For Claudia for her birthday.
Derunol had lain in the bed for some days, feeling totally useless, not knowing what he could look forward to with but one leg now. One leg and one ear. Would his Gilien marry him now, with him unable to walk and looking so—so unnatural? He was maimed! He would most likely spend the rest of his life in a bed such as this, needing to be waited upon hand and foot! What kind of life could that be? He’d best send a letter to Gilien and let her know that he was freeing her of their betrothal. After all, if he truly loved her, he should let her go free rather than dooming her to a life of drudgery with someone who could not hope to be able to provide for her….
Gilien sat beneath the twisted cherry tree in her garden, reading the letter he’d sent and wiping at her eyes. And then Eldhrim came to comfort her, and she turned to him and wept upon his shoulder, and he held her, stroking her hair and soothing her. And then she turned her heart where she’d turned her head, as the two of them kissed….
“No!” he cried out aloud, startling himself awake from this terrible dream!
“Is there anything I might be able to do for you?” asked a voice. Derunol turned his head, and saw that a curly-haired youth had paused by his bed, one perhaps no older than Derunol himself, who had known nineteen summers—or, perhaps he should count his years in winters, he thought bleakly.
“What?” Derunol asked.
“I was passing and heard you call out in your dreams. If there is anything I might do to help you, you have only to ask. I’m gladly at your service,” the stranger said, and so saying, he pulled over a stool and sat upon it by Derunol’s bed, “There’s a pitcher and a mug here—would you like me to pour you some water?”
“Yes, please,” Derunol answered. As the stranger poured out a mugful of water for him he said, “You weren’t hurt, then?”
The other looked up to meet his eyes. “Hurt? Oh, I didn’t fight in the battle before the Black Gate, although I did there before the gates to the White City. I almost died there, they tell me, although much of what happened after my sword burned away I don’t properly remember.”
“Your sword burned away?” Derunol couldn’t help but feel skeptical at this statement.
“Oh, it did. Strider told us before that all blades perish that might pierce—pierce him, and that was how he knew that Frodo hadn’t hurt him before, there at Weathertop. Frodo’s sword was whole, you see—all he’d done was to slash up the thing’s cloak a bit. I just wish that that was all the vile creature had done to Frodo, really. I dropped my sword after I stabbed him behind the knee, and then Dernhelm—the Lady, well she lopped off his head as neat as neat, as Sam would say. Not that anyone could see it, of course—but his crown thing went rolling off across the ground like a wheel. And her sword burned, too, and she fell down in a swoon as if she were dead. I was there when the old King died, and he never even knew she was there by him, and had fallen protecting him from the Black Rider and that lizard-thing he had been flying around on.
“After that I’m afraid I don’t remember very much. I know I wandered off, and I remember Pippin finding me, and me thinking I was already dead and all, but not much more than that and—and evil dreams until Strider called me back. When I remember how suspicious we all were, back there in Bree, when Strider suddenly was convincing Frodo to take him on as our guide to Rivendell, I just cringe!”
Suddenly what this one had said earlier made terrible sense, as Derunol remembered the shrieks from the Nazgûl as they’d swept overhead, and as their ghastly steeds would swoop down and grasp at the soldiers manning the walls and the trebuchets and fling them to their deaths in the lower city. His mouth worked for a moment before he could manage to get the words out. “You stabbed one of the Nazgûl?”
“Yes, not that I even thought much about how impossible it seemed at the time. Oh, by the way, I’ve not yet introduced myself—Meriadoc Brandybuck, at the service of you and your family. But you can call me Merry—everyone does, after all. Did you fight inside the city?”
Derunol shook his head. “Oh, I wasn’t fighting there—everyone said that I was too young, so I was helping as I could. I carried arrows to the archers on the third level. My brother would only allow me do that.”
“But he didn’t stop you from coming here to fight.”
Derunol could feel the bitterness and pain filling him again. “He can’t. He died in the fires down in the First Circle. I couldn’t allow his death to go unavenged.”
Merry gave a nod of understanding. “Oh, I know how that goes. We did much the same when we realized that the orcs were trying to kill Boromir, Pippin and I did. We suddenly found our courage, not that we could do much against so many. One of the foul things managed to hit me on the forehead with the hilt of its sword, and when I came to again, Pippin and I were prisoners, and the orcs were crowing about how clever they were to have managed to kill the great warrior.”
Derunol went still. “Boromir? Do you mean Lord Boromir, Lord Denethor’s son?”
Merry nodded. “Yes, he came south with us from Rivendell to the hill above the waterfall, and that was where Saruman’s orcs attacked us. They managed to kill Boromir, and Pippin and I were afraid that they might have killed everyone else, too. We were sure we must be the only ones left, only everyone else managed to escape, apparently. Certainly old Strider, Gimli, and Legolas came out of it all right, and now they’ve found Frodo and Sam as well, although those two are definitely anything but all right. They’re so thin! I don’t know how anyone could be so thin and still be alive, although Gandalf says it’s probably the lembas that did it. But they had a terrible time of it from the looks of them. They are so thin! I know that my mum thought that Frodo was far too thin when he was a lad, but if she were to see him now she’d not believe it! She’d be devastated!”
Derunol looked more closely at his guest, and realized something important. “But—but you aren’t a Man?”
Merry gave a brief laugh, but one that had no humor behind it. “No, I’m not. Although they tell me that I’m a man of Rohan now in spite of me being a Hobbit. And Pippin they call a man of Gondor! A man of Gondor and a Guard of the Citadel! Can you believe it—my little Cousin Peregrin Took, a Guard of the Citadel? If that won’t strain his father’s credulity!”
Derunol felt a circle of his scalp contracting. “The Ernil i Pheriannath is your cousin?”
“Oh, yes, he did tell me they call him that while we were in the gardens of the Houses of Healing. Prince of the Halflings? I ask you! I hope nobody calls him that back home in the Shire—Aunt Eglantine will laugh them to scorn! Not little scapegrace Pippin Took!”
The Gondorian lay back, trying to take this all in. This was another of the Pheriannath who was talking so with him! Wait until Mardon heard about this—and then the memory of his brother’s death swept over him yet again. No, he’d not be able to tell Mardon about this after all. And he realized that he was beginning to weep again.
Merry bent over him. “Are you in pain? I can summon Strider if you’d like, or perhaps one of his Elven brothers. Odd to think he has always thought of them as his brothers, but then I’m told he did grow up, there in Rivendell, as if he were Elrond’s son, too, in spite of him being a Man rather than an Elf. Elladan tells me that this is why he’s such a good healer, having learned from Elrond himself and his sons, them being the greatest Healers in all of Middle Earth. But, then, when you’re an Elf you have all the time in the world to become the best at whatever you choose, I suppose.”
At this Merry shook his head as if to clear it. “Listen to me, blathering on as if I were Pippin himself,” he said. “Must be being relieved to know Pippin, Frodo, and Sam are still alive, although we don’t know yet how much any of them might recover. All three of them are in rather a bad way, you understand. None of them is awake, even. They have Pippin in one of the smaller tents where the critically wounded are kept, and Frodo and Sam have a tent of sorts all to themselves. Actually, it’s more of an enclosure than a tent, really, as they don’t have a top to it. Gandalf says Frodo and Sam both react badly to feeling closed in, and they seem to need to be able to have the stars shining upon them at night. When they do have to put a top on it when it rains, Frodo especially takes it badly.” He took a shuddering breath. “Poor Frodo—he’s had such a time of it. First the Nazgûl stabbed him with a Morgul blade at Weathertop, and he almost became a wraith himself, if he’d not been fighting it so hard until we finally got him to Rivendell where Elrond could use Elvish medicine to save him, and then a troll tried to skewer him in Moria, and finally he goes to Mordor himself with just Sam beside him, and from what I can tell not only was the Ring torturing him the whole way, but the two of them almost starved to death! Strider says that they both were at the point of death when they were found and brought out of Mordor by the Eagles and Gandalf.”
“Who is Gandalf?” Derunol found himself asking.
“I understand most people here call him Mithrandir,” Merry explained. “Back home in the Shire we’ve always called him Gandalf, although I understand he has several other names as well, from what Faramir told me in Minas Tirith before they sent for me to come be here for Pippin, Frodo, and Sam. We Hobbits, we need one another, you see. What can mere Men know about truly caring for a Hobbit, after all?” Derunol could see the concern and fear in the eyes of Meriadoc Brandybuck as he spoke of his fellows, and he could understand it, knowing the depths of his grief for Mardon. And he realized that this Merry was no callow youth as he’d been himself, and that he was indeed only now recovering from his own wounds. No, he was a man of his own people who merely seemed younger than he was due to the differences between the two races.
Merry had been clutching at the mug of water he’d poured, and now he looked down at it stupidly, as if he’d only now realized he’d never given it to Derunol. “Oh, dear, I’ve been shaking so that I’ve spilled most of what I poured for you, and you’ve not gotten a drop to drink yet!” he murmured. “Mum would be on me for my lack of manners, should she have been able to see me, that is.” He refilled the cup and held it for Derunol to drink from. Only when the young Man indicated he’d had enough did he set it down on the rough bench beside the bed on which Derunol lay. “At least you are awake, and you seem to be doing pretty well,” Merry noted. “Maybe they can make a wheeled chair for you to get around in, or a pegged leg such as Uncle Isengar wrote of in his memoirs. He went to sail upon the Sea, long ago, before even Bilbo was born. He’s the only Hobbit I ever heard tell of who went to Sea and returned again to let others know. I doubt many of the Tooks know as much about him as I do—Pippin and I found his book in the Old Took’s rooms and read it, you see. At least your mind is working rightly, from what I can see, that is. Whether or not Pippin, Frodo, and Sam will be able to think aright we don’t even know yet, and probably won’t know for days to come! Frodo seems to draw back if I brush his face! What horrors would make him do that, do you think? I’m his cousin, after all, and he’s always been like my big brother!”
This one, Derunol realized, also knew grief, grief for this Frodo of his who might never wake up again. There were a few who’d been in this tent who’d been quiet and withdrawn, who had slipped out of their bodies during the night, unable to bear what had happened to them and what they’d seen done in the battle. Would it prove so for this Merry’s cousin, who apparently was so badly off? He reached up and brushed the tears of anguish from Merry’s cheeks, glad to be able to return the comforting that the Hobbit had shown him. “If Lord Mithrandir is by him, I suspect that your Frodo will be as well as can be. He is, after all, a powerful Wizard.”
Merry gave him a watery smile. “Yes, he is that. Thank you so. I need the reassurance, I find. After all we’ve been through, I suspect all of us in this camp need the reassurance. But no matter how whole we might seem on the outside, we’re all changed from what we were, and we’ll never be the same again. It will be easier for you in many ways, I suspect, for since you’ve lost a leg and will always be scarred, people will be kind and accept that inside there will always be pain from what you’ve been through. But for Frodo, Sam, and me, and probably Pippin as well,” he gave another shuddery breath, “how will anyone else truly understand? I know I look the same, although I do have some scars now, not that they are anywhere as showy as yours will be. They’ll expect us to be the same as we were before we left home, and we can’t be, and especially not Frodo. Oh, they’ll never understand Frodo at all, those who have no idea what he’s been through. He looks so normal, except for being so thin and weak at the moment, that is. But he’s never pulled away from me in my life, and now he does. And Aragorn says he’ll likely never be able to eat properly, not after nearly starving to death and all the ash and fumes he swallowed while he was in Mordor. And what the Ring did to him—no one, not even Gandalf, can appreciate that!”
After a time Merry left, called out of the tent by one of the Rohirrim to attend on their new young King, and Derunol understood now who it was the Hobbit had said he’d seen die, and who the Lady was he’d mentioned. The Lady Éowyn, the late King’s niece and the sister to the new King of Rohan. He’d ridden into battle with the sister to King Éomer! And he’d truly helped slay the Lord of the Nazgûl!
But for Derunol himself, he had a new perspective on his future. He might be crippled now, but at least, as Merry had pointed out, he could think clearly. And he didn’t have to remain bed-bound for the rest of his life—he could indeed look to possibly having a pegged leg made for him so that he could walk once more. And just perhaps he might give Eldhrim some strong competition for Gilien’s love—after all, she’d turned Eldhrim down before and had chosen him! No, he’d not let Gilien go without a fight, not now after surviving the Battle of the Black Gate! He wasn’t the same as he’d been before, but he wasn’t without hope, at least. If this Meriadoc Brandybuck could come back from the shadows as he had, then so could Derunol! The victory against Mordor had been won beyond all hope, and Derunol had played a part in guaranteeing that victory. He wasn’t going to give up on everything else now, not and let Eldhrim, who’d not even fought in the war, win his Gilien from him!