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Answering the Call: 3. Meriadoc
The four hobbits huddled together in front of the fire the Innkeeper had prepared for them. They ought to have been sleeping, but too much had gone on and they still had excitement left in them. Merry especially, upon returning from his stroll in Bree, insisted on knowing all the details of their escapades of the night. He didn't feel much like talking about his own adventures, though. Despite Strider's quick explanation of the Black Breath and its effects, he still felt foolish, not just for falling flat on his face but for finding himself in the situation in the first place. What had been going through his addled mind, wandering around with those Riders out there? As he had said, he couldn't help himself. Something had drawn him towards that Shadow and he had been powerless to do anything but follow.
"And how many pints had you had by then, Pippin?" Merry asked.
"He'd had plenty, don't let 'im fool you," Sam told him before Pippin could say a word.
"Oh, I'll not deny it. I did actually lose count, to be honest. But what was I to do, turn down Butterbur's own beer?"
Merry laughed, knowing Pippin suggested the impossible. Soon they quieted down, but Merry continued to think about those shadows walking about beyond their window. Looking for them. For Frodo. For what Frodo carried.
He turned sideways to face Frodo, eyes falling to his cousin's side. That thing was causing all this mess. He had once thought it so silly to get worked up over a small piece of metal without a bit of adornment. But, now that he had time to give It some thought, he came to see that It was quite pretty. As he stared at the gleam of reflected fire peeking out of Frodo's pocket, the glow seemed to increase. Whyever did Frodo want to get rid of It? It wasn't something to toss away like a rotten mushroom. To some It had been... precious.
Without knowing what he did, Merry's hand began to creep towards Frodo. When it did occur to him what he was doing, he wondered at it, but then thought, 'Why not? He doesn't want It anyway.' He had only to grab the chain hanging from the pocket and the Ring would come with it. 'Yes, then It will be mine,' he thought.
Merry frowned. How did that thought come into his head? Did he really want this Ring? Suddenly, his attraction to the round bit of gold grew tenfold. He didn't just want It; he needed It. After looking to see that Frodo was asleep, he reached out and snatched the chain holding the Ring, waking his cousin.
"Merry! What are you doing?" Frodo asked frantically as the younger hobbit pulled on the Ring, trying to free It from Its chain.
"You've been wearing this precious thing quite long enough, Frodo. I thought you ought to be sharing It now!"
"No! Merry! No, you can't take It!"
"Why not? You're just going to give It away anyway! So why shouldn't I have It?" Merry clutched the Ring as desire surged through him.
"Merry!" Strider suddenly shouted. "That is not yours," he continued in a strained whisper. "It is for Frodo to carry."
Merry looked at Strider with a flare of anger. Who was this Man that he could order around a hobbit of Brandy Hall? "It's mine now." Merry looked down at the Ring in his palm, with a small smile at his success in breaking the chain, and then looked up defiantly at all of them gazing back in disbelief. The possessiveness and craving in Merry's eyes were as unmistakable as they were incongruous with a hobbit's features. And then they disappeared - at the same time he did. Merry had put on the Ring.
Outside the inn, an unearthly screech was heard from somewhere across the courtyard. More shrieks soon joined the first, rapidly approaching. "Merry!" Strider called out. "You must take off the Ring. They will find you; they will find us all." But as he saw the parlor door open and shut on its own, he knew his pleas were in vain. "Stay here, all of you!"
As Strider raced from the room, shutting the door tightly behind him, he missed the looks that passed between the hobbits. Clearly they were not about to leave Merry out there alone with only this Man to try to help him. They ran after Strider without a word.
Praying to the Valar that his actions were not as futile as he felt them to be, Strider ran to the main entrance. The Riders were steps away and Merry was running right to them. If only Gandalf had not been delayed, he suddenly thought, things might have gone differently. He had dared not take the Ring forcibly from Merry. He guessed that would only increase Merry's desire for It. And besides, then Strider would hold It in his own hand. He would avoid that at all costs. But was this cost too dear?
Strider felt his hope drain from him as he reached the entrance, yet he drew his sword. The door to the courtyard opened on its own. At least he knew where Merry was. "Merry!" he called out in a loud whisper. "You must-" Strider stopped at the sight that met him. Three Ringwraiths. Now four. Now five... Five Ringwraiths against one blade. Strider tried one last hopeless time. "Merry! You must come back! You must remove the Ring!" His heart clutched at the last, knowing the hobbit would not relinquish the Ring now, even if he took It off his finger. He had claimed It for his own. No - the Ring had claimed him. And now the Ringwraiths were here to claim them both.
He understood then that everything was about to change. The Valar were not coming to his aid. He would fail in the charge he had been given years ago.
The five former Rulers of Men, now servants of Sauron, slowly climbed the steps of the Prancing Pony. They saw what they had long sought on the small creature standing before them. In his terror, he had not moved from the doorway. All the better, as it made their work that much easier. Then they saw the one behind him. He was bright with an inner light of his own, and his blade shone beside him. They looked beyond him. And then they smiled. One blade against the five of them?
Indeed, one blade was no challenge against five Ringwraiths. The three hobbits reached the foyer in time to witness the heir to Gondor's throne valiantly try to save their friend and cousin from the clutches of Sauron. But it was already far too late. The hobbits looked on as Merry reappeared for the last time and then all hope was lost.
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