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Starlight at Eventide  by Ariel

Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 4


"Now maybe we'll have a shot of beating the Buckland ponies at the fair."

Merry looked sidelong at Pippin across the fence rail, his blue eyes twinkling with challenge.  "A shot, perhaps, but not for a couple of years."

"Aye," agreed Pippin, leaning against the paddock, "but then, watch out!"

Merry laughed and shook his head.  His dun stallion pranced eagerly before Pippin's chestnut mare, its jet-black forelock falling over its eyes like the unruly shock of an amorous tween's hair and its tail raised in excitement.  Pip had put a lot of thought into his choice of broodmares to send to Merry's Rohan bred stud.  This little chestnut had fine, straight legs and a long back, both necessary for speed, but Merry noted she was straighter in the shoulder than his own stock and that meant her reach, and that of her colts, would suffer.

"The sire is only part of the answer, Pip.  The real secret is the mare."  He winked knowingly and Pippin rolled his eyes. 

"Stybba was a good pony, I'll grant you that.  His get are of undeniable quality, but give the good old Shire stock their due!  They're still going strong when these flashy beasts of yours are flagging."

Merry put a blade of grass between his teeth, not conceding in the slightest.  "Roany'll add endurance to whatever he's bred to," he said, indicating his stallion, "you watch.  With his fire and will and the speed of Buckland's mares, you'll be playing catch up for many more years yet."

The chestnut mare squealed as the stallion approached her side.  He tried to arch his neck over her withers, but she would have none of it and, with a little buck, ran to the far end of the paddock, the stallion in pursuit.

"She's going to play hard-to-get, I see," commented Pippin, pulling out his pipe and a soft, leather pouch of pipe-weed.  "Care for a smoke?"

"I've not been taking a pipe lately," answered Merry, keeping his voice carefully light.  "Thank you, though."

"Not taking a pipe?"  Pippin packed his and walked past Merry to the forge shed to light it. 

Merry shrugged.  "The doctor suggested I refrain while Estella was ill and I haven't picked up the habit again."

"But surely she's recovered!  It's been nearly a year, hasn't it?"

"Not quite.  She's doing very well, but the illness cost her a great deal.  I don't think she'll ever be really strong again."  Merry looked down.  "The lack of pipe-weed is a small price to pay."

Pippin returned to the fence but he stared curiously at Merry.  The other hobbit didn't meet his eyes, but could sense the Thain was preparing to speak.  At last, Pippin took the pipe from his mouth.

"Di said something to me that I didn't think was my business, but now I wonder if she was right in mentioning it."

"Your Di has always been bolder than was proper."

Pippin grinned, nodding.  "Yes, that is what I love about her.  She puts her foot in it even more than I do.  But she's also right more often than not."

Merry still didn't look at him.  The horses were nuzzling on the far side of the paddock.  The mare gave a squeal and struck out with her foreleg, but Roany was too fast for her.  He dodged the blow with a little rear, danced about to her side and dropped down, his head resting on her hindquarters.  The mare gave another little squeal, but one of invitation, not outrage.  Roany's courtship had won her and she stood for him at last.

"There you go," nodded Merry.  "I told you you'd be able to take her home today.  He's covered her three times already so I'd say there's a very good chance she's in foal.  Next spring, you'll have your first hopeful."

"You're changing the subject, Merry."

Merry shot him a glance but Pippin hadn't taken his threats seriously as a child either. 

"What did you mean by 'a small price to pay'?" the Thain pressed.  "For what?"

Merry shifted, looking annoyed, but knew Pippin would not let the matter rest.  "I've had to give up a few things," he began after a moment.  "Since Estella's been ill, I've not dared make any long trips, or even spent evenings at the inn.  And the pipe-weed, of course, but she's given me four wonderful children at great sacrifice to herself.  It's but little inconvenience comparatively."

Pippin blew out a cloud of fragrant smoke.  "Diamond had a long talk with her the last visit you made to us.  They are tight as a pair of cockle-burs when they get together.  She's worried about her friend, and not for any physical frailty."  He punctuated his comment with the stem of his pipe.  "She's of the opinion you have given up a few things you oughtn't."  Merry didn't seem to follow his hint.  He leaned closer.  "She suggests your lass is unhappy with herself and has got it into her head that you find her repugnant."


Pippin put up his hands.  "She knew it was ridiculous too, but Estella seems fixed on the idea.  Something to do with a lack of your attention?"

"I have attended her night and day!"  Merry's face began to redden.  "She's not had a moment that either my mother or I have not been with her!"  He sagged against the fence, disbelieving.  "'Lack of attention'?  Pip, I couldn't leave her.  Not for a minute.  I was so afraid she'd slip away on me.  Like father, like King Theoden, like…"  He drew a breath to steady himself.  "I couldn't hold onto her tightly enough - and she says I have not attended her?"

Pippin took Merry by the shoulders and looked him seriously in the eye.  "Merry lad, easy!"  A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.  "You've missed my point entirely and now it seems I must I be indelicate."  Merry was brought up short by the mischievous twinkle in his cousin's eye.  "I am sure you were most attentive," continued Pippin, trying so furiously not to grin that his own cheeks flushed, "but consider, perhaps, that wasn't the kind of 'attention' your lady wife was starting to feel the lack of?"

Merry's blush lit up his ears.  He understood plain enough then.  "Pippin!" he said, aghast, but his cousin was laughing with uncontained glee. 

"Really, old fellow, all those boys of yours running about and you'd no idea what I was referring to?"  Pippin tsked at him.  "I think it's wonderful she's starting to think about such things again."

"That's a private matter, Peregrin Took, and I'm not keen on discussing it even with you."  Merry's glare was most decidedly serious.  Pippin checked his grin, but did not let go of his cousin. 

"Then with whom will you discuss it, Merry?  Because you ought.  You've got that poor lass believing you don't want her anymore and I know that's not what you want her to think.  It might not be seemly to think of a lady desiring such things, but you and I are married hobbits and we certainly know better."  The grin came back to the corner of his mouth.  "I may not know your Estella as well as you do, but four children in twelve years tells me something about you two."

"Mind your tongue, Took," Merry growled, growing really angry.  "You'll not speak of my wife in that manner."

At his tone, Pippin's smile did fade.  "I'm sorry, Merry.  That was crass of me.  I apologize."  He released his arm and the other hobbit turned brusquely away.  Pippin winced with the rebuke, his sharp, still youthful face crestfallen, like a boy who'd been punished for what he'd thought a clever game.  "Merry!" he cried.  When Merry refused to answer, he hesitated and then came to stand beside him at the fence.  "I'd thought Di was overreacting or that Stella was just tired of being cooped up sick, but there's really something wrong isn't there?"  He leaned against the fence and tried to catch Merry's eye.  "You and I have been through thick and thin together, cousin.  You've saved my life and I've saved yours.  We've seen things few other hobbits ever will and been through danger much blacker than anything the Shire could ever see."  He touched Merry's arm again this time in a gentler, more uncertain gesture.  "If you can't tell me what is troubling you, whom can you tell?"

It took a moment, but Merry's shoulders did relax, however he did not turn to face Pippin. 

"Please Merry, can't you talk to me about it?"

"I don't know, Pip.  I just don't know what to do."

Pippin eyed his broad back calculatingly.  He nodded his head as if deciding and slipped his arm under Merry's.

"I do.  Come on.  We'll put the mare in a stall; she'll need to settle for a bit before I take her home anyway, and then, I am taking you to the Golden Perch.  I need a good beer and it sounds like you are long overdue for one too."



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