For Lily Baggins, Lily the Hobbit, and Ansostuff for their birthdays. Beta by RiverOtter.
Merimac Brandybuck rode down the lane toward the gate through the High Hay, although of course he was not intending to go quite as far as that. He led two mares from the pony herd for Brandy Hall, ponies intended to be made intimately familiar with his nephew Merry’s white stallion, Stybba. As he approached the field opposite the gate to Crickhollow, he paused his own gelding, watching with delight as Stybba and the other ponies currently pastured there raced past, apparently reacting in pleasure to the beauty of the day. Pippin’s Jewel followed at Stybba’s flank, while the mare he’d been told had been given to Sam Gamgee to ride home from Gondor trailed behind, her dark mane streaming in the wind of her passing. He wasn’t certain why Sam had chosen to ride that skewbald pony back to the Shire from Bree and had left this delightful lady with their even darker pack pony at the Prancing Pony, for there was no question that she was indeed a beauty, a grey with black mane and tail and a bright, intelligent eye that any gentlehobbit would be proud to ride. But the gardener appeared to have a special place in his heart for the brown and white pony he called Bill, and rode him by preference. Merry had assured Mac that the mare would be going on to Hobbiton soon enough, perhaps after the marriage of Sam to Rose Cotton, which was to take place the first of May. But as the gardener could only ride one pony at a time and boarding at the stable in Hobbiton was at a premium at the moment, what with reconstruction of the Ivy Bush’s outbuildings still going on after the damage done there on Lotho’s orders, when the King’s Men brought the pony to the Brandywine Bridge she’d fallen under Merry’s guardianship for now.
Mac slipped to the ground and pressed forward, leaning on the fence to watch the ponies’ antics. April was half over now, and all was bright and shining both in Buckland and in the Shire proper. The grass was growing rapidly, and the ponies had plenty to eat and a good deal of room to run, and appeared to be filled with the joy of spring.
One of the mares he’d brought with him pressed against his shoulder with her muzzle. “What do you think, lass?” he asked her. “Does he look a likely match for you? I have an idea that the two of you will throw beautiful foals.”
“That they should,” agreed Merry, who’d come soft-footed out of the gate to the house that he shared with Pippin. Mac smiled at his nephew and returned his attention to the ponies in the field. “And I’ve put in a word for a few other ponies from Rohan’s herds for the future. We in the Shire will have a wider choice as to steeds once some of those add to our current bloodlines.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen ponies as beautiful as these you four brought home with you. Oh, that one of Sam’s that he rides more often than not is plain enough. But these----”
“Bill was born and bred right there in Bree, so is probably of much the same lines as many of our own ponies. No, he’s not particularly special to look at, but he has true heart that proved itself several times over while we were on our way east and south. Sam has good reason to love him well. This mare is a fine thing, but when we reached Bree on our way back and we found that Bill was there waiting for us I thought Sam would expire from sheer satisfaction and pride! Of course he chose to ride Bill home and had this one sent afterwards. And I suspect that one day he’ll breed Bill to her to make certain both bloodlines are preserved.”
“Then Bill was not gelded?”
“Bill? Oh, no—not that he was treated in such a way that he would have had that much interest in a mare before he came into our hands. Had a bad master before he came our way—a nasty sot named Bill Ferny. In fact, when we got here to the Shire he was attached to the Shirriff House by the Bridge Inn, Ferny was. Ferny apparently treated the pony badly indeed—it looked much older than he actually was, and Ferny must have fed him next to nothing. To go along with us and appear better when we approached Rivendell than he did when he came to us in Bree, Ferny had to be bad to the bone.”
“But what happened to the ponies you left with—the ones you told us had the scours?”
Merry blushed. “I’m sorry I lied about them, really, but we didn’t want anyone to guess we were leaving the Shire—it could have been very bad indeed if that became generally known. Well, they’re in Bree now. When we got there to the Prancing Pony there were some bad people there. Some we’d now recognize as probably being half-orcs—had goblin blood, that is. They were Saruman’s people, we learned. He had been sending them north secretly for quite some time. We found out where all the food and pipe weed went that Lotho had been sending off out of the Shire, by the way—was sending it all south to a place called Isengard, where Saruman had lived for quite some time. He’d been experimenting with breeding orcs—seems as if all those who go to the bad get into that. Started back with Morgoth, Frodo and Aragorn explained, and then Sauron started doing it, too, and finally Saruman did so as well. Anyway, Saruman is the one who they called Sharkey when he got here. Used to be Gandalf’s chief, but he went bad secretly some time ago, and nobody realized it until Gandalf left the Shire after letting Frodo know just what it was that Bilbo had left on his hands when he left the Shire after the Party.”
Mac was beginning to feel a bit dizzy, as none of this seemed to make much sense at the moment. “Am I talking with Pippin?” he interrupted. “You don’t usually blather like this, Meriadoc Brandybuck!”
Again Merry colored, his ears going quite pink. “I’m sorry, but it’s all very complicated. But Saruman—Sharkey, that is—he found out about the Shire from Gandalf and had thought it sounded a good place to start trying to conquer the world at. He also wanted to conquer Rohan, which was the kingdom nearest to where he lived in Isengard. That way he’d have two lands he was boss over, I suppose. So he put one of his agents into Théoden King’s court to convince the people and the King that Théoden was too old and frail to rule properly. He may have been using poisons or bad medicines on him, too, as well as poisonous words. And Saruman sent agents north to try to take over the Shire and the Breelands. At first they were supposed to look for anybody who was leaving the Shire who might have the—well, what Bilbo left to Frodo. If they could they were supposed to keep Frodo in Bree until enough bully-boys arrived to take him prisoner so they could search him, find what he was carrying, and bring It back to Saruman, or that’s what they figured out once we got to Rivendell. Only Sauron had learned from Gollum that a Hobbit named Baggins had found It, so he sent his Black Riders, too. Those were the ones who broke into the Shire at the Sarn Ford. They went all the way to Hobbiton and were asking about where Baggins might be even before Frodo, Pippin, and Sam were quite out of the village. They appear to have pursued them all the way to the Bucklebury Ferry, and a few days later several of them tried to get into the house here, and that was when Fatty went on the run to try to get away from them. We were long gone by then, and they don’t appear to have felt brave enough to attempt to follow us into the Old Forest. I doubt that either the trees or Tom Bombadil would have welcomed them there, though.”
“Tom Bombadil? How on earth did you learn about Tom Bombadil?”
“Well, there are enough stories about the strange old soul who lives in the Old Forest floating around Buckland and the Marish, you know. But I didn’t believe they were real until we met him in the Old Forest, when he saved us from Old Man Willow.”
Mac felt himself going white. “You mean those stories are true, too?”
Merry nodded, rubbing as he often did at his right arm as if it were suddenly cold. “Oh, yes—tried to eat us in his own treeish fashion, he did. Tom made him let us go, though—Frodo says he took one of the tree’s own branches and hit him with it, telling him to stop being horrible and to go to sleep like a good tree, or something like that. And he did, but not with any good grace from what we could tell. The trees do what Tom tells them to do, at least. Then Tom took us to his house for the next few days until we were ready to go on again. The Elves know about him, although they have a different name for him, it appears. Sam said they even talked about sending the—It—to him for safekeeping, but it was decided that wouldn’t be either safe or effective.
“But this still isn’t telling how the ponies I had here ended up staying in Bree, I suppose. When we got to Bree, we got there pretty late. Butterbur gave us a private parlor and a room with four beds in it, but the rest went to the common room while I went out to take a walk and have a look around at Bree. While they were in the common room someone talked Frodo into giving them a song from the Shire, so he gave them that one about the Man in the Moon coming down to the inn and getting drunk. They appear to have liked it, so they got him to sing it again, so this time the dear old lad got up on a table and started that dance that Bilbo had made to it, until the table fell over and he went rolling over and disappeared.”
“Then that report was true!”
“You heard about Frodo disappearing at the Prancing Pony?”
Mac gave a twisted smile. “There are those even in Bree who report to the Master of Buckland and the Hall, you know. Yes, we heard about it, although the tale was a bit muddled. Frodo at the time you left was a bit too—substantial—to just go invisible, you see.”
“Well, that’s because no one knew what it was he was carrying and what It could do if one were to wear It. But there were agents both from Isengard and from Mordor in Bree, and people like Harry Goatleaf on the gate and Bill Ferny had been approached by both parties, it seems. There was quite a party that had come north up the Greenway, and most of them were in the Pony’s common room that evening and saw Frodo’s song and dance, and how he went invisible when the table fell over and he went rolling head-over-heels across the floor. Frodo crawled away as fast as he could until he was in the far corner before he realized he was wearing—It, so he took It off and got told off strongly by Strider for being so careless. It took even him some time to realize just how—nasty—It could be and how It was trying to betray Frodo. Realizing that It was awake and aware and recognized that Its Master’s people were nearby and so It was trying to catch their attention was quite the shock for Aragorn son of Arathorn, it seems. Well, he learned while we were on the way from Bree to Rivendell just how sly the horrible thing was, and how hard it was for Frodo to keep It from taking him over when It felt it was to Its advantage.
“The night we spent at the Prancing Pony, Strider wouldn’t let us sleep in our assigned room. We fitted the beds up with bolsters and such to make it appear we were sleeping there, and they even found a dark mat that was enough like Frodo’s hair that anyone seeing it would think that was his bed, and we slept on the floor of the parlor instead. That night the windows to the room were forced, and when we went in to see after dawn, the bolsters and pillows and beds had been slashed to pieces, and that mat had been torn to shreds. And someone had broken into the stable and apparently stole all of the horses and ponies that were there. So we had lost the five ponies I’d bought that we took with us, and our packs weren’t big enough to carry everything we needed. Butterbur felt it was his fault somehow, and insisted on paying me for the five missing ponies, and he bought Bill from Bill Ferny for us to use as a pack beast.”
“I see,” Mac said. When the same mare pushed again at his shoulder, Merry helped him remove fence rails to allow those ponies he’d brought to join Stybba, Jewel, and Sam’s mare. Once the rails were back in place, the two Hobbits stood close to watch them.
Merry rubbed a bit at his shoulder before leaning with his forearms on the top rail. “Apparently after we left the Breelands and there was the attack on Bree by Sharkey’s people, one day a young Ranger showed up at the door of the Pony leading my ponies, saying that they’d been found in the Old Forest, and Tom Bombadil felt that they should be sent back to Butterbur. He’d paid for them, thinking they’d been stolen on his watch, so I left them there when we came back through Bree, figuring he deserved them. They’re well treated and serve as riding beasts happily enough, and they’re not being abused as Bill was, at least.
“Bill, however, came back on his own apparently not that long before we got back to Bree. He went east to Rivendell with us, and we took him south with us for as long as we could. But once we had to cross to the eastern side of the mountains we couldn’t take him further. We tried going over the mountains but there was a terrible snowstorm and we couldn’t make it to the summit of the pass, even. So we ended up having to go back and go under the mountains instead, going through the Dwarf mines of Moria. We couldn’t take Bill through there, and at the last moment he was frightened away by a monster that attacked us. We got inside the mines just in time, and he fled back the way we’d come. Sam felt so ashamed, but what could he do? Sam truly had come to love Bill, and it tore him in two to have to leave him outside the mines when we fled inside, but as Aragorn told us Bill was a wise beast and returned to where he felt we would come again if we were able. Bob had been taking very good care of him since his arrival, so Bill was quite fit when we got there at last.”
“So, how did you come by these ponies?” Mac asked, indicating Stybba and the two others from Rohan.
“Well, Théoden King gave me Stybba. I learned when we were returning home and stopped at Meduseld for the handfasting of Prince Faramir to the Lady Éowyn that Stybba had been the herd stud for the King’s personal pony herd. Stybba’s sire had been the pony on which Théoden King’s son Théodred learned to ride, in fact, and somehow when he saw me he determined that I should have Stybba. It was a great honor to be given this particular pony to ride, and he appeared to be glad to see I was already an accomplished rider. I would have ridden Stybba all the way to Minas Tirith when we headed out to break the siege on the city, but at the last moment Théoden decided I should remain in Rohan for my own safety. Turns out he didn’t believe me that I’d had proper training in using my sword—thought I was just bragging. But let me tell you that Boromir and Aragorn saw to it that we got excellent training in the use of edged weapons while we were in Rivendell, and we practiced as often as we could while we were headed south. And we finally had to put that training to use there in the Mines of Moria. I’ve now killed my share of orcs, and even a few Men, there in the battle of the Pelennor Fields.
“I was furious and embarrassed to learn I was to stay behind, of course, but then a smaller Rider came to me secretly and said he’d take me with him to the battle, although I’d have to stay hidden under his cloak until we were well on the way. So I rode with—Dernhelm, he told me to call him. I was so worried about Pippin being alone there in Minas Tirith with a war going on around him that it just never struck me as odd that Dernhelm’s voice was rather high or that he was so small and slender. So it was that I rode to the battle with the Lady Éowyn and never really recognized her as a woman, much less as the King’s niece. I rode with her on her horse Windfola, and when we got to the Pelennor we fought as we could from the back of the same horse, her fighting to the left and me to the right. Killed twice the number of enemies that way, I suppose.”
Something in the way this was said gave Mac a chill, although he did all he could to hide that fact. This was more than Merry had been willing to tell since he’d returned to the Shire in November, and the older Hobbit felt it was important that the family begin to properly understand what had happened to the lad out there.
“Then we were on the ground—an oliphaunt came near to us, and Windfola threw Dernhelm and me and ran off in her terror. Yes, we saw oliphaunts out there, Mac. Even Sam and Frodo saw one in the forests of Ithilien when they caught a glimpse of a battle between Men of Gondor and warriors from Harad coming up the South Road to join Mordor’s armies. The Southrons put huge saddles on the oliphaunts and built platforms on the saddles, and then war towers on the platforms. Their archers would ride on the towers and shoot down on foot soldiers and what cavalry could stay ahorse near them, most horses, like Windfola, being too terrified to remain near the oliphaunts for long. They didn’t get much in the way of opposition! But warriors afoot learned to aim bows and spears at their eyes, and so they could be brought down.”
Now Merry went quiet, and Mac had the idea that although he was no longer describing what he’d seen, yet he was still reliving the horror of that battle in his memory. At last he said, “We were victorious, Éowyn and I, against the Witch-king, but at great cost. He’d attacked the King’s horse, and killed it—and it threw the King and rolled on him, and killed him. Only Éowyn would stand to protect her uncle, so I rose to protect her, and then—then each of us struck at him, and we managed to kill him. I didn’t think it was possible!
“Then I was inside the city, and Pippin had found me, and then Aragorn was calling for me to awaken from—from dark dreams. Frodo must have fought such dreams, after the Witch-king stabbed him on Weathertop. No wonder he was so ill for so long! With the Morgul shard working its way toward his heart and the Witch-king’s curse on him, and the Ring on his person—I am still amazed how very strong Frodo proved! And he carried It all the way from the Shire to the Mountain in Mordor—every step of the way, fighting It and doing all he could to protect everyone else from Its persuasions! Oh, It was indeed awake now, and every time It sensed Its Master’s people nearby It would try to force him to put It on and reveal himself to them! It was terrible to see him having to fight It, Mac! And he fought it so hard—and so well!”
Again he went quiet, and he’d obviously skipped a great deal of time when he spoke next. “I was there when they all woke up in Ithilien, there on the field of Cormallen. Pippin had been fallen upon by a troll he’d killed, and Frodo and Sam had been rescued from Mordor by Gandalf and the Eagles. All were in a bad way when I arrived from the city—I was sent for when it was decided I was well enough to travel, and that the others would benefit from me being by them while they slept. Once he awoke, Pippin began recovering rapidly, and it was much the same with Sam. Only Frodo never fully recovered—Strider says he was hurt too deeply for too long, and the scars will most likely always be with him. He and Sam were still rather weak when we returned to the city, so Aragorn had sent a message to Lord Faramir, the new Steward of Gondor, to have ponies ready for Frodo and Sam to ride up through the city upon, once the coronation was over. Aragorn insisted that he would be crowned outside the city in sight of all, and only would accept the crown if everyone agreed they wanted him to take it. It was very moving, when our Strider became the Lord Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, the first King of Gondor in a thousand years, and the first King of Arnor in even longer. He’s a very good king, you see.
“The ponies Frodo and Sam were allowed to ride were only loaned, and so when Éomer, the Lady Éowyn’s brother and the new King of Rohan, left with his sister and most of their Riders to see to things back home in Rohan, he promised to bring back a pony for each of us when he returned to take the old King’s body back to Rohan for proper burial there. They came back shortly after Aragorn married Lord Elrond’s daughter Arwen. I suppose, as he’d been fostered by Lord Elrond after his father’s death, perhaps Aragorn should have thought of her as his foster sister—he certainly considers her twin brothers his own brothers. But it seems she wasn’t in Rivendell when he grew up there, having gone to Lórien to stay with her grandparents after her mother was injured and had to leave Middle Earth. So he didn’t even meet her until the day he came of age, and he’s been in love with her ever since. Finally she agreed to marry him, but her father wouldn’t let it happen until Aragorn was King of both Gondor and Arnor, so if Frodo and Sam hadn’t made it to the Mountain as they did he’d never have been allowed to marry, it seems.
“They brought Stybba for me, and Berry here for Sam, and the bay for Frodo, and Jewel for Pippin, and Charcoal as our pack pony. Frodo immediately named his pony for Aragorn, and Strider he’s been ever since. Frodo was not so happy to find that Strider was a gelding, although he loves him the more for what he’s been through. Seems that a younger lord had picked out Strider when his wife gave birth to a lass, intending that the child learn to ride on him when she was old enough, and they had Strider gelded to make him a better mount for a girl-child. Only the bairn didn’t live all that long. So many children don’t seem to live to the age of three in the outer world. But when the masters for the pony herds were asked to pick out suitable mounts for Pippin, Sam, and Frodo, it appears everyone agreed that Strider was the finest pony available, so they sent him for the Ringbearer. And there’s no question that Frodo and Strider love each other dearly. Frodo says that Strider is exactly the type of pony he wanted when he was a child.”
“Yes, I remember him telling me what kind of pony he and Aunt Primula intended for him to ride. Although I think he’d planned to name it Pacer or perhaps Trotter.”
“Trotter? Isn’t that just like Frodo—not exactly the most original when choosing names for beasts, is he?”
Nephew and uncle exchanged soft laughter.
Merry watched the ponies. “I’m glad that the one mare we left behind managed to escape the Black Riders, although it pained me to hear she’s had to be tamed all over again. In Bree when the Black Riders came there, we’re told that the geese and dogs were all mad with fear and rage, and all the cats hid in dark, sheltered places, and some didn’t calm for days. Bob was telling me about how he found the stable cat hiding behind a manger, and she wouldn’t so much as look at a rat for a week, even if it was feeding right in front of her! I wonder if the mare would like to come back here under Stybba’s protection?
“But I have a few more ponies I’ve put in a word for, and Éomer has promised to save them for me or to send them north later. One is of the same breeding as Strider, but two years younger—as sweet a little filly as you will ever see, Mac. And there is a young stallion----” He smiled at the image in his head. “Looks a good deal like Shadowfax, who is one of the Mearas, the Lords of Horses. He’s only a yearling as yet, but when he’s fully grown he will be such a beauty! Grey as the Sea, Gandalf tells me. I may name him Sea Foam. And Lord Halladan of Annúminas has promised me one of the ponies the northern Dúnedain raise for light draught hauling in the low mountains north of Fornost. He thinks I will be impressed by their stamina. Our herds here will be much enriched, Mac—much enriched.”
Merry, Mac realized, was going to be far more directly involved in the breeding and training of the Buckland herds than his father had ever been. He’d always thought that his son Berilac would succeed him as the keeper of Brandy Hall’s stud book, but the lad had never shown much heart for it. But there was certainly no stricture against the Master of Buckland and the Hall of being his own herd master as well!
“I’ll tell you what, Merry: you come back to the stables with me and we’ll take a look at what other mares may be coming into season in the next few months. And I have one stallion that I’d love to see mated to Jewel there, if we can get Pippin’s cooperation….”