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Breath of Winter  by Cuthalion

2. ... and sharing the warmth

While Eglantine sobbed on her brother-in-law’s shoulder (and Saradoc silently cursed the fact that Paladin had stayed in the Great Smials) and Esmeralda Brandybuck stood beside Merry’s empty bed, turning his favorite toy, a small wooden horse, between her fingers, her only son considered his situation and found it rather desperate.

It had been a very pleasant walk, even after they left the path and trudged through the snow, their legs sunken in up to their knees. Pippin babbled joyfully about finding the Jewel Tree, about plucking gems in all colors of the rainbow from its branches and finally ending up “as rich as Uncle Bilbo Baggins from Bag End”. They didn’t notice the darkening sky until Pippin said: “I’m hungry. Did you bring a picnic with you, Merry?” Merry raised his head, and now he saw the massive wall of clouds that hid the sun. He tamed his sudden nervousness and patted Pippin’s shoulder.

“No, I haven’t, you little glutton“, he remarked. “You know what? Let’s go home again; Mama is waiting with a elevenses that will satisfy even you.”

They turned around, and at first they got along well; Merry was able to follow their own footprints, and he knew that the cleared path wasn’t much more than 500 yards ahead. But then Pippins legs got heavy and tired, and he started to complain, tugging at his cousin’s scarf. The snow was too deep to carry the little one as an extra burden, so Merry tried to help Pip by walking more slowly. Then the first squall hit them, and Merry swayed and nearly fell into a deep snowdrift. Now he understood the danger and tried to move faster, dragging Pippin after him.

“Merry, stop!” Pippin whined. The snow had been fun, but now he became anxious. “Merry, stop! My feet hurt!”

Merry didn’t answer. The wind now brought the first snowflakes; but not the big, beautiful ones, slowly drifting down from the sky. These were hard like hail, piercing his face with fine, sharp needles. With sudden horror he realized two things: their footprints were vanishing under the icy showers, and the light was fading so fast that he wasn’t able to orientate himself any longer. Pippin stumbled and fell more than once (which didn’t make it any easier to get anywhere), and then the world around them turned into a howling black with snow and wind from every direction.

What saved their lives was the glimpse of a fallen tree Merry caught before everything else vanished from sight. He took Pippin’s wrist with a firm grip and dragged him over where the tree – a giant oak – stretched its roots like long claws into the air. Underneath was a deep hole in the ground where the roots had been for probably more than a hundred years. They staggered over the frozen earth, lost their balance and stumbled into the hole, head first, blind and shivering with panic. Merry found himself lying on his back, Pippin slumped right across his chest, sobbing hysterically and burying his little fists in his cousin’s thick, wet curls.

“Ouch, Pippin! Ouch… let go!” But at the same time he held him closer, filled with a piercing fear. No one knows where we are, he thought, no one will find us. He untangled the icy little fingers from his hair and held them between his hands. I should have given him some gloves… His eyes filled with tears and he struggled with all his might not to cry.

*****

The storm died down in the early evening. The path that led from Brandy Hall to the river had vanished completely; Saradoc sent out a dozen hobbits with shovels to clear it again. He know that there was alarmingly little time left to find his son and his nephew in daylight, and search parties immediately left the hall, fighting their way in every direction.

Frodo set out with Freddy Bolger (who had great difficulties keeping up with his cousin who was only half as broad and definitely had the longer legs). They stomped around the stables and turned west, calling for Merry and Pippin. Their voices carried far, mingling with those of the other search parties, but there was no answer. After half an hour Freddy’s participation in the search came to an abrupt end when he stumbled over a hidden root and sprained his ankle; Frodo was forced to call for the next party at hand who carried the unfortunate Freddy back to the Hall. Frodo told them that he would look just a little while longer, and then he stood alone under the rapidly darkening sky. He knew that it would be dangerous to stay out for too long; he might lose his way as well and get lost in the snow-covered emptiness like his cousins. But he thought of Merry’s laughing eyes, of Pippin’s giggle and his mischief, and he simply didn’t have the heart to give up too soon.

He struggled further westerly, from time to time crossing the footprints of another search party, peering with narrowed eyes into the dim light of the Yule Evening. Down the long, white slope he saw the grey band of the Brandywine winding between its snow-laden banks, carrying small ice floes along with the current. He wiped the sweat from his brow, stretching his shoulders under the burden of the huge knapsack… and then he heard the Horn of Buckland. The sound echoed from the white hills, a sad signal to stop the search and return home. At the thought of the faces of Saradoc, Esmeralda and Eglantine a cold fist closed around his heart, and his mouth formed a thin, determined line. Only a few minutes, he promised himself. Only a quarter of an hour. They haven’t got far, I’m quite sure… Pippin is much too small to wander a long way in this deep snow. Oh stars, where are they?

“Merry? Pippin?”

Right ahead he saw a very big, fallen oak, the treetop a dark shadow over a snowdrift. He felt his way along the thick stem and reached the giant root ball.

“Merry? Pip?”

“H… hullo? Is there someone? Help!”

He stood stockstill, his breath a white cloud around his head.

“Merry? Is that you?”

“F…Frodo?”

“Merry!?!”

He hurried around the roots and saw… nothing. He shook his head in puzzled disbelief.

“Merry? Where are you, lad?”

“Here, Frodo. Under the roots!”

Now Frodo understood. He started to shovel with both hands and managed to clear an opening wide enough to peer in. And there they were… two hunched, figures with white faces and blue lips.

“Are you hurt?” he asked anxiously. “Is Pippin well?”

“He’s so tired”, Merry replied with a shaking voice; now that rescue was close at hand, he finally allowed himself to show at least a little of his exhaustion and fear. “I was afraid he would fall asleep, and I kept him awake as well as I could…”

“Well done, Merry.” Frodo said with a smile. “I’ll get the snow away, and then you can come out; I’ll carry Pippin home.”

He slipped the heavy knapsack down his back and rubbed his cramped muscles.

“Frodo…”

“Yes, Merry?”

“ I fear I can’t walk.”

“Why can’t you… are you hurt?”

“My knee.” Merry answered miserably. I didn’t notice it at once, but I obviously banged it against something, and now it’s swollen, and it looks awful.”

“Fro…?”

It was the first time that Pippin said something.

“What is it, Pipkin?”

“I’m afraid. And I’m cold. And I want to go home.” His lip started to tremble dangerously. “I…. I w-want my M-mama.”

Frodo sighed. What should he do now?

“Listen, Pipkin”, he finally said, “I can’t bring you home to your Mama now. It’s nearly dark, and snow is falling again. Merry will never manage the way, and I won’t leave him here alone. And I don’t want us to take the wrong way in the darkness – two lost hobbits are more than enough. But I can take some wood from this fallen tree”, he silently blessed the fact that he had added a small axe to his enormous luggage, “and I have food and drink in my knapsack… and some sheepskins. And lots of stories to tell. Night will be over before you notice it, little one.” ----

A quarter of an hour later Frodo had improved the situation as well as he could. A small fire was crackling in the hole under the roots, he had dug a narrow opening through the soil to let the smoke out and closed the snow wall again to create a small room with as much warmth as he could manage. Merry and Pippin were both shivering, their thick winter clothing barely of use; it was soaked and didn’t isolate them against the frost anymore. Frodo thought for a moment, then he helped them to strip off everything down to their underpants. He took off his own wet cloak, pullover and shirt and sat Pippin on his one knee and Merry on the other, wrapping himself and his cousins in the three large sheepskins that had bulged his knapsack and made it such a heavy burden; now he was more than thankful that he had hauled them here.

He gave them sweet, hot tea from a fur-wrapped clay bottle and fed them with shriveled apples, bread from Esmeralda’s kitchen and cheese. To his utter relief he felt the warmth slowly return into Pippins ice cold hands and feet. The hazelnut curls under his chin were drying in the heat of the small fire, and Pippin relaxed in his embrace.

“Sing me a song…” Pippin murmured sleepily.

“Hmmmm… let me think of one…” Frodo closed his eyes, feeling the weight of two bodies against his own. Good idea… it will help to keep their spirits up. Suddenly he remembered a song Bilbo had taught him last Yule when they sat together alone in the Great Hall late in the evening. He smiled into the flames of his impromptu campfire.

Breath of winter, so cold and white
High the sky, all blue and bright
Icy flowers on the glass
Clean white blanket on the grass

Merry sighed and laid his cheek against Frodo’s chest. The fear slowly faded from is gray-green eyes.

Snowflakes melting on my hands
Warm, spicy wine to share with friends
Flames crackling in the fireplace
Loved ones around - a blessed grace!

“I’m so tired, Frodo. But I was afraid to sleep before you came. I thought we would die.”

“I won’t let you die, Merry. Tomorrow we will celebrate Yule at home. I promise.”

“Really?”

“Really. Are you warm enough?”

“Yes. Frodo?”

“Hm?”

“I’m so glad that you’re here.”

Let winter feast his snow white rule
With frozen ponds and merry Yule
Let us tell tales and let us sing
Songs to bring back a green, warm spring
.

Now Pippin and Merry were both asleep, two warm bundles on his lap, there heads close together. Frodo leaned forward as cautiously as possible and tossed a handful of thick branches into the fire. He gazed down and saw that Pippins fingers were curled around Merry’s brown hand. He leaned back against the wall and drew the sheepskin as close around them as he could.

And when we see the snowbells bloom
Open the windows, leave the room
And feel the joy of meadows green
And fragrant roses yet unseen

We bid farewell to ice and snow
And welcome flowers and grass to grow
Dance hand in hand with friends so dear
And celebrate a hopeful year.

It was a long night, but he didn’t care. He fed the fire from time to time, humming or singing softly whenever an old tune came back into his mind; he held his cousins close and watched their sleep.

*****

October 6, 1319, in the middle of the night

I come back to myself when a damp log cracks and sputters in the fire. You still lie motionless between me and Pippin, your face white and quiet in the restless light of the small flames.

“Pippin… do you remember the Yule when we got lost?” I murmur, my thoughts still rooted deeply in the past.

“What… oh yes!” A faint smile on the familiar face with the long nose. “Why?”

“Oh… I just recalled the hours after Frodo found us in the hole under the roots of that big tree. It’s funny…I always feel warm and comfortable when I think of that night. I guess I should feel cold instead.”

Pippin chuckles, his eyes fixed on your face.

“Do you remember how we were found the next morning? Sitting around the dying embers of Frodo’s little campfire, chewing on the remnants of his cheese and wrapped in his pullover and his cloak?”

“Yes, and suddenly Papa and Uncle Merimac stood in front of our hole, and Papa’s face changed from white to red and back again and he said…”

“… ‘…one day you will be the death of your mother, Meriadoc Brandybuck!’” Pippin’s grin is infectious.

“And they brought us back to Brandy Hall, and all the rooms were decorated with evergreen and holly, and I took the most wonderful hot bath in my entire life.”

“And my mother said: ‘I will never again let you walk further than to the tulip beds in my garden, not as long as I’m able to lock the door of your room.’” Pippins grin fades. “She wasn’t very successful, was she?”

“No.”

I stare down at you and once more take the hand of the wounded arm. It is ice cold. Suddenly – I don’t know why – your voice comes back to me. Your voice, as I heard it when I sat on your lap, my face against your smooth skin, my body wrapped in your arms, warmed by soft fur and your comforting presence. And I felt the song vibrating through your chest, and I fell asleep, and the words followed me into my dreams. I open my mouth and I’m not very surprised when I hear myself start to sing.

Breath of winter, so cold and white
High the sky, all blue and bright…

I feel Pippin’s gaze and then he joins me with his clear, bright tenor, his tone hushed to keep you from waking up.

Icy flowers on the glass
Clean white blanket on the grass…

Suddenly I know what to do. Strider told us to keep you warm, and we will, we will indeed. I take of my cloak and unbutton the shirt underneath. Pippin raises his head in surprise, but I see comprehension dawn in his eyes and he starts to undress as well.

“Mr. Merry? What on earth are you doing there?”

It is Sam Gamgee. I cannot blame him for being confused; we look probably rather weird as we strip off our garments in the biting frost of this October night.

“Frodo saved Pippin’s life and mine when we got lost in a cold winter more than twenty years ago.” I retort curtly. “We were little lads then, and he held us on his lap a whole night through to keep us from freezing to death; you know, he gave us the warmth of his body, and I guess we are just returning the favor.”

“Oh.” For a moment Sam’s face is completely blank. Then he nods and starts to remove his cloak, too. He notices our stare and suddenly his face brightens in a wide, sunny grin.

“Ah well…” he says, “I guess three hobbits are better than two, aren’t they?”

We take away the blankets and the cloaks we have piled upon you. It is Sam who opens the buttons of your shirt with gentle fingers; he supports your limp body when I strip it over your head. The skin of your chest and belly is very pale and uncomfortably cool. I lie down on your right side, Pippin on the left, and Sam curls over your legs, rubbing your icy feet between his big, warm hands. Pippin helps me to cover all of us with the blankets, and I slide my arm under your shoulder and entwine my fingers with his hands as I did in that night twenty-two years ago. Pippin hardly dares to move; he fears to touch your bandaged shoulder. But after a few minutes of arrangements and re-arrangements and uneasy shifting everyone has found a more or less comfortable place, and we shield your oh so lifeless form against the cold and the fear and the desperation…. and against death.

It may be only a wish, but I have the impression that your skin is a little bit warmer. I can feel the presence of Pippin and the familiar pressure of his fingers, and Sam is like a living oven close to my feet.

“Frodo…” I whisper your name and I hear your voice, barely more than a soft sigh, but you turn your head in my direction; without thinking I lean in and kiss your cheek. It is more than a wish… our method seems to work. I feel the smile on my face and hear Pippin sing, his voice soft and sweet like a lullaby.

We bid farewell to ice and snow
And welcome flowers and grass to grow
Dance hand in hand with friends so dear
And celebrate a hopeful year.

I close my eyes and drift away into sleep, my head on your shoulder, my hand on your chest.

I won’t let you die.

THE END

*I’m using the same “key of age” rabidsamfan does – “Hobbit-age minus a third = human age”. This means if Frodo is 28, Merry 14 and Pippin 6, they are by “human” measure about 19, 9 and 4 years old.





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