Dedication: To my primary Betas: Shadowfax, who introduced me to a whole new world and makes sure I never feel alone in it, and JewelSong, who helped me rediscover my voice in more ways than one. To my supporters and secondary Betas: Tinewen, for her gentle encouragement, and Rosie, for playing with my kids so I could WRITE. To very special friends: Elanor, a wonderful writer and terrible tease (the Took!), and Willow, whose heartfelt vision of the hobbits and the Shire inspires and influences me just as much as Peter Jackson's! I love you all dearly.
It was not the kind of morning any sensible person would spend poring over ledgers and books. A mist had risen above the Brandywine before dawn, somehow enhancing every sight and scent of springtime once the sun emerged. The sweet fragrance of apple blossoms wafted in from nearby orchards through the open window.
I tried to follow my mother's explanations of the Hall accounts, but my mind wandered, and not with the lighthearted longing to be out and about that the lovely day would have seemed to demand. I felt ill at ease, unfocused. Things were not as they had been. Couldn't she see that?
My mother slapped the desk surface with her open palm in three annoyed staccato raps, jarring me from my musing. She held me flattened under that no-nonsense gaze, hands on her hips, and I realized I had no idea what her last utterance had been.
"Wait…I'm sorry… Those in service receive what percentage more than hired labor, come the tally?"
"You need to learn this, Meriadoc." She stabbed a finger at the piles of paperwork littering her sizable desk. "You'll be Master one day, and although I hope you'll find a wife capable of shouldering many of these tasks, you yourself have got to have some idea of what's what. Speaking of which…" and here a decided glint of determination sparked in her dark eyes, "It's long past time you were seriously courting. You need to choose a bride not only pleasing to you, but capable of being Mistress of this Hall."
My disquiet turned to impatience and I exhaled rather more strongly than might be expected, that sigh speaking volumes. I turned away from her in a vain attempt to hide my irritation, gazing out the window, eager to be gone.
Her typical air of command seemed to dim somewhat. She laid a hesitant hand on my shoulder.
I shook my head, unable to respond. I didn't know what I felt or what to say. She pursed her lips, shut the ledgers, and suggested we take up these tasks later. With gratitude, I exited the study, her quarters, and the Hall, headed in the general direction of the stables. My feet seemed inclined to keep walking, although I had no destination in mind. My thoughts roiled about, fixing first on the possibility of marriage, next on how I would ever inform my parents I couldn't imagine spending the rest of my life in Buckland, then on nothing as my mind went blissfully blank. My feet kept moving, however, off the main road to a cobbled side track…off the cobbled side track to a well tended gravel path…up the well tended gravel path to the…
I hadn't meant to come here. I hadn't.
The small gate, painted bright blue, was latched but not locked. I let myself into the cemetery where Brandybucks have been laid to rest for at least five generations and stopped, suddenly sick to my stomach. The only thing that kept me coming was the notion that you would know, somehow, if I turned tail and fled. It would be rude, I thought with grim humor, to come so near and not pay my respects. Quite unbefitting the future Master of the Hall.
Respect. As if that is all we owe you.
Still reluctant –I couldn't help it—I drew near to you. There was the marker inscribed with your father's name and, on the other side, your mother's. I barely remember them…they died when I was so young. When you were so young.
But I remember you, ensconced there between them. I remember you.
And I am not the only one. The rounded markers, blond wood with dark edging, gleam with fresh polish. A profusion of flowers surrounds all three: tulips and hyacinths and daffodils.
A fresh garland of lavender roses –a specialty of the hothouse at Great Smials—also adorns your grave; Pippin must have risen early to bring them. Though still playful and quick to laugh, our Peregrin has grown up. He is more thoughtful now, more conscious and careful. I smile to think that he was the one who came here with intent and I --the one who drifted on the wind.
A-burst with pink blossoms, a weeping cherry tree shelters you. I kneel in its shade, wishing suddenly that I had brought something to offer, something to give. I glance at the riot of buttercups bobbing on their stems all about the graveyard, but it doesn't feel right to uproot them somehow. They should be left alone, left in their native soil, perfectly formed, perfectly suited to their place and time. Left alone.
As you should have been. If only it had been possible…! Left to grow and flourish in the land of your birth, with death no more than a distant prospect! You should be here beside me, my dearest cousin, my beloved friend.
But you are not. You were lost to me three years ago this very day on another burgeoning spring morning. Shouldn't one die in winter, when all is gray and desolate? I remember far too clearly the lightweight pavilion where you lay for those last days, the dappled shadows of trees just budding and blooming playing on walls and ceiling, the tireless twittering of birds from dawn until dusk as they followed the imperatives of the season. How could one lie in such a place at such a time, slipping out of this world instead of bursting into it?
Three years ago today. Three years ago I knelt beside you as I am kneeling beside you now...
When I arrived at Ithilien, I was weak and exhausted from wound and worry, moreso than I was willing to acknowledge at the time. I had spent too many days helpless to do anything but entertain dark imaginings of what had befallen those I loved most in the world. Then, abruptly, I was confronted with exactly what had befallen all of you.
Pippin, right arm and left leg broken, ribs crushed, nose swollen in a face bruised black; Sam, wasted from want, his torn feet bound with bandages; and…you, your breath so shallow it was hardly discernible. I would put my ear to your chest, careful not to exert any pressure on your fragile frame, reassuring myself that your valiant heart was still beating, that your lungs still struggled to take in air. The softest wheeze would tell me they did and I would persuade myself that somehow you would recover. Your deathly pallor would not convince me otherwise, nor the fact that your body was pitifully emaciated, scored by whip, blade, and chain, a ghastly wound at the back of your neck, your elegant hand mutilated.
Still, as I sat vigil first at one bedside, then the next, I was nearly overcome with dread that one of you would die whilst I watched over the other, my defiant hope a brittle thing indeed. I pleaded with Aragorn to move all three of you into one pavilion together, yet I was dissuaded. He convinced me Pippin's moans might disturb your peace even though you appeared to be far from any awareness of what was happening in the world around you.
It was Pippin who woke first. His chapped lips curved upward ever so slightly as he opened his eyes to find me hovering above him. "Well!" he declared, his voice hoarse with disuse, "I thought I was dead, Merry, but here you are, and I'm not!"
"That's right, Pip." I tried for a lighthearted tone, nearly succeeded at achieving it. I longed to touch him, to bring my fingers to his bruised face, but feared I would hurt him if I did so. Being Pippin, he saw, even through the fog he must have been in after so many days spent dreaming. He could barely move, so tangled in splints and bandages was he, but he extended his fingers to stroke my hand where it lay near his on the coverlet.
"Poor Merry," he said softly.
"It's all right, Pipsqueak," I managed, "now you're all right. They are fetching broth, but I've water to hand. Are you thirsty?"
He was, of course. Aragorn arrived as I was holding a cup to his lips. A broad smile broke out upon the King's face to see our cousin solidly back in the waking world.
"So you have returned to us, Knight of Gondor," he said, stepping over to Pippin's cot. "You have my gratitude for your service in the battle and before. Faramir yet lives thanks to you."
Pippin blushed furiously from neck to ear tips.
"I wish I could repay you in other than discomfort, but some dressings need changing and I would like to assess your injuries now that you are able to tell me what you are feeling. Agreed?"
Pippin turned from crimson to ivory in a flash as the blood drained from his face. Still, he endured Aragorn's ministrations with fortitude. It was only when the King pressed his fingers gently over a ribcage covered with purplish yellow blotches that Pip stifled a cry.
"Does it hurt awfully, Pip?" I asked, stupidly, to be sure.
"A bit," he replied between clenched teeth.
"You need to rest," Aragorn soothed while mixing a tonic intended to accomplish just that.
"All right, Strider." Pippin grinned gamely for him. I cannot tell you what his crooked smile meant to me, how my heart nearly burst with the sweetness of it…! His hurts were many, but as I coaxed laughter from him –at the expense of his cracked ribs—I consoled myself that the worst of his injuries were of the body and would heal. He would be fine…blessed Lady! He would be fine.
His eyelids were beginning to droop when he suddenly roused himself. "But…Merry…what of Frodo and Sam?"
"They are just next door," I assured him. "They destroyed the Ring, Pip, and will soon be right as rain!" Aragorn shot me a pointed look, which I refused to meet or interpret.
"Frodo…safe," Pippin mumbled and began to snore loudly through his now lopsided nose. Avoiding Aragorn's gaze, I turned on my heel and ran to bring you the news.
You were lying there so still, always so still.
"Pip has come back to us," I told you, my fingertips gently brushing your cheek. "It's your turn now, Frodo, love. Please." Somehow I ran out of breath in the midst of my sentence, had to gulp for air. "Please…He'll be expecting you to coddle him. He mustn't see you like this, you know. You've got to—"
I jumped, startled, as a large hand gripped my shoulder. It was Aragorn, although I had not heard him pass from Pip's tent to yours with his silent Ranger's tread.
"Merry…" Loss and pity darkened those gray eyes as he gave the tiniest shake of his head. "No."
I blinked back hot tears. "Could you not be wrong?" I cried almost angrily. "Could he not be stronger than even you imagine?"
He knelt before me, his noble countenance etched with sorrow, his grip firm upon my forearms as he steadied me. "My Kingship…nay, my very life, the lives of those I hold most dear, and the lives and freedom of all my people, I owe to Frodo. I strove to reach him, to heal him, with all that I am."
"But the Lady Eowyn…me!" I objected, barely able to string my thoughts together. "Dread evil near consumed us, but you--"
"He is far beyond my aid."
I pulled my arms from his grasp, dropped my unseeing gaze to the woven rug beneath our feet. The King spoke to the back I had turned to him. "As I reached for Frodo, I sensed… I saw…"
He explained it to me, then, painting vivid pictures with his words, compassionate but unyielding, so I would understand.
The Mountain pulsed crimson. A moon-eyed monstrosity, slathering with glee, overbalanced, fell. He and your slender finger both were incinerated in a flash. Not so the Ring. It resisted, strove to reflect, to absorb, to deny the searing heat.
Between one faltering beat of your heart and the next, It recognized Its failure, lashing out with all Its limitless malice.
It had never needed to be on your finger to hurt you. It had sat in Bag End for the passage of years, insinuating Itself into your being. On a marble plinth in Rivendell or on a chain about your neck, It had been able to twist and blind. Melting fathoms below you, still It dealt you mortal injury. Invisible tendrils of hate and need, of weight and dark power, ripped through you, your body, your mind, your will both freed and ravaged by the rending.
By the time he finished, my forehead was pressed to the back of your poor bandaged hand, my hope finally quenched. "Why then does he linger?" I choked out.
Aragorn's head inclined towards Sam's still form. "To say farewell."
I staggered to my feet, my stomach heaving. He reached out to me as if in solace; I lurched away from him. I somehow knew that if he touched me, I would weep unceasingly for hours –hours I had not to spare.
"Pippin needs me," I muttered as I reeled drunkenly for the door and escape, taking refuge in the copse of birches behind our tents. When I was certain I would not be sick, I numbly took up my station at our youngest cousin's side.
I spent the next several days wandering from Pippin's pallet to yours and back in a stupefied daze. When Pip was awake, I did my utmost to provide aid and comfort. Knitting bones and contusions pained him, and he was miserable at the prospect of a lengthy convalescence. That I was so tense did not help matters; he was far too perceptive not to see through my forced brightness.
One afternoon, sitting hunched in a chair close by him as he dozed, brooding over how I should ever find the courage to inform him you were dying, I looked up to find him studying me with concern. Our gazes locked; I had no chance to mask my raw despair.
"What's wrong?" Frowning, he reached out to touch my knee. I moved to kneel beside him, held his face between my hands. Nearly strangling on the words, I told him you were gravely hurt, that I had been mistaken before, that he must prepare himself.
He held himself stock still for a moment, as if trying to take it all in, then shook his head in denial. "You mustn't give up hope," he stated, determined faith shining from those green eyes. "Frodo's been through too much to leave us now. I'm sure of it. You mustn't worry, Merry."
From then on, far from accepting the inevitable, he chafed all the more at being bedridden, eager to go to you, convinced that he'd know you would be fine if he could only see. I had not the heart to challenge him.
Whenever they dosed him to sleep I watched over you.
I watched over Sam, too, sometimes. At first I actually felt furious with him. What had he NOT done, that you should lie there dying? Why had he permitted it? Why was he whole while you were shattered?
The thought had no more than flickered through my mind than shame flooded me. Had I been by your side? Had I protected you? He had been there with you, through every treacherous mile. Even though I did not know the details, then or now, his body, like yours, told a tale of deprivation and pain. My rage, along with old snobbery and futile jealousy, was extinguished by love and pity. There had been a time I –so shallow, so arrogant!—had openly disapproved of your friendship with this extraordinary soul. My gut twisted with remorse, remembering how hateful I had been when, having left Brandy Hall and me, you had befriended Sam.
I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry. For everything…!
There is so much I should have done! Who was there to oppose what was intended for you, if not I? Elves, Men, Dwarves –they all had their own ambitions, your welfare the least of their concern. Pippin worshipped you and Sam was not only your servant, but loved you with blind devotion. It fell to me, only to me.
I should have prevented you from leaving the Shire instead of abetting your escape, or at least informed my father, sought counsel. I should have stood up in Rivendell and protested the Council's choice –your choice—rather than acting like a tweener going on some lark and dragging Peregrin along to his ruin.
But what haunts me most is that last moment I laid eyes upon you. Sweet Valar, Frodo –the look in your eyes! The desperation, the futility, the grief! Had I done something differently there, by the Great River, had I stopped Pip jumping out of our hiding place, or had I bundled you in, had I…
Oh, Frodo, could I have changed it all? Could I have gone with you? Defended you? Saved you? My mind will not stop rampaging down roads not taken that would have been possible if only I had been… Faster. Stronger. Wiser. Braver.
But I was none of these, may I be forgiven! May I be forgiven.
My head aches…
No matter. Where was I…? Ah, yes. Pip and Sam…
Those hours before Sam awoke passed in a tense and terrible balance. Gratitude for Pip's recovery somehow buoyed me up at the same time a tidal wave of despair threatened to engulf me. I could barely breathe sometimes, sensing that wave curling upwards, higher and higher, still not breaking, poised to obliterate. When Sam stirred, my joy was muted for his waking would bring the wave all the sooner, if Aragorn was right. And I knew, deep down, that he was.
His only thought was for you, you know. The first word from Sam's lips was "Frodo" and he was already trying to reach you across the gap between your bunks before he was fully conscious. He gasped as his injured feet hit the floor, although this deterred him not one whit. He reached your side and stood over you, transfixed, his stricken face illuminated by a single candle's glow.
Aragorn was there, as he had been for me, yet his soft words were unnecessary. Sam seemed to understand without being told. He drank some tea, ate some simple fare, half listened to our tales of what had transpired while he marched with you on the Quest…but his heart and mind had only one focus, could have only one focus, while you still lived. He bided there beside you, as the stars wheeled their way through the sky.
At dawn's first light you opened your eyes.
Gandalf, Aragorn and Sam were with you when it happened. I expect you had words with each of them before Pip and I arrived, although they could not have been many. I had only left your tent ten minutes before when one of the healers arrived to summon us back to you, saying we were needed, and without delay.
Aragorn was bent over you as we entered. I'll never forget the tableau you presented…the shaft of sunlight coming through the pavilion's open flap, turning his hair to gold and illuminating your wan features as he spoke to you in hushed tones. Your eyes were open, attentive, although you closed them when he touched his fingertips to his own forehead, then to yours, head bowed –an act of blessing and veneration. As we entered, he nodded to you as if sealing a sacred pledge and made way for us.
Sam sat possessively by your side, delicately cradling your mangled hand. That you were in pain was clear, your lips pressed together, thin and white, your body beset with a slight tremor. Still, the gaze you directed at Sam shone with a love so pure, my heart caught in my throat. As we approached, Sam whispered, "They've come, Mr. Pippin and Mr. Merry, and you'll not believe as how tall they are." He attempted a smile, as did you.
Pip, looking strained and sickly, had only risen from his own cot for the first time the evening before. I helped him make his way to your bedside. His bad arm in a sling, he used the other to keep a precarious hold on a single crutch, awkwardly angling as close as he could get to the side of your bed opposite Sam. Sam bowed his head as if to afford us what privacy he could as long as it did not involve letting go of you.
"Pip?" you gasped.
Crutch jammed hard against his armpit, he reached to squeeze your good hand with the one he had been using to maneuver. "I'm all right," he stammered, as shocked at your condition as you were at his.
"He's fine, Frodo," I added. "He fought a troll, our Pip, and it sat on him in the end." I conjured up a smile from I know not where. "But he's fine. The healers tell us he will be back in the Shire dancing on tables before we know it."
Your relief was palpable. For a moment, you closed your eyes, in gratitude, I think.
Pippin squeezed your hand all the tighter. "There's so much to tell you…! So much…! You mustn't go…!"
You wheezed, a wet yet rasping sound. I realized you had tried to take in air only to have your seared and poisoned lungs refuse. You struggled to speak through a fit of wracking coughs.
"All worth it, Pip…if a…a laughing Took…can dance in the Shire."
Pippin swayed, his face white as chalk. "I don't want to…to go home without you."
I reached to steady him, but at that moment a spasm shook you. The wheeze worsened, so harsh it reminded me of the chilling sounds you had made after Weathertop. Gandalf firmly grasped Pippin's elbow, pulling him away.
"Be quick, Meriadoc."
It was against my grain to let Pippin, in such distress, be led away from my embrace, but Gandalf's words were not wasted on me. There was no more time.
I took your hand in mine, as Pip had done. Unhindered by crutches, though, I could lean over you, bring my face to yours and gaze one last time into your luminous, sapphire eyes. There was such love, such anguish there. Your lips formed my name, although no sound emerged.
"Tell me what I can do," I implored, overcome with grief. "Please, cousin. Please."
"Bag End." A ragged whisper. "It must…must go to Sam."
You lay there trembling, your eyes boring into mine as though by force of will alone you could make me understand: You loved him. You owed him everything. You would see him rewarded, safe, secure. Your last wish was to give him all you had ever had.
"I'll make sure of it," I vowed, desperate to be, to do, whatever you needed. "For the rest of my days, Frodo. I swear I'll look after them both."
"Bless you, Merry," you sighed –the last words you would ever say to me. A final paroxysm seized you, the force of it wrenching your hand from mine. You arched in agony, only to collapse back onto your pillows, panting.
In contrast to my panic, Sam was a bastion of calm. His gold-flecked hazel eyes looked into yours, full of reassurance, and you gazed back at him, drawing strength. I should have turned away then, for it was the most intimate of moments. I should have granted Sam the same small courtesy he had granted me: to look away.
I could not. I could no more look away from you in your last moments than I could, by will alone, command my own heart to cease beating. I watched as Sam smoothed the curls back from your sweet face, a love tender and fierce emanating from him as he touched you. It was for your sake he held a tight rein on his grief even as, twisting in anguish, you cried:
I don't want to leave you, I don't want to grieve you, but I'm broken, so broken --all of it in your beseeching gaze.
Sam pressed your injured hand even more firmly to his chest, reaching out to cup your cheek with sturdy fingers.
"I know," he murmured. "You saved it all. We'll tend it now. You fly, me…me dear!" His voice broke on this last, adoration and loss beyond measure writ plain on that earnest face.
Your eyes glittered with unshed tears of mourning for things that would never be. "My…Sam," you whispered, your voice a last caress. Then the light fled your eyes and you were gone.
It seemed for a heartbeat that he might shake you, try to rouse you, but he mastered himself, reaching out to gently close your eyelids with their long, thick lashes, hiding the brilliance of those soulful eyes forever. Tears still brimming there spilled over onto your ashen cheeks, leaked into the hair at your temples. He wiped them away, feather soft, bending to bring his lips to your delicate ear.
"No more pain." A whispered promise, a kiss pressed into your hair. A colossal weight seemed to overcome him, then. He curled into himself, your hand still pressed to his heart, shoulders shaking.
For seconds I remained stunned, sensing that wave reach its crest and begin its crushing descent. I reached instinctively for Pippin, both to shelter him and anchor myself. To my shock, he wrenched away from me, hobbling angrily towards Gandalf.
"I'll want to know," he spat out, "why it's my cousin lying there. Dead."
"Pip…" I laid a hand on our cousin's arm. He shrugged it off.
"I'll want to understand why no great Lord, no Elvish warrior, no Wizard went in his place. I'll have an answer, and I'll have it now."
Gandalf turned to deal with our Peregrin –a warrior himself now and no longer naïve. He had seen soldiers, including Boromir, perish before his eyes, but he still somehow believed in his heart of hearts that those he loved most dearly would be spared in the end. My brush with death had only strengthened this supposition, for hadn't I recovered? That this should not be the case, that his beloved elder cousin should be sacrificed thus, was an affront to his entire understanding of the world and his place in it…
"He chose—" Gandalf began.
"NO! I'll not have that. If a wee lad 'chooses' to jump into the Brandywine, do you give him leave?"
Gandalf fell silent, perceiving that Pippin wished only to fight him now.
"Aragorn could have gone. Legolas… Frodo was only a hobbit, a small hobbit…and not a very sturdy one at that. You sent that gentle spirit into Evil and it slew him! LOOK AT HIM! He wasn't strong enough…!"
"He was strong." Sam's quiet voice, steady and sure, silenced Pippin as readily as a shout. He released your hand at last, laying it softly upon your still breast, reluctant to take his hand away, to stop touching. "It was a fight of the Spirit, Pippin, and none in all Middle Earth burned brighter."
Pippin fell mute, tears beginning to slide down his cheeks. When next my arms closed around him, he did not resist.
I don't know why I feel so empty. Even now.
Somehow in the moment you departed this world, pinned between Pippin's burst of rage and Sam's brokenhearted acceptance, I felt my heart shudder to a stop. Something in me fell silent, squeezed and stilled. The wave of grief that had been poised above me for endless days and nights of waiting froze solid, massive yet suspended. The pain was terrible, but only a faint echo of what it should have been.
I couldn't let it swamp me, don't you see? I had vowed to watch over them. I had no time for guilt or mourning. There was an entire world to rebuild, not to mention the matter of journeying back home and driving from the Shire its despoilers.
I made certain neither of them was hurt, Frodo, no matter what dangers we faced. I would not, could not, break my promise to you, nor bear any more loss myself, if truth be told. When it came to defending our home, I put myself between your loved ones and peril every time it was possible for me to do so. I swear it.
When it was all over I enlisted my father's aid, and my uncle's. The three of us very quickly dispensed with what objections there were to Sam's inheriting Bag End. Mind you, there were a few outraged protests, but Pip and I had been witness to your death and your last wishes. Saradoc Brandybuck and Paladin Took together are a formidable pair; the same members of the gentry who might have objected to Sam's possession of Bag End the most stridently were those who would not stand against the combined will of the Master and the Thain.
Of course, Sam refused possession at first. It was almost more than he could conceive of, becoming the Master of Bag End. It defied every one of his fiercely held beliefs regarding his "place". At first I tried to convince him that he deserved it by virtue of his deeds. He was not impressed. In the end, there was only one argument that would sway him: you had wished it. Once I hit upon that line of reasoning, and stuck with it, he became quite compliant regarding the matter.
You would be so proud if you could see him now! He is so alive, so full of light and purpose…! Despite all his sorrows, despite all the dark places he must have seen and the loss he has suffered, he flourishes. He nurtures life in defiance of death, he even creates it…for he has bairns of his own now, lovely round cheeked, curly headed bairns, his little Elanor a beauty even at age two!
At first I doubted it was truly a kindness to grant him Bag End, Frodo. How could your memory not be alive in every corner, in every scent and shadow?
But I am a fool. Sam is a wholly different creature than I. No doubt he rejoices in each and every reminder of who and what you were.
Why can't I? WHY, Frodo? Why is it all so unsettled in my mind, why do I struggle against it on the one hand and avoid thinking of it…of you…on the other?
It is not for lack of love for you, cousin. Please know that. Please know that.
I weren't truly surprised to find Mr. Merry here when I come. His heart's been aching, and…and I dreamt of him last night. Most folks'd dismiss that as stuff and nonsense, but I know you were one as understood such things.
Whatever small magics are left in this world seem to touch me now and again mayhap from all our doings with elves and wizards, although, when I was young, my mum would whisper of such things coming down through our family. My Gaffer'd have none of that, mind, but…
I dreamt of Mr. Merry, and of you.
You were whole and hale, and my heart near burst with joy to see you, sitting there amidst a whole pile of cut flowers, the Red Book by your side. You kept picking up the blooms, trying to wind them about one another with twine, and making a mess of it, too. You looked up at me with that little half smile you used to get when you finally had to admit that you might, just might, need my help with somethin'. I took the posies from your hands and smiled my smile, the one that meant I'd fix whatever it was, and right quick, too.
You looked up and over my shoulder. When I turned, Mr. Merry was near, but he didn't seem to see you, nor me either. He seemed lost, somehow, befuddled and heartsick. Your forehead creased with worry for him, in my vision, and how I longed to smooth that furrow from your brow, to ease your burden.
Seems that's my lot in this life, eh? In one manner or another, and I'd have it no other way.
Then, when I come through the gate and up the path this mornin', there he was, in his fine clothes, sitting on the ground and mindless of the dirt. He was mumbling to himself…oh! Like I am now! And mayhap for the same reason. Talking to you, was he? He misses you something fierce, I'll warrant, as do I, me dear. Every day. Every hour. Though I'm just as likely to natter at you from the garden, as from here. I don't know why it should make me blush to say so neither. Nobody knows it better than you!
Mr. Merry's eyes, when he looked up at me, were hollow, like, so sad and so unsure. Just as in my dream.
My Gaffer'd have me for a ninny, he would, thinking that I'd seen you with the Red Book and the makings of a funeral wreath such as the river folk favor because it meant something. He'd say, "Samwise, Mayor you may be, but you've had too much truck with Big People. There's naught to that dream but too spicy a stew, too much time spent laboring over that fool Book, and Mr. Frodo's death day approaching."
I brought them. Did you see? The Red Book and the river wreath. I wove into the circle every flower from the Bag End garden that's showed itself so far this spring, because Bag End was the place that held you to the earth, creature of air and light though you were. I added elanor from Lorien and eniara from Rivendell, too. Those were the two last places you ever was that were beautiful…the last two places you felt happy, even a little.
Your cousin tried to take his leave before I could offer what I brought –being the well bred gentlehobbit he is, he was giving me my turn with you, I expect—but I laid a hand on his arm and stopped him. He just gazed at me with those sad eyes of his and I knew they were sadder than you could bear, if you knew he was still in such a state.
"Wait, Mr. Merry, begging your pardon," I began, "I'd like to have a word with you."
It was then he noticed the wreath –hard to miss, it was, for I made it fair large. "This is for you," I said, not sure how to get it all out but determined to try, if you understand me. "I would have given it much sooner, of course, as a body ought, but, well…"
"I know, Sam," Merry said to show he understood that when the King sent your remains home there was naught blooming in our dear, scorched land, not for a long while.
"You're Mr. Frodo's closest kin," I went on. "Leastways, you're the one he'd want to have this." He nodded, acceptin' it, handling it as careful as if it were a newborn lamb. "And I…well, Sir, I've been wanting to thank you. You promised to watch o'er me and Mr. Pippin, and a right fine job you've done of it, too. I'd not have Bag End if it weren't for you."
"It was nothing," he replied, flushing, his voice a bit rough.
"It meant a great deal to him as gave it, meaning no disrespect…" I barely had the words to say how obliged I felt to him for all he had done, let alone pry and meddle as I somehow felt called to do. "What I wanted to…What I need to tell you… Well…" I stopped, giving it up, and took a deep breath, gathering my thoughts to try again. "Right before you and Mr. Pippin came to him when he woke, Mr. Frodo asked two things of me. The first was to write down all that happened to us in the Big Red Book as Mr. Bilbo would've wanted."
(I was in a bit of a fix as far as that went, Frodo, for I knew I'd nary the skill you or Mr. Bilbo had with words, but I have kept my promise. I finished only a fortnight ago, putting the last few words down on the final page, and a very tough job it was. Sometimes I didn't want to remember any of it, especially the darkest parts, and yet I would, for your sake, and Mr. Bilbo's. And sometimes it'd make me happy, in some roundabout way, to think on those times because we'd been together then, even if things were as grim as things can get.)
I got to thinking of these things while Mr. Merry was waitin' and he finally said, "And what else did he ask you?" That snatched me back from my woolgathering!
"He asked me to make sure as you and Mr. Pippin were safe and whole. He is…he was…especially worried for you."
He frowned at that, and I could near see the wheels turning in his mind. "But...but why, Sam?"
He gazed at me with those tip-tilted dark blue eyes of his, so different from yours, though quite intense in their own way.
"I warrant, well…" I paused, not accustomed to taking such liberties as I was about to take, "It's just, Mr. Merry…he thought…he knew--"
"He knew you tend to ruminate and you'd twist yourself into a knot."
I about jumped out of my skin, for not only had I not noticed Mr. Pippin coming, but he seemed too mindful of where we were in our talk. It was a bit spooky, to tell the truth, him taking the words right out of my mouth like that.
He sat beside his cousin, placing an arm firm around his shoulder. At first Mr. Merry made as if to shrug away. (Did he think this was some conspiracy we'd cooked up? 'Twas no such thing, although I wondered if that Took had had hisself a dream, too!) Pippin didn't let him back away, no wise, although he didn't snuggle too close. He just looked into Merry's eyes, his own full of an uncanny wisdom for someone who's oft been named a "fool".
"Sam's trying to tell you, Merry, that you've not been the same since our return."
"None of us have!" he protested. "Tell me you don't…you can bear…you don't miss…" His words petered out and he just stared at us grimly, lips tightly pressed together, his breath coming fast and hard through his nose.
Pippin grasped one of his cousin's hands firmly in both his own, but his words were for me.
"You brought the Book, Sam?"
"Aye, Mr. Pippin."
"To tell him the Story?"
"Aye, to tell Mr. Merry. He's never asked me what happened on our Quest. Never once. And I wondered if he might…" Worried it was rude to talk of Mr. Merry to Mr. Pippin as if he weren't there, right in front of us, I turned to him. "Well, if you needed to know, Sir, begging your pardon, and I've brought you the Book, so you can read it afore anyone else, if you like. Or I can tell you the tale myself."
Merry's eyes were big as saucers and I realized with a start that he weren't just terrible sad, but petrified. Pippin sensed it right off, too, for he murmured, "It's all right, Mer."
"I know the bloody tale," Merry groused to cover his confusion. "Didn't they sing it night and day in Minas Tirith before we departed?"
"That weren't the true tale, nor told by anyone who really knew Frodo's heart nor what that Quest cost him. They prettied it up, if you'll forgive me, did the bards… Would you…would you hear it from me, Sir?"
He flinched and I could sense that he came close to bolting.
What on earth did he think he would hear, I wondered, that would make heavier whatever burden of guilt or pain he'd taken on?
I held my breath. Just like you, Merry's a –what did Mr. Pippin call it? Well, someone who thinks too much, anyway, and such a soul can get hisself tangled hopeless if he worries at a problem too long. On my own, I'd always been unsure whether Mr. Merry needed to know more to get hisself unbulloxed, or did he know too much a'ready? But my dream had decided me, and Pippin –who knew Merry better than anyone, maybe even you—was agreed, seemingly. He squeezed Merry's hand and settled him proper.
'Twas mid-afternoon when I began, with the Emyn Muil, our fight with that Stinker, and our nightmare journey through the Dead Marshes. I made sure to tell 'em as how worried you were for them in those early days, how your thoughts kept turning to them, running from those orcs, your heart afraid. Merry closed his eyes shut tight at that, dipping his chin down to his chest and I knew he'd been terrible worried for you, too, after you were parted.
'Twas time for supper when I spoke of the Ring eating at your Spirit, of Nazgul and Black Gates, of our little stew, and the Oliphaunts and men with mad fire…then regret and understanding…in their faces.
Your cousins' eyes shimmered in the last glow of sunset as I told about the Spider and the first time I thought you dead in my arms, and how I left you, and how I found you again. The pitiful state you were in when I found you…
It was then that the strangest feeling come over me… It was as if something cold and threatening were shrunken and changed, like, sea ice into warm tears. From then on, Pippin held Merry close and consoled him, for he couldn't stop weeping as he took in what frightful injury to body and soul you suffered every dark mile. Your courage…oh, Frodo! Your will, your love, your strength…!
I told them all of it. Of that terrible Mountain and how you tried to crawl up its sides…how you made it against all odds to the brink of the Cracks of Doom… How the Stinker finally took the cursed thing in, at the last, along with your finger, which he couldn't never have done if you hadn't got It there, thank you very much!
The splintering of your mind and soul as you fought It every step of the way. The final shattering as those weakened bits flew apart at the end.
"If only I'd stopped him, in the Shire, in Rivendell…at the river," Merry began, his voice thick with grief. "If only…if I…"
"At the river?" I asked, bewildered. "But Mr. Merry…Mr. Frodo said as you'd saved our lives at the river, mayhap even at the cost of your own, for he didn't know what had become of you." I reached out to touch his arm, felt him trembling.
"But if I--!"
"If what?" Pippin interrupted him quietly. "If you'd stopped him, the world would be a smoking ruin and all of us Sauron's slaves." Merry made a sound in his throat and Pippin took him by the shoulders, bringing their faces close. "Every path your feet were set upon, you trod gladly and with a courageous heart. Frodo's path was not yours…nor could you have saved him."
I ducked my head at that, feeling my throat get tight. For I couldn't save you, neither, could I, whether I trod the same path or no?
To my surprise, they gathered me up into a shared embrace and we held each other close for a long minute or two as twilight deepened. Then it was as if a spell were broken. Suddenly Pippin realized his stomach had been empty since before tea and Merry, wiping his eyes, seemed to notice he'd been sitting cramped on the ground for hours. They were rising to their knees when a change come over Mr. Pippin. His face went solemn, his head held high. With deliberation, he leaned over to press his hand to your grave.
"May the Lady keep you…" murmured Peregrin Took.
Another hand molded itself to the soft grass above you.
"May you be forever blessed…" whispered Meriadoc Brandybuck.
They straightened, then, Mr. Merry scooping up the wreath from where it lay. They left, copper head and gold bent together in the dusk, supporting one another as they always do.
You needn't fret nor worry any more for him, Frodo. He'll work his way through. Your Sam can't do much for you, not any more, but he made sure of that.
Now rest you quiet, me dear, and it won't seem long, I promise…
Until I come.
Despite all the release I was granted this day, I could not sleep. I could hear Pippin's snores from the guest quarters adjoining my room as I tossed about to no avail. It was after midnight before I surrendered, padding across the floor to the open window. The moon was just rising over the rounded roof of the wing of the Hall across the courtyard.
As its sparkling beam touched me, I froze, my heart hammering in my chest. I felt…bewitched. Called. No fairy Took, still I was overcome by the insistent summons contained within that yellow-white illumination. The hair on the back of my neck prickled in fear and awe.
It was so clear. To the river. I must go to the river.
And bring the wreath.
I yanked my breeches on, tucking the tail of my nightshirt in; I was far too flummoxed to dress properly. I made my way through the quiet Hall, Sam's gift held gingerly to my breast. I crept past the kitchen with its few early risers at their baking, out and onward, my urgent feet finding a path I'd not trod in many long years. The sky was so bright that even without lantern or torch I did not stumble, but made my way unerringly…here.
Moonlight glimmers on the Brandywine's rippling surface, silver on black. The old willow stands ghostly in the spill of light. There is no sign left now that we ever built a tree house in it, no sign that we laughed and played, worried and wept in this once secret place with the graceful tree and the hideaway cave and the river purling by.
Tears dampen my cheeks; I cannot help it. Your memory is no longer throttled and subdued, but alive and vibrant within me.
The Frodo of my childhood.Tickling and chasing, teasing and laughing. Listening to my troubles, telling me stories, sheltering me. An orphan with nothing to call his own, always giving.
The Frodo of my youth.Bent over books at Bag End, or smoking a pipe under the roof-tree. Flushed with the crisp autumn air as we tramped the Shire's woods, or sweating with hard labor during the harvest. Grinning at some Tookish prank or grim-faced over injustice.
The Frodo of the Quest, so afraid, so resolute.Speaking at Elrond's Council, dying in Ithilien…sacrificing everything.
And I couldn't change it, my dear. Watching the spring flood rushing between the banks, it seems so plain. We were no more in control of our destinies than a leaf a-swirl in the current of the Brandywine.
Sweet Lady, how I wish it could have been different…!
The moon is setting; dawn is near. In the gray half-light, I rock back on my heels and turn my gaze skyward, watching tattered clouds scud across the indigo heavens. A freshening breeze lifts my curls from my brow and I gasp as I am overcome with a sense of your presence. If I tried to describe this, I would be thought utterly mad, but there is no denying the force of the startling essence, uniquely "Frodo", which washes over me and through me…
And brings with it one last memory, a distant one, forgotten until now, if ever it was mine to remember. In my mind's eye –and half in the waking world, for I am not quite sure what reality I inhabit in this numinous interlude-- I see someone standing on the bank nearby. It is a lad, slight of build, dressed in matching breeks and coat, his dark curls unruly. I move forward, sure even before he turns that he is…
Eyes of brilliant cornflower blue fix on me. Tears trickle down pale cheeks. You gaze at me, the slightest smile lighting your features in acknowledgement. I feel myself smile in return, through my own tears, and then I rise to move closer, unable to abide our separateness. You look up at me, for I am considerably taller than you are, and then to the tumultuous waters. Your grip tightens on the object in your hands and I realize with a jolt that you, too, are holding a wreath of flowers to your chest.
No. You are holding two.
I can feel your reluctance and pain. To entrust the flowers to the river is to say farewell, once and forever, and it is hard, so hard, when the love has been so deep it has become part of us. How are we to bear it?
"I should have stopped them…"
"It was not your fault."
"I should have gone with them…"
"It was not your time."
Words of wisdom spring to my lips, unbidden; even as I whisper them to you, they sink into my own soul, releasing me.
The first rays of the morning sun burnish the treetops on the opposite bank. You look up at me, a soft smile on your lips, and turn back to the river. You glance at the wreath I grip tightly, then at the water, your meaning plain. A quirk of your eyebrow questions and I answer with a nod, bringing the garland I bear to my face, inhaling deeply of this fragrant tribute Sam has wrought, every scent a living memory.
With all your strength, you toss the flowers into the rushing flood. You look to me, and I likewise bestow my remembrance upon the cleansing waters. The Brandywine swiftly sweeps the brightly hued wreaths downstream, a part of us journeying with them…to the Sea.
"Good-bye." It emerges half a sob.
And it is good-bye, for the lad is gone. I am nearly overcome with grief and loss, but there is wonder, too, and gratitude, and a love that will never die.
No more can I lose you, my cherished cousin. I have always found you again, and there is only the finding you again before me now.
Joy, unexpected and sweet, surges through me. It is Pip making his way through the tall, dew laden grass, calling my name. My beloved friend is alive, and here, and we have been granted time. I answer his hail and he runs to me. His knowing gaze takes in my mud stained knees, my face full of sorrow and rapture…my empty hands.
"Are you all right?" Unwilling to disturb the hushed and hallowed air, he pitches his voice low.
"I am all right, Pippin," I answer, crushing him to me in a heartfelt embrace. "And so glad you're with me."
He hugs me back, then smiles the impish smile that has captivated me for as long as I can remember, but it is gentle now, compassionate and wise.
"Come along, then. It's a new day, love. And it's time for breakfast."