(February: Wolf Moon)
Just before moonrise, Pippin picked up Sting and walked over to Merry. Sam protested. 'It's early, yet.'
'We have to be ready,' Pippin said grimly. 'We have to strike at just the right moment, and it has to be quick and clean.'
Merry gasped as Sting slashed at his cloak, and then his shirt, baring his chest, the dark bruise-like mark over his heart standing out like a shadow in the firelight. Merry shrank away as the tip of the sword rested momentarily on the mark.
'There,' Pippin said, nerving himself. 'That's the place.'
'Not yet!' Sam said sharply, as Merry sucked in his breath.
'Not yet,' Pippin agreed. 'But soon.' He glanced at the horizon. 'Moon's just arising from his rest,' he said. 'I can see the glimmer. It'll be a few moments more, just that, no more.'
'Wait,' a voice called out of the darkness, and as Pippin turned, the King stepped into the firelight.
'Strider,' Sam said with relief. 'You came.'
'I'm here,' the King said. 'I had a little trouble slipping over the border; your Shirriffs are a bit on edge, it seems.'
'Livestock's been slaughtered in the fields,' Pippin said, with a glance at Merry. 'I'm glad you came in time, Strider. I wouldn't mind if you did this deed. I'm not sure I could murder my cousin in cold blood, but I will if I have to.'
'No,' Merry said, but no one paid him any heed.
'There might be another way,' Elessar said urgently. 'A cure...'
'Cure?' Sam said sharply. 'You didn't say anything about a cure in your letter, just how to make an end, sword through the heart, in the midst of the Change.'
Merry shuddered. 'You're mad,' he whispered. 'You're all mad.' His eyes were filled with horror, and hopelessness.
'I've been scouring the ancient records,' Elessar said, 'and I found one, buried. It was so faded I almost missed it, but the keeper of the chronicles helped me to bring out the faded ink enough to read. There is a cure, a mixture of elements, some found in the South, some found here in the North-land, and if we can get it into him during the Change, it will reverse the curse. He'll be free, and all his descendants after him.'
'Free?' Pippin said, his head spinning. He hardly dared hope. He turned away and walked over to stare into the fire again. Elessar followed, to rest a hand upon his shoulder.
'All I need is a little time,' the King said. 'I have everything the ancient records called for, all but the juice of a certain berry that I should be able to find growing nearby.'
'Time is the one thing we do not have,' Pippin said stubbornly. 'Moonrise is nearly upon us. The deed must be done at moonrise.'
'Please,' Merry called from the tree. Pippin paid him no mind, standing a little straighter, perhaps, but not turning his head. Aragorn looked to Merry, his face expressionless, then back to Pippin.
'There could be another way,' he said as persuasively as he could.
'Listen to him, Pippin!' Merry called desperately. 'Don't do this!'
'It has to be done during the Change, that means at moonrise, but it also means moonset. Give me that time to find the berry, finish concocting the cure.'
'Cure?' Pippin said skeptically.
Elessar nodded. 'That's what the records say.'
'How do we know?' Pippin said.
'If he drinks it, and the mark on his breast fades to nothing, he is cured. The Other will never return. If the mark remains, the only thing to do is to put a sword through it.'
'A sword through the heart,' Sam said, walking up to the fire.
'Yes,' Elessar nodded. 'At least it will be quick and clean.'
Merry made no sound, but he shuddered.
The edge of the moon appeared above the hills to the east, and Merry writhed in his bonds and gave a moan. 'Cold,' he said, his voice shaking, and then it suddenly became darker. 'No,' he said, 'hot...' He fought against the bindings, and for a moment, Pippin caught his breath, fearing they might not hold him.
'Too hot,' Merry said again, his voice a snarl. 'Got to get... cloak... off.' He struggled, then threw back his head. The shadow on his breast grew darker.
'Now's the time,' Pippin breathed, bringing Sting up involuntarily, but the King stayed his hand.
'We'll wait until moonset,' Elessar said persuasively. 'Let him have this chance at life.'
The three watched in horror as Merry became... not Merry, but something unspeakable. Something... Other.
'I don't know,' Sam said slowly. 'I think we ought to...'
'Too late,' Pippin gritted, staring into the Other's slitted eyes. The mark had darkened, and then been covered by coarse hair. 'We'll have to wait until moonset now. No sword can slay him until then.'
Aragorn found the plant by its scent in the dark. Looking at the angle of the moon, he was reassured to find he had hours yet before moonset. He'd be back well before time, at this rate.
There wasn't enough light to see clearly, but his fingers knew what to look for. Carefully avoiding the thorns, he squeezed the fruits he encountered, looking not for the firm, hard ones, nor the ones so soft that they fell into his hand, but the ones that gave slightly under pressure and required but a small tug to detach.
He picked more than he needed into a handkerchief, then found a clearing where enough moonlight streamed to see.
Opening the handkerchief, he examined the fruit by feel, discarding any that felt split or misshapen. He counted what was left, discarded two more. Too much would be deadly; the juice of this fruit was not normally consumed by Man or hobbit. Odd that this plant grew only in this part of the North, but perhaps the Valar had placed it there on purpose. Its only use in the Southern kingdom had been as a fabric dye, coveted for its rarity, but the North had found other uses, as the dusty records had detailed...
Taking the stopper out of the precious bottle he'd carried from Gondor, he began to twist the cloth carefully. As the fruit within ruptured, drops of dark juice stained the cloth and began to drip from the bottom. He counted the drops that fell into the bottle.
Satisfied, he stoppered the bottle again, scratched a shallow hole, buried the cloth with its deadly pulp. As he was covering it up again, a grim voice said.
'Stop what you're doing.' Looking up, he saw that soft-footed hobbits surrounded him, bows drawn.
'What have we here?' a grim-faced hobbit with Shirriff's feather in his hat said softly. 'A ruffian, come back for more? Hadn't ye heard of the King's edict, now, no Men to cross the borders of the Shire?'
He had the feeling they would not believe it was his own edict he was violating.
Pippin's stomach rumbled, and he thought of the food in the saddle bags, uneaten. He knew if he tried to eat now, he would not keep it down. He forced himself to take some water.
The Other caught his eye with an intense gaze, hunger in its expression, slaver dripping from its jaws. 'Ah, Merry, the horror I am saving you from,' he muttered.
Aragorn guessed this to be one of the more unbelievable things that had happened over the course of his life--and he wasn't any spring chicken. He'd seen a lot, over the course of the years.
In the grand scheme of things, he guessed that this would be a fitting way to go, put to the sword by Shirriffs enforcing his own edict. Nice to know they took his laws so seriously. The hobbits were nothing if not law-abiding, and he was tied very tightly to a tree.
He supposed that he could struggle, but he didn't think that it would get him anywhere. Anyway, the hobbits might be moved to strike sooner, and there were many of them, and only one of him.
At moonset, he'd heard the Shirrif say, though it hadn't been directed to him, instead to one of the hobbits with him, the ruffian would be put to the sword. The King couldn't help but feel that it would be a fitting end. His wouldn't be the only death to come with the setting of the moon. Merry would be in good company.
Time wore on and the hobbits gathered around the fire. One was left to guard him, sword out and held at the ready, in the unlikely event the ruffian might somehow free himself from the intricate knots and windings of rope. He eyed Aragorn wearily, as if the thought of the Man's trying anything was more work than he cared to contemplate.
Aragorn, not wishing to feel the sting of a sword, knew that nothing would be tried. His guard had a bow, as well, as did all of the group.
The hobbit shrugged his shoulders a few times and got up to walk in circles before the Man, always keeping one wary eye on the prisoner. Aragorn recognised the attempt of a weary guard to stay alert.
Soft snores could be heard from a few of the waiting hobbits, while the Shirriff threw more wood upon the fire and lit his pipe. Several of his helpers followed suit, and the rich smell of pipeweed smoke drifted past the Man, wakening him from his bemusement. Time was wasting. Despite being in the midst of a situation that felt hopeless, Elessar knew that there must be some way, some hope of escape. Perhaps if he could just distract his guard, then something could be done...
'Weren't very smart of you, to come trekking into the Shire,' the hobbit said, as though he could read Elessar's mind. 'You'll be a lesson to any of your fellows. After you're put to the sword, we'll probably leave you tied to the tree for a few days, just in case any other ruffians happen by.'
He could only grimace in a parody of a smile. Yes, that would be a lesson, all right, if there happened to be any other ruffians in these parts. He rather doubted it; the Rangers were back on the job, and very efficient.
At least they had not taken the bottle, with its precious cure. It still hung from his belt, though his sword and the knives he kept in his boots were gone. The presence of the bottle spoke of some hope. And Aragorn had never been one to give up, when hope still remained.
'I suppose that you wouldn't believe me, if I told you that this was all a misunderstanding.'
The hobbit scowled.
Aragorn decided that that would be a no.
'It's just that I lost my way.'
'Well, you're awful far in to just have lost your way, if you understand what I'm saying. You'd have had to climb over the High Hay to lose yourself in Buckland, you know, and that's an awful lot of trouble, if your aim was to lose yourself. Just be glad that we found you, those Tooks in Tookland would have shot first, and asked the questions later.'
'Well,' and Aragorn couldn't help but grin, 'there haven't been many questions, have there?'
The hobbit scowled. 'Quiet, you.'
Aragorn quieted. It hadn't been that funny a joke, anyway.
The hobbit gave him a hard look and sighed, then shook his head. 'It just can't be.'
The King wondered what it was that he spoke of, but said nothing.
'You picked a bad time to climb over the High Hay,' the hobbit mused aloud. 'Bad things're happening here.'
'You're telling me,' Aragorn answered. The other gave him a sharp glance.
'Sheep worried, hobbits attacked...'
'You wouldn't believe that's why I'm here,' Aragorn said quietly.
'Have you been worrying sheep now?' his guard asked sharply.
'No, but I know who has. I came to put a stop to it,' Aragorn answered.
'You're right, I'd find it hard to believe you,' the hobbit said wryly.
Then, the hobbit was called to the fireside and Aragorn was left in silence. He tugged at his bonds but could get nowhere with that. It seemed as though he would be left here to decorate the tree with his lifeless corpse. He knew they would never believe the truth, and there was no use exposing the Brandybucks to suspicion, since Pippin would be taking care of that problem if Aragorn did not return in time to stop him.
Unless, of course, he could overcome the hobbits, before he was put to the sword.
But then, saving himself from the blade, he would only condemn himself to the arrows.
There was a shout from one of the guards, the one that had been watching him, and the hobbits left the clearing--something had been seen in the darkness, possibly this ruffian had come with friends. Or perhaps it was the sheep-worrier. The hobbits, grim, left the clearing, staying together in a group against the nameless menace they feared. They did not appear too worried about that menace attacking the helpless Man bound to the tree. Not a one stayed behind.
Aragorn was left alone. This would be his time, then--perhaps the Valar themselves had left such a window of opportunity.
Yet as the hobbit that had watched over him returned, Aragorn knew that he had no such luck.
'You'll be saying nothing, or I don't know what might come of it, do you hear?' he was told in a whisper, and the hobbit drew his knife. Aragorn looked to him expectantly, and the hobbit, not needing any answer, reached up and sliced at the rope that tied Aragorn to the tree.
'Won't you get in trouble for doing this?' Aragorn asked quietly.
'Not if you slip away quiet-like,' the hobbit muttered. 'The others are all off chasing after the noises I made in the bushes just now.'
'Why are you doing this?' Had he been a true ruffian, he could have murdered the hobbit as soon as he'd been cut free, and no one the wiser. Did the other know the chance he was taking? Aragorn had a feeling that he did.
'What's wrong with ye?' the hobbit hissed in exasperation, but the Man held his gaze. He dropped his eyes and shrugged. 'I won't have no blood on my hands, do you understand, even if you're just a ruffian. And... you're not like the ones that came before.' He cut free Aragorn's hands, as well. 'But you'll leave now, if you know what's good for you. When they know you've escaped, they'll come after you. If you're gone from the Shire, then you'll have no worries.'
Aragorn knew a blessing when he saw one.
He saluted the courageous hobbit, and then he left, quietly scooping up his sword and knives from where the Shirriff had laid them.
And he hoped that there was still time.
It was getting close to moonset and Strider still had not come.
Sam tried to argue with Pippin, but Tookish determination won out. 'It ends here,' Pippin said bitterly. 'I don't want to go through this again a month from now. What if someone gets killed this time?' Sam could not argue with that.
'Besides,' Pippin added, to clinch his argument, 'We'll never be able to trick Merry the same way again. He knows that we know. He'll be on his guard against us. This is our only chance.'
'What if Aragorn comes?' Sam asked, but Pippin could see the hopelessness in his eyes.
'He won't come,' Pippin said. 'It's too late. Look at the moon.'
Sam looked, and his heart sank. The moon was very low in the West now, his face enormous, silvery cloak turning to gold as he approached the horizon. Mist began to rise from the ground, making his appearance all the more eerie.
Pippin wearily rose to his feet. 'It ends now,' he said.
'I can't do it,' Sam said miserably. 'That's Merry we're talking about!'
Pippin shook his head. 'That's not Merry,' he said sadly. 'Merry's dead already. We're just putting him to rest, is all.'
The Other raised its head to watch him as he stooped to pick up Sting. The eyes were already changing; Merry's eyes now looked beseechingly into Pippin's.
'Just a clean stroke through the heart at moonset,' Pippin whispered, steeling his resolve. 'A clean stroke, Merry. You won't suffer, I promise.' The Other shook its head, the features shifting subtly until Merry's face was looking at him.
'Please, Pippin,' Merry said for a last time.
Pippin glanced at the bloated moon, kissing the horizon.
'Now,' Sam said softly, and Pippin raised the sword.
'I'm sorry, Merry,' he said as he drew it back for the stroke.
Even as he struck he heard a shout behind him, another sword coming from nowhere to parry the blow. Sting missed its mark, and Merry screamed as the blade sliced instead into his shoulder.
Pippin was thrown off balance, tried desperately to catch himself, found himself falling. His head struck a rock and he knew no more.
The only sound in the clearing was the crackling of the fire, the occasional snap as hot pitch ignited explosively, the sighing of the wind in the treetops, and Merry's soft pleading.
'Pippin? Pippin, can you hear me? Pippin?'
He opened his eyes to the darkened clearing, shadows dancing in the firelight. Merry sat by the fire, arm in a sling. Aragorn was on his other side. Sam's voice came from above him; he realized his head was pillowed in Sam's lap. 'He's waking up, I think.'
'Pippin?' Aragorn said softly. 'You gave us quite a scare.'
'I'm sorry, Merry,' Pippin whispered. 'I tried... I tried to give you rest. I'm sorry. I failed you.'
'It's all right, cousin,' Merry said gently. 'You did what you had to do. But it is really and truly all right,' he continued. 'Strider came in time to save me.'
Tears filled Pippin's eyes and he shook his head, even though it hurt to do so. 'He saved you, for how long? Another month? And then what?'
To his amazement Merry smiled, and looking at Aragorn, Pippin saw the smile reflected in the Man's face.
'Strider came in time to save me,' Merry repeated. 'He found the cure, Pippin. He set me free.'
'Free?' Pippin whispered. 'Truly free?'
Merry laughed, and it was the old laugh that Pippin remembered, that sounded like bells ringing and sun shining and the River rippling on a summer's day.