25. One Year Later
Pippin alternated between the trot and the canter to rest his mount while still making all possible speed. The temperature dropped steadily and after an hour or so, he could see his breath and the pony's. Breakfast seemed a long time ago, but Pippin didn't want to stop to get out the second breakfast he'd packed in his saddlebag before leaving the Inn. It seemed best to press on, they'd covered half the distance to the Hall already.
They were just a few miles from the Hall when ice began to mix with the rain. Pippin was thoroughly wet by this time, didn't know he could be more miserable, but here he was. He blessed the warmth of the pony under him, pressing his hands against either side of the warm neck. The road was becoming more treacherous and Pippin had to slow the pony down after Socks slipped for the second time. The rain had changed now to sleet, and a wind was rising. He could see the icy coating forming on everything, trees, grass, bushes, road...
They were less than a mile from the Hall, and Pippin breathed a sigh of relief. He would be glad to get out of this weather. He'd had to pull Socks down to a walk, and the pony made his way cautiously, placing each foot with care. A gust of wind came and there was a sudden crack above them. Socks shied violently as a large tree limb crashed on the road a few feet away. The footing was too treacherous, Pippin tried to shift his weight to help the pony but realized with a sickening feeling that Socks was going down.
When he came to himself, he could see Socks close by, struggling to gain his feet. Pippin rolled over to his hands and knees, tried to get up himself, only to have his limbs slip out from underneath him, bloodying his chin as that member came in sharp contact with the ice on the road. The pony struggled again and somehow managed to pull himself to his feet. He took a few sliding steps over to his master and reached down to give Pippin an insistent nudge, just as if they were on a picnic and Socks was eager to return to the stable for his nuncheon. This was no time to be lying down, he seemed to be telling his rider.
Pippin tried to get up again, but could not find purchase on the slippery road. His pony was better off, with the spiked travelling shoes The Took insisted on for all of Tuckborough's ponies in the wintertime. He'd been able to scramble to his feet, and was managing to stand. Pippin gasped, 'Socks! Go home!'
The pony knew that this was not right. His training had taught him never to leave his rider. But now his rider, not in the saddle, was giving him the signal to go. It was too puzzling, not to mention irritating. The pony felt the pull of the stables ahead, he knew that shelter and food were not far away. He nudged Pippin again, and Pippin caught at the reins to try to pull himself up. Socks stood patiently, but his rider did not stand and mount, simply fell back to the road and told him once again to go home. The pony whinnied in protest, slid a few steps away, then returned to nuzzle his fallen rider. Shivering violently, Pippin tried to push himself up on the ice. He grabbed at the stirrup, tried to use it to pull himself up, but his efforts nearly brought the pony down and he released the stirrup to fall back onto the wet, icy road.
He pulled his heavy woollen cloak more closely about him, trying to huddle under its inadequate shelter, but the wet had soaked through cloak and clothing underneath all the way to his skin. The coating of ice forming on the cloak merely served to seal the cold and wet in, making the part of him under the cloak feel colder than the parts of him in the open air. He shouted for help again; the only answer was the hissing of the falling sleet.
'Socks!' he said again desperately. The chattering of his teeth made it hard to get a word out. 'Go!' Shaking its icy mane, the pony reluctantly turned towards the Hall. 'That's the boy,' he encouraged. 'Go home!' He curled up under his cloak, hugging his knees. He'd have to start crawling soon. In a minute, he would. Just as soon as the shivers eased up a bit. He was already feeling warmer, curled under his cloak. A warning voice in the back of his head told him this was not a good sign, he was starting to freeze to death, he needed to start crawling towards the Hall. He didn't fancy lying here until he turned to a great lump of ice, suitable for making farmers swear as their wagons jolted over the great lump.
'Fool of a Took,' Gandalf exploded. 'Did you think you were on a hobbit walking party?'
'No, a hobbit crawling party,' Pippin replied, and giggled. He stifled himself instantly. Giggling was not appropriate for one who had reached his majority, on whom all the hopes of Tuckborough were pinned, as his father was so fond of pointing out.
'This is exactly the behaviour I'm talking about!' the Thain snapped. 'Always doing what you oughtn't and not doing what you ought!' Pippin wondered idly what he ought to be doing this time.
Boromir's voice sounded close by. 'This cold will be the death of the halflings.' He sounded worried. Cold? What cold? Pippin was feeling warmer by the moment.
There was an urgent knock at the door of the Master's study. 'Come,' Saradoc called, and the door swung open to reveal a lad from the stables, breathing hard. 'Sir,' he said, bobbing quickly to show respect for the Master of Buckland, 'There's a pony come in without a rider.'
'In this?' The Master's eye went to the window. Though it was midafternoon, it might as well have been twilight. Sleet was beating against the windows in an unseasonably severe storm for March.
'Aye. Old Nob asks that ye come, Sir, by your leave.' Saradoc exchanged glances with his son. Merry put down the pen nib he'd been repairing and rose.
'Tell Nob we're coming,' he told the lad. The lad bobbed again and pelted from the room.
Saradoc and Merry put on their heavy cloaks even though the stables were but a few steps across the yard, and a good thing, too, for the ice stung even through the thickly felted wool. Merry supported his father, but more than once it was Saradoc who kept his son on his feet.
Old Nob met them at the entrance, and just beyond they could see the lad holding a pony with drooping head.
'Ee's been down, you can tell that right off. Just look at 'is knees.' Saradoc stepped forward to examine the beast more closely. The old ostler held a lantern close so he could better see the bruised and bloodied knees.
'And there's more,' the ostler continued. 'Walk 'im a step or two, lad,' he ordered. The boy complied, and the pony took a step and almost fell. 'Dead lame,' the ostler said. 'Don't know how 'e made here from anywheres.'
Merry had been going over the pony carefully. Now he straightened to face his father. 'It's Socks,' he said.
'Are you sure?'
'I haven't seen him in nearly a year, but if it isn't Socks, I'd hazard a wager that it's his twin.' Merry shook his head. 'He never sent word to expect him... but why should he? He always just turns up like a stray pup at the door.' It was March. He should have expected Pippin to come if it was at all possible.
'Peregrin is out afoot, in this?' Saradoc said, horrified.
'I hope he's afoot,' his son answered. 'The pony's gone down. Hard.'
Saradoc turned to the ostler. 'You say he couldn't get far in his condition.'
'Nay, I would doubt it. Every step the poor lad takes, 'e near goes down. I should think 'e wouldn't be able to get up again iffen he did. It's a miracle he got here, but Master Took was always a-bragging on how sure footed 'e is.'
'No one would ride in this weather, not unless he got caught out,' Merry said urgently. He turned to the ostler. 'What time did this ice start?'
'Oh, mid-morning, I'd say,' the ostler reckoned.
'So he's had four hours, perhaps less, to get here. How far would that be?'
The ostler scratched his head. 'Nought more than a mile, 'e's that bad off. Were he down for a time before findin' his feet it could be closer.'
Merry nodded. 'That would be about right.' He looked out into the pelting sleet. There was at least an inch of ice on the stones, maybe closer to two. If Pippin were out there, he thought despairingly, how would they get to him? 'There'd be no houses closer, and no one on the road in this weather, to find him. If he got caught out, he might have figured Brandy Hall as the closest place to find shelter and tried for it. After he fell--Socks would have known his way either to Crickhollow or here.'
'Good thing 'e came here, then,' the ostler concluded. 'Nobody at Crickhollow now.'
Saradoc broke in. 'How long would it take to fit a team of four ponies with spikes?' He'd been fascinated by the special shoes designed to give sure footing on slippery surfaces such as ice, an innovation Merry had brought back from Rohan. Now it seemed they would pay for themselves. Merry felt a sudden hope.
'Nought long. The new shoes the young Master made up, they slip on pretty quick. Not like having to pry the old shoes off to nail the new ones on. Half an hour, maybe.'
'We have perhaps two more hours of light. Make it as quick as you can. Hitch them up to a wagon and round up some hobbits to go out. I hate to send anyone out in this, but...'
'Iffen young Master Took is out in this you won't be lacking for volunteers,' the ostler maintained. He raised his voice. 'Roby! Get yourself and another started fitting spikes on the four steadiest ponies we've got!'
'Yes, Sir,' the answer came back from further within the stables.
'I'll get them hobbits rounded up for you right away, Sir,' the old ostler said. He called another stable worker to take charge of the shivering pony. 'Rub 'im down good, bed 'im soft, see if 'e'll take a warm mash,' he said. The worker crooned encouragement to the pony as he led him, one stumbling step at a time, to a stall.
Merry turned to his father. 'I'm going, Father,' he said. 'I have to.'
Saradoc nodded grimly. 'I know, Son. Start loading up the wagon. Take axes and saws, there may be tree limbs across the road. See if you can get some blankets wrapped up in something waterproof, wrap them around hot bricks. I know the kitchen has been warming bricks to slip into the old aunties' and uncles' beds.' He thought again. 'Take lanterns, already lit, you can put them under blankets for warmth, and they'll be a help to you if you get caught out by darkness. I don't think you could light a lantern in this.' He put a hand on Merry's shoulder. 'Be careful.'
Merry nodded. 'Don't worry. I'll find him.'
Even with the spiked shoes, every step was a struggle and soon the ponies were shivering, even under their blankets, from the sleet and from fear of slipping. They had to stop twice to clear large branches from the road, and other branches, coated thick with ice, creaked and cracked ominously above them. Still the sleet came pelting down with no sign of letting up, and soon their heavy cloaks were heavier with ice. It took them an hour to cover little more than half a mile of road. Not far beyond one of the hobbits in the wagon shouted. Merry jumped down, immediately slipping and falling on the ice despite the spikes he had strapped to his feet. He got up cautiously to make his way to what looked like a rock in the middle of the road, where no rock should be. He fell again and crawled the last few yards, to find his cousin, huddled under his cloak, covered in a layer of ice.
Other hands came to help and somehow they slipped and slid back to the wagon with their burden. Merry blessed his father's foresight as they stripped the ice-encased cloak from Pippin and eased him under the blankets where the air was warmed by the lanterns. 'Careful, now,' one of the hobbits shouted. 'Don't want him burned after being frozen!'
They tried to force some brandy down his throat, but it dribbled out of his mouth again. 'Let's just go!' Merry shouted above the sound of wind and ice.
They turned around for the nightmare journey back. More tree limbs were down across the road, and at one point one of the ponies slipped and nearly fell; if he had, he'd have taken the others down with him. It was nearly dark when the wagon pulled into the yard.
Hobbits were waiting there with torches and lanterns, and someone had been frequently spreading sand over the accumulating ice, so they were able to take Pippin from the wagon without slipping and dropping him. The healer was there to meet them, and he did not wait for them to take their burden any further than the entry hall, but had them lay him down on the floor as soon as the door was closed to shut out the storm.
His face was grim as he made his examination. 'He's breathing... but so cold, he's not even shivering. Let's get him to the kitchen right away, there's a hot bath waiting.'
They cut his icy clothes away and got him into the tub, which Merry was surprised to find only lukewarm. The healer had the cooks slowly add kettles of steaming water to the tub, gradually warming the water. 'Keep the water moving,' he said to Merry. The healer managed to get some hot sweet tea down Pippin's throat, with much patience, stroking the muscles to prompt the swallowing reflex. 'Keep warming him up,' he instructed the cooks.
'He's practically boiling now,' Merry heard one cook mutter to another, but they kept heating water and adding it to the tub, while Merry stirred it to mingle with the cooling water already there.
Once Merry's cousin had thawed to the healer's satisfaction, the latter said, 'Right, then. Let's get him well wrapped up and into a warm bed.' He met Merry's eyes. 'We can hope he'll awaken in the morning with no more than a bad chill.'
Merry hoped so.
As they tucked him into bed, he roused a bit, opening his eyes with a questing sound. His aunt bent to him. 'Young scamp,' she said.
'Made it to -- Hall' he managed to say.
'Aye, you did,' she answered.
'Don't -- remember.' He turned his eyes to Merry. 'Socks?'
'He's in the stables, got about as thick a bed as you,' Merry answered.
'Go to sleep now, lad,' his aunt said, pulling the covers up to his chin. 'You're safe now. You'll be fine in the morning.' He nodded and closed his eyes.
'Rascal,' his aunt said softly. 'If only it were always that easy to get him to sleep.'
The healer's optimism seemed justified in the morning. Pippin was himself again, a little subdued, perhaps, but declared himself not much the worse for wear. After assuring his relatives that there was nothing wrong with him, he spent half the day in the stables, trying to ease his pony. It grieved him to see the swollen knee, and he took time to chip away at the ice in the courtyard, tie the chips up in a cloth, and apply it to the swelling. The ostler brought out more of the liniment they had earlier applied to the pony's cuts and bruises, and he spent a long time rubbing the soothing salve into the bruised and cut flesh. Afterwards, he gave the pony a good grooming, spending extra time to rub the coat back to its usual gleam.
The ostler paused by the stall to admire Socks. 'Ee's a game one,' he said. 'Iffen 'e had not come in when 'e did, you'd probably still be lying out there.' The ostler jerked his chin at the door, indicating the landscape still gripped in its prison of ice. Sleet still blew in uneven spurts, and there was an occasional crash as one tree after another gave up under the weight of ice and shed a great limb.
'Oh, aye,' Pippin answered. 'Nothing's too good for this lad. I figure I owe him my life.'
Pippin had a bit of a dry cough that evening as they shared a brandy in the Master's study. He regaled his relatives with tales of the doings of Tuckborough, and Saradoc was glad to see some of the seriousness drop from Meriadoc in his cousin's presence. When the coughing threatened to interrupt the high point of a story, Esmeralda rose from her chair in concern.
'It's naught but a cold,' Pippin said, fending off her questing hand. 'I'm fine! All I need is a bit of brandy!' He poured himself another half a glass and told another story. Not long after, he confessed, 'Come to think of it, I am feeling a little tired. I think I'll turn in.'
'That's a first,' his aunt said. 'I've never known you to be tired before.' She eyed him with suspicion. 'What are you up to this time, rascal?'
He laughed, holding up his hands. 'I promise, I'm not going off to short-sheet the beds, really, I gave that up years ago.' From the gleam in his eye, she was not so sure. However, when she pulled back the covers on the big bed before she and Saradoc retired, the sheets were as they should have been. Perhaps the lad had been telling the truth. Or perhaps he'd only done something to Meriadoc's bed that night.
Pippin's cough seemed better the next morning but he was lacking the usual spring in his step. Still, the weather kept everyone locked indoors, and it was only natural to be engaged in quiet pursuits such as a game of Kings with one of the younger Brandybucks. He didn't feel much like eating, the food was somehow unappealing, but with the bustle of so many Brandybucks eating and talking at once, it didn't seem to matter. Pippin kept them laughing with his stories of Yule at Great Smials, and no one noticed that he was too busy talking to eat much.
In the evening the great room was full of Brandybucks, fuller than usual since everyone was a bit tired of being cooped up for three days. The Master had a great fire laid, and the younger hobbits roasted mushrooms and bacon. All enjoyed the singing, but Pippin declined to play his flute. He had a persistent tickle in his throat and did not want to encourage it into a cough.
At length he squeezed Merry's arm and rose to retire. 'It's early yet,' Merry said in surprise.
Pippin's answer turned into a coughing fit. Merry tendered water, then brandy, but nothing seemed to help. The singing hobbits around them quieted as Pippin's cough robbed him of breath. He clutched at Merry desperately and suddenly Esmeralda was there. She took Pippin from the other side, easing him down on a bench, and said urgently to her son, 'Go get the healer.' As he rose, she added, 'Run!' The sound of Pippin's coughing followed him from the great room.
By the time Merry returned with the healer, the cough had subsided and Pippin had caught his breath. He tried to shrug off the fit, but the healer insisted on bundling him into bed. 'I'd like someone to sit with you in case that cough returns in the night,' the healer said. In the end, he overruled all of Pippin's protests.
The next day, he was happy enough to stay in bed. His cousin Merimac's wife and small daughter came to sit with him, to keep him company for the morning. He and Pansy Brandybuck had become good friends during his stays at the Hall, and they had fun telling young Heartsease about some of the pranks that had gone on in their younger days. When Pippin tired, Pansy pulled up the covers, solicitous as any old auntie, as Pippin was only too glad to point out.
'Go on with you,' she said smiling. 'I can see you've got a bit of a chill. You just sit tight and keep little Heart out of trouble whilst I go and get a bedwarmer.' By the time she returned, he was asleep and sweet little Heart sat quiet as a mouse, scarcely daring to breathe in case she might waken him. Her mother gently stroked her cheek. 'You make a good nurse, love,' she said, and sat down again. She'd stay until her cousin wakened, in case he wanted anything.
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.