MEFA Nomination 2008.
Author's Chapter Notes:
With thanks to Tinewen and JewelSong for being very patient, very insightful betas! I appreciate it very much. *hugs* Also with thanks to Willow Wode, whose brilliant “Rites of Passage” directly inspired my portrayal of Esme and Paladin.
Part 1: “Looking”
Faery blood was rumored to run true in the veins of many a Took. Knowing his cousins as he did, Merry had never doubted it. The one, a sprite; the other, fey and unfathomable --both touched by something Other resonating through that ancient line. They captivated him, effortlessly bound him to them in defiance of reason, awakening in him a fierce protectiveness.
Protection. Fine job he’d done of that.
The last thing he had ever dreamed in the days of the Conspiracy was that they might be riven from one another before the end. ‘Twas an unimaginable calamity, a loss too immense to conceive. Yet if his mind could not quite grasp the fact, his gut roiled with the wrenching truth of it.
Frodo was gone, fled across the Anduin, left far behind them now to take his chances in the Wild and the Black Lands beyond. Merry could only hope against hope that Sam had found him, followed him somehow, that they did not both lie staring sightless into the sky above Parth Galen.
He shut his eyes tight against the memory of that noble Man kneeling in a sunlit glade, arrow pierced and dying.
And Pippin…! He’d nearly lost him, too.
Awareness of their vulnerability pricked at him with the thought, his gaze sweeping the tiny clearing where Treebeard had bid them stay. Mentally, he berated himself for letting his ruminations undermine his vigilance. For a moment, Pip remained invisible, and the tiniest thread of panic wound its way up Merry’s spine.
Then, weak with relief, he spotted him.
In the muted twilight, Pippin stood at the clearing’s edge amid gnarled trunks, tangled vines, and wisps of hanging moss fine as spider silk, looking far more Elf than hobbit. He had gone utterly quiet –a state so uncharacteristic it demanded Merry’s attention more urgently than the loudest hail.
He watched in silent concern as the young Thain-to-be turned towards the East, orienting himself according to no celestial body, for none was visible through the canopy of old growth above them, but according to his infallible Tookish sense of direction. His gaze seemed locked along that fell bearing, the corners of his mouth pulled downward, the light which usually shone from his green eyes dimmed. And Merry knew that Pippin was horribly, deeply worried.
Most people back home hadn’t thought Pippin capable of worry.
* * *
“Free as a bird,” the old aunts had clucked when referring to the lad from Tuckborough, but even as they had shaken their heads, their voices had always been touched with fondness. His unflagging enthusiasm, winsome smile, lilting speech, affectionate and open manner –all had endeared him to everyone he had encountered. Even when his boundless energy had become wearing, no one had been able to stay annoyed with him for long.
He had been thought a pleasant fellow, though none too bright. Since he had been set to inherit quite a prodigious amount of land and money, brains had not been considered a requirement. Surely, he’d surround himself with exceptional servants and, with luck, a capable wife to rule his domain by force of his considerable charm.
There had been only a few who had understood there was more to Pippin than this, that Pippin had a heart the size of the Shire, not to mention an intelligence of a different sort entirely. His gift had been not cleverness, but an instinctive knowing and a vast capacity for love. His impulsive, happy tendency to action had gotten him in a lot of trouble, masking his inborn wisdom and leaving many to shake their heads and mutter “fool”. But Pippin was no fool, though not many had known it.
* * *
His mum and da knew. Merry knew.
“They didn’t get him, Pip.”
Merry, having crossed the distance between them without a sound, pulled an arm tight around his cousin’s shoulders. He meant to shelter him from the cool of the night if not from the harsh fact of their separation from one they so deeply loved.
Pippin leaned into him, hard.
“We’d have seen, if they’d caught him,” Merry reassured. “He’d have been trussed up along with us, I expect.”
Pippin nodded, his eyes still looking in the direction their elder cousin had vanished.
“They thought we were the ones, didn’t they, Merry? They thought we had It.”
Silence fell for several heartbeats, the only sound the creaking of the mighty trees as they shifted, moaning.
“Why was he leavin’ us?” Pip turned to meet Merry’s gaze, his narrow face pinched. “Why would he go?”
Merry knew Pip already had the answers to these, to most of the questions he asked. But he was Pip’s touchstone, and he always took care to answer.
“It was hurting him, and It would’ve hurt us. He didn’t want that, Pip. He didn’t--” Merry’s voice broke as grief surged through him. Pip hugged him tight, his fingers clutching the fabric of Merry’s cloak where it draped over his shoulder.
“Did I make it worse…?” It was barely a whisper, a warm exhalation of breath in Merry’s ear.
Merry angled back a bit, captured Pippin’s gaze. “If you hadn’t sprung out of our hidey-hole that very moment, they’d have been right on top of him. You saved him, Pip.”
Pippin’s brow smoothed, this revelation easing him. A tremulous smile lifted one corner of his lips. “I miss him.”
Merry folded Pippin into his embrace, his fingers buried in his cousin’s soft curls, the lump in his throat too thick for speech. For several minutes they held each other, rocking slightly, in unconscious imitation of the trees around them. When they finally moved apart, both sets of eyes turned once again to gaze helplessly Eastward.
Part 2: “Scrying”
Marigold set the tiny, cozy-wrapped teapot down upon the ground, loath to relinquish its reassuring warmth. Rose, the tips of her fingers pressed to the side of a dark stone bowl, looked up at her expectantly. Mari lifted the teapot’s earthenware lid, releasing the scent of herbs into the air.
Both young hobbits knelt amid the dead leaves, now kissed with frost, which had collected in the back garden of Bag End in the absence of its Master and his gardener. It was near midnight; the full moon waxing straight above was reflected in the still water filling the opaque basin.
It had all been Mari’s idea, but now that it had come down to it, it was Mari who balked, drawing her hand away.
“Me da will have me hide if he finds me out of me bed,” she stammered, pulling her cloak tighter about her shoulders against the chill. “’Tis pure foolishness, any road.”
“Foolishness or no,” Rose hissed, “We’ve come too far for turnin’ back now, Marigold Gamgee.”
Mari bit her lip, and settled.
It wasn’t as if she really hoped for much. It was only the desperation of her aching heart, and Rose’s, that had led them to such extremes –she knew that. Imagine, asking the Widow Rumble about Old Ways and such…! In more carefree times, the thought would never have entered Mari’s head, nor would she have been able to entice Rose to join her in her folly.
But times were far from carefree. Plain hobbit sense told a body that, and mayhap it had been obvious to the Widow what they sought.
* * *
Herbs and simples tucked away in her basket, Marigold had lingered upon the Widow’s threshold, her business concluded and with no excuse for tarrying longer. Rose had bided beside her, frozen in the doorway, her gaze lowered to the clean swept dirt floor of the Widow’s smial.
There had been a moment of silence as the elderly hobbit had read their intent with the practice of long years. Thin shoulders had shrugged beneath a striped woolen shawl.
“Come back in, then, and I’ll see if I can aid ye. Quick now. Yer lettin’ in a draft.”
Marigold had stammered out the reason for their coming, with Rose adding a word or two. Neither had to say much, for the Widow had seemed to know it all. Seeing she had spooked them a bit, she let loose a wheezy laugh.
“Lasses, and what else would you have come for? Your sweet brother –and your beau—disappeared into thin air? Of course, you’ll be wantin’ to find the lad!”
She had turned back to her shelves full of stores, opening and closing the tiny drawers set into one cubby there.
“It’s powdered mugwort you’ll be needin’, and wormwood,” she had whispered as she rummaged to produce them. “And a bowl with a bottom that’s dark, like, and won’t reflect overmuch.”
She had given them elementary instructions, but warned them not to expect too much. “It’s not everyone can do this,” she had breathed. “’Tis not for the faint of heart, nor for the unwary. And seeing as neither one of you has a drop of Tookish blood, as far as I know, it’s doubtful you’ll scry anything. I’ve only tried twice, me dears, and only once to any purpose. And that scairt me so bad I ne’er meddled in augury again.”
“Did you See true, then?” Marigold had asked, breathless.
The Widow’s shoulders had slumped. “Aye,” she had replied, and would say no more.
* * *
Mari reached out and touched her fingertips lightly to Rose’s, both lasses joined to each other and the smooth edge of the basin. Their gazes met and locked…dropped to the water, shimmering in the diffuse light of the moon, still in this sheltered hideaway.
“‘T’will turn to ice a’fore we see anything, likely,” Mari whispered through chattering teeth.
“Shhhhh,” Rose ordered, casting her eyes towards the water. Mari followed suit, devoting all she was to the task at hand. She tried to hold Sam in her soul, only Sam, stoked the embers of her love for her brother to blazing as she emptied her mind just as the Widow had instructed.
It seemed ages that they gazed at the bottom of the bowl, feet going numb and knees stiff.
Mari found her concentration fragmenting as the minutes ticked by. She did not fidget outwardly, for Rose’s determined mien, and the eerie combination of secret errand, herb-fragrant air, and ghostly moonlight joined to sober her. She thought of her Sammy, but could only ache for him.
* * *
When she had skinned a knee or someone had bruised her feelings, when her older sisters had ganged up on her or she had felt lonesome and longed for her mum, it had been Sam who would notice, it had been Sam who would care. His sunny smile and comforting embrace had melted so many worries to naught… Their father had become even gruffer since their mother’s passing. When he turned away, cold, it was Sam who would cushion her, ease her, let her mourn or let her laugh in a way the elder Gamgee hadn’t been able to tolerate.
* * *
Sam was good, so good and she wondered how it was people didn’t just know it. She couldn’t bear her father’s angry helplessness at her brother’s disappearance. Didn’t he understand that Sam would never have left them without good reason? Of course it hadn’t helped who he’d gone with, had it, no more’n it had made it easier for Rose.
But how Mari missed him…!
Distraught that even this desperate attempt to do something should prove futile, she gave a muffled sob. It was then she caught sight of Rose’s face…and went rigid, thunderstruck.
Her friend’s azure eyes were wide, pupils dilated and unfocused, puffs of vapor coming all too rapidly from her mouth as her breath went shallow and quick. The thought crossed Mari’s mind that she should shake Rose out of this, whatever this was. But if she were finding out about Sam…
And what if she were? Mari wished she’d never begun this, for she wasn’t sure she could bear the knowing.
She shivered; Rose looked so…absent, as though she had somehow disappeared into the stone basin, passed within and beyond it, beyond now.
“Rosie…?” Mari’s lips formed the word, but she could utter no sound. The unearthly expressions flickering across her friend’s good-natured face were unlike anything in her experience. That face, made for laughter and teasing, twisted with choking horror, unendurable pain, fathomless grief…
Rose gave a muffled shriek, pulling away from Mari’s grip, releasing the bowl. Sam’s sister stared openmouthed, stripped of the ability to ask the question that had tormented her for months, the one that had brought them here. Still, she managed to reach out to her, and Rose reached back. They gripped each other’s forearms over the bowl between them.
“Our poor Sam…it’s so dark,” Rose gasped.
Mari burst into tears, throwing herself into Rose’s arms. The bowl was tipped sideways, its contents sinking sluggishly into the cold earth.
“But he’ll be back, Mari,” Rose whispered in terror and relief. “Our Sam will fly home to us…after the Spring.”
Part 3: “Seeing”
Paladin Took followed on the heels of the maid-servant who had come to fetch him. The light of the oil lamp she held aloft bobbed as she hurried down the stairs and along the corridor. He fumbled with the sash of his robe, both hopeful and terrified that his sister had arrived on his doorstep in the wee hours of this freezing winter night with news of their missing sons.
“I hope ‘twas all right to wake you, Master,” Poppy, anxious, threw back over her shoulder. “But Mistress Brandybuck said she’d see you, and now.”
“No worries. You’re dismissed.” It burst from him in one rushed exhalation, the servant forgotten as he pushed open the door to the parlor.
Esmeralda whirled about when he entered. The sight of her near froze his blood: her hair awry, her skirts mud splattered, her eyes glittering with anger thinly overlaying panic. Despite the wobbliness of his knees, he forced himself to cross the distance between them, gripped his sister’s shoulders.
“Esme, what has happened?”
She looked up into his face and he found in hers something he’d thought never to see there: desperation. His sister, his Esme –so self sufficient, so assured, so strong.
“If you know,” she gritted out, “you must tell me. You must.”
“If I know? Esme, I thought you had news of our lads.”
It was as though she hadn’t heard him.
“I’d a letter from Pearl. She said you Saw Peregrin, and that he was alive.”
He met her gaze for two more heartbeats, then turned away, confused and caught. His wife had obeyed his instruction to keep what he knew to herself, but somehow his vixen of an eldest daughter had gotten wind of this and thought it her duty to inform her aunt.
“They are never apart! Did you See my Merry? DID YOU?”
Iron clad control was imposed --the only thing that permitted him to turn around and face her with some degree of calm. Skills honed in many a game of chance and perfected in canny business dealings across the Shire were called into use, wiped the turmoil from the Thain’s face and voice. He had protected his wife from what he felt she could not bear; now he would protect his sibling.
“I did not See him, sister mine,” he said gently.
Esme searched his face, unsure. “Pal, please… If you know… I cannot bear any more of this.”
He held her close, as much to keep his expression from her discerning gaze as to give solace. “No,” he murmured into her hair. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I have no answers for you.”
The fight went out of her, then. She was exhausted from her midnight ride through the frigid countryside, spent from months of fruitless worry, as was he…
* * *
When it had finally been clear that Frodo Baggins, his gardener, and the heirs of Buckland and Tuckburough were well and truly missing, there had been first shock, then disbelief, then frantic seeking. Inquiries had been made throughout the Four Farthings, and searchers had been sent through field, wood, and all along the banks of the Brandywine. It was Saradoc, Master of Buckland, Merry’s father and Paladin’s brother-in-law, who had finally received word that an unlikely hobbit foursome, one common, three gentle, had been observed dining at an Inn in Bree. That was the last anyone had heard tell of them.
Frenzied searching had given way to waiting –a cruel occupation, or lack thereof. It had worn them all down, not least of all the Thain, who felt required to project a sturdy confidence for the sake of the many who depended upon him.
* * *
Paladin placed Esme in Poppy’s competent charge, then stood stock still for several minutes in the empty parlor, fighting down nausea, listening. He waited until all was quiet before spinning on his heel. Unthinking, he exited the parlor, grabbed his cloak where it hung on a stand near the main entry, and emerged without a sound into the icy night.
He strode away from Great Smials, across the cold ground to the grand stable where he housed his prize ponies. Pushing through the door, he marched down the row of stalls to the very end, ignoring whickers of greeting from the occupants. In an alcove at the far end hung his son’s riding tack – the saddle, bridle, and blanket his young heir had delighted in putting on his spirited pony before a fearless ride that would petrify his mother and, if truth be known, his da.
Paladin, chest rising and falling with his uneven breaths, stood before this small remembrance of his Peregrin and slowly, tiredly rested his forehead on the pommel of his son’s saddle. Unbidden, his Vision came back to him. The one he had shared only partly with his wife in a desperate attempt to bestow comfort.
A grassy plain… Smoke in the air, and strange cries. The carcass of some hulking creature. The broken bodies of Men and…others. In the midst of this nightmare carnage, his son, clad in strange but formal garb of black and silver.
He was whole.
This much the Thain had told his wife.
His face stricken, Pippin held his cousin, Meriadoc, in his arms, urgently calling his name. Merry’s eyes were closed, and there was blood dripping from his nose and mouth… Pippin snatched something from the ground and reverently covered him.
Grabbing the worn pony blanket from where it hung, he sank to the floor, cradling it to his chest.
Please, lad,” he whispered. “Hurt or heartbroken, it’s no matter. Come home to us…!”
Brokenly, he wept…
For his nephew’s life, which must surely have ended.
For his sister’s peace and happiness, which could know no resurrection now.
For the lost innocence of his son, his Peregrin.
Part 4: “Blinding”
Sheets of frigid water sluiced down from the inky vault of the sky, the sheer face of the grim cliff at their backs providing no sanctuary to speak of. Sam, his hood pulled up and over his face in a vain effort to shield him from the elements, didn’t think he’d ever known such pure physical misery --at least not without prospect of gaining home at last to find a cheery fire in the hearth and a hearty stew warming on the stove.
Still, he knew peace, of a sort. Frodo was there, beside him. He hadn’t gone off alone, beyond Sam’s reach and ability to defend. He hadn’t, and now he’d not. Sam would see to that.
He could barely make out Frodo’s face; only the tip of his long straight nose peeked beyond the edge of his hood, water constantly dripping off its end. Sam could feel him shiver, they were sitting so close, and hoped he was asleep. ‘Twas the only way to escape the cold. He snuggled a bit closer, trying to share what paltry warmth he had. Frodo responded in kind, scrunching them shoulder to shoulder.
Not asleep, then, more was the pity.
How Sam wished he could offer hot tea, a tub full to the brim with steaming water, a bed heaped in goose-down comforters…!
He shifted to find the cowl of Frodo’s hood turned toward him, the dear face only dimly visible within. His tone, so serious and sad, tore at Sam’s heart for he knew he’d not been resting, but thinking all too hard, as was his wont.
Attentive, Sam waited.
“Did you see…anyone? As you tried to find me? As the others fought?”
Sam understood instantly the true nature of the question.
* * *
Merry had once seemed to Sam the least likely person in the entire Shire to be Frodo’s intimate, not that it had been his place to say so.
Forceful, brash, and a bit of a snob, Sam had expected the Heir to Buckland to grate on every one of his solemn, peace-loving Master’s nerves. Add to that Merry’s boisterous Tookish shadow…well. Sam had been mystified when Frodo would welcome his cousins with seeming enthusiasm rather than bolting the door and making like he’d left for Parts Unknown.
It had been the work of many years for Sam to grasp the fierce love between the Cousins. Having viewed gentlefolk as more or less a unified class, it had taken time for him to apprehend that Merry and Frodo were not social equals, not quite. Time to understand that in all the multitude of hobbits bustling in Brandy Hall, only Merry –even as a young lad-- had perceived a certain melancholy orphan’s true worth. Time to recognize that Merry had bonded to his poor Baggins relation long before Frodo had Bilbo and Bag End to call his own despite the consternation of his parents and other Brandybucks looking after Merry’s “rightful due”.
Merry’s love for Frodo had never dimmed, and it was this evidence of good sense and loyal heart that had changed Sam’s opinion of him, for once and all.
* * *
Frodo pined for him now, it was certain. For Merry and Pippin, both.
“I saw no one but you, once I’d left camp. I heard the sounds as they battled, but… Strider wouldn’t let your cousins come to harm. They were with him, surely.”
“But they weren’t.”
Sam drew back in dismay.
Frodo hunched deeper into his cloak, wretched. “The last I saw Merry and Pip, they were leading an entire company of orcs away from me. I had hoped… Well. I had hoped you could give me news.”
Shocked, Sam moved so close to Frodo that their foreheads touched. “Tell me,” he murmured, his entire being poised just to listen, just to hear.
“There were scores of them, Sam, and all charging straight for me. My cousins had found a hiding place, and were beckoning me in. I couldn’t join them, of course, and would have bid them stay quiet, but…”
Sam sensed rather than saw a rueful smile upon Frodo’s lips. He arched a brow. “And what did Mr. Pippin do then?” he asked, so sure the Took had served as unwilling catalyst for some disaster, he didn’t consider his query such a doubtful thing as a guess.
“Merry knew, somehow, that I meant to leave…”
Sam nodded, accepting Merry’s intuition where Frodo was concerned as plain fact.
“Pippin ran to stop me, revealing himself to my hunters.” Frodo looked up, bereft. “I hadn’t meant for my cousins to see me, Sam. I was trying—“
The simple utterance, replete with understanding, seemed to give Frodo the courage to go on.
“Merry leapt to Pip’s side, then bid me flee and led those brutes a-chase. I was running too hard myself for the river to ever see what became of them…”
A shudder ran through the slight frame. Frodo hung his head low over his knees, his voice barely audible.
“I fear they are dead.”
They sat without speaking for several heartbeats, the drumming of the rain the only sound. Frodo stared miserably at his furry toes; Sam tried to marshal his thoughts, grasping for words that would ease his friend.
“Strider and the others –there’s no one like ‘em. They’d let no harm come to your kin. And…”
Sam hesitated. Frodo slowly lifted his eyes to his companion’s.
“If It knows… If It knows who’s in your heart…” Sam couldn’t finish, his gaze sliding unwilling to a point beneath the hollow of Frodo’s throat.
Frodo grimaced, his lips near blue with cold as water dripped from his sodden bangs into his eyes and down his cheeks.
“Then,” Sam murmured, “wherever their path takes them now, you’ve spared them the greatest danger.”
Frodo laid a gentle hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Them, but not you, dear friend.”
To that there was no reply. Sam wrapped an arm about Frodo, sheltering him as best he could. His Master’s eyes turned Westward as if they could, through dark and rain and across endless miles, somehow pinpoint and protect those from whom he had been parted.
It was not until Frodo slumped into exhausted slumber that Sam allowed his own weary eyes to close. His dreams were haunted by images of once laughing hobbitlads turned somber and silent.
* * *
Soon after, they acquired a skulking guide and passed from the razored rock of the Emyn Muil to the noxious swamplands beyond.
Frodo’s back became ever more bowed, his eyes --more haunted. Worse, he stopped speaking of those he had left behind, stopped ever looking to the West. He would struggle to raise his tortured gaze to the East, only to the East.
Sam watched dirty, nail-bitten fingers clench around a smooth band of flawless gold, and hated It.