"Merry."

"Huh…?"

"Merry!"

"What?" He opened his eyes and found a pair of bright green eyes staring down at him, maybe an inch from his face. "Pippin," he said grumpily, waving the younger hobbit away.

"I found something that you've got to see," Pippin said, grinning from ear to ear.

"I don't want to see it," Merry said groggily, trying to ignore his best friend. He shut his eyes, but knew Pippin remained, gleeful as ever, looking down at him. Finally, he sat up in his bed and stated, "Fine, I'll look. But this better be good."

"Oh, it is," Pippin said excitedly. He bounced happily out of the room and toward the door, waiting for Merry.

When the elder hobbit emerged, fully clothed, he followed Pippin outside and all the way to the edge of the Old Forest. "It's in there?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Pippin nodded and pushed open the gate. He led Merry into a clearing and to one of the most wonderful sights either hobbit had ever seen. Barrels, crates, and boxes filled the clearing. There were too many to count, they found out later.

Pippin jumped over to one of the barrels. "Filled to the brim with ale!" he cried.

"Where did these come from, Pippin?" Merry asked in awe.

"Impressed, aren't you?" Pippin opened one of the crates. Rather, he tried to open it. With all the strength inside him, the most he could do was lift one of the boards a bit. Though at least he could peek in. He licked his lips, already able to taste the meat and cakes and bread inside. He threw his arms about it. "Come on, help me carry this."

"Pip, I don't think that's such a good idea," Merry warned.

"What? Whoever left it here obviously didn't want it," Pippin said, attempting to lift the box. He looked at Merry, wheezing from the effort. "Are you going to help me or not?"

Merry glanced round at the surroundings then sighed. "All right."



By nightfall the two had successfully brought two crates of food and a barrel of ale to Brandy Hall.

Pippin shook his wet hair away from his face and wrung out his coat. While carrying the second barrel from the forest, he had slipped in some mud and fallen. Merry could not carry the barrel by himself, and he fell backwards. The barrel, of course, came crashing down between them, soaking both hobbits with the potent drink.

"What do you say, we set out again tomorrow to get a few more?" Pippin asked, taking a cloth to his face.

Merry nodded slowly, buttoning up a new dry shirt. "I don't think we should be taking this stuff, Pippin. I mean, what if the owner comes back for it?"

"What idiot would leave that much food so close to hobbits?" Pippin questioned. "Besides, who's to say they would know it was us, anyway?"

Merry climbed into his bed. "I suppose you have a point. We'll have breakfast and go out again. But this is the last time, Pippin." He blew out the candle near his bed and shut his eyes. He could hear Pippin quietly scrambling about the room, preparing for sleep, then nothing, but the light breathing of himself and his companion.

~

When Merry awoke the next morning, he was surprised to find his cousin still fast asleep. He guessed it was near eight o'clock as he quickly dressed.

He found his mother busily cooking breakfast in the kitchen - his father, he assumed, was out in the fields already.

"Is Master Took not up yet?" his mother inquired.

Merry shook his head, piling some eggs and sausages onto his plate.

"Well, if you two are planning on doing anything today, I'd get it done quickly. A storm's brewing - I'm sure of it. Those clouds are certainly dark, and getting darker by the minute."

When Pippin finally stumbled to the breakfast table, Merry was already finished. "Tired, Pip?" he asked, chuckling. He had been waiting for Pippin for over an hour.

Pippin yawned and ate a quick breakfast before they left for the Old Forest.



Pippin glanced over his shoulder, which, Merry noticed, he had been doing frequently. "What, is something bothering you?"

"No," Pippin replied quickly. After a moment, he said, "It's so dark in here. I don't know how you can go in here alone."

Merry shrugged. "I don't know...I practically grew up in here." He looked around at all the trees. "And now I know all about those talking trees." He glanced up at the sky. It certainly was getting darker - the morning sky was hardly recognizable from the evening sky.

"Here we are again," Pippin said, smiling at the clearing. "Does it seem like there are some missing to you?" He looked at Merry.

Merry was just about to speak, when he heard Pippin shout something and point behind him. He was only just able to turn around before a heavy weight met his face, and his world went black.

~

Merry opened his eyes with great difficulty. He was in a lot of pain; his eyes felt swollen, his nose hurt and he assumed it was bleeding. His hands were bound and on top of that, his body was bound to the tree he was leaning against. There were two larger people sitting on barrels, hooded and smoking pipes. One of them stood up and walked over to Merry, taking out a dagger. He felt the tip touch his neck.

"So, little halfling thieves, are you? Thought you could get away with stealing our food, well, not this time." The man spoke with a very different accent than Merry or Pippin, it was ragged and rough. Not a voice very often heard in the Shire. "Where'd you put it?"

Merry didn't answer; he was finding it difficult to stay awake.

"Answer me!" the man ordered angrily. "Where'd you put the crates? Two of 'em, we're missing, and a barrel of ale."

"We didn't take anything," Merry said firmly.

The gruff man swiped at Merry's cheek with his dagger. "Lying won't do you no good, halfling."

He felt blood trickling down his face. He glanced at Pippin, who was still unconscious, apparently. "What would you do if I told you where they were? Would you let us go?"

The second man rose from his seat, but as he came closer, Merry realized it was a woman. She was covered in filth, like the man. "Let you go? We should roast you right here with the stolen goods!" She crossed her arms. "But we won't."

"What?" growled the man.

"Be quiet, Haroseth," she snapped.

"Thelia, we could sell them! I know a few men who could use a couple servants." Haroseth grinned wickedly. "They pass for children."

Merry looked to Pippin, who was awake and looking frightened.

Bravely and maybe a bit foolishly, Pippin said, "People are going to notice we're missing. You'll be stopped."

Thelia rolled her eyes. "Don't be so naïve, halfling." She looked at Pippin, who stared coldly at her. "Yes, I'm sure your families will notice your absence…" She drew her sword and held it threateningly. "But no one…no one has ever gotten in my way." She had dark, unnatural eyes, Merry noticed. He'd never seen anything like them. The way they would just stay transfixed on something - she didn't even blink. "Now, where are the missing crates?" Thelia demanded.



"There's got to be something in there besides food," Merry whispered. He and Pippin were walking side by side through the woods. After Merry admitted to what they had done and where they had put them, the two humans forced them to set out at once to Buckland. "What if they're filled with gold…or jewels?"

"That would explain the weight," Pippin commented.

"Almost there," Merry said, pointing to a series of lights flickering in the distance. "Look, they've lit all of the lanterns because of the storm."

"Oh, great," Pippin groaned. "I'd forgotten all about the rain."

Merry put a comforting arm around Pippin's shoulders. "Don't worry, Pip, once we get to Brandy Hall, we'll give them what they want and make a run for it."

"Hey!" Thelia yelled. "I didn't untie your hands for you to saunter about. Move faster!"

Merry pat his cousin once more and returned his arm to his side.

~

"You can't go in there," Merry stated once they reached Brandy Hall.

"What are you talking about?" Haroseth growled furiously.

"Well," Merry began, thinking quickly, "my six strong brothers, who have all been trained in sword-fighting are probably waiting by the door, weapons in hand." He held his breath, wondering if they had believed him.

The humans exchanged looks Merry could not decipher. "Fine," said Thelia. "You go in and get them, but he stays here." She tightened her grip on Pippin's arm.

Merry glanced at his friend. His plan wasn't really working out. "I can't lift them on my own. I'll need help."

Haroseth made a deep grumbling noise in his throat. "They're trying to put one past us, the little worms. Let's just take the gold and kill 'em."

Pippin's eyes widened with fear as Haroseth stroked the hilt of his dagger. It was quite a large dagger, he noticed. It wasn't really even a dagger at all; it was a sword. Calm down, Pippin, he thought. You're exaggerating - it's just a small knife.

"All right. I'll go in and get it." Thelia pulled Pippin towards the door by his curly brown hair. "Lead me to my stuff."

Merry looked around for a means of escape. Haroseth was sharpening his dagger. He glanced over his shoulder. There was a bush behind him, an easy way to hide. The man would surely know he was there. He thought, I might as well try, and rolled into the bush.

"Oy! Where're you off to?" Haroseth shouted.

Merry reached behind him, grabbed his pack, and threw it as far away from himself as he could.

"I'll get you," the man grumbled, lumbering off. "Those short legs won't carry you far!"

Merry sighed in relief. He would wait for Pippin to return, then pull him into the safety of the bush. He waited in silence, and waited…waited…



Pippin never came. The rain started to come down hard upon Merry's head and he left the safety of the shrub. Merry wasn't sure how long he stood there, whirling around, looking for Pippin, or how long he searched. He finally broke down somewhere in the woods and dropped to the ground, burying his face in his hands.

"If I hadn't tried to escape, at least we would be together," Merry said to himself, his voice quavering. "At least I'd know if he was alive…"

~

"Where's Merry?" Pippin asked desperately.

"Get in the boat." Haroseth gave Pippin a violent shove.

"Where's Merry?" he asked again, more loudly.

"Shut your mouth and get in the boat!" Haroseth yelled.

"I don't like boats," Pippin said as he was pushed into the canoe.

"I don't care." Haroseth got in and pushed off with his foot. He took up a paddle and soon they were moving swiftly along the misty river. "Your precious Merry tried to escape, since you're so set on knowing. When I found the little rat, I cut his throat." He smiled viciously.

Pippin's eyes widened and he sat there, motionless in the boat for many minutes. At length he said defiantly, "You're lying."

"Quiet, or I'll cut you too," he growled. "Now leave me alone so I can paddle this thing."

Pippin hugged his knees to his chest and rested his head on top. Merry, dead…how could this happen?

~

Merry's head snapped up. Someone was shouting. He jumped up and ran toward the noise. "Please let that voice be Pippin's," he muttered to himself.

He reached the Brandywine, from where the voice had been carried. "Come on," he said quietly. "I know you're there." Then, slowly, it came, floating around a bend in the river. A canoe, and a rather large one at that, was nearing. Merry ducked down as the boat floated by. "Pip!" he whispered. "Pippin!"

The hobbit glanced up and looked around. He had obviously heard something but had no idea what it was.

"Pippin!" Merry could whisper no louder, for fear that Haroseth would hear. He poked his head out of the bush. The canoe was near enough to the shore that he could reach out and grab Pippin. That looked like his only option. "Pip!" he said one last time as a warning, before the Took was yanked out of the boat.

"Merry, you're alive! I knew you were!" He pulled his cousin into an embrace.

Merry crawled away from the river. "Come on, quickly." They began to run and did not stop until they reached Brandy Hall. The two hobbits quickly carried the crates of gold to the Brandywine and threw them in. They did the same with the ale.

For the next several days they feared the return of the humans. Pippin insisted Merry stay with him in Tuckborough to which Merry gladly accepted.



As time went on, the hobbits couldn't help but wonder why the thieves had never come back for their riches. They found their answer just days later, while tromping near the Old Forest. The mangled body of a man lay at the foot of the wall, torn and nearly unrecognizable.

Pippin swallowed, trying not to imagine Haroseth's death.

"What do you think got to him?" Merry inquired somberly. "Wights?"

Pippin shrugged. "Maybe wargs."

"You're both wrong," a commanding voice said from behind. Thelia. Neither of them had even seen her coming. She wiped her sword with a scrap of cloth. "I wasn't very pleased with him, to say the least."

"So you killed him?" Pippin asked incredulously.

"Well, he was hardly what I would call faithful," Thelia said. "I caught him down by the river, fishing my gold out of it. He told me he planned to come and find me before he left." She stared at her sword glistening in the sunlight. "I didn't give him the chance." She stretched out her hand and grabbed Merry. "And I'm not going to give you the chance either."

Before Merry even knew what was happening, Thelia cried out and staggered backward, clutching her arm. She removed her hand, which was covered in blood and stared at it. "You little maggot!" she screeched, running at Pippin.

Merry knew what to do. Quickly, he drew his sword and brought it down into her back.

Thelia lingered a moment, her glassy eyes looking into Merry's, before she plummeted to the ground, dead.

Merry took back his sword and sheathed it. "I never wanted to do that again…I…I told myself I never would."

~

"You couldn't help it, Merry," Pippin said. "She was going to kill us."

"Maybe…no…you're right." Merry sighed. "The look in her eyes before she died…I can't help thinking she deserved a second chance. And maybe they both did."

Pippin drank from his teacup. "Think whatever you want, but I say you did the right thing."

"You don't understand, Pippin, you're too young." Pippin frowned. "I could have hurt her without…killing her." He looked up and Pippin was staring at him, clearly baffled. "Frodo would understand."

"You're mad," Pippin retorted.

"Maybe I am." Merry rose from the table and walked toward his room. His hand lingered down to the hilt of his sword, and he stopped. He stared down at it for a moment, then unbuckled the sheath. He dropped it on a shelf and shut his door.