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25
Conspirator's Yule

Conspirators’ Yule


Eglantine Took stood with her hands clasped before her bosom, her expression frustrated. "But it’s Yule, Peregrin Took, and you haven’t spent a full Yule with us since you returned from—from out there! Why go back to Buckland now?"

"Merry and I spent First Yule here year before last, Mum."

"Yes, First Yule—and then you left for Bywater to be with Frodo."

"Yes, he needed us. I mean—no matter how welcome the Cottons made him feel, it still wasn’t like being at home for him and Sam."

"We asked him to come here, you know."

"And in those days when you and Da were refusing to believe most of what we told you of what happened, where would that have led, Mum? As it was, I was biting my tongue so hard it stung when we toasted the New Year. Just think what it would have been like for Frodo, as sensitive as he was. He would have fled to his room with a raging headache within an hour of supper at the latest."

Eglantine turned her head and looked at the worn carpet under her feet, for she couldn’t deny it. "I’ll admit we were being pretty foolish, Pip. But what was his excuse for not coming last year?"

"You saw him at the banquet just before Yule, Mum—did you notice how thin he was getting? Turns out that spider bite was infected again and he was in a good deal of pain. Sam and Rosie had to lance it, it was so bad. There was no way he was up to going anywhere last Yule. As it was, he couldn’t even bear to walk down to the Yule bonfire—he watched for a time from the windows of Bag End, and was asleep in his chair when we went back in at last.

"But now it’s Merry. There’s no way he can bear to come past Hobbiton right now, knowing Frodo’s not there. Don’t get me wrong—he and I are both so relieved Frodo’s gone with Elrond and Gandalf and Bilbo. But for Sam and Merry, it’s like they’ve lost their favorite brother. Sam at least has his family and Rose and the Cottons nearby to support him, and he’ll accept their comfort. But Merry will need me this year. Please understand, Mum."

Eglantine sighed. She was certain Pippin was right—Merry would need Pippin by him this year, and Esme had already sent word that Merry was refusing to leave Buckland. Now she understood why. "Will you tell him, then, that we love him?" she asked, reaching out and placing her hand on his.

"Of course, Mum," he answered, placing his other hand on hers, then taking it up and kissing it gently. "I’ll be of age all too soon," he said softly, holding her hand to his cheek, "and I’ll be having to be there at Da’s side. I promise I’ll do anything I must to convince Uncle Sara and Aunt Esme to come here with Merry next year. But, for this year...."

She leaned forward, and softly withdrawing her hand she kissed his cheek. "Just promise you’ll dress warmly for the journey, and watch yourself as you ride, love."

"I promise. You keep an eye on Da for me, and don’t let him eat too much roast goose—you know how it always disagrees with him."

She laughed. One last time they embraced, and he at last pulled away and headed for his rooms to fetch his saddlebags. She suspected he’d had them ready for hours.

*******


Before he made the Floating Log Pippin was almost wishing he’d remained in the Tooklands. The weather was foul, with heavy winds and scudding clouds and intermittent rains that were miserably cold when they hit, although thankfully they didn’t last. Fortunately things were calmer when he rose in the morning, and there was no more wind or rain until he was crossing the Brandywine Bridge, at which time a deluge was loosed on those who must be out and about at the moment. By the time he reached Brandy Hall Pippin was soaked.

Merimac was in the stables when he arrived, checking the condition of a pony that had strained a hock a few days previous. He looked up as the stable door creaked open to admit a dripping steed led by a Hobbit who dripped even more water behind him. Not recognizing the newcomer but sensing it was a familiar presence, Mac called out, "And what on earth led any sensible Hobbit to take a pony out on a day like this?"

"Well, it wasn’t this bad when I started this morning," Pippin answered, shaking back his hood, "although I must say by now it’s pretty desperate. May I use the same stall for Jewel?"

Mac rose in surprise. "You decided to spend Yule here? Whatever for, Peregrin Took?" Then as the thought filled him, he shook his head. "Your mother and father haven’t started disbelieving you again, have they?"

The Took shook his head and threw the damp cloak back from his shoulders. "No, they’re behaving quite well, actually. No, everything’s fine at the Great Smial—I just felt I should be here—for Merry, you know."

The Master’s brother sighed as he closed the stall door behind him, coming to help Pippin unsaddle his animal. "He’s not saying anything about it, of course. Almost as closed-mouthed about his grief as Frodo himself would be." He took the saddle from Pippin’s arms to carry it to the saddletree, making a note to have Gomez give it a good rubdown and oiling. Meanwhile Pippin was removing the bridle and headstall, then reaching for the toweling kept for rubbing down ponies that had been forced to be out in damp weather. While Pippin dried Jewel carefully, Mac saw to it a warm mash was placed in the feed bucket for the stall Pippin usually used and that the water bucket was full. Between the two of them they belted a warming blanket over Jewel’s back, the pony ignoring both of them in its greed for the mash; then once the stable was tidied away and the lantern carefully replaced they pulled their hoods over their heads, took deep breaths, and plunged out into the storm toward the side door to Brandy Hall.

"Peregrin Took?" exclaimed that worthy’s aunt as she hurried to help take his cloak. "You ought not to have come through this storm, you know."

"Well, it was bad enough yesterday, although nothing like it’s been since I crossed the Bridge, of course," Pippin explained, shaking his head to relieve himself of the weight of the water he’d taken on in the brief run from the stable. "And where’s my recalcitrant cousin?"

Esme’s face saddened. "I think he’s in Frodo’s room. It’s almost like it was when Frodo left to live with Bilbo, the grief and all, except then he’d speak out about it, demanding to know when Bilbo wouldn’t need Frodo any more so he could come home to the Hall, while now he won’t talk about it at all. It’s just that we see the grief in his eyes, and recognize it as the same as then."

She shook herself. "Well, I’ve just come from the kitchens, and it looks as if young Holly has made the best batch of ginger biscuits to come out of the ovens in years. Shall I send for some for you? Or would you prefer some cold fowl? Amber has several set aside for those who had to work through luncheon."

"Has Merry eaten much today?"

She shook her head. "No—had very little for first breakfast, and didn’t show up for second breakfast or elevenses at all. As for luncheon—he had Amber send a plate to his room with just some fowl and potatoes and greens and nothing more. He’s also been rubbing at his right wrist a good deal."

Pippin nodded thoughtfully. "I see." He ran his fingers through his hair, then said decisively, "Well, will you have Amber send a tray for the two of us to Frodo’s room, please, Aunt Esme? Maybe I can get him to eat at least a bit more."

She gave a small nod, then stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. "You’re a dear lad, Pip, and we love you for it. I know it’s eating at you, too, as it is Sara and me, to have him gone; but of the three of you it seems you’re accepting it best."

He shrugged, putting an arm about her and drawing her near. "I miss him terribly, Aunt Esme; but at least I know he will most likely have the chance to live—really live again now. I almost didn’t want him to come home with us, you must realize. I was afraid he’d need to be by someone like Strider or Elrond just to be able to—to continue."

"Merry—rubbing his hand that way—that’s not a good sign, is it?"

Pippin shrugged again, pulling away from her and looking down at the floor. "No, it’s not a particularly good sign—shows he’s feeling overwhelmed. It was worse for Frodo when he was tired or the spider bite was infected again. I realized I could tell how well he was doing by how much he was rubbing his shoulder." He straightened. "I’ll go see if I can bring him out of it at least a bit. But a good part of his heart went across the sea on Frodo’s grey ship, same as Sam’s."

"And your own," Esme said quietly.

He gave her a small, sad smile. It wasn’t often he let down his own defenses of humor and jokes and light speaking, but he would do so with this, his favorite aunt. "We went with him to help him, thinking we’d be protecting him. But we couldn’t. I guess Merry and I feel as guilty for not protecting him as he felt for not being able to keep us safe." He squeezed her near hand, then turned back toward the wing where the Master’s family had their rooms.

The door to what had been Frodo’s room after his parents’ death was cracked open, and peering inside Pippin could see Merry draped across the bed, a book in his hands. The fir and holly branches that Frodo had always preferred as decorations for his room during Yule season lay along the edges of his shelves, while the wide-mouthed glass bottle Merry had decorated for him one year with glued-on colored tissue paper squares, the jar with the low candle holder fitted into it, sat on the bedside table. Frodo had explained one year to Pippin that Merry had decorated the jar for him the Yule Merry was seven, the last Yule Frodo had spent as a resident of Brandy Hall; Frodo had loved it and treasured it, and had left it there in his room to have among the decorations when he and Bilbo would come to celebrate Yule with the Brandybucks. A candle burned within the jar now, and colored light flickered around the room. The room smelled of the evergreen boughs and juniper berries that covered the shelves and the cinnamon-scented candle.

Merry glanced up from the bed, giving his younger cousin a sad smile. "I knew you would find me," he said softly.

"I felt it my duty to come and instruct Aunt Esme on how to hang the mistletoe," Pippin said, looking down his nose at his cousin. "Feeling the room needs someone to read in it so it remembers him?"

Merry shrugged as he looked back at the book lying on the counterpane. "Perhaps," he said. "This is one of the translations of Elvish tales Bilbo gave him when he was small. It falls open to the story of how Beren met Lúthien. I was just remembering how Strider sang part of the lay there below Weathertop, and thinking how Frodo must have recognized it then. And to think when Frodo read it to me when I was a lad I thought it was just another story. I never dreamed it could have been true, much less I’d come to meet their great-granddaughter, who’d make the same choice."

Pippin nodded as he entered the room and sat on the bed near Merry’s shoulder. "Even Frodo had a bit of a shock, I think, realizing just how many of the stories he loved to read and tell and hear were part of the same story we found ourselves caught in, as Sam pointed out to all of us while we were in Ithilien. But when you were small did you ever dream that there was a real Beren One-hand?"

Merry shook his head. "No," he said, "I never did." He looked up with a lopsided smile. "I put him in the category of things as likely to be true as the return of the King." Both gave slight laughs. Merry shifted to sit upright, his legs crossed in front of him. "It’s just hard to think that we’ll not spend Yule with him again, Pip—that he’ll never hide the mistletoe up on the trim for the door again, like he did a few years ago, and then have Estella, Pervinca, Melilot, and Lilac Bunce hiding in the room waiting to catch and kiss us as we go inside in search of him."

"And he won’t dance with us again, or tell stories of Father Yule or the Forest King any more, or help us write out our troubles lists for the bonfire, or the gift lists we want to burn on the Yule Log so Father Yule can read them." Pippin searched Merry’s face as the older cousin turned toward him. "Although I’ll swear I heard his voice singing on the wind as I rode along the road from the Bridge today."

"Did you stop at Bag End?"

Pippin shook his head. "No, I couldn’t bring myself to stop there, either. Not this year, I fear. Maybe some year down the way we’ll be able to do that, but not yet."

Merry nodded his understanding. "Poor Sam—I hope he understands."

Pippin gave a half smile. "Oh, I’m certain Samwise Gamgee understands all too well, Merry."

Merry solemnly nodded once more, looking away.

Pippin looked around the room. "This is just how he’d have decorated it."

"Yes."

There didn’t seem to be a great deal to say besides that. They sat there together, and Pippin reached down to take Merry’s cold right hand in his own, willing his own warmth into it. At last Pippin began singing Let the Yule Log Burn softly, and as he went into the third verse at last he heard Merry’s slightly lower voice join his. He noted with relief that Merry’s hand was indeed growing warmer, and he accepted the squeeze his cousin gave him before finally releasing his grasp.

There was a knock at the door, and Melilot Brandybuck stood there with a large tray. "Cook said you wished this brought here," she said, addressing herself to Pippin. Merry looked a bit surprised to see Melilot instead of one of the usual servers. She flushed at his expression. "Treasure wanted to go home to Pincup for Yule," she explained, "so I offered to serve for her while she was gone so she could go. She’s a dear lass, you know." Treasure was the lass who usually served the Master’s own corridor.

"I agree—Treasure is a wonderful lass indeed, and I think that if her beau doesn’t ask her soon she’ll throw him over yet, and rightfully so. I’m just surprised that you’d offer, is all."

Again she flushed. "That’s right—you were gone when I started offering to do that, and then you were living at Crickhollow. It was during the Time of Troubles I started. Cousin Sara sent many of the lads and lasses who served here back home. Their folks were being targeted if it was known they were serving here, you see. That Lotho, foul thing he was, gave orders any who served the Master or the Thain or was known to be related to Cousin Frodo or friendly with him was to be targeted. So we unmarried lasses started helping out as we could. I was surprised—helping out was nice, you see, and I never thought it could be nice. So, the last couple years I’ve offered to serve for one of the lasses or another so she could go home for Yule or Lithe or for weddings or whatever. She still gets paid, and I get to do something that really helps someone else."

Merry and Pippin exchanged glances before Pippin rose to take the tray from her. Merry smiled. "Yes, finding out serving someone else can make you feel good was a bit of a surprise for us, too."

"When did you ever serve anyone else," she asked, coming all the way in and seating herself in Frodo’s chair, facing the bed.

"While we were gone, especially toward the end of the quest and afterward, before we came home again. Pippin’s one of the King’s guards now, you see; and I’m esquire to the King of Rohan. While Pippin was serving Lord Denethor, just before the war was won, he was doing a good deal of fetching and carrying as well as message bearing. And both of us would at times be given the honor of serving our lords at meals."

Melilot watched as the two cousins both began eating from the tray, Pippin avidly, Merry slowly and thoughtfully. "If Freddy had gone with you, would he have learned how to handle a sword, too, the way you two did?"

The cousins looked again to one another before Pippin, swallowing his last bite, answered, "They’d have tried to teach him, but I don’t know if he would have done much better than Frodo or Sam, although certainly Sam is far better than he thinks he is. I suspect even Frodo was better than he realized, but he never liked having to wield a blade. Knowing that at times the only way he could be assured he would live to finish his task was if he was willing to kill the one trying to kill him appalled him. And even we often did better when we were hurling stones and rubble than when we had to use our swords. We learned the most once we accepted service to Gondor and Rohan, really. Before that most of our lessons were on the fly, you see."

Melilot nodded thoughtfully, as she accepted one of the gingerhobbits offered her by Pippin and began nibbling at it. "Freddy’s changed a good deal," she finally said softly. "He’s not frivolous any more, not like he used to be, and he doesn’t immediately look for where the table lies when he visits. He never used to pay the least attention to talk of Men on the borders or the trees menacing the High Hay or the talk on the harvests, and now he listens intently to the talk and makes observations the Master listens to with respect."

Merry smiled sadly. "He learned responsibility while we were gone. Without Frodo to take over guiding the rest and us to lead the thefts on the hoards the Big Men set up, he felt he had to do it all."

"He’s a hero to most of the Shire," she noted.

Pippin nodded. "And with reason. When we saw the caverns where he was hiding out so much of the time during the period they were doing most of the raids we were surprised. That old Fatty would stay in such places for any length of time was as great a shock as seeing him when we brought him out of the Lockholes. He didn’t want to leave the Shire for the dangers outside, particularly for the dangers of the Old Forest; yet he faced such great dangers right here at home trying to make certain folk were able to eat and the Big Men realized they weren’t as easily the bosses of all as they thought. Aragorn has been very impressed by what he’s learned, and looks forward to being able to meet Freddy one day."

"Aragorn?" she asked.

"The King," Pippin told her proudly. "Our Strider is the King now, you know."

"But Fatty didn’t go with you."

Pippin suddenly smiled. "No, he didn’t. And everyone’s glad he didn’t. And especially Frodo was glad he didn’t, particularly once he saw what Freddy managed to accomplish here." He looked at her closely. "You care for him, Mel?"

Flushing slightly, she nodded. "He’s so much more interesting and thoughtful now. Not to mention he’s actually very handsome—it was so hard to tell that before." Melilot looked about herself. "So—this is what Frodo’s room was like. I never visited it before."

Merry looked about it, his face solemn again. "Yes, this was his room. I remember slipping in here to crawl into bed with him when I was small, and how he’d tell me stories until I fell asleep again. And I remember the pranks he’d plan here, and how he always knew he could count on me not to tell and give him away. He began teaching me how to write my letters right over there, on the floor, using his lessons slate and a chalk pencil."

After a moment she said softly, "You miss him terribly?"

Both Merry and Pippin nodded. "Oh, yes, we miss him," Pippin said, the pain obvious in his voice. "He was our reason for everything when we were younger, as well as the reason we left the Shire."

"I remember the tales he’d tell," Melilot said thoughtfully. "He knew so many, and could keep us fascinated for hours." She looked at the book lying beside Merry. "That was one of his books?"

Merry gave a brief nod. "One Bilbo sent him when he lived here." He took it up, and after looking at it briefly turned to hand it to her. "Elvish tales for small Hobbits. He used to read it to me, and Sam tells us it was one of the first books he read by himself as well. Bilbo had another copy of it he kept at Bag End."

"He taught me my letters out of it," Pippin said. "I suspect he taught Fatty out of it, too."

The book fell open in Melilot’s hands, and she found herself reading aloud. "And doom fell on Tinúviel, who found love in the arms of a mortal Man. He appears to have read this frequently." At Merry’s nod she added, "I never understood why he never seemed to pay attention to the lasses after Bilbo left the Shire."

Both the cousins’ faces became equally stern. "It was the Ring," Pippin said. "The Ring—destroyed that part of him. He said It—It made him think—terrible things when he looked at a lass. He said he never wanted to be—to be that kind of Hobbit. He’d never talk about it before—or hardly ever. But finally, in Aragorn’s court, he admitted it. The Ring robbed him of everything."

"Why did he keep it, then?"

Merry spoke, his voice low. "He didn’t have any choice, once Bilbo left It for him. You can’t throw away a Ring of Power. I guess it took almost everything Bilbo could do to leave It to Frodo. Gandalf had to almost force him to leave It behind him when he abandoned the Shire."

"And now—now It’s gone?" she asked.

Pippin nodded. "Now It’s gone. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum saw to that."

She straightened in both surprise and dismay. "Gollum? That odd creature in Bilbo’s stories who wanted to eat him?"

Merry gave her a twisted smile. "Would it be too distressing for you, Melilot, to realize that Bilbo’s old stories were not only true, but had been carefully changed to make them less distressing than they really were? That his adventures out there were even more dangerous than he told us?"

"No! They can’t be true!"

Pippin sighed, shook his head, and looked down at his hands. "If only they hadn’t been," he murmured.

In the distance from the common rooms of the Hall near the great doors they heard noises. Glad for the distraction, Merry looked off that way. "Apparently you weren’t the only one traveling now, a day before First Yule," he commented to his younger cousin.

"Apparently not," agreed Pippin. "Whom did Aunt Esme invite?"

"The Bolgers, Cousin Folco Boffin, Griffo and Daisy Boffin—a few others. Not that Griffo and Daisy will come, for I think they have Daisy’s younger brother and sister with them for Yule. Imagine—finding out so long after the fact she has a half sister and brother she never even knew about!"

Melilot’s eyebrows rose. "Frodo had cousins he didn’t know about?" she asked.

Pippin laughed. "Frodo—not know? Ah, Mel, you can be assured that of all the Hobbits in the Shire, Frodo Baggins is the one relative who’s known about those two since the day they were born. Da was telling me all about it a few days ago, you know, how Dudo took the unimaginable step of remarrying and fathering twins after Camellia’s death. Why, Frodo left the lad family head for the Bagginses."

Merry shook his head as he took another gingerhobbit from the tray a half second before Pippin could take it, forcing the Took to take a different one. "Well, he’s the closest Baggins to Frodo himself, after all. And certainly Ponto’s in no condition to take it up since Frodo left, and Iris is having nothing to do with it."

Mel asked, "How’s Ponto taking Frodo leaving?"

Pippin twisted the gingerhobbit he held between his fingers. "When Mum and I visited him last month he was sad, but not overly so. Said he could see in Frodo’s eyes, last time he came over, that Frodo wasn’t doing particularly well himself, and was certain the only reason Frodo came was to make sure he wouldn’t take it too hard when he realized Frodo was gone. He—he pressed me to tell him about the sailing, and was relieved when I told him about that last smile, the one that convinced us that Frodo is going—is going to be all right."

The Hobbitess looked from the one of the cousins to the other. It was the first time either had spoken freely of Frodo leaving to anyone other than those who had to know, or at least she thought so. She’d received one of the letters Frodo had sent before he left, and she’d noted his handwriting wasn’t his usual graceful scrollwork. At last she said, "He was quiet the last time he came, there at the end of summer. Didn’t say a great deal—just commented he needed to meet with Brendi about business and stopped to stay a few days."

Merry nodded. "He apparently left this book on the bedside table. It was there when Mum brought Sam through to show him where Frodo lived when he visited. I wonder if he was reading the story of Beren and Lúthien and thinking of Strider and his queen?"

Pippin looked at the book thoughtfully. "Probably. Ever since the wedding the story always makes me think of them, you know."

Merry sighed. "And with reason."

They were all quiet until a rustle in the halls spoke of others coming their way. They looked up to see Fredegar and Estella Bolger, accompanied by Folco Boffin and Brendilac Brandybuck. "Well," Freddy said, smiling at Melilot, "Aunt Esme told me these two would be hiding out in here, but not that they’d be in such lovely company. Hello, Mel."

Pippin and Merry were rising hastily. "Good to see you, Fatty," Merry said, before noting that Freddy’s gaze was still caught by Melilot, who was flushing and clasping her hands in her lap. He exchanged a look with Estella, and caught his own breath as he saw the expression of delight in her eyes as she looked at him. Pippin looked from one to the next, smiling smugly and laughing soundlessly as he exchanged knowing glances with Brendi.

Young love, Brendi mouthed at the Mistress’s nephew. He pushed by the rest and sat heavily on Frodo’s bed. As he reached for one of the last gingerhobbits he commented, "Once you’ve each taken stock of the one you’re looking at, let us know."

Freddy and Estella laughed, the brother reaching out to tousle the lawyer’s hair. "Just because you’re an experienced widower…" Freddy said, then his smile faded. "I guess you’re experienced enough to find this, perhaps, easier." He looked at the familiar bookshelf, the writing desk, the book that lay open under Melilot’s clasped hands, the flickering candle in the jar.

Folco looked at Brendi sadly, then commented, "I doubt one is ever truly ready to deal with the loss of someone who’s so young as Frodo was."

Brendi shook his own head. "Young? Frodo was older than me, you’ll remember—he was fifty-three when he left us. For all," he added in a softer voice, "he looked the youngest of all of us—until the last."

"That cursed Ring," growled Freddy. "First it kept him younger, and then it left him so much older."

"You seem to know a great deal about it, brother-mine," Estella said as she drifted over to sit at Melilot’s feet.

Freddy exchanged glances with Merry and Pippin. "Well, we were all three involved in the conspiracy, after all, Stel."

Melilot looked from Fredegar to his cousin Folco. "But you didn’t include Folco, too?"

Pippin looked somewhat guilty as he sat back down by Brendi. "His mum was ill, and he was busy taking care of her. He didn’t have a lot of time or energy for much of anything else at the time, after all."

"It was all I could do to bear to leave her to help bring Frodo’s furniture here to Buckland, you know," Folco said, accepting half the last gingerhobbit from Merry, who gave the other half to Estella. "And at least she had her own place back before she died, thanks to Sam and the folks who worked together to build a place for us after Lotho’s folks collapsed the smial." He gave Freddy a severe look as he bit a leg off the biscuit figure. "Although you might well have given me a clue, you know."

"We didn’t even tell Berilac," Merry pointed out. "And if it hadn’t been for your mother we’d have included you, as close as you were to him."

Freddy sighed as he touched the tissue-covered jar softly with one finger. "And it seems this is all we have left of his Light," he murmured.

"Did your folks come, too?" asked Merry.

"Yes—we came in the Bolger coach. Budgie and Viola came, too, with little Drogo. They were being taken to their rooms when the four of us came this way in search of you two."

"The coach must have been rather crowded," noted Pippin.

Estella smiled at her brother. "It seems so much roomier since the Time of Troubles is over. Neither Mum nor Dad is anywhere as big as they were before, either. It’s as if each of us is less hungry than we were, realizing we don’t need as much as we used to think we did since then."

Pippin nodded his understanding. "Well, we certainly both know a good deal more about how little we can get along on now," he said with a significant look at Merry, who gave a brief nod of his own. "Not," he added, "that we were asked to go without as long as he did."

"Frodo was so thin when you came back again," Melilot commented, "worse than he was as a lad when he lived with Uncle Bilbo."

Freddy, however, was searching Merry’s face. "He wrote in his book that he and Sam were living almost exclusively on the Elven lembas bread." At Merry’s indication this had been true, he went on, "What did he look like when you first saw him after that?"

Merry’s face was pale, and again he was rubbing at his wrist as he perched on the edge of the bed. "I could barely tell he was alive, him or Sam. Aragorn had put them into a deep healing sleep. You could see Sam’s breathing if you watched closely; but Frodo was barely breathing at all. His face was so pale. They had a healer come in and turn his body about once every hour or so, for he wasn’t able to move on his own. I laid my hand on his chest, and finally I could feel his heartbeat. They were still giving him small swallows of water and broth and juice every half hour, and boluses of more three times a day. Strider and his Elven brothers were coming in several times a day to massage his arms and legs and belly and back, and making his limbs move so the muscles wouldn’t totally waste. When at last Sam moved on his own the news went through the healers’ tents immediately; and the first time Frodo himself shifted in his sleep they brought out the wine and ale for the whole camp, including the wounded soldiers and Riders."

"It was a couple days after Merry arrived the first time they carried me to let me see them," Pippin continued the story. "I had splints on my leg, for the bone was broken almost the whole way through; and my chest was wrapped because of the cracked ribs, and my hip was strapped due to it having been dislocated. I’ll advise you, from experience—if you ever have the fortune to kill a troll, don’t stand immobilized as it falls, only to get buried under the beast. It’s most uncomfortable waking up to what you’ve had done to you."

Merry laughed. "And you were quite the sight, once I saw you, black and blue and other colors I doubt anyone would appreciate from all the bruises, swathed in bandages yourself. You were asleep when I walked into the tent where they’d put you, and I was afraid you were dead."

"That I was most definitely not," Pippin said. "You cried out, and I woke up and tried to sit up to see what was wrong. Thought we were in Minas Tirith after the battle of the Pelennor, and that you’d awakened from one of the nightmares caused by the Black Breath, only to find this time I was the one in the healers’ care."

Melilot looked at the two Travelers. "Then the two of you were hurt, too."

Merry nodded. "We were quite the group of recovering Hobbits, once we finally returned to Minas Tirith," he said. "Frodo looked the least hurt of any of us, but in truth he was the one who had suffered most."

Pippin gave a great sigh as he looked at the candle’s flame inside the decorated jar. "At least he was able to know a couple more Shire Yules," he said gently. "And I hope that they have decorated whatever place they’ve given him and Bilbo with evergreens and holly, and that they’ve filled the room with candle light."

"Do Elves make gingerhobbits, do you think?" Estella asked as she wiped her hand on her skirt, having finished her own half biscuit.

"Oh, they have their own special winter treats," Pippin said with authority. "Buns made with cinnamon and honey, apples soaked in sweet mead and coated with thickened honey and then rolled in spices and nuts, cups of wine punch made with foreign fruits and juices. I doubt Frodo is going without as the year turns, if the cooking of the Elves of Tol Eressëa is anything like that of the Elves of Rivendell. Although we left Rivendell on my birthday, just five days before Yule."

"What a time to find yourself wandering through the wild," Folco said, stretching, "as Yule approaches. Snow, I shouldn’t wonder, and cold rains and freezing nights."

"Yes, it was rather bad," Merry agreed. "But we were together, and with Frodo, helping take care of him, and that was what we wanted."

Melilot rose and reluctantly set the book, now closed, back on the bed between the three who sat there. "I must return to the kitchens to see if there’s anything else needed of me," she said gently. She looked around the room, then gave a smile. "You know, it’s as if I feel him there, realizing we’re all here together, and happy about it." She began to sing The Stars of Yule, a song that had been one of Frodo’s favorites, and the rest found themselves joining her. By the time the song was through she found Freddy had taken her hand, and that Merry held Estella’s gently. They then filed out of the room, Merry last, leaving the door fully open, the flame of the candle in the jar flickering merrily behind them, and indeed the room didn’t seem abandoned at all when Esme and Sara approached it a few moments later, and smiled through their tears to see that Merry had done his best to decorate the room for Frodo as he’d done every year since he was a teen.

*******


On first Yule Merry made certain a bunch of forced spring flowers from the glass houses were placed before his mother’s chair in the dining room, a duty Frodo had left to him, and Pippin quietly carried a vase filled with holly sprays and berries to set on the table by Frodo’s bed. Pippin and Merry took it in turn to tell stories to the younger children to keep them busy, and Brendi and Freddy helped the youngest with their troubles lists and gift lists for Father Yule.

Somehow the pleasure of seeing the bairns’ excitement filled them all, and Merry whispered to Pippin, "You know, Frodo, years ago, told me how much more Yule meant to him, seeing how happy it made me; and I certainly realized that year how much it happier it made me seeing how excited you were. Now there’s this new crop of children…." Both smiled.

During the dancing Merry danced often with Estella, while Melilot danced with whoever asked her; but during the slower dances she consistently danced with Freddy, who couldn’t perform the more energetic ones any more. Pippin danced with his aunt and several of the lasses—including Melilot; but there came a moment when he realized Merry was no longer among them. It was after the lighting of the bonfire, which all had trooped to the regular place halfway to the river to enjoy. There was more dancing here, dancing and singing; but when Pippin looked to ask Merry something, he realized Estella was standing between her mother and her brother, while Merry had disappeared completely.

"He was getting melancholy again," she told him, "there just after he put his troubles list on the fire. I’m not certain where he went, but I think he just needed to be alone."

Pippin had sneaked a peek at Merry’s troubles list—every other line he’d had a chance to read had begun I want Frodo to be here or I want him to be well. He suspected that those wishes would appear on Merry’s, Sam’s, and his own troubles lists for years, if not for the remainders of their lives.

"I’ll go in and see how he is," Pippin decided.

"But if he needs to be alone…" she began.

"Then I’ll leave him alone and come back out. But the reason I came here is to be by him while he needs me." And at Estella’s nod of acknowledgment he turned back toward the Hall.

Merry wasn’t in Frodo’s room this time, nor in his own, nor the library, nor the storage room where he used hide himself away as a teen. Frustrated, Pippin went back to Frodo’s room, and noted that the drawer to Frodo’s desk was partly opened. Struck with a thought, he opened the drawer completely and reached for the hidden spring he’d discovered the winter he was eleven, back when he kept riding away from the Great Smial to spend time with Frodo and Merry, hoping to avoid Ferumbras and Lalia. The small piece of facing snapped open, and Pippin peered in, noting that the key it had always contained was gone. So, that was where he’d find Merry. He left the room and headed for a wing at the back of the ridge into which the Hall was dug, a wing along which few families lived at this time.

He paused outside a door that was seldom opened and listened. At first he heard nothing, but at last he heard a muffled sob, so he pushed on the door and went in. Merry knelt on the floor, holding Frodo’s old stuffed pony, weeping, his face pressed into the plush fabric with which it had been fashioned. Primula Brandybuck Baggins had crafted that pony, using a pattern commonly used by Hobbitesses across the Shire. When Frodo agreed to change rooms from those usually inhabited by his family when they visited Brandy Hall to stay in the Master’s wing, he left several items here that he most closely associated with his parents, including the stuffed pony. Some items such as the Bilbo box, a chest Drogo had carved for his wife, had finally been sent to Frodo after the refurbishment of Bag End; but a few items had remained here. Frodo had kept a key to these rooms, and had on occasion slipped into them when he most needed privacy or most strongly missed his parents’ presence, and Pippin remembered once, when he was nearly twelve, coming here with Merry in search of Frodo during one of Frodo’s first visits after Bilbo’s leaving, and seeing Frodo in an identical posture, also holding that pony, weeping into it just as Merry was now.

Pippin came forward and placed his hand on Merry’s shoulder, realizing he, too, was weeping. Neither went back out to the bonfire, and it was near dawn before Pippin coaxed Merry to his feet, took the key from him, and led him to his own room, and the two curled up beside one another much as they had during the quest after the separation from Frodo and Sam, accepting the comfort of one another against the confusion and pain of loss they felt.

It was late in the afternoon before they joined the rest of those gathered in the great hall, their eyes still shadowed with the grief they’d shared. Esme looked up as they took their places and gave a sign to Melilot, who hurried off to the kitchens to let Amber know the Heir and his cousin were now awake and needed the food set aside for them earlier. Saradoc smiled. "A package arrived while you were asleep, Merry," he said. "It’s from Dahlia Grubb."

Brendi, who sat near the fireplace, lifted a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, and brought it over to present to his cousin. It was a fairly large parcel, and Merry examined it, looked a question at his father, and then drew out his pocketknife to cut the string.

It was a clay sculpture, one Aunt Asphodel had helped him and Frodo make, back when Merry was seven, the same year Merry had decorated the jar for Frodo. It was a sculpture of an Elf, the Elf who had come the previous summer to speak to Bilbo while they were in a meadow having a picnic.

The work was mostly Frodo’s, and was very rough compared to many of his later drawings and paintings, but it still held in itself an ethereal feeling. Merry smiled, his face glowing with pleasure. "The statue we made," he whispered. "She sent us the statue we made and gave to her for Yule!"

Estella came near, her face shining with delight. "You helped make this, Mer?" she asked. "Oh, how wonderful!"

"Frodo did most of the work, of course. It was the first Elf he ever saw, I understand. He always did love the Elves." He laughed. "I can even recognize him—remember meeting Lindir at Rivendell, Pippin?"

Pippin came near, examining it, his own face filled with pleasure. "Lindir? You think this one was Lindir? I doubt he’d be flattered, for it’s not quite the right height for the girth, I fear. But, yes, I do believe this is a fair likeness of Lord Lindir."

Merry turned the statue around to look at it from all sides. "Dear Frodo! And dear Dahlia, to send it to me! Oh, how glad I am."

Saradoc had fished a sheet of foolscap out of the wrappings, and carefully straightened it to read it.

Dearest Merry,

I received your letter yesterday telling me about how it was Master Frodo chose to go stay with the Elves, like old Mr. Bilbo. I’m so sorry, for I know how close the two of you were to one another, and I’ve always admired him, since he was but a lad himself.

I decided to send this to you as a Yule gift, and hope you’ll appreciate it. It’s given me a great deal of pleasure over the years since the two of you gave it to me, so long ago; but as it’s a statue of an Elf, I’d think it would give you comfort, knowing he’s gone with the Elves and will stay with them from now on.

Remember always just how much I love you—how much I’ve always loved you. And when you look at this, remember the two of us, your cousin who loved you so much, too, and me.

I don’t fully understand why Master Frodo couldn’t come back again, but understand he was in failing health and needed the help of the Elves. I know that in the stories old Mr. Bilbo told, the Elves were always finding places that had been hurt, and helped heal them. That they could do so, maybe, for mortals as well is a hope.

I send my best wishes to your family and friends. And do let me know when you find a love of your own. I’ll tell you this—I intend to dance at your wedding.

Love always,

Dahlia Tunnely Grubb


Merry listened carefully to the letter, holding the statue to himself as he did so. "Dear Dahlia," he repeated. "She always could help when I was feeling sad. She always seemed to know the right thing to do." He turned to look at Estella. "Well, Stel, would it give you pleasure to see Dahlia dancing at our wedding?"

Estella stopped, her face gone pale, her mouth opened in shock, her eyes shining suddenly with tears of joyous surprise. "You’re asking me?" she finally got out.

He nodded, and fished in his pocket. "Frodo gave me this," he said as he pulled out a ring set with an amethyst. "It was his grandmother Ruby’s, you know. He said he hoped I’d gift it to the most beautiful lass I knew in all the Shire, and I guess that day has come. Most of his mum’s things he left to Narcissa Boffin, but this he gave me for my birthday."

Estella reached out and took it, examining it carefully. Then Merry took it back, and slipped it on a finger of her right hand. "If," he said softly, "of course if you’ll agree to have me."

Her eyes were swimming as she searched his face, then she threw her arms about him, whispering, "Of course," before she leaned forward to kiss him.

The rest of those in the hall appeared frozen at the scene playing itself out before them. Finally Fredegar rose, clapping with delight. "Good enough!" he said. "It’s about time, Meriadoc Brandybuck!" And then the whole assembly crowded about to congratulate the both of them.

*******


The next day Pippin prepared to set off back to the Tooklands once more. "I wish you’d stay a bit longer," Merry objected as his cousin fastened the saddlebags to Jewel’s saddle.

"No, you don’t," Pippin said with a shake to his head. "If I stayed, I’d be honor bound to play every prank ever played on any prospective bridegroom, and you know it would only be a few days before you’d decide to send me back off home with a bee in my bonnet. And besides, Mum and my sisters and Da will all be wild to know." He leaned forward to whisper loudly in Merry’s ear, "Just remember that the first one to marry you to Estella was Frodo, years ago when you two were little ones and he was still a tween."

Merry flushed, but with pleasure. "So he did. So, this time when it’s Da saying the words, I’ll remember when it was Frodo saying them."

Mac, who stood nearby, laughed. "Well, at least you won’t need to have a marriage contract written—I kept the one you talked Brendi into writing for you then, you know. Showed it to old Bernigard from the Great Smial once, and he told me it was proper to be binding."

Pippin hugged his cousin, and mounted Jewel. "Well," he said as he looked downwards, "at least the weather’s better now. Take care, cousin, fellow conspirators." He leaned down to take the bag of food Esmeralda had prepared for him. "And keep an eye on him, Aunt Esme, Estella."

And with their assurance they would do so, he grinned at where Freddy and Melilot stood hand in hand near the Master, gave a nod, turned Jewel about, and headed for the Brandywine Bridge, whistling First Footing as he rode away.

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