"I can't believe he's sending us back."
Pippin muttered the words for what had to be the thousandth time. Merry gave him a quick glance, then reflected, as if Pippin had never spoken, "I wonder what old Fatty's been up to. Didn't have the time to stop in at Crickhollow, did we?"
"Not if we didn't want to have to go through the Old Forest again." Pippin shuddered.
"Now you see why we Bucklanders have always disliked that place," Merry said, raising his eyebrows at his cousin. "I still remember you twitting me about it when we were little. 'Scared of a few trees,' says you. 'Not just any trees,' says I, and you just laughed."
"You never did take me up on that dare."
"I wasn't even in my tweens yet, Pippin! My parents would never have consented to let me stay overnight in the Old Forest."
"Excuses, excuses." But both the hobbits chuckled.
There was silence for a long while as they neared Hobbiton. Then Pippin spoke up again, his voice solemn enough to make anyone who knew the fun-loving hobbit start. "Are you sure Elrond knows what he's doing?"
"He's an Elf-lord, Pippin. Of course he does." But Merry did not sound convinced.
"We told Frodo we would stick with him to the end!"
stopped short at his cousin's explosive tone. "It isn't any
fault of ours that we aren't allowed."
"So what do we do now? Sit and wait to find out if they all live or die?"
"Warn the Shire, like Elrond sent us to do. At least it's something. At least we're not..." he trailed off, then began again, "...useless."
It was only a quarter of an hour later that they found themselves trudging into Hobbiton. Both looked at one another. Pippin turned his head and stared back down the road whence they had come, eyes wide, incredulous, and searching, as if expecting to see shadow leagues behind them, ghosts of their journey.
"It still looks the same," Merry said, almost wonderingly. "I half didn't expect it to—all the rest of the world is so strange and dark that I was almost afraid—" He did not finish the sentence.
"Nothing can happen to the Shire while Strider and his folks are guarding it," Pippin said optimistically, looking forward again. "And now that Frodo's gone, and the Ring with him, what dark forces are going to want to poke about in our lazy Shire any longer?"
"The Shire is in as much danger as the rest of Middle-earth. Perhaps more so, for we—they—don't know what they are facing—don't know that they are facing anything—have no means to combat it with. Elrond never would have sent us if there wasn't a need."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Pippin muttered darkly.
Another silence grew and prospered.
"Look!" said Merry suddenly, in hushed, almost reverent tones. "Bag End."
"What have those Sackville-Bagginses done to it, I wonder?"
"Held a party to show off Lobelia's new and respectably acquired silver spoons?"
Both hobbits laughed, but it rang rather hollowly.
"If we're going to get the Shire to hear any of what we say," Merry said, forcing normalcy into his voice, "we'll likely have to take it to the Green Dragon. A public assembly would never do."
"Who would attend it?"
"They might be too drunk to understand a word we're saying. I hope you've thought of that."
"Oh come, there will have to be someone lucid enough. And if they don't hear the first time, there's always the next. And the next."
They had stopped, almost without knowing it, on the doorstep of the old Hobbiton pub. Raucous song drifted from its brightly lit interior. Merry looked at the door for a long moment. "It seems ominous, Pippin," he confessed quietly. "We go through that door—we come out again, but we'll be different, I think. The Shire will..."
"Have lost innocence," Pippin finished when Merry could not. The sudden wisdom and understanding in his young face seemed alien. "I wish we'd never come. I wish that—the Dark Lord—had never heard of the Shire. I wish—we didn't have to tell them—"
"Didn't have to get laughed at in our faces, more likely," Merry retorted, almost angrily. Then his face turned wistful. "Pip, you're right. I wish...we could have stayed. I gave Frodo my word...and now I feel as if I am breaking it."
Pippin's eyes were suddenly darkly serious as he turned them up. "Merry," he whispered, "I keep having this feeling. That it's not supposed to happen this way. That—that Frodo needs us. I feel as if...as if I have things I must see done, and I won't ever do them. I feel...I feel...like a kite that has drifted into the wrong windstorm."
Merry nodded. "There's nothing we can do now, anyway, except what Elrond sent us to do." He stared at the door a moment more. "When that shuts behind us," he whispered, "it's all over. We can't go back. What's done is done."
"What's gone is gone," said Pippin, and his head turned over his shoulder again. Merry's eyes followed him, and for a moment they almost thought they saw a streak of red flame in the night sky. A dark portent, perhaps—or perhaps it was only a star. Merry set his jaw.
"Come," he said, and pushed open the door.