2. Walking in Darkness
He did not know how long he crouched there before he heard the soft plop of ponies' feet in the grass and a jingle of chain. Pippin looked up to see the farmer who had been plowing in the next field; he had unhitched the ponies from the plow and ridden them over. Pippin felt the farmer's sturdy hand on his shoulder.
'Still breathing?' the gruff voice asked.
'Yes,' Pippin whispered.
'Right. I will see t' pony then.' The hand was gone. Pippin turned his head to see the farmer bend to Bright Nose, still struggling on the grass and whistling in distress. He looked back to Merry... and suddenly the noise from the pony stopped. He looked over to see Bright lying deathly still.
The farmer returned, wiping his knife with a handful of grass. 'Leg break. Bad. I took care of 'im, poor lad.'
Pippin nodded thanks. The farmer bent to examine Merry. Pippin heard him suck in air through his teeth.
'Right then,' the farmer said abruptly. 'Let us get t' helmet off.' The farmer's good sense broke Pippin free of the frozen horror. He held Merry while the gnarled hands gently removed the helm. He watched the hands gingerly feel around the skull, then down the neck. The farmer grunted. 'Neck is not broken, then.' Galvanized to movement, Pippin ran his hands down his cousin's legs, and the left arm, relieved to find no obvious breaks. But the right arm...
The farmer caught his gaze. 'We cannot move 'im yet. We will need a stretcher. You stay with 'im; I will ride for help.' He turned to the plow ponies who were taking advantage of the interruption of their workday to feast greedily on the meadow grass.
'Take my pony; he will be faster,' Pippin urged. The farmer took the reins from him, mounted lightly for all his bulk, reined Socks around and kneed him into a fast jog towards the farmstead.
'Merry!' Pippin called again, but his cousin made no sign of hearing. He undid his cloak and rolled it to make a pillow for Merry's head. 'Steady now, Merry. Help is coming.' The only relief he could find was the steady rise and fall of his cousin's chest. But for the right arm, he could not be too badly hurt... could he?
Finally he saw the farmer returning across the field with two younger copies of himself and a small lad. They brought two long poles and blankets which they quickly improvised into a stretcher.
'Now comes the tricky part,' grunted the farmer as he bent on Merry's other side. 'We must lift t' lad as best we can without jarring that shoulder.' He and his eldest son placed the stretcher next to Merry. The four of them took hold of Merry and as gently as they could slid him over. A spasm of pain crossed his face but he did not wake.
'Right, now!' the farmer exclaimed. He turned to Pippin. 'Each take a corner. We will come back later for his gear.' Pippin wanted to say hang the gear but only nodded. They lifted the stretcher with care and bore their burden to the farmstead, the lad following behind leading the plow ponies.
They brought Merry in and laid him in the big bed, hobbits crowding around. The farmer gave a roar and cleared the room. The farmer's wife folded a clean cloth and pressed it to Merry's forehead to staunch the bleeding. Pippin and the farmer stripped Merry down to his undertunic, then Pippin grasped Merry's left hand. It was cool, too cool. The farmer's wife nodded to herself and drew blankets from a chest. Careful of the right arm, she tucked the blankets all around, went out again and returned with a few bricks wrapped in flannel.
'I put these by the fire when I heard you were comin' in. They will help to keep 'im warm, poor lad. He looks a bit shocky.'
Pippin abruptly remembered Socks and turned to the farmer. 'My pony...'
The farmer looked a little sheepish. 'I sent a boy for the healer on 'im. I hope I did not take too great a liberty, but we have no riding stock and the plow ponies are steady but not fast.'
'No, no, that was fine.' The sooner the healer could come, the better. The farmer pulled up a chair beside the bed and indicated that Pippin should settle himself there. He went out again and was gone some time; when he returned, he had Merry's saddlebags and a silver horn. Laying them in a corner, he said to Pippin, 'My boys are burying 'is pony. It seemed the right thing t' do.' Pippin nodded his thanks.
Soon he heard the clatter of ponies' hoofs in the stony yard and an older hobbit entered with the farmer telling him what had happened. Pippin rose from the chair to get out of his way. With barely a glance at Pippin, the healer went to Merry and began his examination. He lifted the cloth on the forehead, nodded to himself, ran practiced hands over Merry's left arm and legs, lifted the undertunic to check for abdominal bruising.
He looked up at Pippin with a brief smile. 'The head and the arm seem to be our worst problems. The arm is out of its place and will have to be put back.' Pippin nodded, a sick feeling in his gut. The healer looked keenly at him. 'Do you want to stay or go out?'
Stung, he answered, 'I will stay. How can I help?' The healer directed him and the farmer's eldest son to hold Merry steady while he and the farmer worked the arm back into its socket. They were all sweating and breathing hard by the time the deed was done, Merry included, though he did not wake.
The healer then turned his attention to the gash on Merry's forehead. 'Tis deep,' he said, 'and will need some stitching.' He drew out the supplies from his bag and had Pippin hold his cousin's head while he stitched. When finished, he took out a jar of salve and smeared it liberally on the wound. With his finger he traced the adjacent brown scar on Merry's forehead and murmured, 'Seems this is not the first knock on the head for the lad.' Looking up, he added, 'We will leave it open to the air for now, air's good for healing. Bandage it if he gets restless.' The healer then rose and said, 'He ought to be better tomorrow. Keep him warm. Get some broth into him if you can. I will come back on the morrow to see how he fares.' Pippin thanked him and started to rise but the farmer waved him back to his chair. He walked out with an arm about the healer's shoulders, talking about a barrel of brew that needed tapping.
Pippin dozed in the chair beside the bed, but his cousin slept heavily and did not wake. The farmer's older daughters took turns through the night mending the fire and renewing the hot bricks in their wrappings.
In the morning, they coaxed Pippin from Merry's side long enough to wash and have breakfast. They brought him second breakfast at Merry's bedside. Merry was still in heavy slumber and did not respond to Pippin's voice.
The healer came just before midday and seemed surprised to see Merry not yet awake. He lifted Merry's eyelids, checked his hands and his feet. 'I do not like this,' he said to the farmer and Pippin. 'He should have wakened this morning with no more than a headache and very sore shoulder. Have you been keeping him warm?' The farmer merely pointed to the bright fire on the little hearth and the flannel wrapped bricks tucked around Merry.
The healer shook his head. 'His limbs are cool,' he said. 'The right hand is particularly worrisome. I wonder if somehow the shoulder was more damaged than I thought.'
Pippin touched Merry's right hand. It was noticeably cooler than the left. The healer met Pippin's eye. 'If it is there is bleeding inside his head from the blow, that could be keeping him asleep. Keep talking to him. He might be able to hear you.' Pippin nodded. The healer left with instructions to use warmed blankets and more hot bricks, and to try to get some hot broth down the patient. He would return on the morrow.
Though they brought Pippin meals, he ate little more that day, staying in the chair by Merry's side, talking about everything and anything. The farmer's daughters, Ruby and Diamond, took turns sitting quietly in the chair by the fire. They learned a lot about the cousins that day.
Merry's hand and arm grew colder through the day, despite hot poultices. The girls kept the fire burning brightly and the bricks warm. Pippin continued to talk to Merry, hoping somehow to get through. Towards evening he was encouraged when his cousin turned his head on the pillow and tried to open his eyes.
His cousin's answer stunned him. 'Where is the king? And Eowyn?'
Pippin stammered, 'They - they are not here, Merry. Do you not remember what happened?'
Merry replied. 'It is dark... I feel so cold. I can't use my right arm, Pippin, not since I stabbed him. And my sword burned all away like a piece of wood.'
Pippin gasped, and Diamond looked up. She saw his hands gripping the blankets hard enough to turn his knuckles white. 'Merry!' he said urgently. 'That was a whole year ago. It is over and done with. The War is done; the Dark is gone.' His cheerful tone was belied by the anxiety that etched his face.
'Help me, Pippin!' Merry called faintly. 'It's all going dark again, and my arm is so cold.'
'Merry, it is but a dream. Wake up, Merry!'
'Are you going to bury me?'
To Diamond's dismay, Pippin bowed his head upon the bedclothes and wept. It was the evening of the 15th of March. A year earlier, Merry had lain in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith in Gondor, and the healers had had no hope of helping him. Only the coming of the King had saved him from falling into black silence, deadly cold, and death. ...but the King was in Gondor, and they were now in the Shire, many, too many days journey away...
Merry was quiet the rest of the night, but as the next day dawned he was restless, striking out and trying to tear the bandage from his head. Pippin held his hands while the healer made his examination.
'If he cannot be calmed we will have to bind his hands.'
'No!' Pippin objected vehemently. More softly he added, 'Do not bind him. I will hold his hands as long as it is necessary.'
Diamond spoke up from her chair in the corner. 'I will help, Master Holbain. We all will.' While tending the ailing hobbit she had seen old scars on wrist and ankle as if ropes had once chafed and bit. She had seen the same kinds of marks on hobbits released from the Lockholes after the ruffians were driven out. Now she noticed similar marks on Pippin's wrists as he held his writhing cousin. These Travellers had seen ill use. She had found scars like whip marks on Merry's back and legs when she helped to wash him and change his bedding. She wondered if Pippin bore the same scars. He certainly was protective of his cousin.
Diamond and Ruby and their brothers took turns when Pippin tired, holding Merry's hands, speaking soothing words, trying to calm the twisting, desperate hobbit. The struggle lasted for three days more, exhausting them all, but still Pippin insisted that his cousin's hands must not be bound. Seeing the marks on Merry's wrists, the farmer and his wife agreed.
As the 20th of March dawned, Merry was quiet. They hoped that this meant healing. Diamond watched Pippin's face as he watched Merry's. She had heard much about this Traveller, how he had helped cast the ruffians out of the Shire after returning from the War. What war she was not entirely sure, but rumours whispered of noble and terrible deeds and great honour. When Merry and Pippin had ridden by that morning an eternity ago, her whole family had paused in their work to admire the shining knights as they passed with their swords and shields, laughter and song. Now one of the brave ponies lay buried at the edge of their meadow, and his rider looked to be following him soon.
The healer returned each day, and as he left at the end of each visit his face was more troubled. Finally on the 24th he sent everyone from the room but Diamond, who sat out of the way in her chair by the fire. Holbain turned to Pippin. 'This is not a physical malady, I think.'
'What do you mean?'
'His hurts are not such that he should suffer in this way. I would have expected him to be up and out of bed days ago. What can you tell me that I do not know?'
After a long silence, Pippin answered reluctantly. 'It is an old trouble.'
'Can ye give it a name?'
'When I first heard of it, they called it the Black Shadow.' A chill seized Diamond's heart. Mister Pippin's voice sounded so hopeless.
'Black Shadow,' the healer mused. Looking keenly into Pippin's face, he asked, "...and does it have somewhat to do with your travels?'
Pippin stared, wondering how much the healer knew. The sharpness of the old hobbit's gaze drew the answer from him. 'Aye,' he whispered.
'Mordor?' the healer said, so low that Diamond barely heard. She suppressed her gasp, not wanting to be sent from the room. For the moment they had forgotten her.
At the word, Merry stirred and moaned, then was again deathly still. Pippin only nodded.
Holbain looked down and sighed. When he raised his eyes again to Pippin, he shook his head. 'This is beyond my skill,' he admitted. 'I have done all I can do.'
'Surely...' Pippin protested.
The healer rose and repeated, 'There is nothing more that I can do. I am sorry. I wish I could have saved your cousin. I have heard of some of his brave deeds, and all of us in the Shire are in his debt, and yours.' He sadly patted Pippin's hand and left the room.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.