24. Another Nephew's Visit
Esmeralda met him at the door with her standard question. 'All right, young scamp. What did you do this time?' Had the Old Took disowned his son once again?
He regarded her with his usual pretense at innocence. 'Me?'
'Yes, you, young rascal. What did you do?'
He sobered and dropped his eyes. 'Oh, Aunt,' he mourned, 'I'm afraid it's too dreadful... I...'
In spite of herself she felt the stirring of alarm. She touched his arm, 'What is it, lad?' she asked more gently.
He raised dancing eyes to hers. 'I asked my father for a holiday!'
'Oooo. Get along with you now, young scamp! Or something dreadful really will happen!' Laughing, he ducked the stern finger she shook at him and went to see to unpacking.
She glanced out to the yard and was surprised to see he'd brought a pack-pony this trip, loaded with parcels, topped by an odd flat one that he handled with great care, almost reverence. Saradoc stepped up behind her, put an arm around her waist, and said, 'So, he's back! Paladin disown him again?'
'No, it's just a visit, he says.'
'What is all the baggage?'
'I'm sure we'll find out ere long.'
'That's what I'm afraid of.' He kissed her and went out to greet his nephew. Peregrin allowed the servants to continue unloading the pony after he'd removed the flat package. It was awkward to carry, but he managed it, chatting away to his uncle as they strode towards the door.
'What is all this, then?'
'Oh, father wanted to be sure you'd take me in, so he sent a great bribe.'
'Would you believe me if I said they were early birthday presents?'
'I would not be so inclined, no.'
'All right, then. Just this one.' He put the flat package down on its edge, and taking out his knife began to cut the twine that bound the wrappings around it. 'Of course I couldn't be spared in mid-year, that's right when we're busiest in Tuckborough, so I convinced my father to let me come now to deliver this.' What in the world could it be?
He slowly and carefully unwrapped it, enjoying his aunt and uncle's suspense. When he had the wrappings off, they saw only a blank rectangle with a curve of wire going from one side to the other.
'And what is it supposed to be, then?' she asked. One never knew with this nephew.
'Close your eyes,' Pippin said.
'Close them,' he insisted, 'or you might never find out.' Saradoc and Esmeralda exchanged a humorous look, then complied. What *was* their nephew up to, this time. When such a scamp told you to close your eyes, it made you want to count all your fingers and toes when you opened them again... They heard their nephew walking across the floor, heard him fiddling with something, resisted peeking.
'All right, you can look now.' Esmeralda opened her eyes, and gasped. Propped on the small table against the wall was a portrait of her favourite nephew. Frodo seemed about to step from the picture. His eyes gleamed with mischief, one side of his mouth quirked upward, and in his hands he bore a mug filled with wildflowers. For all the world, it was as if she had come from the kitchen early to find him placing the mug on the breakfast table.
'Oh,' she gasped, with a hand at her heart, and felt Saradoc's arm go about her shoulder.
Pippin's bright smile faded. 'Don't you like it?' he asked anxiously.
'Like it...?' Esmeralda breathed, walking up to the picture, reaching out a hand to not quite touch Frodo's cheek, then turning to envelop Pippin in a great hug. 'Oh, you rascal!' she murmured. 'Of course I like it. It is perfect--how could I not?'
Saradoc was examining the portrait closely. 'Who did this? It is... words fail me.'
Pippin's laugh rang out. 'Uncle, you? Speechless?'
Merry's voice came from the hallway. 'Is that you, Pippin? What are you doing here?'
'No, my father has not disinherited me again!' Merry's great strides brought him quickly up to his cousin and they hugged fiercely. Pippin continued, 'I heard you needed some stirring up so here I am!'
'Well, you--' Merry's eyes found the portrait and he forgot what he was going to say. As his mother had, he walked up to it and reached out a hand, stopping just short of touching the surface.
'Who painted it?' Saradoc answered again. 'I have never seen such work.'
Merry whirled. 'Little Estella Bolger? Fatty Bolger's sister? She did this?' he said incredulously.
Pippin laughed in his face. 'Oh, aye. She's not so little anymore.'
'The little pest who tried to follow us everywhere whenever we were at Budgeford? She did this?'
'Meriadoc!' he had been so overwhelmed that he had forgotten he was speaking badly of a hobbit lass in front of his mother. He apologized sheepishly, but couldn't help shaking his head. Estella Bolger?
'Ah, Uncle!' Pippin exclaimed. 'Can you spare a glass or two of the Hall's finest? I'm that dry, I can hardly get a word out, my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth.'
'Sounds to me as if you are getting plenty of words out, lad,' Saradoc said good naturedly as they began to walk in the direction of his study.
'Coming, Merry?' Pippin called back over his shoulder.
'I'll be there soon,' Merry returned. He turned again to the portrait, a sudden ache of loss seizing him. He felt his mother's gentle hand on his arm.
'I know, lad. I miss him, too. It was a lovely thing for Peregrin to do.'
'Yes it was,' he agreed, and somehow managed to tear himself away to follow them to the study.
Pippin had been gone since last summer, and how quiet Brandy Hall had seemed, even with all the Brandybuck relations who remained. Funny how the lack of one lively nephew could be so keenly felt.
Esmeralda smiled to see the cousins together, the face of her Meriadoc, who had been all too serious these past months, lighting with a smile at young Peregrin's nonsense. She was glad her brother had seen fit to send the lad for a visit, even if it were only for two weeks. She saw new energy in her son, and marveled to hear his laughter ring out once more. Too bad they couldn't keep that rascal of a nephew longer. She considered sending Meriadoc off to Tuckborough again, but no... they really could not spare him. He had taken much of the burden of running Buckland from his father's shoulders. Though Saradoc was Master in name and in most of the decision making, his son acted as his arms and legs, doing all the walking and riding that Saradoc could no longer manage. He had even given up the house at Crickhollow to be closer at hand.
A week after Pippin's arrival, Merry arrived at the study to hear Saradoc and his cousin deep in conversation. As he entered, they broke off.
'What is it?'
'How are you feeling?' his father asked.
'A little tired. I didn't sleep well,' he said, wondering why Saradoc was so concerned about his health all of a sudden.
Pippin nodded, 'That's how it always starts.'
Merry regarded him in astonishment. 'What are you talking about?' Then the realization hit him. He had been too busy about Hall business to pay much attention to the passing of time, or the day's date. 'You came back because...?' Anger washed over him. 'Do you really think I need a nursemaid?' On consideration, as the first chill hit him, the anger turned to despair. 'Perhaps I do,' he whispered. He allowed them to guide him to the comfortable chair by the fire. Saradoc stayed with him, reassuring hand on his shoulder, while Pippin left, coming back quickly with an armload of blankets which he quickly wrapped about his cousin.
Pippin knelt down by the chair, taking Merry's face between his hands. He already seemed to be far away. 'Fight it, Merry!' he said urgently. Merry tried to swim upwards, but the current pulled him down so strongly and his arms and legs felt like lead. He tried harder and his head broke the surface; suddenly Pippin's face came into focus. 'Drink this,' Pippin said, and the hot sweet tea gave him strength before the next freezing wave broke over him and threatened to pull him down.
'Father?' his father's face became clearer as Merry struggled to focus.
'I'm here, Meriadoc. Stay with me.'
'I'm trying... trying my best.' Frodo's voice came to him. *All we can do is our best.*
With help he was able to fight off the Darkness for half the day before it finally pulled him down and swept him away.
When he awoke, he was in his own bed. Pippin sat beside him.
'What time is it?'
'It's tomorrow,' Pippin said. 'Just think, you don't have to go through this for another year.'
'You're a great help,' he said dryly.
'Oh, aye,' was all Pippin answered. 'Whenever you need a nursemaid, just call on me.'
Merry squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. Pippin helped him to sit up. 'It was different this time,' he said. His right arm didn't seem to want to work right, and when he touched his left hand to the right he could feel that it wasn't as warm as it should be. But it wasn't as cold as it had been, either.
'No, you stayed with us longer, and you've come back out of it sooner. Either the Dark is getting weaker or you're getting stronger.'
'That's an encouraging thought,' Merry answered. A sudden idea struck him and he looked up at Pippin in wonder. 'You rode all the way here from Tuckborough for this?'
Pippin laughed heartily, 'Oh, no... the brandy supply in the Smials is dangerously low, so my father sent me with a pack-pony full of goods to trade!' At Merry's skeptical expression, he protested. 'It's true! Honest!' He shook his head, muttering, 'Why don't people ever believe me when I'm being serious?'
'Perhaps because you never are,' Merry answered. 'Come on, help me up. I'm hungry.'
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.