Pippin did not take well to his sudden acquisition of the breakfast clean-up duties. "But you were the one who said I had to train this morning!" he protested. He looked balefully from Merry to the pile of dishes in which lingered the remnants of Sam's porridge.
"That's right," Merry agreed. "And now I'm the one telling you that you're not getting off that easily."
"Mind you don't scratch the pot," Sam added, pushing it into Pippin's hands.
Finally Pippin trailed away through the brush to the stream, muttering dire promises of retribution under his breath. Sam watched him go, a small frown creasing his brow. "Maybe we shouldn't have made him do it by himself," he said.
Merry looked at him in some astonishment. "But it was your idea!" In truth he was feeling a few pangs of guilt himself, but he was determined to ignore them. Pippin was perfectly capable of doing the washing-up. It was just the way he had of sticking out his lower lip when he was upset that crumbled Merry's defenses.
"I know." Sam chewed his lip nervously. "But those are good dishes, Mr. Merry. The Gaffer'd have my hide if I was to let him damage them."
"He won't hurt them, Sam," Frodo said. "And no good will come of spoiling him."
Merry shot him a sidelong look, but said nothing. Of them all, Frodo was if anything the most guilty of spoiling his youngest cousin.
The rest of the Fellowship seemed to have paid little attention to this exchange. Boromir was pacing the clearing, stretching his muscles in preparation for the night's march. Aragorn and Gandalf were huddled over a clear patch of dirt where Aragorn had drawn a rude map with a stick. They were doubtless discussing the Fellowship's route into the foothills of the mountains. Legolas, who had already given his report of the conditions ahead, was seated in the crook of a large ash tree, whittling a piece of wood with his small dagger. Gimli was taking advantage of the delay to have a last smoke before they left.
Merry was just wondering if he had time to head downstream a bit to wash when Gandalf straightened up. Aragorn remained crouched for a moment, quickly brushing away all signs of his map.
"Is everyone ready?" the wizard asked. "We shall follow the stream tonight. It should lead us into the foothills, and provide a good source of water as well. If you take care not to step too close to the edge in the dark –"
"Oye!" Gandalf broke off and looked, as did the rest of the Fellowship, at Gimli. The Dwarf was on his feet, holding up his traveling cloak. His pipe was tucked into his belt, and he had clearly stopped in the midst of putting the cloak on. "Something bit me, I thought," he said, seeing the others looking at him. "But it wasn't a bite, it was a scratch. A splinter, I think," a ruddy hue was creeping up beneath his beard. "It is nothing, I was just – hey!" he looked more closely. "My cloak is full of splinters! Bits of wood, how did…" he stopped.
As one, the Fellowship turned to look at Legolas. With a sinking feeling of inevitability Merry saw the Elf in the tree, the tree under which Gimli's cloak had been spread. There was the knife in Legolas' hand. There was the carving that he had been whittling.
Legolas returned their stares with an expression of utmost innocence. Merry might even have fallen for it, had he not known Pippin for so long.
"You…" Gimli growled, his face darkening as he started forward. Merry didn't know what he had in mind, as Legolas was well out of reach and likely to remain there, but he gave the Dwarf a point for sheer determination. The evening had hardly begun and already Gimli was tied 1 to 1 and climbing.
"I am terribly sorry, Master Dwarf," Legolas said, showing not the slightest sign of remorse. "Your cloak was so low to the ground that I must not have seen it. In this respect it is much like yourself."
One to two, Merry thought, but bonus points to Gimli if he doesn't actually chop the tree down to get Legolas.
"Enough!" Gandalf interrupted. "Gimli, shake the cloak out and be done with it. A splinter or two isn't going to hurt you. And as for you, Legolas –"
But at that moment a high shriek pierced the chill air, and Merry's heart seized in fear. "Pippin!" he cried.
The others were rising to their feet, Gandalf was turning, his grey robes swirling around him, Sam was looking in the direction of the creek bed, but they were all too slow. Time dragged into a crawl, and Merry's feet seemed glued to the forest floor.
Then something flashed over his head, and Legolas was across the clearing and gone, with scarcely the rustle of leaves to mark his passage. The spell broke, and Merry tore after him, scrambling to grab his sword along the way.
He shoved his way through the brush, ignoring the branches that clawed at his skin and clothes. He could hear the others crashing behind him, but Legolas made no sound and the area ahead was silent but for the low gurgle of the stream. Pippin was never that quiet!
"Pippin!" There was no answer. Merry fought on, darting under and around the low branches that tried to block him.
At last he burst out onto the stream bank, and stopped. There was Pippin, looking startled and pale, but unhurt as far as Merry could tell. It was difficult to see properly, because Legolas was standing in the middle of the stream, holding Pippin in mid-air by the scruff of the neck.
Frodo broke through the brush behind him, catching Merry's shoulder to stop himself from falling into the creek. "Pippin!" he cried. "What is it? Are you hurt?"
Sam barely avoided a collision as he joined them, breathing hard. He surveyed the scene at a glance. "My dishes!"
The dishes were, Merry now saw, strewn through the rushes along the creek bank. They were dripping mud and filthy water, as was Pippin. The Took spread his dirty hands in an apologetic gesture, but his mud-streaked face cracked in a broad smile. Recovering swiftly from the shock of being grabbed and hoisted into the air, his usual spirit came to the fore.
"I'm sorry, Sam!" he called unapologetically, his toes dangling a foot above the water. "They're crayfish, do you see? I thought we could have them for dinner tonight! I mean tomorrow morning! Very good eating, if you fry them with a bit of butter and some garlic!"
"You . . . you screamed," Merry said faintly. He was feeling lightheaded. Behind him the rest of the Big Folk were emerging onto the bank, concern vanishing as they took in the situation.
"I fell in," Pippin said, now swinging cheerfully through the air as Legolas carried him to the bank. "There was a big one over by that rock, that one there, and I was trying to reach it so I stretched way out, and I slipped. The water's cold! Thank you," he added as Legolas set him down on his feet.
Merry couldn't help it. He grabbed Pippin and hugged him tightly, ignoring the wet sludge that quickly soaked into his waistcoat. Frodo and Sam crowded around as well, patting Pippin over and checking that he truly was unhurt, until he was twice as rumpled as before.
"Poor old Merry," he said fondly, when he had regained his breath. "You really were that worried about me."
"Yes, well," Merry said, aware that the rest of the Fellowship was watching them with varying degrees of amusement. "Don't do it again, Pip. My heart can't take it."
"Neither can your clothes," Frodo said. Then he looked down at his own besmirched coat and sighed deeply. "We can't travel like this. We need a bath."
"It's growing late," Aragorn interrupted. "We cannot afford to be delayed. If you just wrap your cloaks over yourselves, you can dry while you walk."
"Strider's right," Pippin said quickly. "It's late, and…" he saw the looks on the other Hobbits' faces and trailed off. "The water's really very cold," he muttered, without hope.
"We can't go on like this," Frodo said, scandalized. "We're filthy! I can't imagine anyone –" he broke off, blushing as Aragorn looked at him. "That is, I'm sure that for some folks it would be perfectly fine," he said hastily. "But, you see, we're just not used to living in the Wild yet. We need to take it in small steps."
Legolas, who was wringing the water from his leggings, smothered a laugh. "Quite right, Master Hobbit," he said, grinning as Aragorn turned on him with an outraged expression. "And some folk who are used to the Wild might do well to learn from your example."
"Er, right," Frodo said, and grabbed Pippin's arm before Aragorn could speak. "Come on, Pip." Pippin's protests drowned any further chance for discussion as he was marched away downstream to the bathing pool.
Gandalf watched them go, shaking his head. "Hobbits," he muttered, sounding half-amused, half-exasperated.
Merry heard him clearly, and flushed. He wanted to protest that it was Pippin, not Hobbits in general, who was responsible for the delay. But Gandalf was already turning back toward camp, followed by the others, and he wasn't sure that the Big Folk would understand the importance of distinction anyway.
So instead of speaking he crouched down next to Sam, who was mournfully collecting his scattered dishes.
"Here, I'll do that," Merry said, picking up the stew pot. "Go on and help Frodo with Pippin."
"Thank you, Mr. Merry," Sam said. "I'd best get some fresh clothes from our packs, too." He stood, brushing off his hands, and sighed. "Crayfish," he muttered in disgust, and walked away.
Merry carried the dishes upstream to where the stream flowed cleanly around a sandbar. He pulled off his mud-splattered waistcoat and set it aside, and then knelt to wash his hands. Crayfish indeed. Pippin yelled like all the Orcs in Mordor were after him.
"Well, what did you expect," he said aloud. "He's not a warrior. He's a . . . he's a Hobbit."
"Is there something wrong, Meriadoc?"
Merry started violently, and turned so quickly that he nearly toppled over into the stream. A hand caught him by the arm as he teetered on the edge of balance, steadying him. Merry caught his breath and looked up, his heart pounding, to find Legolas looking back at him. The Elf was crouched less than an arm-span away, balancing lightly on his toes at the water's edge. He tilted his head inquisitively, studying Merry with shining eyes.
"I – no," Merry gasped. "You startled me!"
Legolas smiled. "I did," he agreed, "and I am sorry for that. It was not my intention."
"Oh," Merry said. He took a deep breath, waiting as his heart slowed. "That's all right. I just didn't know you were there." Another fine victory for the great Hobbit warrior, he added ruefully to himself.
"Truly?" Legolas asked. He looked thoughtful. "I was not attempting to conceal my approach from you, Meriadoc. I had been told that Pheriannath – your pardon, I mean Hobbits – had better hearing than Men."
"Oh, we do," Merry said. His legs were beginning to cramp, and he shifted position, stretching them out before him. "At least, I think we do. I can't be sure about Strider, but we definitely hear better than Boromir."
"Indeed," Legolas said. There was a calculating glint to his eyes. "Do you hear better than Dwarves, do you think?"
Merry shrugged. "I think so. Bilbo told me that Thorin's group made a dreadful racket during their adventure, and he could hear things that they couldn't."
"I see." The tone of Legolas' voice reminded Merry acutely of Pippin when he was contemplating some mischief. He raised an eyebrow. "You aren't going to do anything to Gimli, are you?"
Legolas looked at him, and Merry flushed, realizing that he'd spoken to an Elf as if he were a rebellious tweenager. But Legolas did not seem offended.
"Of course I would not dream of harming one of the Fellowship in any way," he said smoothly. "I merely seek to learn more about my companions. And . . . there is no harm in being well informed."
Merry snorted. Legolas smiled again and sat down, folding his legs gracefully beneath him. He reached for one of Sam's wooden bowls, and was rinsing it in the stream before Merry realized what he was doing.
He straightened in alarm. "Wait!"
Legolas paused in mid-motion, looking at him with eyebrows raised.
Merry felt his cheeks heat under the Elf's gaze. "You needn't do that," he muttered, looking down. "I can take care of it."
"I do not doubt it," Legolas said calmly, washing the last of the dirt free and setting the bowl neatly to one side. "Do you object to my assistance, Master Hobbit?"
"Merry," Merry said automatically. "And, no, it's just…" he trailed off helplessly under Legolas' gaze, and shrugged. "You're an Elf," he finished weakly.
"An astute observation," Legolas smiled, picking up another bowl. "But I assure you, Merry, that however the Dwarf may tell you of my numerous limitations, I am still capable of some tasks."
Merry blinked as he sorted through this statement. "No," he said at last. "I only meant, you're a warrior. You have more important things to do."
He didn't expect Legolas to take his protest seriously. He had not known the Elf for long, but from what he'd observed thus far it seemed that there was little chance of stopping Legolas when he was determined to do something.
But Legolas sat back on his heels and fixed Merry with an intense look, as if he would see into Merry's mind and discern what lay hidden there. "This is the third time that I have heard you make reference to warriors as something admirable," he said. "And – forgive me if I am in error, for I know little of Hobbits – but it seems to me that something has troubled you since we left Imladris. You were most insistent upon practicing swordsmanship with Boromir, even when you were tired after a night's march. And you were unhappy when Peregrin did not show the same dedication."
Merry realized that his mouth was slightly open. He hadn't realized that Legolas had heard his conversation with Sam that morning, and it had never occurred to him that an Elf might take interest in his state of mind.
He closed his mouth, trying to think of an intelligent response. "Three times?"
Legolas ducked his head, and if Merry hadn't known better he would have sworn the Elf was embarrassed. "Aragorn's whetstone," Legolas said. "It was not my intention to overhear your words, but he does make a dreadful noise. I am sure he does it deliberately to annoy me."
"Oh," Merry said. He fixed his eyes on the bushes at the other side of the creek. They were cast in shadow now as the sun set behind them. "Well, you heard him then. He says that Hobbits have valor."
"Indeed. That I have known since first I learned how Mr. Bilbo Baggins escaped our cellars," Legolas said. "But you seem to disagree."
Merry shrugged. He was being foolish, he thought. Making a mountain out of a molehill, Sam's Gaffer would have said. But Legolas did ask.
"I know you say that," he said at last. "But we can't fight, not really. And Strider was talking about the – the thing that Frodo has. The rest of us are just… ordinary Hobbits." The words tasted bitter in his mouth.
He expected Legolas to disagree, perhaps to tell him of some great deeds of Hobbit courage that he had heard, or to remind him of his own swordplay with Boromir that morning. But again he was surprised.
"Is that a bad thing?" Legolas asked. "To be ordinary?"
Merry blinked and turned to look at him. Legolas met his gaze expectantly.
"Well, no," Merry admitted. "I mean, I'm sure that Frodo would much rather have stayed home and at peace, no matter what comes of the Quest. We all would. But, you see, we didn't stay home. We're here, and being ordinary isn't good enough any more. Frodo needs our help."
He looked away. "I told Frodo that we'd stick with him, through thick and thin. But look at us. Pippin is better at making jokes than he is at defending himself, and he can't do the washing-up without falling in the creek. The whole Fellowship just… laughs at us."
"Laughter is a rare gift on a Quest such as ours," Legolas said. "I would say that Frodo is fortunate to have such friends with him."
Merry snorted. "Yes, he'll be very grateful to us when we defeat the Enemy by singing one of Pippin's drinking songs at Him."
"He might be," Legolas said mildly. Merry gave him a deeply skeptical look, but Legolas continued.
"I have fought the Shadow all my life, Master Hobbit. I have seen every conceivable weapon used against the Enemy, and have wielded many of them myself. You place great value on strength of arms, Merry, because you have seen little of war in the Shire. But Lasgalen is home some of the greatest warriors in Middle-earth. And they would tell you, as I do, that there are some things that cannot be fought with bow or sword."
He looked down, turning one of Sam's rough bowls over in his hands. "I was concerned, when Lord Elrond first conceived of this Fellowship. It was not the Quest that worried me, though some would name it foolish. But the members chosen for this Company gave me great cause for doubt."
"I know," Merry interrupted. "Lord Elrond didn't want me and Pip to come."
"No?" Legolas said. "Perhaps not. He is one of the Wise, and doubtless he feared for your safety. I am only a Wood-elf, but I will tell you what I saw when I looked at this Fellowship. Gandalf, who is Wise but wearied from many years in this world. Aragorn, who has aged in the manner of mortal Men and grown so hard and grim that at times I hardly recognize the youth I once knew. Boromir, a proud and valiant Man, but also one embittered by war. He has little trust in hope any longer. Myself, and though I am counted young among my people I have yet fought many centuries on the darkest front of the Long Defeat. And," his nose wrinkled a moment in distaste, "Gimli. A Dwarf who has also come to see the Shadow at his doorstep."
He looked at Merry. "The Shadow feeds on despair, do you understand? In my home there are warriors who bear no physical injury, yet are crippled beyond healing in Middle-earth. And now we proposed to send the Enemy's greatest weapon in a company of battle-weary soldiers, who have little cause for hope. We may as well have given the Ring directly to the Witch-king and done away with the preliminaries!"
Merry gaped at him. He had heard Gandalf say that the Ring was drawn to power, but he had never thought of it like that before. Legolas sighed. "I suspect that Lord Elrond chose me for this Company because I am young, and less weary than many of my elders. But there is little innocence left in Lasgalen – in Mirkwood." He spat the name as if it were a curse.
"No. I had little hope for our success, until you and Samwise and Peregrin joined the Fellowship."
Merry shook his head, not sure that he had heard correctly. "But, Pip and me, we can't do anything! Whatever it is that makes Frodo able to carry the – that thing – we don't have it. Big Folk think that we're all alike, but it isn't true!"
Legolas raised an eyebrow. "If I may say it, 'Big Folk' are not all alike, either. Some may judge you by your appearance, but few Elves would do so. Frodo was not chosen as Ring-bearer because of his strength at arms, and Gildor did not name him Elf-friend because he thought him amusing to look upon. He has a spirit that is unique, in my experience, unlike any I have encountered in Elf, Man, or Hobbit."
He leaned forward, looking intently into Merry's eyes. "You must understand: the Enemy preys on that which is unique. Frodo's burden will wear him down, and over time he too will begin to despair. I will do everything in my power to protect him, as will every warrior in this Fellowship. But I cannot fight this battle for him. The only ones who can truly help him are those who know his spirit best. His friends. You."
Merry hesitated, turning this over in his mind. "By singing songs," he said slowly.
Legolas sat back a little, and smiled. "And telling jokes, and talking of food at great length, and extolling the virtues of burning weeds, and complaining that your feet hurt or that your pack is too heavy or that Peregrin has eaten your share of the mushrooms. By being ordinary Hobbits, and reminding him of home. Indeed, you remind us all that the Shadow does not encompass all, and that there is yet hope. You can make us laugh, Master Meriadoc, and that is the greatest weapon that we have."
It did make a sort of sense, Merry thought. As much sense as taking the Ring into Mordor in the first place, anyway. And . . . well, perhaps there was a reason that Gandalf had insisted that Elrond allow them to go with Frodo. Gandalf couldn't be wrong about something like that, could he? And Merry wasn't about to argue with an Elf. And yet …
"I'd still feel better if I was a proper warrior," he said in a low voice. "Being able to fight wouldn't stop me from helping Frodo."
Legolas tilted his head to one side. "Where is your sword, Master Hobbit?"
Merry blinked in surprise and looked around. "I grabbed it when I was running after Pippin – I know it's here somewhere." He spied it lying next to the stream, a dark shape in the twilight. "There," he said, getting to his feet. He picked it up.
Legolas nodded. "You were in a panic about your friend, and still remembered to take your sword. Few warriors could ask for better."
Merry thought about that, turning the sword over in his hands.
Legolas rose gracefully to his feet, piling the dishes and Sam's cooking pot in one arm. He kept his right hand free. The sky was colorless and the forest around them was dark, but Merry could see Legolas clearly, as if he were bathed in a personal moonlight. The hilts of his knives gleamed silver in the night. He looked very tall at that moment, strong and dangerous with the fell beauty of the Elves.
Then he bent down close to Merry, and lightly touched his shoulder. "Be a warrior, Merry, if that seems best to you. But do not be a proper one. There are enough of those in the Fellowship."
He smiled, and walked silently away, seeming almost to fade between the bushes. Merry watched him go, and then remembered.
The Elf stopped, looking back over his shoulder. Merry swallowed. "What you said, about the spirit being most important, is that why you and Gimli . . . is that what you're doing? Taking our minds off of things?"
Legolas raised an eyebrow. "I am sorry, Merry. I am only an Elf, not a Hobbit. And, were I to attempt such a thing, surely I could find a better companion than a Dwarf."
He turned away, but as he did so, he winked. Merry was sure of it. He looked down at the sword in his hands, and thought for a moment. Then he grinned. Tucking the sword into his belt, he grabbed his waistcoat and headed toward the bathing pool. If he and Frodo worked together, they could certainly dunk Pippin before it was time to go.
Coming in 2013: The Gloaming, an original novel by Lamiel. In a world ruled by monsters, you have to be a monster to survive.