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Unto the ending of the world: 35. Earth
August 20, 3019
Pelargir, July 30, 1419
As you said, the river does help to keep Pelargir cooler in summer than it would be otherwise, but it is still hotter than I am used to; damper as well. Even the Gondorians from Minas Tirith complain about the moist air, though across the river it is so dry the earth has dried to dust and sand. I envy you the cool wind from the mountains.
Merry snorted at the last sentence as he held Pippin's letter closer to the candle to read it. Pippin could not know it, but the wind from the mountains was anything but cool now with the helm wind blowing hot as a furnace. At first, he had thought that, like Helm's Deep, the wind had been named after the king of old; but he soon learned that the name came from the helmet-shaped clouds that formed over the mountaintops when it blew. Luckily, it never lasted more than a few days, or so Elfhelm had told him.
I am glad we can use the messengers to stay in touch, even if letters are no substitute for an evening in the Dragon. At least I have found an inn where the ale is good; it is near the waterfront. Its proper name is The Smoked Salmon, but because it caught fire and the common room and the whole ground floor burnt out when the Corsairs took Pelargir, everybody calls it The Burned Salmon now. Not that I can go there very often, as I am on duty much of the time. There are no feasts here; perhaps if the Steward's son were to marry, we might have one such as you describe at the Queen's wedding. As he is not even betrothed to anyone yet, there is little chance of that happening, even if some people say that, as the Steward's only heir, he should marry soon. But the festive mood would be lost again the first time anyone looks across the river to the East and Mordor.
Merry smiled; no one could ramble on like Pippin, even on paper. He then grimaced as he went back to reading. Though he did not know the Steward's son, Merry would not wish a marriage of state on him – for all that Éowyn and Elfhelm had been friends beforehand, he doubted there was much happiness in their marriage, no matter how they acted in public.
Everyone here is waiting for the next attack, and it never comes. It is quite harrowing, though still much better than when the attack does come, I fear. There are constant rumours flying about, and a change of sentries at one of the enemy forts near the river Poros will have become an army marching on Pelargir by the time the news arrives here.
The anxious waiting was something Merry knew only too well. It was his luck – and Pippin's – that they were close enough to their respective land's ruler to be able to separate fact from rumour.
Sometimes I think of home, but I wonder if I were back there, if I could still fit in. The Shire would seem so sleepy, I imagine, and almost too safe. I do not think I could live there now, in peace, knowing what we know. Even if it is home, I am content to remain here; but it is good to know it is there, and safe.
Frodo had once said something like this too, and it was a sentiment Merry also agreed with, though his reasons for not yet wanting to go back were not entirely the same as Pippin's. Merry glanced over at the room's alcove bed, where Hild lay fast asleep. Perhaps this was rather late to think about propriety, or its appearance, but he would tell Pippin only that they were betrothed and would wed in the autumn.
Hild had her mind set on the harvest feast in a month's time for their wedding. The few distant relatives she had would not be able to come to Edoras before then, and even though the lord of the Westfold, as Hild's liege lord, would still be away in the North, Hild had spoken to him before he left, and had received his blessing. Merry was not certain that that approval extended to the advance they were now taking on their marital vows, but Hild had given him no chance to argue about it.
"I am a widow, not a maid of whom scandal would be spoken," she had said, "And my bed has been cold for long enough. Besides," she had added, "What if war finds us again before then, and the Queen sends you off east or south before we speak our vows?"
Home, though… When Merry thought of home now, the first thing that came to mind was here, the Golden Hall, Edoras, herds of horses roaming on the plains, the mountains in the south, Hild. He had to think before he could see the Brandywine or Brandy Hall in his mind's eye. He was even starting to dream in the speech of the Mark rather than Westron. Treebeard would say that he was taking root in this new soil he found himself in, even though this was not the earth he had grown in before.
Merry folded Pippin's letter and put it away. It must have arrived late the night before, as it had been pushed under his door. Whatever other news the messengers from Gondor had brought, it would not have been too dire, for he had not been called to attend the Queen, which also meant that he could enjoy his day off duty without worry.
He quietly gathered his clothes and put them on. Hild would be out of sorts if he made a noise and woke her; though she was now one of the Queen's ladies, she did not have to attend Éowyn until the afternoon, and would wake up of her own accord well before. He would come back after he had eaten breakfast to say good morning.
By the time he had eaten, the wind had died down slightly and the sky was blue, with only a few clouds dotted around. It would be a good morning to put Stybba through his paces, he suddenly thought. First, though, he should go back to see if Hild was awake yet.
When he opened the door of their small room – once more glad that he did not have to sleep in the hall like many of Éowyn's retainers – Hild was awake, and sitting on a stool combing out her hair.
"How is the weather?" she asked.
"Good, not as windy," Merry replied.
"About time," she said. "This weather always gives me a headache. Will you be going to the market?"
"I might. Is there anything you need?" If he was going to run an errand for Hild, he might as well get himself a pie for his luncheon.
"Not need, but if you could find some plain hairpins for me?"
Merry nodded. "I will have a look."
The market was at the bottom of the hill, outside the town gates, and while Merry made his way down, the wind died away completely. Now of course it was too hot, he grumbled to himself, then immediately had to laugh at sounding like some old gaffer complaining about everything.
As he passed the gate, Merry saw some Riders coming up the road from the west in the distance, raising small clouds of dust from the hard, dry ground. He wondered suddenly if there might be news already from Erkenbrand and the others who had gone north, but whatever brought the Riders here, they were not riding at speed, so if they had any news it was unlikely to be urgent. He would find out tomorrow, no doubt. Now he was free to pay attention to hairpins and luncheon, and not think about statecraft, or war, or news from afar.
"Freda, what is in your pies today?" he asked when he came to the stall of his favourite pie-seller, a stout old woman from the Westfold. She seemed to think he needed feeding up and often gave him something extra. Partly, Merry suspected, she enjoyed seeing him take to her wares – which were excellent – with a hobbit's dedication to food; but he also provided a patient ear for her stories of village life in the Westfold.
"Mostly mutton, and a bit of horse," she said, greeting him with a smile.
"Good," Merry said. "Can you keep one for me? I will come back later."
"Of course," she said as he walked off again.
The market was busy and it took a while before Merry had found a stall that sold metalware and simple jewellery. He bought six pins for Hild, walking on slowly afterwards. If he saw anything that appealed to him, he might also buy her a bracelet or a necklace. There was nothing that caught his eye, though, and he eventually came back past Freda's stall to collect his luncheon.
He ate his pie as he walked back up the hill. Perhaps he should start his reply to Pippin's letter this afternoon; there was no knowing when the next messenger would be going to Pelargir, and he could keep on adding to the letter in the meantime.
Merry gave a cheerful wave to the Rider on duty at Meduseld's great door as he headed for a side entrance, when to his surprise the man called him over.
"The Queen asked if you could come in to see her," the sentry said.
"Of course," Merry replied. There must have been something important in the dispatches brought by the Riders he had seen arriving before, he thought.
"My lady," Merry said as he entered Éowyn's workroom.
"Ah, Master Holbytla, there you are." Éowyn smiled as she spoke, so whatever she wanted to see him for was unlikely to be bad news. "There were messengers from the Westfold this morning, and beside some small news from there, they also brought a letter that had come from Tharbad. I think it is from your home."
Éowyn held out a letter to him.
"Yes, it is from my father," Merry confirmed.
"Then go and read it," Éowyn said. "I will see you in the morning, and if there is anything in it that you are willing to share, I will be glad to hear it then."
Hild had gone out when Merry returned, and he sat down with the letter in his hand, suddenly torn between eagerness to hear news from home, and fear of what he might read. For the letter to be here already, Saradoc must have written his reply immediately upon receiving Merry's letter. That did not necessarily bode well for the mood in which it had been written, although at least his father had used his personal seal, rather than his official one. The letter was fairly short, and clearly written in haste, Merry saw as soon as he opened it.
Brandy Hall, July 24, 1419
My dear son,
Bilbo Baggins sent word already back in May on your whereabouts, including the death of the Gamgee lad. What he did not do was give a good explanation of why you went off into the wilderness in the first place. I cannot help but notice that you did not do so either. All I can do is guess, and my guess can only be that it is in some way connected to Bilbo's ridiculous 'adventure', not to mention that old meddler, Gandalf.
I will not bother telling you to return to the Shire or else… We both know that when you return it will be in your own time, and for your own reasons. All I will say is: do not wait until the roads become too dangerous for travel.
At least I am not disinherited on the spot, Merry thought. That was something. As he considered how his father would react when he heard about Hild, it suddenly struck him that it was unlikely that he would go home again, and marrying Hild only made it more so.
You see, I have been thinking about the news from afar that you write about, and about recent happenings in the Shire and the Bree-land. It would seem that we are heading for days that are as dark as the end of the old kingdom, and I have to question whether the Shire will escape with only the loss of a company of archers this time.
I suppose our trouble started shortly after the turn of the year, when some ruffians near Sarn Ford tried to talk their way into the Shire, claiming they had been invited in by that Lotho Sackville-Baggins. When the Bounders turned them away, they tried to sneak in, and about fifteen Bounders were killed and some of the ruffians as well. After that, we were ready for them, and we kept them out of the Shire.
Lotho of course denies he had anything to do with them, and still attempts to lord it over the four Farthings. Luckily he has little influence near the border, or I do not doubt we would be overrun with ruffians. He is neither trusted nor loved, except by his mother – though I doubt even she trusts him; Lobelia may be many things, but she is not a fool, even where her beloved offspring is involved – but money smoothens much, and he has plenty of that. The news that he has been selling pipeweed south through an agent in Bree has done him some harm, especially since much of this year's crop both here and in the Bree-land has gone bad with leaf rot.
Merry thought of the small barrel of pipeweed he had from the ruins of Isengard, and of the man in Bree, Bill Ferny, who must have been Saruman's agent, then went back to reading. Worrying as the connection between the Shire and Isengard had been, it had been cut as soon as it was exposed. Nor was the news of the attack on Bree entirely new to him, as word had come to Rohan through the Rangers at Tharbad; though messages had of course not included the details of how the Shire had been doing under the attacks. It worried him more that Treebeard had decided to let Saruman go free; the wizard might still be capable of mischief somewhere, especially since they could no longer count on Gandalf.
We later found out many of the ruffians had headed for Bree, looking for easy pickings, and even more of them came out of the south. That lasted until the beginning of May, when they were dealt with by the Rangers. I imagine that is not so much of a surprise to you as it was to some, seeing as how you have been travelling with Rangers. There are still many who distrust them, saying they were likely in it along with the ruffians, and it is all a ploy to gain our trust; Lotho encourages that kind of talk. I am inclined to trust the Rangers instead, and so is Paladin.
Enough talk of our troubles, though – as I said, I have been thinking about how what happened to us fits in with many other things, and if you do come home, there will be much that you will have to tell me.
Merry folded the letter with a sigh of relief; his father's reaction could have been much worse. Meanwhile, he did still have to write another letter to tell his own parents that he was getting married. Also, his father's guesses as to the reasons behind it all were astute enough; he wished he could tell him that they would definitely have that talk together. He did not expect another opportunity to get a letter to the Shire so quickly, but there were occasional messengers to and from Tharbad, and from there to Bree. Butterbur might be occasionally scatter-brained, but it would likely be a long time before he forgot about a letter again.
Now, though, he might as well start on his next letter to Pippin. After setting out paper and ink, Merry quickly reread Pippin's letter, to see if there was anything that had to be answered first, and wondered whether there was a reply to Pippin's letter home on its way to Gondor as well.
Meduseld, August 20, 1419
Today, I received two letters, yours and one from home…
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