“Pippin?” Paladin Took’s voice was becoming frustrated.
His son straightened from his examination of a scene that appeared to be present only in his mind. “Yes, Da?” he said, as if this were the first time his father had spoken his name rather than the sixth.
“Your mind isn’t really with me today,” Pal commented.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Da. I suppose I must have been thinking of something.”
“You don’t know whether or not you were thinking?” The Thain did his best to keep his tone light. “We were speaking of the effects of the Fell Winter, if you’ll remember.”
“Yes, now I remember.” Pippin’s face was pale, and Pal noted a light sheen of sweat on his upper lip. “The thought of wolves crossing over the Brandywine into the Shire is----” His voice trailed off.
Pal found himself remembering a short portion of the Red Book, and realized that the talk must have brought to mind certain memories. As he continued he noted Pippin was now paying attention, but that it was a bit forced.
An hour later Pal was sitting at his desk going over a letter he’d received from the Long Cleeve in the Northfarthing, while Pippin sat with one leg draped carelessly over the arm of the chair his parents had had built for him for Yule, reading one of the record books for the Great Smial, reviewing crop yields for the past sixteen years, when his mother entered carrying a square carton made of pasteboard. “Good,” she said with satisfaction. “I need your longer fingers, Peregrin dearling. Ezra has this so tightly packed I can’t get it out on my own.”
The top of the carton was open, and whatever the item was, it had a thick layer of wool batting on the top. On removing this he could see a curve of pink glass. He looked a question at his mother, who appeared most satisfied. “These are all the rage now, and I ordered this color in especial because it will look wonderful in the garden, there by the azaleas.” Then as Pippin found he couldn’t get his fingers between the item and the sides of the box she suggested, “Try by the corners, sweetling. You should be able to get your fingers around it there.”
“What is it?” Pippin asked as he tried her suggestion and found he could finally get purchase on it.
As he began to lift the item out of the carton she answered, “It’s a gazing ball. Ezra Longbanks makes them, and folks are putting them into their gard----”
She and Paladin both jumped as the sphere slipped from Pippin’s suddenly nerveless fingers and smashed all over the floor. Pippin’s face had gone grey, and he looked down at the shards of pink glass with eyes that were now hollow. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’ll order you a new one. I’m sorry…. Ezra Longbanks, you said?” He stepped back hastily from the carnage, and bolted from the room.
Eglantine searched her husband’s face, her own face pale. “What was that about?”
Pal looked after the way their son had taken, grief in his heart. “I think it’s part of what they went through out there, Lanti” He looked into her eyes searchingly. “Something will happen to remind him of what happened out there, and he seems to slip out of himself--gets his mind caught on what happened to them.” He looked back toward the door again. “I think we ought to think on having another talk with Lord Halladan. Do you feel up to a trip to Bree, love?”
Eglantine Took gave a distracted nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a good thing, Pal. I’ll find the ash pan and a broom and sweep this up.”
Saradoc Brandybuck entered the room carrying two mugs of mulled wine, noting that Esmeralda and Merimac had managed to get warmed blankets about the shoulders of Paladin and Eglantine Took. “Where did Pippin disappear to?” he asked as he pressed a mug into the hands of each of his guests.
“Almost before you left the room he went in search of Merry,” Mac said. “What brought on the decision to travel here now? Here we are, early March, and it’s still as cold and wet as January, and the three of you and Aldenard are all about frozen. Treasure took Aldenard off to the kitchens to get him warmed up and see him get a decent meal.”
“It really was warmer yesterday when we left Tuckborough,” Lanti said before she took an appreciative sip of her drink. “Oh, but this is welcome,” she added.
“It started raining a half hour after we left Waymeet this morning.” Pal sighed, “and it’s been raining the whole way since. As for why we came now--well, that’s due to Pippin. He’s been distracted for days, is having more nightmares again, although he does his best to hide them, and it seems almost everything seems able to put his mind back on what happened to them out there. We were talking about the Fell Winter and wolves entering the Shire, and I think his mind took him to the night their fellowship found itself attacked by wargs. Then he dropped Lanti’s new gazing ball, and he fled in a panic. We decided he needs to be with Merry at the moment, and it’s likely Merry needs him, too. And we wondered if you’d like to visit the Prancing Pony to see if Lord Halladan’s out there--or someone who can let us know if we ought to be worried or not.”
As Sara sat opposite the Thain he nodded thoughtfully. “Drink that down, Pal. So, Pippin’s a bit off right now, too, is he? Merry’s been that way for at least a couple weeks. He’s been champing at the bit to get off to Tookland and be with Pippin, but we’ve been unwilling to let him go with the weather as changeable as it is. He had that nasty cold in mid-January, and the healers didn’t want him exposing himself to the uncertain temperatures and possible rain. I mean, look at you four--you must be worried to have come all this way through this.”
When they finally went in search of the lads, Merry and Pippin were found in the library. Merry had wrapped a lap rug about Pippin’s shoulders and was forcing mulled cider into him. “No, I’m not giving you warmed brandy right now, Pip--you know what Strider said about drinking spirits when you’re too cold--how it gives you the illusion of being warmer while actually allowing you to lose body heat. Only reason he’d allow the miruvor was because we only were allowed sips, and the fruit and herbs it was made of actually did increase personal warmth--and even then he was watching us closely.”
Pippin grimaced, but accepted the cup offered him, letting one hand linger on Merry’s right hand. “It’s very cool,” he said, looking up at Merry accusingly. “So, you’ve been having problems as well as me, have you?”
Merry looked over his shoulder at his parents and aunt and uncles, and sighed. “Of course, Pippin. It’s only been three years, after all, although it’s not been as bad as last year, or the first one.”
“Then why did you get sick this year and not last year or the year before?” his cousin asked between sips.
Merry shrugged. “I didn’t exactly get sick on the anniversaries, Perigrin Took.”
“Oh no?” Pippin’s expression was disbelieving. “So why did you catch cold in the middle of January, then? Seems we were very cold about that time of year, and then in shock at the loss of Gandalf. And now your hand is cold. Tell me again how it's not been worse--worse this year with----”
“With Frodo gone? Is that what you mean? I suppose that might be part of it.” Swordthain examined Guardsman, the expressions on both faces far too weary to be proper to such young Hobbits.
Saradoc gave his wife’s brother a searching look and then a decided nod. “Yes--I think it would be useful to speak with Lord Halladan.”
The next day dawned with a watery sun showing below clouds quickly retreating eastward, and a sky to the west that looked as if it might actually remain clear for some hours. The Thain’s carriage was readied, as well as the ponies for two Brandybucks who’d chosen to attend on the Master and Thain, their ladies, and their sons. Merry grumbled about being forced to ride inside the carriage, but since Paladin Took was insisting on the same for his son there was little in the way of argument he could offer.
It was as they were ready to turn onto the Road eastward toward Bree that they saw another riding coming from the west, and paused to see what other travelers were considering going out to Bree. It proved to be a farm wagon with a canvas cover raised, and driving it was Old Tom Cotton, Samwise Gamgee sitting beside him on the bench looking somewhat mutinous. Behind, under the cover and wrapped warmly in a number of blankets and cloaks sat Rosie and her mother Lily, with Nick cradling Elanor to keep them company.
“What’s this?” Saradoc asked, taking in the expression on Sam’s face and the determined one on that of his father-in-love.
“He’s gone stubborn on us,” commented Farmer Cotton. “Been distracted for weeks, he has, and gettin’ more so by the day. Felt as perhaps he might be needin’ to be by your sons, Mr. Brandybuck and Mr. Took, sirs. We think as it’s all the wet and misery o’ the weather, made worse by his Master bein’ gone, like. Hope as you don’t mind the intrusion an’ all, but he’s been moonin’ around Bag End enough t’ drive my lass mad.”
The farmer examined the coach facing him, and seeing Pippin and Merry’s faces behind the isinglass of the coach window he gave a sardonic grin. “Word was, Mr. Took, sir, as you and the missus was headin’ this way with young Mr. Peregrin, and so we’d thought perhaps to join you and let this one have a talk with others as knows what he went through; but it seems as you’ve a plan to hand.”
“We’re heading out toward Bree,” the Thain explained. “Felt we maybe ought to speak to a Ranger or two, perhaps even Lord Halladan if he’s there, and let these two be with maybe some they knew then. We hope it’ll give them a bit if a chance to talk it all out of their system, and maybe help us understand a bit more. If nothing else, the complete change of scene might just help them break free of the melancholy and the memories a bit--put it in perspective, perhaps?”
There was a bit of discussion, and more persuading; but at last Lily, Rosie, and Elanor took Merry and Pippin’s places in the coach, while they climbed into the wagon bed and wrapped themselves in the abandoned blankets and quilts alongside Nick Cotton. The farmer’s son looked at them askance once the journey continued. “So, it’s not just him as is havin’ troubles, then?”
Pippin shrugged. “You can’t go through what we went through and not have the memories rear up and bite you from time to time,” he admitted. “And it’s probably worse for all of us due to the weather--grey weather, wind, and rain seems to bring on nightmares in all of us.”
“That, ’n Mr. Frodo bein’ gone, I suspect,” Nick commented. “Must be hard. I know as my sister ’n Sam sometimes find themselves at loose ends. They go by his room with his books ’n all, and him not there to look up and smile at ’em….”
Pippin and Merry exchanged glances, and Merry said, “We’ll always miss him, I’m afraid. But he’s had to go on, and we’re here, and this winter’s been so cold and damp it’s been enough to leave anyone a bit distracted.”
Sam turned about on the wagon seat. “You been havin’ ’em, too?” he asked.
“Yes, and this time it’s things I barely remembered until I read the Red Book--like the wolves there in Hollin, near Moria,” Pippin admitted.
“Can’t forget those,” Sam murmured. “Thought for sure they’d get my Bill.”
“So, how come you’re not riding him?”
Sam gave grunt of disgust. “They wouldn’t let me, these four. Said as I as so distractible I’d likely ride off the road and get lost in the Woody End or something.”
Merry decided to change the subject, and turned to Nick. “How’s the apprenticeship going?” he asked. Nick had decided to learn how to make harrows, and had apprenticed himself to a harrow maker in the Northfarthing shortly before they’d left the Shire, although when the Time of Troubles started he went home to try to help his family as he could. Shortly after their return he’d returned to his master, and Pippin was rather surprised to see him along on this trip.
“All done,” Nick said with a degree of quiet pride. “Made my own harrow, from start to finish, and it was accepted by Master Goold. I’m my own Hobbit now. Got home four day ago, and Dad decided he’d take me along--talk to the Master and the Thain and mebbe find wheres some folks might need a harrow maker o’ their own. And after the open invite Mum and Dad got from the Master to come to Buckland about any time, when they realized Sam was fightin’ the shadows a bit they decided we’d do best to bring him along your way.”
Old Tom turned about. “And it’s a fine harrow, it is. Right fine harrow. Master Goold taught him well.” He turned back to the road ahead.
“You got your swords with you?” Sam asked.
“Of course,” Pippin said. “We slid them over there--a bit uncomfortable to wear sitting in a wagon bed, you see.”
“You think we’ll meet trouble?” Merry asked the gardener.
Sam shrugged. “Nothin’ wrong with bein’ prepared, is all,” he answered. He was quiet for a time, then said, “I keep seein’ the eyes of old Bill Ferny in my dreams--him as he was when he watched us leave Bree. Know as he don’t live there no more, but find myself thinking’ o’ him anyways.”
“What a thing to remember,” Pippin said.
After a silence Sam continued, “There in Mordor--that orc, the slavedrivin’ one as forced us to keep on marchin’ the time as we was caught on the roads and made to go toward one o’ their forts--he had the same eyes as Ferny. I noted that. I see them eyes, and sometimes it’s Ferny, and sometimes it’s the orc.”
“I don’t understand,” Merry said, “why this year is worse than last year and the one before.”
“Don’t know,” Sam said. “Don’t know.”
No one bothered the cavalcade of two wagons as they drove past the Old Forest and the Barrowdowns. At last they approached the gates to Bree, which were open to allow any entrance and exit. Berilac had been sent ahead to take rooms for the party, and once they’d surrendered the ponies, coach, and wagon to Bob they went in to join him, hurrying for it was clouding up once more and looked to dump more water over a land that had received more than enough in the past three months.
“You want how many rooms?” Barliman Butterbur asked.
Berilac went through the list again. “We have four married couples, one with a bairn, and six single gentlehobbits, however you choose to divide us up.
“And all Hobbits of the Shire? That’s a powerful party of Hobbits, small master,” Butterbur sighed. “Don’t know as we have that many rooms for Hobbits, really, for we have a party here from Coombe, we do.”
At that moment a Hobbit farmer came in and pushed by the Bucklander. “We’ll be leavin’ now,” he told the innkeeper. “Managed to talk Mugwort into finishin’ our wagon first, and we’ll be able to pick it up next week. Thanks, Barliman, for all your help and hospitality. How much do we owe you?”
Once done, Butterbur looked at the young Shire Hobbit. “Well, you’re in luck--looks like I have just enough room after all, although it will take a time to prepare the two rooms what just was freed. Rest of your party not with you yet?”
“They’ll be here shortly--I rode ahead a short ways back.”
“And your name is….”
“Brandybuck. I see.” Butterbur examined the young Bucklander. “Why this sudden interest in comin’ out to Bree? Not that I’m pryin’, of course--just curious.”
“We hope to meet with a Ranger or two--Lord Halladan if he’s anywhere about.”
“I see.” Butterbur continued his consideration. The Shire Hobbits appeared to have more of a relationship with the Rangers than the folk of the Breelands did. More were beginning to realize that the mysterious folk from up around Deadman’s Dike way had been secretly protecting their borders for generations, although it was still a difficult idea for many Breelanders to accept; but the Shirefolk appeared able to take this information as one more change in the current order of things and get on with it. “Well, I’ll be givin’ you the whole north wing, like. And how old’s the child?”
“Not quite a year, although Elanor is a particularly quiet and even-tempered baby.”
“Good enough, then, sir. Now, if you’ll just take a place in the common room, you can keep an eye on the main door and catch the rest as they arrive while I get Nob on changing the bedding and all and seeing to it as the water pitchers are refilled. We’ll be having a nice brisket today--the wife’s been on it much of the afternoon; and there’s jacketed potatoes baked in the embers and….”
Once the rest of the party arrived Butterbur was impressed. “Why, it’s the Captains!” he exclaimed. “And Mr. Gamgee, isn’t it, sir? And is this your wife and daughter? The rooms are almost ready for you, and we’ll give you the same parlor as before. Would you wish to take a time in the common room, perhaps? No? Well, I’ll take you down, as Nob and Bellsfrage are seein’ to the preparin’ of your rooms. This way--this way.”
They were soon finding places in the parlor, which seemed crowded with this many Hobbits filling it. A cheerful fire danced in the grate, a wonderful contrast to the again looming skies and dripping rain out of doors as seen through the round windows. The innkeeper bustled out and returned again soon enough with pitchers of ale and mulled cider and cups for all. “Jape’ll be bringin’ you some bread and butter and cheese, as soon as Missus Butterbur has it all prepared,” he promised. “Nob and Bellsfrage should be finished soon enough, and will be showin’ you your rooms. I trust you’ll be comfortable enough.”
Saradoc Brandybuck cut in, “I thank you, Mr. Butterbur--but we’re wondering if any of the Rangers are present in the inn?”
“Not of the moment, sir, although they come and go, don’t you see? They tend to come in a bit closer to time for supper.”
Master and Thain exchanged looks. “Then,” Paladin Took decided, “we’ll set someone to watch. Thank you, Mr. Butterbur.”
Bormac Brandybuck was set to watch in the common room, an assignment he welcomed. “But how will I recognize them?” he asked as he paused in the doorway.
Sam volunteered, “Whoever it is’ll be wearin’ a cloak of silver, green, or grey, probably a bit on the stained side, will have a star holdin’ it closed on his shoulder, and will most like have a long sword and perhaps a bow as well. Don’t know about the others, but Strider tended to sit at the table in the far corner. Whoever it is may well light up a pipe--certainly Strider enjoys a good smoke.”
“Although, if a King’s messenger comes in he’ll be wearing a tabard similar to mine,” Pippin added, “with the White Tree and seven stars and the winged crown on it.” At Merry’s nod of confirmation Bormac went out to take up his watch.
Farmer Cotton examined the three of them where they sat together on the far side of the table provided. “Well, just gettin’ the three o’ you out of the Shire appears to of helped,” he observed. “Color’s better on all of you, and your eyes are brighter.”
Merry nodded. “I suppose so,” he murmured. Pippin shrugged, and Sam sighed and looked toward the windows.
Checking her daughter, Rosie commented, “I’ll be needin’ to change her now. Wonder where….”
At that a middle-aged Hobbitess came into the parlor from the further corridor. “We have part of yer rooms ready now, masters, mistresses. I can show you the rooms for couples, at least.
Rosie rose in relief. “Good,” she said, “for this one needs changing.”
Soon Sam and Rosie, the Cottons, the Master and Mistress, and Thain and his lady were examining the rooms assigned to them. Rosie was pleased with the truckle bed provided, and quickly had her daughter changed, fed, and tucked in for a nap. “Not what she’ll stay there,” she commented to Mistress Brandybuck as she returned to the parlor. “She was an early, early walker, she was, and will be lookin’ to find me or her dad as soon as she’s awake again.”
The barman had brought the promised bread and cheese and more pitchers of ale and cider, and now all were feeling far more refreshed by the time Nob indicated the other rooms were ready. He looked at Pippin and Merry, “I thought as you two would prefer the room as you slept in the last time, while the others could have the one with the window.” So saying, he led them down the passage to see.
Paladin Took examined the two rooms, which stood opposite one another. He looked at his son. “Wouldn’t you rather have the room with the window, Pippin?”
But both Pippin and Merry were shaking their heads. “No,” Pippin said. “That’s not a room we’d prefer to sleep in right now.”
The others looked at one another. “Well, since there’s four beds in each,” Aldenard pointed out reasonably, “I’ll share the room with you two, Peregrin, so as if there’s aught you’d wish in the night----”
But Merry interrupted. “No. The two of us had best not have others with us.”
Berilac said, “But why not? You think, Meriadoc Brandybuck, that I want you to be alone with these memories bothering you, you’re daft.”
“Then I suppose you’ll have to think me daft,” Merry said, stubbornly.
“But….” began Eglantine Took.
Her son was shaking his head. “No, Mum--you’d best let the two of us do what we know works. If I had a nightmare and woke up saying ‘palantiri’ would they know what I was about? Or if Merry woke up saying ‘Pellenor’? We know each other’s nightmares, and they don’t. Plus we know what to look for to see they’re starting and how to stem them off--or at least part of the time we do.”
There was more argument and discussion, until Nick asked, “You know something about that other room we don’t?”
Pippin and Merry looked at one another slantwise before Pippin answered, “For us, and only for us, that room has--unpleasant associations, as Frodo put it. We never slept in it, though, and I doubt anyone else has found it unpleasant or uncomfortable since we were here the first time. However--the two of us simply would prefer, while we’re in this inn, to sleep in an inner room. After all, we’ve done so often enough when we were younger, both at the Great Smial and Bag End.”
There was something in his expression, not to mention that of his cousin, that at last convinced the rest, who took possession of the room with the window. Nob looked from one to the next and nodded. “That’s how I thought it’d work out,” he could be heard murmuring to himself as he looked at Pippin with approval.
The renewed downpour out of doors brought a good number of folk to the inn rather earlier in the day than they might have, and it was late afternoon when Bormac came into the parlor to report, “There’s four of the Rangers in the common room now.”
Saradoc and Paladin exchanged looks. “Four of them? That’s rather more than we’d looked to see,” the Master commented.
The Thain nodded. “Then shall we go make our invitation? And why don’t you lads go off to the common room and enjoy yourselves?”
The three younger Hobbits and Aldenard agreed, and followed by Pal and Sara they headed off to join the company.
As had been predicted, the four Rangers sat together at the tall table back in the corner, cups of drink already before them, their cloaks hanging spread over the backs of their chairs to dry. As the newcomers to the common room approached their table the oldest of them rose.
“Thain Paladin? Master Saradoc? You’ve come here to the Pony?”
Saradoc gave a bow. “Lord Berevrion? Well, at least we know one of those here. May we ask you and perhaps one other of your companions to join us in the private parlor we’ve been given?”
“But of course,” Berevrion agreed, then gave a shared look with the other three Rangers about him. “Would Eregiel here be acceptable?”
Recognizing the younger Ranger and his great hound, Paladin smiled. “Certainly. It is good to see you again, sir.”
The other two watched after them, a bit bemused, as Berevrion and Eregiel followed the two Hobbits back out of the common room toward the north wing. Saradoc paused at the bar to speak to Jape. “These two will be joining us for a time, so if you will please bring any food they’ve ordered to our parlor, we’d be in your debt. And young Berilac there will be paying for any meal and drink the others order from this point on.” When Berevrion looked to protest, the Master of Buckland cut him off. “You and your kinsman have put us ever in your debt, sending our lads back to us. It’s little enough we can do to stand you to a meal and some drinks, don’t you agree?”
Berevrion searched the Hobbit’s face. “Considering what each of your lads accomplished, it’s we who are in their debt, a debt none can adequately repay. But we won’t argue now. Lead on.”
As they headed for the parlor they passed Barliman, and they asked that two chairs adequate for Men be brought, leaving that worthy for once speechless in astonishment at the thought that Hobbits of the Shire would wish to speak in private with some of those odd Rangers. He nodded after them, then at last shook himself and hurried off to find Nob to have him fetch a couple chairs from the common room.
Berevrion paused as he entered the parlor, finding himself facing not only the remaining three Hobbits he’d accompanied from Gondor to Eriador and the mothers of Meriadoc and Peregrin, but another couple perhaps a bit older than the Thain and Master and their ladies and a younger Hobbitess who resembled the older couple, sitting by the fire, apparently nursing a child under cover of a light throw over her shoulder.
The three Travelers, as he understood they were known by their own, sat together toward the back of the room, Merry and Pippin shoulder to shoulder as seemed always true of them, Sam to one side, his expression and his attitude defensive. It appeared the rest were keeping something of a watch on these three. The older Hobbit, who was a farmer if Berevrion knew his Hobbits, hastily rose as they entered, letting the hand cradling his pipe drop to his side; the three older Hobbitesses rose more slowly and decorously. Merry, Pippin and Sam seemed to rise together, each giving a most gracious bow of recognition. “Lord Berevrion?” Merry said, he voice pleased, “It’s good to see you again.”
“Is there something wrong that requires my intervention, Sir Meriadoc, Captain Peregrin, Lord Samwise?” the Man asked. “I was sent at this time to arrange to use the grange hall on the north end of the village for when Halladan hears the cases of those who have been found complicit with Lord Frodo’s kinsman in the injuries done your land while you were gone. Is there further trouble that must be dealt with?”
Sam flushed and muttered something under his breath, and the other two exchanged looks, after which Captain Peregrin, his face studiously innocent, professed, “No, there’s not really anything wrong at the moment.”
Seeing the two fathers’ faces going identically stern and the raising of the eyebrows of the farmer, Berevrion thought he now had an idea of what was the current difficulty.
Merry said hastily, “Let me introduce you. I believe you have met my mother and Pippin’s mother before?”
“Indeed. Mistress Eglantine, Mistress Esmeralda--it is a distinct pleasure to meet you again.”
“And this is Sam’s wife Rosie, and her parents, Master Tolman and Missus Lily Cotton. And Rosie, of course, is nursing Elanor.”
Rosie flushed--a most attractive lady no matter what her race, Berevrion thought. “Ah, my Lady Rose--it is a great honor!” He and Eregiel both gave deep and courtly bows. “And these are your parents? To meet the one who won the heart of our beloved Lord Samwise and her family is an honor indeed. If at any time I or mine can offer you any service, let me know and I will see to it.”
“Tom and Lily Cotton, at your service, sir,” Tom said, although his tone of voice conveyed to the Man that he felt his own offer of service was insufficient compared to that offered himself. Berevrion did his best to suppress his amusement.
“I am Berevrion of Annúminas, which in our history was our capital here in Arnor. I am an aide to Lord Halladan, Aragorn’s Steward here in the northlands as Prince Faramir is in the southlands, and I am to serve to represent him in Aragorn’s court in Minas Tirith. My companion here is Eregiel son of Miringlor, who serves at this time as a messenger between myself and Lord Halladan. As the Thain, Master and their ladies have met both of us before, as well as Artos--” he indicated the dog, “--I thought perhaps the three of us should come to see what service is required of us at this time.”
At that moment Nob knocked at the door, and they opened to allow him to lead in a young Man who carried the required chairs. Nob set down the great tray he carried, then at a nod of dismissal from the Thain nudged at the young Man’s leg and indicated they should take their leave. The youth went, but craned his head in curiosity even as the door shut firmly behind him. Beyond that door Berevrion could hear the serving hobbit reprimanding his companion for his lack of courtesy, and they quickly heard the tread of the young Man’s feet as he headed back toward his duties elsewhere in the great inn. Again he suppressed the desire to laugh.
He and Eregiel set their chairs somewhat between the older Hobbits and the three who’d been to Gondor, and he looked from one side to the other. Yes, concern equally on the faces on those near the fireplace, and a level of sadness on the faces of the others. He heard Artos’s grunt as the hound lay down solidly behind his master’s chair, then the thump of the great tail as he looked at the other occupants of the room. Rosie, who’d looked rather apprehensive at first, now relaxed, apparently accepting the dog was not in the least dangerous. The child under the cover was stirring against her mother’s hand, and at last decidedly emerged, some milk still to be seen about her mouth, her eyes wide with curiosity about these new folk she was meeting. A most lovely child--clearly beyond being an infant, her hair already a silken halo of golden curls about her head, her eyes hazel rather than the blue he’d expected to see. He could see the resemblance to her mother and grandmother, yet at the same time there was a delicacy about her he was unused to seeing in the children of Hobbits, and a definite Elven air to her--and something that reminded him of Lord Frodo as well, perhaps the solemnity. Definitely Lord Sam’s child, though, with the set of the mouth and the broad brow and lift to her chin. She’d be a responsible one in her day, he decided, just like her father.
At last Mistress Brandybuck broke the silence. “All three of these have been a bit--off recently--Merry, Pippin, and Sam. They’ve been easily distracted, restless, having more nightmares from what we can see, and more prone to jump if something startles them or appears to bring back memories of--of then.”
Relieved to have her friend lead the way, Eglantine Took continued, “In the Great Smial it came to a head the other day when Pippin dropped my new gazing ball….”
“Gazing ball?” asked the Man, puzzled.
Pippin was flushing furiously. “A colored, mirrored ball, sir, meant to set on a pedestal in the garden. Unfortunately, it was--it was----”
“About the size and shape of a Palantir?” guessed Berevrion. “I see,” he said as the Hobbit gave a brief nod. “But that’s not the only thing?” he hazarded.
After a moment of indecision, Pippin gave a sigh and shook his head. “Of course not. Anything and everything seems to bring it back right now. Dad and Uncle Sara seem to think that the weather is partly to blame, and of course there’s the fact Frodo’s gone now, so we can’t focus on his troubles to ignore our own, you know. Dad and I were discussing the Fell Winter when the Brandywine froze and wolves entered the Shire, and I found myself vividly remembering when we--when we were being attacked by wargs there in Hollin, near Moria. And I turn just right and see the grey clouds outside the window, and it’s almost as though I were back on the Seventh Level with Beregond, looking over the walls at Mordor. It’s rather unnerving.”
The Man nodded. “I see.” He turned his gaze to Merry.
Merry looked down at his hands, where he was knitting his fingers decidedly together in his lap. At last he said in a low voice, “For me the grey clouds bring back the memories of the mist on the Barrowdowns just before we were captured. At times with the Brandywine up and running faster than usual I seem to hear Old Man Willow’s voice when he tried to enchant us, and at night I seem to hear that wight. The frogs have just begun truly waking up, and there was one outside my window croaking a couple nights ago, and I thought I could hear Frodo begging for help, or the way his breath caught there toward the last before Lord Elrond was able to remove the shard of the Morgul knife.”
Sam was slower to relieve himself, but at last Berevrion’s patience was rewarded. “All the grey--it’s like we was there, goin’ through the blasted lands o’ Mordor again, sir. And all the rain is just a mockery of what water we couldn’t find then, if you understand. A bit o’ blue sky will show through for a moment, and it’s as if I see him openin’ his eyes, trustin’ me to get us on down the road a bit more afore he collapses again. The cold and damp--it’s what he described feelin’ like when the splinter was in him.” He straightened. “I do believe the weather’s a lot to do with it all, for we can’t truly go outside to do nothin’ what doesn’t need doin’, if you take my meanin’.”
“Then there’s the fact that all four of them appear to respond to storms, particularly wind and thunderstorms, with bad dreams,” Saradoc noted.
Berevrion indicated he understood. “Not uncommon,” he commented. He noted that all present in the room relaxed. He looked at the Thain, Master, and their ladies. “Your sons were not raised to be warriors, although when the need came they acquitted themselves well, and are now efficient and capable in the use of their weapons as well as able to do what needs to be done. That they have memories that trouble them is only to be expected, I fear. Even those who are raised to practice war will do similarly, you’ll find.”
He looked back at Pippin. “You were able to tolerate campfires before we reached Edoras, Captain Pippin. How about anything bigger?”
Pippin looked sideways at his parents, then back at the Ranger. “I’ve been able to handle the Yule bonfires all right,” he admitted. “But I have had to stay back from them. Haven’t been able to take part in the teams who get the fire drill turning. I used to dance close around them, but haven’t been able to do that. I tend to stand back from them and watch from a distance, where when I was younger I used to jump through the flames with the other older lads. My younger cousin Levandoras accused me of being a coward, and I suppose in this I am.” That last was said in a low voice with a degree of shame.
Eregiel made a sound of disgust. “Someone would impugn your courage, sir? You who fought before the Black Gate and who are honored in all lands? Does he not realize the cost of what you have achieved?”
Pippin shrugged and looked away. “I suppose not,” he said with a sigh.
Berevrion looked at Merry. “And you, Sir Meriadoc--do you still feel uncomfortable in rooms where there are no windows?”
“If I’m alone,” he said. “But I chose to sleep in one here rather than----”
“The room where you were to have slept the first time?” he was asked. “Caution is the better part of valor,” Berevrion continued. “Both of you will probably need many years to lay all of the black memories--if you ever do, of course. That you are yet able to sing and rejoice, to laugh and enjoy the company of those you love is a blessing many never return to. But all of us find that there are moments when the memories overtake us, all who have had to face the Enemy and his creatures. Even,” he added with a smile, “our beloved Lord King Aragorn.”
All three of the Hobbits who’d traveled alongside Aragorn son of Arathorn straightened in surprise. “Aragorn has his own demons?” demanded Merry.
Sam looked thoughtful. “He told us, there in the Citadel, he has his own nightmares. But then he’s been facin’ the Shadow almost all his life.”
Berevrion nodded his agreement. “He’ll admit to the nightmares? There were some years he couldn’t, back when he was young. He, too, felt there was something dishonorable about having the memories hang on as they will do. But all of us have similar memories, you will find, and certain situations that put them back in our minds.
“I will ask you something--when you were traveling with Aragorn and some game was taken--who butchered it?”
Sam shrugged. “At first he done it, until he realized as I could do it, then he usually let me or even Pippin--Pippin lived on a farm when he was younger, after all.”
“How about carving a fowl or a joint? Did he ever do that when he didn’t need to do it?”
The three Hobbits exchanged looks, and Pippin, who’d served him on occasion at formal meals in Gondor, looked thoughtful. “Not once he was in Minas Tirith. He always let Lady Arwen carve, or the servers.”
Sam was shaking his head, trying to remember more clearly. “Don’t member his ever carvin’ nothing’, not unless the rest of us was busy and couldn’t get to it. Even then he’d let it sit until it was almost burnt or got cool.”
Merry looked up, his eyes wide with surprise. “You mean that this has to do with his own bad memories?”
The older Man traded smiles with the younger one. Eregiel laughed. “Yes, he always used to get one of us younger ones to do the butchering. No one’s a better hunter, I think, other than his brothers; but he doesn’t butcher or dismember an animal unless he has to. We used to think it was just him passing on the more unpleasant jobs to us youngsters, until one day he admitted it brings back memories of his own.”
Berevion was nodding. “Aragorn began riding out against enemies when he was only fifteen years of age. Evidently his Elven brothers told him he could begin joining their patrols once he was able to best one of them during sparring. The first time he did so, he claimed his prize, and afterwards realized it was not the shining glory he’d thought it, in spite of all his brothers had sought to warn him. It is no light thing to kill for the first time, you must understand. But he accepted the reality of the need to do what he’d done--until he had his first encounter with Men.
"The vale of Imladris, of Rivendell, lies below the Misty Mountains, and through it runs the River Bruinen. It rests below one of the major passes from west to east, and for longer than any can remember that pass has been home to mountain giants, cave trolls, and orcs, or goblins, as many know them. It is not easy to kill any creature, but it becomes easy to kill the orc-kind, for since the twisting of creation by Morgoth that brought them to be they have lived only to hate, fight and destroy, and for no other purpose. Let them become aware of an enemy and they will fight to come to grips with it; at other times they will fight amongst themselves, for fight they must.
“They are not of the same sort as Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Men, or any of the other children of Iluvatar. One learns that when one finds an orc, it is needful to slay it, for it will not fail to do so to those it encounters.
“So it was for the five years Aragorn, or Estel as he was then known, rode out with his Elven brothers that this was the enemy he ever encountered. Those from Dunland and Angmar did not trouble us in those days, for which we were grateful, or at least not that far south. Then, when he turned twenty and must learn his true name and origin and destiny, he asked to be allowed to join our Rangers in the manner in which most of our young Men do so, and he was admitted to the troupe led by Berenion, who has had the training of our younger Men now for over ninety years.
“A long patrol did he know under Berenion, and one in which he went not under his own name. Many of his fellows had no idea who he was, only that he’d been fostered by Elves, which was obvious. He wore his hair in the Elven warrior’s braids, moved like a cat in the wild, appeared to see in the darkest of nights, could follow a scent weeks old. And he fought like a very demon--or angel. None of our young Men could best him in sparring. They were in awe of him, and some were even afraid, for they knew not how to deal with such as he.
“They went north, the first time Aragorn had been near the borders with Angmar. They had two skirmishes with orcs, and he was instrumental in setting the strategies by which they were fought and defeated. Then came the third skirmish, and this time it was with the Men of Angmar. It was his first fight with other Men, and if his first fight of all was difficult, this was worse.
“He will not tell the details of that fight, only that he found himself faced with two young Men, neither any older than himself, if not much younger. They were desperate, and fought the harder for that desperation.
“He admits he tried to hold his strokes that he not seriously injure them, but one got past him and assaulted Halbarad, and wounded him sorely. It was then he finally accepted that he must attack these as he would any orc; and he slew the one who wounded his friend, then turned again on the other.
“He said he could see in the eyes of the one facing him the knowledge he must die, and in the end he struck him down. The first stroke, however, did not kill him cleanly--it cut into the collarbone of the youth, and ever after the memory of the sound and feel of his sword stuck there within the young Man’s ribcage stayed with him, to the point that he will do all he can to keep from cleaving the skeleton of any creature if it is at all possible.”
The humor had faded from the face of Eregiel son of Miringlor. “The first time he told me that tale was after my first sword battle with Men. I had ridden in his train for six weeks, and we had known four battles against orcs and one against wargs. We had also evaded a group of four trolls who were quarreling amongst themselves. Then one day we found a group of Men from the south assaulting a farmstead east of Bree, and we fought them. Afterwards I spent a better part of an hour retching, and he knelt by me and comforted me as he could. It was then I first learned just why my lord kinsman always left it to us younger ones to butcher the deer or boar or other beasts we took to feed us.”
Berevrion sighed as he looked at the Hobbits who had sat, spellbound, to hear this tale. “Do not feel there is anything shameful to find yourself facing situations that cause the memories to return, for you can know that this happens to all, even the greatest among us. As for those born of the weather--that is all, all too common. Even those who have known nothing but joy and delight will find themselves discomfited in such situations; how much more must those of us who have faced and gone through horror know?”
Eglantine Took’s face was pale. “You, too, have your own memories?”
Very gently the Man assured her, “Oh, yes, my lady.”
Elanor Gamgee had been struggling, indicating she wished to be set down on her feet. At last Rosie gave way and let her go, and she walked slowly and carefully forward to the chair where the tall Man sat. “Da?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at her father.
“That’s Lord Berevrion, sweetling, and you can trust him.”
She gave a decided nod, then reached up her arms. Surprised, for it was the first time a Hobbit child had ever approached him, he leaned down and lifted her up. She ran her fingers through the hair of his beard, then giggled. “Funny,” she said, distinctly.
He laughed. “Yes, it must seem quite funny to you, not having had the chance to see much in the way of beards before.” He buried his face in her midriff, making a great blowing noise. She laughed, obviously well pleased.
At last he looked up from her face. “It is so rarely children will approach us other than our own,” he explained. “She is delightful, and without a shred of fear to her.”
“And I hope to see that continue for as long as is needed,” Sam said with determination. “We went through too much to give her that, my Master’n me.”
Berevrion nodded, a gentle smile on his face as he set the child again on her feet. “Yes, I agree, my lord. At least this generation doesn’t grow up under the Shadow, although we must never forget it that we do not become complacent and our descendants lose the lessons learned.”
Sam looked down at his daughter as she walked toward him. “No, I’ll not let them forget--he charged us not to let the stories die, you see.” He reached down and picked her up. “No, my sweet Elanorelle, you’ll not be forgettin’ what we paid to see to it as you feel as free to be held by a Man as by another Hobbit.” His face lit with a smile. “No--what’s a few bad dreams and memories, in light o’ the fact as you’ll not grow up afraid?” He buried his face in the fold of her neck and blew as rude a noise as had Lord Berevrion. The child whooped with delight.
The shadows seemed to fall from Merry and Pippin as well, and suddenly the two of them were up and capering about Sam’s chair, and Pippin scooped Elanor out of her father’s arms onto his shoulders. “Now, fair Elanor, where would you have your noble steed carry you?”
“Outside,” she said, pointing at the window. Although a few stray drops dripped from the eaves, it had cleared once more.
“As you wish, my lady,” he said, and he set off, galloping down the hall to the door to the inn. Many looked out of rooms along the way to see what the fuss was about, to see an uncommonly tall Hobbit with a tiny, wildly giggling child on his shoulder, making neighing sounds as he bounced down the passageway. As they passed the door to the common room Berilac poked his head out, then looked back in, announcing, “Oh, it’s just Pippin, playing with Sam’s daughter.”
The two of them, followed by the others who’d been in the parlor, spilled out onto the street, all of them laughing, the dark memories lost with the return of the Sun. And as the party turned toward the west gate Elanor called out, “Ooh!” and pointed.
Over the Shire hung, caught in the drops of the last rain squall, the most marvelous double rainbow any had ever seen.
“Do you see, dearling,” Sam said softly to his daughter as he took her from Pippin and raised her to his own shoulder, “Old Gandalf--he sent you a rainbow.”
Three weeks later, while Pippin and Merry were off on the Thain’s business, Eglantine Took looked up as Pearl’s husband Isumbard came into the private parlor with a great pasteboard carton. “What’s this, Bard?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” he admitted as he set it down with a sigh of relief. “It’s not truly heavy, but it is large and rather awkward.”
She lifted the lid off, and recognized the wool batting over it. “Oh,” she said, “Pippin said he’d replace the one he shattered.”
With Bard’s help she managed to lift out what had to be the largest gazing ball in all of the Shire.