Pippin arrived at sunset, riding a new gray pony. Merry loudly hailed his cousin and admired the beast, noting the lean limbs and smooth gait as it easily cantered up the final slope to Brandy Hall.
"His name's Shadow. He is a beauty, isn't he?" Pippin said as he drew back the reins. The pony came to a trim stop, softly blowing but nowhere near spent.
Merry stroked the velvet nose; like his mane and tail and legs, the color faded to white at the end. Shadow pushed into his hand, and Merry said, "Oh, you are a love, aren't you?" He patted down the arched neck that was just a little damp, noting the height of the shoulder. "Why, he's more a horse than a pony! And a stallion, too -- are you going to put him to stud? Look at these legs. He must be fast as the wind."
"I left after luncheon today," said Pippin, smug. "I've never ridden a faster horse, except, of course, Shadowfax." He swung from the saddle, and his feet hit the ground with a sturdy noise. "I'm thinking of putting him to Thistle. She's fair tall, and has heart enough, maybe, to foal well."
"Oh ho, so you're looking to challenge Brandy Hall's stables as the best in the Shire?" Merry walked around Shadow, admiring as he went.
"Ask me again after my boy's given me some long-legged racers," said Pippin, and he slapped Shadow's flank affectionately.
"Look at him! All that way and he's not the least tired."
"You want to take him for a turn about the Hall?" asked Pippin. "Give him a little jaunt, then walk him; he needs to be cooled before I settle him down."
Merry grinned and took the reins before he leapt into the saddle. "Stella's kept dinner waiting for you. Go on in -- she wants news of Diamond and the boys."
Pippin nodded and said, "She would have come, but the midwife said she shouldn't go bumping across the Shire, big as she is."
"I can't imagine Di liked hearing that."
"No," said Pippin, grinning and shaking his head, "and I had better bring her something to make up for missing the blowing of the Horn of the Mark."
"Stella has some things put by for her." Merry settled himself in his seat, and Shadow turned this way and that.
"He takes an easy touch on the bit," said Pippin.
"I shan't be long." With a gentle tug on the reins and soft pressure with his feet on the horse's side, Merry guided Shadow back down the lane to the road.
On the road, Merry clucked his tongue, squeezed his legs, and urged the horse to a fast trot; Shadow obliged so smoothly that Merry marveled anew at the gait. He passed Mungo Bracegirdle and his youngest son, Fosco, driving the same swayback pony and cart he'd had for close to twenty years. Merry called over his shoulder, "Hoy, Mungo! Fosco!"
The wind in his ears stole most of Mungo's reply, but it sounded admonishing and ended with "...fancy beast of that Took!" Fosco grinned and waved.
Merry laughed. He leaned forward, pressing harder with his legs, and whispered, "Let's see what you can really do." Shadow obliged and cantered, rocking smoothly as the ground rushed past beneath him. Merry flattened himself over the horse's neck and urged him faster until they were at a full gallop, flying over the road, trees and bushes a blur falling away on either side. "Ride on, ride on!" he cried, feeling the words fly off soon as they left his lips.
The turnoff for Buckleberry Ferry fast approached, and Merry was minded that he shouldn't indulge himself too long. After dinner, there would be a last planning meeting for the fire and feast tomorrow night, and he wanted some time to enjoy his cousin before they must deal with the most stubborn of Brandy Hall's gaffers and gammers. He sat back, preparing to slow and turn for the Hall, but it seemed that Shadow had his own ideas. With a horse's sense of memory, he took the shifting of Merry's muscles not as hesitation but as a signal to turn toward the Ferry, the direction from which he had just come, and it mattered little to him that he was galloping at full speed. Despite the sharp angle of the junction, Shadow leaned hard into the turn, skirting the neat corner of fence by a hand's-breadth. Merry's bottom flew out of the saddle, and he remained ahorse only because his feet were firm in the stirrups; he fell back into the saddle and shouted, clinging hard so as not to be thrown off and dashed against the fence on the opposite side of the lane. He regained enough of his seat to straighten and pull the reins, and Shadow slowed and stopped mere steps before the dock to the ferry.
Merry drew a shaking hand across his brow. "My, you are the gallant heart, aren't you? You were ready to leap for the ferry." He patted a steaming shoulder and set them in the direction for home at a sedate walk. By the time they reached the Hall once more, Shadow was cool and calm, and Merry took him to the stable and tended to his care personally, rubbing him with a clean cloth and taking out the worst of the tangles in his mane with a comb. He made Shadow comfortable, buckled the finest blanket on his back, and gave him all he needed for a night's rest. With a final pat to the nose, he left.
When he entered the kitchen, Pippin said, "There you are. I wondered if you'd ridden all the way back to Tuckborough." Merry assured him his delay was only for Shadow's comfort. Pippin stood up from the table and his plate of food, and he reached for Merry. "There's a thoughtful host. Now greet your cousin proper since you've had your fun with his horse."
They embraced, and Merry thumped Pippin affectionately on the back before he shed his cloak and they both sat to table. Stella came into the kitchen and quickly filled a plate with dinner and set it in front of him, kissing the top of his head as she did so. "Phew, you smell of the stable!"
She tried to pull away, but he stayed her with an arm around her maidenly waist and pressed against her. "Lovely aroma, isn't it?" She laughed and squirmed, and Merry let her slip away after he kissed the palm of her hand. He tucked into his food, and around a mouthful asked, "Shadow is a gem, Pip. Where'd you get him?"
"I put some inquiries out during our trip to Bree last spring, not that I expected results, but just last month I got a letter from Bob at the Pony --"
"Bob! I should have guessed," said Merry.
"He's got a rare luck for finding horses," Pippin agreed. "A family of Big People had come up Greenway, looking to settle further North, and they wanted to sell him. I snuck out a fortnight ago and picked him up."
"What?" Merry jabbed his fork at Pippin. "You went to Bree without me?"
"I took Faramir," said Pippin. "We had a quite an adventure."
"He's a bit young, isn't he?" asked Merry. Though children had not yet come to him and Stella, he called on his memories as caretaker when he'd been a youngster. Pippin himself at age six had been challenging, and required frequent doses of food and naps.
"Fari's tough like me, and we managed grandly on our own. It was only a handful of days, hardly long enough for his brother to notice he was gone." He drank from his mug of beer. "He's a fine, smart boy."
"And we give thanks to his mother for that," Merry raised his own mug.
Pippin laughed. "He's smart and brave, and I'm nothing but content to be responsible for the second half."
"Brave? Foolhardy, maybe," Merry mumbled into his beer.
"You're one to talk."
"Oh?" Merry challenged him with a look over the rim of the cup.
Pippin smiled smugly. "I don't have to tell tales, Master Meriadoc. I know every single one about you, and you know it."
Merry dreamed uneasily that night. Planning for the feast had gone as he'd expected. He'd had to remain levelheaded for the negotiations so as to encourage the various gaffers and gammers to curtail their gossiping, halt their griping about the poor harvest in Buckland this year, and find agreement on the sequence of events. The Horn of the Mark would be blown as it was every year on November second, a detail upon which all agreed, just as everyone present thought the horn should be sounded before the feast, but opinions differed when the speech should happen. Some thought the horn should be sounded before the speech, while others thought after, and one wanted it blown in the morning, rather than at sunset, apparently so there would be celebrations all day, and he could avoid dreary winter fieldwork.
"No." Pippin had spoken up before others could protest. "Not in the morning." He had been somber and earnest. "The cock's cry is blessing enough for any morning."
That suggestion had been quickly dropped, and eventually the group agreed that the Master should blow the Horn of the Mark after he gave a short speech at sunset. Merry thought little of the exchange at the time, but when he woke in his bed, gasping, he recalled reading in the Red Book about the shrill call of a rooster during the morning of battle at the gates of Minas Tirith. In his dream, he had been riding with Dernhelm once more, laid flat along the slim mail-clad back as Windfola pounded toward a shadow of dread. They shot forward like an arrow, the wind of their passage whipping Dernhelm's cloak in his face and raising tears in Merry's eyes until the stout horse went mad with terror and threw them in his fear. Merry flew high and fast and hit the ground so hard he bounced right into confused waking.
Estella sighed and turned, and Merry guessed he hadn't called out in his sleep this time. He slipped out of bed, padded to his chest of drawers and retrieved the horn that oywn had presented to him, seeing dimly in memory the bright grass around Meduseld. Though she sent tidings and gifts with the King when he visited at Midsummer, she had not visited the North, for her second child, a daughter, had arrived that spring: a baby sister to their son, three years old now. In the dim light of moonlight through the window he could not see the etchings, but he could feel them under his trailing fingertips. The horn gave fair call when sounded -- Merry had blown it many times through the years -- but in the dark of night, still gripped by dream and memory, he thought of the cock that crowed.
Pippin had once told him the tale while they made their return journey to the Shire after the war. He'd heard a rooster crow one morning not long after they'd parted from Aragorn and mentioned how he was minded of the lone cry on the day of battle. Frodo overheard and brought his pony abreast theirs, urging Pippin to speak of it while they rode the long miles to Rivendell. For all his pluck, Pippin was halting as he described the despair, the destruction, and the curious lull as gray dawn light entered the city. Finally he said, "And then the cock crowed, and the horns of Rohan were singing in the distance, and it was as if the world began to breathe again."
Frodo pressed Pippin, but he refused to go on, saying it was too much to tell all at once while traveling under a gray sky. "Long stories need ale and a cozy hearth. Let's get to Rivendell, and I'll tell more you then." Frodo was kind, clasping his young cousin's shoulder, but then he drifted back through the ranks until he rode alone. Merry had never heard the rest of the story until he'd read it from Frodo's book, over a year after he had departed with Bilbo and the elves. Now, standing by his window, his feet chilled on the floor, Merry realized for the first time the reason for Frodo's hurry, and he was struck with the sadness of loss as if he'd just turned his back on the white ship sailing from the Gray Havens.
Morning brought wan sunshine and thin clouds, but though the air was cold, the wind was calm. Stella said not to worry about the feast any more because the preparation of it was in her hands now, and she and her helpers would fare much better without loutish menfolk getting in their way. Then she pushed an ambitious breakfast on her husband and his cousin, saying she knew full well they'd be out and about all day and needed some ballast for a cold autumn day. After they ate, Merry crept up behind her in the pantry, hugged her tight, kissed her neck, and thanked her for taking responsibility for the feast and so giving him the day to spend with Pippin.
"It's been a hard autumn, and you slept poorly last night," she said. "Take a day and enjoy yourself. You deserve it."
"I'm sorry I woke you." He hugged her tighter. "And I can help with the preparations -- I'll make Pippin help." Merry grinned. "I'm still bigger than he is."
"You two." Merry could hear the smile in her voice. "Like brothers, trying to outdo each other."
"We would have killed each other had we been born brothers."
"It's because you and Pippin are closer than brothers that we celebrate this day," she said, and she rubbed her cheek against his. "Not many think about it, but I well know what might have happened to the Shire if you and he hadn't ridden off to war."
Merry pulled back, and Stella turned to him, her face solemn. She framed his face with her hands and answered his questing frown. "I'm the one who hears your nightmares, and I dry your tears before you wake. You talk in your sleep, Master of Buckland, and so I know that if it were not for you and Pippin, Buckland might be worse than a dragon's den."
She favored the Took side of her family, so she was taller than most lasses. She had the same fair line of upper lip as her cousin Pippin in a sweet Bolger face, and she shared with him also the talent for getting her way, though she used it sparingly, like her other Took cousin Frodo had done. Merry touched his forehead to hers and held her close. "If not for you, Brandy Hall would never be a home."
Stella kissed him, her lips warm, and then pushed him away. Her cheeks were pink, and she smiled. "Go on now, get you gone and take Pippin with you, out of my hair so the fire and feast will be done proper."
Soon, Merry and Pippin stepped out of Hall into the brisk morning, and Pippin sniffed deeply. "Ah, it's a fine morning, and it'll be a grand feast tonight." He looked at Merry, his mouth turned up slyly on one side. "So, begging tarts in the pantry, now, hm? It's been a while since Diamond and I, ahem, took inventory in the pantry." He dug his elbow into Merry's side. "You're enjoying a very long honeymoon."
Merry felt his face heat. "It wasn't that."
Pippin looked unconvinced. "If you're not doing much of 'that,' my boys will never have any younger cousins to torment, and I was rather hoping they could get back some of my own at your hands, once upon a time."
The comment was an unexpected arrow shot right into Merry's heart. Pippin often let fly his words without thinking, but never had they struck so deeply. Sharply, he said, "We've been trying for years, Pippin. Or was I supposed to consult The Thain before I tried to father some sons?"
Pippin stopped abruptly. Merry walked on several steps, and then he turned. Pippin's mouth hung open in his pale face.
But Merry was clutched by a hurt that seemed made of many things, and he rode it fast and hard. "I'm sure the planting is easy enough for you -- goodness knows you're harvesting plenty -- two sons all ready and a third soon coming." His words gained a cutting edge that he knew he would rue; yet he spoke them anyway. "Maybe it's the practice. There were two lasses whose families I had to treat with on your behalf to get you out of trouble before you finally settled down -- did you ever make sure you didn't plant outside Tookland by mistake?"
Pippin cried out, aghast. "Merry!"
"Is that why you're so cheerful all the time? Is that why you throw parties, and dash about the Shire as if you've never once had a bad day? Maybe that's why you're so insufferably cheerful and gay because the populating of the Shire has become your mission now that the war's done -- yours and Sam's too, apparently, because Frodo never had the chance, and I can't!" Merry turned on his heel and walked away quickly, feeling miserable for saying such hurtful things, yet unable and unwilling to take them back. He passed the stable, and then he doubled back and went in.
Sweet hay, warm pony smell, and muffled coziness eased the bitterness from his mind, enough so he began to reel from the regret of his words. Merry went to Shadow and ran his fingers down his nose, and he whispered, "Sorry, dear, I haven't any treats." He climbed into the stall and wrapped an arm around Shadow's sturdy neck, letting the horse take his weight. He turned his cheek into the warm, solid warmth there and wept.
He didn't hear the door open, but he heard it close, and he choked down a sob and wiped his face with a swipe of his forearm, though he kept his arm around Shadow's solid warmth. Pippin entered the stall, somber and silent, and combed Shadow's mane and forelock with nervous fingers while the beast lipped at his pockets. "You know," he said, "I almost named him Sharkey."
Merry raised his head. "What?"
"I'd drunk a pint too many at the Pony, and I was playing the perfect fool with Bob and Nob and the others, telling tales of when the King came at Midsummer and singing as if I had a fair voice."
"You have a fair voice, Pip." Merry's own voice felt thick in his throat.
"Oh?" said Pippin, and he smiled ruefully. "And when do you ever hear me sing but when you're full of ale, too?" He sobered again and said, "I was full of ale, but I was full of myself, too. People were offering pints for tales about the war, and I was obliging them as much as they obliged me. I told them how we scoured the Shire, and I was snapping my fingers at ruffians and orcs, and in the end, I was snapping my fingers even at Sauruman, saying I'd name my new horse Sharkey." He petted his horse's ears, watching his hands instead of looking at Merry. "I had a dream that night, though; a dream like those I used to have, and I gave Faramir such a fright." He closed his mouth into a tight, white line and shook his head. "I changed my mind quick enough in the cold light of morning." He said nothing for long moments and finally met Merry's eyes. "I do have bad days, Merry. Do you have them, too?"
"I do," Merry said. "And I have dreams, even now. I had one last night."
"Oh, Merry." Pippin stepped closer and sighed. "I'm the luckiest hobbit in the Shire because I've got Diamond, and the boys, and all of Tuckborough to keep me busy." He put his hand on Merry's shoulder. "But when I have the worst days, I ride to you, and just seeing you makes everything all right so that by the time you see me, I'm smiling."
Merry's heart broke for love and regret, and he choked as he said, "I'm so sorry, Pip," and then he reached for Pippin. They held each other until the tears shook them hard, and then they clutched, desperate, tight enough to bruise. When at last the storm gentled, they broke apart, holding each other at arms length and laughing gently at their red eyes and streaked faces.
Shadow nudged Merry's back. "Ho, easy lad." To Pippin he said, "So you changed your mind and named him for Shadowfax?"
"Shadow honors him with his speed, he's that fast," Pippin replied, and he sniffed mightily. "It seemed the proper thing to do."
"Heavens! You, proper?" He let go of Pippin to address the horse again. "Will you bear us both for a ride in the sun, Shadow?"
"Yes, a long ride," said Pippin. "Let's ride until it's time to set the bonfire."
Merry agreed and began to fetch Shadow's tack. "So, are you going to cry like you do every year when I wind the Horn of the Mark?"
"Yes indeed, Merry." Pippin scrubbed his cheeks dry. "I'll cry for joy, just like I always do."
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Lullenny
|Home/QuickSearch + Random + Upload + Search + Contact + GO List|