifications of his huge family tree). He silently cursed the habit of his mother to please her complete kinsfolk with anecdotes about his funniest pranks and ideas. One of them had been told only yesterday evening during dinner: how Merry insisted to help Esmeralda with fixing the hem of her best skirt when he was six. „And he made the tiniest, straightest stitches I’ve ever seen; I didn’t even have to rip up the seam and sew it once again.” his mother said with a giggle, and Merry stood behind a pillar and wished the ground would open and swallow him.

And said anecdote was now the reason for his misfortune; Aunt Rosamunda had been one of those who laughed loudest at the mere idea of a tiny Merry with needle and thread in his chubby fingers, and now her piercing gaze pinned him on the spot were he was standing, his eyes cast miserably to the ground. Behind her stood her daughter Estella whose blouse had been the main reason for this scene; her face bright red, her eyes shooting thunderbolts and her hands clenched to fists.

„You… you icky monster, you!” she yelled; her pretty face with the dark green eyes was a grimace of disgust. “That was my favorite blouse!” She whirled around and left the room uttering loud, impressive sobs. Merry (who despite his usual mischief felt rather uncomfortable in his role as the villain of the day) was clever enough to suppress the exclamation “Dumb Goose!” that was threatening to escape from behind his teeth. He had really sewn up the sleeves of her blouse after all… with very neat stitches, and it had been a lot of fun. (He was clever enough not to mention this little detail either).

His mother came to the rescue… not that he had any illusions that the whole matter wouldn’t have a very displeasing aftermath as soon as they were alone. But at least she was considerate enough not to embarrass him in public.

“Really, Rosamunda, your anger is very understandable. But I would like to care for the matter myself now.” she said amiably but firm. She gave Eglantine Took who sat beside the next desk a radiant smile. “I am sure Estella can borrow a blouse from Petunia for this evening, and also for the Feast.” Eglantine hurried to give her consent. “And Merry”, a gaze that made his heart melt right in his body, “Merry will sew Estella a new one with his skilled hands, and I will embroider it myself; Estella can choose the flowers she would like to see. Come now, my son.” And with these words she sailed out of the great Hall, Merry following in her wake. ----

Esmeralda was well aware of the fact that his real penalty was the needlework she had condemned him to, therefore Merry’s further punishment turned out to be rather mild. Instead of spending the rest of the Yule festivities with the lads of his age he had now the duty to look after Peregrin, his six-year-old Took-cousin. It could have been worse, for Merry had a rather soft spot for that tiny, unpredictable whirlwind, but he would miss the walks with his adored cousin Frodo that he had secretly hoped for. The son of his great-aunt Primula (whom he’d never known) was always a well of interesting tales, of new songs and poems, and Merry felt very comfortable in his presence.

But he was wise enough to give in to his fate, and he enjoyed his time with Little Pippin as much as possible. The only problem was the fact that Pip tended to disappear from time to time without a trace; the day before the great Yule Feast Merry finally caught him in the biggest pantry, his mouth, cheeks and chin smeared over and over with strawberry marmalade and lemon icing; one of the Yule cakes was in a disastrous state. Merry dragged the little malefactor outside as inconspicuously as possible and scrubbed his face under the pump in one of the backyards. The water was ice cold, but Pippin didn’t complain; he knew pretty well that Merry wouldn’t give him away.

The day of Yule dawned, and Brandy Hall was full of spicy scents, laughing whispers and secrets in every room. Merry blessed the fact that Pip was still sleeping and sneaked into Frodo’s old room; but the bed was empty and already made. His mother told him that Frodo accompanied his father on a ride along the hedge; Saradoc wanted to control if the long and unexpected frost hadn’t done any damage to the border shielding Buckland from the Old Forest.

Merry sighed, sweetened his disappointment with a handful of seedcakes and buttered almond rolls with marmalade and strolled out of the kitchen and down the corridor to the nursery.

He was greeted by a shrill tohuwabohu of screaming voices; Little Pippin had just woken up and decided that this day wasn’t a good one. He sat on the lap of his mother Eglantine and greeted the morning with a rather unpleasant concert. Half a dozen of other toddlers that had been expected to sleep at least half an hour longer added their sobs and richly shed tears to Pippin’s, and when Merry came around the corner, Eglantine decided to use what was probably her last opportunity to save the situation.

“Merry, lad, come and take him out of here.” She had to raise her voice to drown the increasing uproar. “Perhaps he would like to take a walk in the snow with you.”

“Whatever that noisy little squaller wants or not”, Minnie, the old nanny of Brandy Hall, added, “do me a favor and don’t return with him ere elevenses, will you?”

Merry saw that Pippin reached out for him, managed a wide smile and lifted his ill-tempered cousin from the lap of his mother.

“See you at lunch, Aunt Eglantine… and have a good day, Minnie!” he said, turned around and walked away, the smaller lad riding on his shoulders.

“He’s a good boy, after all.” Eglantine said, wiping her brow.

“Yes, he is.” the nanny retorted dryly. “But he’ll be quite a handful when he’s in his tweens some day… both of them, I daresay.”

Meanwhile the cousins had reached one of the big closets where all the pullovers, warm winter vests, the knitted gloves, scarves and woolen caps were stored. They had been used unusually often this year, and every day a new load of them was dried on a rack over the big fireplace in the kitchen. Merry clad Pippin with two pullovers, his warmest winter cloak, a long scarf and a red and white annulated bobble cap, then he wrapped himself as warmly as possible in a cardigan, a waistcoat lined with sheepskin , a matching hat and a second long scarf. They trotted up the hallway, and when they reached the main entrance, Pippin was slightly out of breath. The thick winter clothing had not doubled his height but his breadth, and he inhaled the icy air outside with all signs of relief.

Merry blinked; the sky was of a blazing, deep blue, the sun a white golden lamp, warming from above. The familiar landscape stretched before him, sleeping under a thick white blanket. The path down to the Brandywine was free; two hobbits shoveled away the freshly fallen snow each morning. Merry smiled down at his little cousin.

“The world smells of adventure.” he said in a conspicuous tone. “Did I ever tell you of the Jewel Tree?”

“The Jewel Tree?!?” Pippin was instantly excited. “What is that?”

It was a fairy tale Merry had once heard from Frodo, and he had to admit to himself that he only remembered half of it. But he decided to use his own imagination to complete what was missing.

“The Jewel Tree belongs to the Winter King” he said, imitating Frodo’s singing storyteller-tone. “The King wears a crown of icicles and a scepter of diamonds…”

“What is that – a sceptah?” Pippin asked curiously.

“A kind of stick”, Merry retorted, a little indignant that his description was interrupted. “He uses it to give nasty little dimwits like you a smack across the head. Now, do you want to hear the tale or shall I spare my breath?”

“Oh Merry… please!”

“Well then… the King wears a crown of icicles, a scepter of diamonds and a necklace of sapphires, and…”

“What color are---? ”

“Blue.” A dangerous gaze, frightening similar to that of Aunt Esmeralda.

“Oh… thank you. ”

The walked between the high, sparkling walls of solid snow, Pippin’s small hand in Merry’s bigger one, and soon they had vanished out of sight.

*****

The trouble started with two tiny white clouds on the horizon, soft and fine like gauze. Quarter of an hour later they had widened to a line along the whole horizon, and around elevenses half the sky was of a deep, cold anthracite. And then the storm came – strong blasts first, seemingly blowing from the north and the south at the same time, then an icy howling that made the goodwives run and close every single of the famous hundred windows of Brandy Hall. The rooms grew dark and candles were lit everywhere.

Suddenly Eglantine laid down her half eaten raisin cake, swallowed what was in her mouth and asked the fateful question:

“Where is Pippin?”

The lively chat around her died down to a total silence… a silence that was only disturbed by the shrill sound of the storm outside.

Esmeralda blanched and set her teacup carefully on the saucer.

“He’s together with Merry. They went out outside around 9 o’clock this morning. Minnie Oakleaf told me so. They haven’t come back yet, have they?”

“No, they haven’t.” Eglantine whispered. She pushed her plate back with trembling hands.

Three things then happened at nearly the same time. The door to the Great Hall flew open, and half of the inhabitants jumped up, staring with open mouths. Two white incrusted figures appeared on the doorstep, shaking themselves like big dogs. The layer of snow fell down and now everyone recognized Saradoc, the Master of Buckland, and his younger cousin, Frodo Baggins.

“Excuse me, Esmeralda, my dear”, Saradoc said blithely, pushing back the dark curls falling into his eyes. “I know we should have dried ourselves outside, but all we wanted was a warm fire, and this is the coziest place in the entire Hall. You won’t believe how cold it is outside, and we had great difficulties to find even the short path between the stables and the main entrance. You can’t see further than to the top of your nose. Give us a lump of cloth and we will mop up the mess, I promise.” He gazed around and suddenly noticed the uneasy silence. He straightened his back and slowly the smile faded from his reddened face.

“Esmie, what’s wrong?”

“Merry.” his wife replied, her voice unnaturally calm. “He went out for a walk about two hours ago, together with Pippin. And they didn’t return.”

Her husband shot her an alarmed gaze; Frodo opened his mouth and closed it again, his face white with shock. Saradoc took a deep breath.

“But that means---“

“Yes.” his wife said, her eyes dark with fear, her voice for the first time unsure. “Of course.”

And in this moment Eglantine Took pressed her white linen apron against her face and burst into tears.


***************************************************************

As Lindelea pointed out in her review, it seems not to be the best method meanwhile to rub ice cold feet with snow, because it seemingly does more harm that good. But when I was a child, I came home one day with nearly frozen feet after an afternoon in the woods, and when I tried to help myself with warm water, the pain was unbearable. My mother did the same thing Frodo did; the pain ebbed away and I felt better. Just to tell you that I didn't have this idea out of the blue.*smiles*





        

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