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Starlight at Eventide  by Ariel


It took a bit more convincing than Pippin's arm, but after returning to the Hall and announcing to all and sundry that the Thain was taking the Master off for a ride and a brew, Pippin finally did get Merry to agree to join him.  He even fancied there was a spark of hope in Estella's eye as she bade them goodbye and he tried to let her know by the kiss he left on her hand that he would do his best on her behalf.

They crossed the Ferry in late afternoon and reached the Perch just as the lamps were being lit.  There was a small but merry crowd when they situated themselves in the back corner booth and it grew quite boisterous over their mutton stew and bread.  By the time Pippin began feeling his ale, the din of the place was loud enough that he knew that none of their talk would be overheard.

"Now, Merry," he began, "I know your family is your own affair, but Di wouldn't have said anything to me if she wasn't really concerned.  She is bold, I'll agree, but Stella knows that as well as you do.  Why would she have brought up the subject if she wasn't hopeful it would get 'round to you somehow?"

Merry paused while putting a forkful of stew to his mouth.  Pippin knew he'd caught the fellow with his logic when Merry frowned, popped the morsel into his mouth and chewed very deliberately. 

"I guess I have a hard time thinking of her that way anymore.  I know they say, 'once in love is always', but so much has happened this past year.  She's simply no longer the robust and lively girl I wedded."

"Merry!  We were different when we came back too," Pippin reminded him.  "People might have had to crane their necks a bit, but they treated us fairly.  Doesn't Estella deserve that?"

"That's not how I mean," Merry shot back seriously.  "I saw you three when I got to Cormallen, Pip.  You were still unconscious, but at least you didn't look as close to death as…"  Merry pushed his plate back and turned away.  The leaded glass at the back of their booth opened out onto a courtyard.  They'd dropped the transom above it to let in the fresh night air.  A star twinkled innocently in the very centre of the open pane. 

"She looks like he did, Pip.  Like Frodo.  I'd never seen anyone so close to death as he was, until now.  Even in Rivendell, with that morgul knife burrowing into his shoulder and those Elves cutting him open to get it, I didn't feel as close to losing him as I did in Cormallen."  Merry shivered.  "There I could almost see his lifeline, stretched taut and golden, and the only thing holding it to the earth was his love for us.  And even that wasn't enough in the end.  That was how it was with Estella.  I couldn't leave her for a second, I still can hardly bear to let her out of my sight.  I'm too afraid I'll wake up and find her gone; and Gandalf's not around anymore to give me fair warning of it."

"But, unlike Frodo, Estella is getting better."

Merry gave him a sharp look.  "Have you seen her?  She's skin and bones, Pip!  She eats as well as ever but gains not an ounce.  I've had mother bake her favourites and slip extra cream and butter into her cakes, I've even talked Diamond into plying her with sweets, but none of it does any good.  There is still something terribly wrong.  You don't come that close to death and return unscathed.  I am afraid…"

"Afraid to love her?"

Merry pulled his ale towards him, unable to look Pippin in the eye.  "Afraid I'll hurt her even more than I have already."

Pippin put down his drink and shook his head to clear it.  "Whoa there, cousin.  How have you hurt her already?"

"If you must know, by the same act you are trying to encourage me to resume doing," he said softly.

"What?"  Pippin

Merry's eyes were bright but ale had not yet clouded his faculties.  He stared levelly at Pippin, the seriousness in him even more palpable than it had been by the paddock.  "You weren't here when she was at her worst, Pip.  We'd been using the midwife, but when Estella took her turn, we called for old Dody.  It's a good thing, too.  He knew what was wrong with her.  Said it sometimes happened to mothers who'd had difficult births or tears inside.  If he hadn't gotten there when he did, I am certain we'd have lost her."

Pippin shivered.  He'd heard what condition his cousin's wife had been in.  Infection, they'd said, birth fever perhaps, or something else.  The baby had been whisked away immediately and had suffered little ill effect, but that was the only good news that had come out of the Hall for many weeks after.

"The doctor was worried about her heart; the fever, the stress of childbirth.  He's checked her since and says she sounds all right, but I can still see the worry in his eyes.  Or at least I think I can."  He sighed.  "Part of me says to take him at his word, but the other part can't help but think he's assuring me because there's nothing else he can do."

"She'd always been so strong, Pip," Merry continued.  "I never worried about her.  She was always tough and lively, a rock I could anchor myself to.  It wasn't until her illness that it dawned on me that I'd been taking a little bit of her vitality each time I got her with child.  What was a moment's pleasure for me each time might have been her death.  I don't regret my sons and I know she considers the children are well worth the price she's paid, but I felt like a fool for never really weighing what my loving was doing to the one I held most dear."

Pippin thought back on his own wife's birthing bed, her pallor and weariness, the labour that seemed to last an eternity.  Diamond had had a very rough time of it according to the midwives, and in the deep of that anxious night, he remembered that the thought had crossed his mind that he had placed her, however willing, into this situation.  He did not know what to say to Merry.

"It just feels wrong to think of loving her that way any longer.  She is my life, Pip, but the way she looks now just serves to remind me that, after all, I did this to her.  I just don't have the right to risk her life again, Pip." 

"But I thought she couldn't have any more… Di said…" 

Merry snorted.  "I meant she's grown so frail, I'd probably smother her in the act."  He shook his head sadly.  "But you're right.  She's wanted a daughter since Theoden was born.  Loving me has even denied her that." 

In the weighty silence that followed, Pippin drained his mug and called for another round.  "After Faramir," he said, "Diamond said she wouldn't have another, or at least not for a long time.  He took a great deal out of her.  I would hear him wake at night and she would stir, sit up and feed him.  She's so small she couldn't lie down to do it and I remember more than once her falling asleep sitting up as she nursed."  He tasted his new ale.  "I don't think I ever told her how beautiful she was to me then, even haggard and sleepless."

Merry looked out at the star.  "It was the year after Frodo left," he whispered.  "I was alone in a field of corn and the sunlight had turned it all to gold.  I was supposed to be seeing if it was ready to harvest, but it was so incredibly bright I hadn't the heart to cut it yet.  I remember going out to an old elm tree in the middle of the field and letting the corn tickle my fingers as I walked.  I was in a sea of golden light and was indescribably happy.  I don't know why, but I was.

"Then, from across the field, I saw a lass walking towards me.  She had dark hair and bright blue eyes and a green bodice that was near to bursting.  She walked right up and, do you know, she looked to me like one of those entwives old Treebeard told us about!  Red cheeks and sun browned shoulders and freckles across her nose.  She smelled of good dark earth and sun warmed wildflowers and… Well, I kissed her." 

He looked over at his friend and Pippin smiled, almost able to see the bright gold and the lush maiden in his mind.

"It was the most unforgettable kiss I'd ever had.  She was like a creature of sunlight and good soil and I wanted to crawl inside her and wrap her essence around me.  I was in love with her before the kiss had ended and I think she knew it."

"And that was Estella?"

"Yes."  Merry turned back to the star.  "I've told that story before, but never what happened after the kiss.  She's a proper lass, my Stella, but I think she could tell there was something magical about that moment."  He closed his eyes and cupped the tankard in his two hands as if he were holding something much more precious.  "She was so soft, Pip.  I don't know what bade me ask such a forward question, but she nodded 'yes'.  I could not believe it, nor, I think, could she!  Right there in the cornfield and the sun.  I'd not been with a lass since returning, not that I hadn't had offers!, but I'd always worried…  We've grown so tall I thought…"  Merry blushed and quickly swallowed another draught of resolve.  "Well, she had no trouble at all.  No matter how vigorous I was, Estella was strong enough to endure it, relish it even, I fancied.  But, now…"  He shook his head.  "I don't dare risk it."

Pippin again didn't know what to say.  He thought back on his own courtship with Diamond.  Their betrothal night she had not been of age, but the headstrong girl had pulled him, not unwilling, into an empty smial.  She had had no trouble either, though he wondered that he had not considered himself a risk to her.  For injury or pregnancy.  Either would have given them away.  He warmed at the memory.

A long, thoughtful silence fell between them and it was Pippin who broke it.  "Merry?" he said.  "I can't speak for your lass, but I know Diamond.  She was such a wild thing, independent and outspoken; I'd have never pictured her a mother, but she has no regrets over Faramir.  For all she endured, she would do the same had she to do it over.  You say you were responsible for Estella's illness, but do you think she would have done anything differently?  Given a choice to bear your children or remain safe and healthy, which path do you think she'd choose?"

Merry stared into his ale and sighed.  "She would have them, of course.  There's no question of it.  But part of that decision was mine, Pippin, and it should have been made with a better understanding of what I risked.  She would give her whole being to her children, and to me.  Her love is boundless, but I must love her enough to take only what she can spare."  He sighed and looked back into his drink.  "And because of me, that's not very much anymore."

Pippin nodded.  He should have known Merry would have thought these things through.  Talking always helped Pippin to see matters more clearly, but Merry's waters ran deeper and flowed more quietly.  Too quietly, Pippin mused, for this particular situation.

"I can't fault your thinking, cousin dear.  It seems flawless, as always.  But it doesn't solve the problem, does it?  You know, you and Estella have always been so perfectly suited that I'll bet you've rarely had to even talk to one another!  Think about it: How many times have you sat down and actually discussed something?  Argued?  Hmm?  Well, it's high time for it, if you ask me."  Pippin raised his mug.  "All your thoughtfulness and self-admonishment aren't making Estella happy, Merry, so perhaps you'd better start asking her what will?"



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