1. Cheery Letters from Bree
Merry looked sharply at the Man sitting in his chair, draped in darkness. He was smoking a pipe, and the dim ember cast a faint glow that outlined one side of his face.
"I did not anticipate an attack when I left for my evening walk." Merry spoke wryly, but softly, so as not to disturb the others. "And these aren't quite the lodgings I looked forward to when I returned."
"There are levels of comfort," said Strider. "A hard floor here is better than the dangers you might face in the soft beds of a room where your enemies expect to find you. You and your friends are much safer here."
"It is warm, at least, and I suppose a hard floor is better than facing those Riders again. Thank you." Merry rested his chin on his knees again, and though better than deep shadows in the rooms corners, or the moonlight streaming like cold water through the window, gazing into the fire still brought little comfort. Despite the warmth, he shuddered.
"Are you troubled?" asked Strider, and his voice was less hard.
Merry frowned as he considered the question. "I'm just rather unnerved, I think." Strider's size reminded the hobbit of the sinister Rider, though every small movement or noise the man made belied the resemblance. Merry found the entire town of Bree too big and strange: its buildings and people. Even the hobbits sounded funny.
Since their adventure began in the Old Forest, nothing happened as he and Pippin had imagined while they conspired in the Shire. He had vowed to accompany Frodo, knowing there would be dangers to face, and his resolve remained true, but now he knew such creatures as Old Man Willow and Barrow-wrights and worse awaited them on the road ahead. Now he knew the terrifying presence of Black Riders. Nob's report of his own words after the strange attack returned to him: I thought I had fallen into deep water, and unease rose in Merry slowly and silently, a pool of unknown dread that deepened sharply. A sudden fear that he would never again see his home and family seized him.
"These Riders do more than unnerve those who oppose them. Black Breath is not to be trifled with," said Strider. "If you need to speak of the terror, then do. That is one way to diminish its power."
"I'm homesick," Merry admitted reluctantly. "My parents do not know where I am, or when I'll be back. I wish could tell them I am well, and that I'll return as soon as I can."
"Ah." Merry heard him draw on his pipe and exhale.
Admitting his fears to this Man made his cheeks warm, despite Gandalf's letter to Frodo urging him to trust the Ranger. A sudden thought occurred, and he sat tall and straightened his legs. "I could, though, couldn't I? I could write a letter, and have someone deliver it to Buckland."
Strider leaned forward, and in the firelight, Merry saw his dismayed expression. "You could hardly send out messages that tell of our plans, Master Hobbit."
"Meriadoc Brandybuck, at your service." Merry stood up and bowed low. "Merry, if you please."
"Master Merry, my warning stands. You have powerful enemies hunting you."
"But," said Merry, and he stepped closer, "all I want to say is that I've gone on a trip, that I'm well, and I'll come back as soon as I can. I would hardly put directions or plans in my letter."
"The sending of a letter implies intentions that can be read by agents of the Enemy."
Merry refused to give up. "I want them to know that I left them of my own will, and that I will return. I won't even say when, or where I'm going. What would anyone get out of such a simple message?"
"That you know you will be gone long enough to warrant such a letter in the first place," said Strider. He stared hard at Merry, and his eyes gleamed. "Otherwise, why not merely go home?"
"I would never abandon Frodo," he protested. "None of us would."
Strider glanced at the hearth. Merry looked and saw Frodo turn on the hard floor. He lowered his voice. "I'm sorry, but I'm feeling rather desperate. That Black Rider froze me with fear. And I just want my family to know that, for now at least, I'm fine. I want them to know that I'll be back."
"There could be some value as well as danger in sending a letter to the Shire," Strider said slowly, his eyes half-closed in speculation. "It would do no one good should your people leave the Shire to look for you. You would have to choose your words carefully, however -- very carefully."
A weight lifted from Merry's heart. He insisted to begin immediately, and Strider quietly produced a worn quill, a bottle of ink, and a leaf of parchment scrounged from his own gear and from a desk in the corner of the room. Merry noiselessly took them and sat near the fire, not far from Sam's feet, with a wooden serving tray on his lap to support the paper, and, interspersed with many long pauses, he wrote his letter.
Much later, Merry carefully blew across the wet ink of the last lines, and then held the paper at an angle so he could re-read it in the flickering light of the fire, silently mouthing the words as he read.
"I must know what it says before it can be sent," said Strider, breaking the silence. "For the sake of all our safety."
Merry hesitated, unwilling to share his intimate thoughts meant only for family with a stranger, and a Big Person at that, but he realized the disadvantage he and his companions faced, hunted in a foreign land, and he perceived the logic of Strider's demand. He silently climbed to his feet and surrendered his letter. Strider rose from his seat and moved to the window, where he opened the top shutter wider, looked out for long moments, and then read the letter by moonlight. He smiled at the page and looked up briefly. "You are an only child?"
Strider made a small noise and continued reading. He looked up once more, this time with surprise. "You are the only son of the Master of Buckland?"
"Yes, and I'm sorry that I did not introduce myself properly." Merry bowed once more, lower this time. "Meriadoc, son of Saradoc, Master of Buckland, at your service and your family's."
"And you are here without your father's leave for love of your cousin."
"We all are; none of us would allow Frodo to wander off alone," said Merry, and he gestured at his companions sleeping on the floor. "We would have it no other way."
Strider smiled gravely and inclined his head deferentially before he continued reading, and Merry felt as though he had grown in the man's esteem.
"No, this won't do," Strider said at last, and held out the letter. "The tone speaks too much of fearful dangers avoided. That will only raise questions that should not be asked anywhere outside the Shire. Write it again, and make no mention of your troubles. Say nothing of elves or the name Baggins."
Merry took it, flushed with angry embarrassment.
"You have courage and a quick mind, or I would not permit you to send a letter to your family, Meriadoc, son of Sardoc," said Strider. "Rest assured, they will be greatly heartened by it. But it must be a canny letter, lest the Enemy get hold of it."
Merry nodded slowly.
"Burn the first letter," said Strider.
Merry knelt by the fire and fed the paper to the fire. He watched it flare and blacken before he bowed over a new leaf, and with surer movements, wrote a second letter.
"What are you writing?" Frodo's voice was quiet but alert. Merry looked up from signing his name, surprised and dismayed to see Frodo watching him. Apparently, he had been watching Merry for some time from where he reclined in his blankets.
"I didn't mean to wake anyone."
"I had a dream," said Frodo. "I heard shouts and a horn blowing."
"It has been quiet here," said Strider. Merry glanced to the window at the Man, who seemed not to have moved at all. "So far."
Frodo leaned up on one elbow and nodded his head at the paper in Merry's hand. "What is that?"
"It's a letter -- just a message, really -- to my father."
"Is that wise?" Frodo looked at Strider. Strider merely tilted his head, and Frodo turned his gaze on Merry once more. "What does it say?"
"Read it aloud," said Strider.
At first hesitant but with growing confidence, Merry read his letter. "Dear Father, I am writing to you from The Prancing Pony, and I hope this letter finds you in good health and humor. Cousin Frodo wanted to travel a bit before he settled in Crickhollow, and I could hardly let a Bywater relation go jogging off to Bree without a Brandybuck to show him the way. I have also taken charge of Pippin, who would not be put off and followed us on our journey. We three, along with Frodo's servant, Samwise Gamgee, have turned the trip into quite a holiday, for despite the rumors, the road is not so dangerous that we could not reach the comfort and safety of The Pony. The weather held fair until recently, and we are all well.
"While Frodo remains determined to explore the villages around Bree, I feel it is my duty as his cousin to keep him company. I will urge him to haste, so we can return soonest. I hold dearly every regret if my absence causes any inconvenience, and I vow to make good on any responsibilities I miss. Please give my fondest regards to Mother.
"Your loving son, Meriadoc Brandybuck."
"You reveal more than you intend, but less than you might," said Strider.
"What do you mean?" asked Merry.
"I mean you did well," replied Strider, "and the letter can be sent, if you trust the innkeeper to get this letter to the Shire in a timely fashion. His past performance weighs against him."
"You know, I suppose I deserve the blame for drawing you after me," said Frodo dryly, "but I can't say I'm happy to take the responsibility for this little 'holiday'. Saradoc will want my head for leading you astray."
"Oh, don't worry," said Pippin, sounding wide awake as he sat up, "my dad will shoot you full of arrows first, so you won't feel it when Uncle Saradoc takes your head."
Frodo pushed him over with a hard nudge to the shoulder. "Since when could anyone be responsible for either one of you? You're incorrigible -- the both of you."
Merry shushed them, but he was grinning. "You'll wake Sam. One of us, at least, should be rested for the journey tomorrow."
"Indeed," agreed Strider as he surveyed outside one last time. He fastened the shutter closed and turned to the hobbits. "You must all rest while you can. The road is long and uncertain."
Pippin turned to Frodo and asked, "But should we write letters home, too?"
Merry glanced at Strider first, and found the man's attention was on Frodo. Frodo sat up in the tangle of his bedding and looked away from everyone's regard, staring into the fire. Finally, he said, "I did promise to stay in touch with a couple of relations in Hobbiton when I could. I just never thought I would have the chance." He drew his legs close to his chest, much like Merry had done earlier. "No. I've said my goodbyes. I have nothing to say to anyone in the Shire," he said. "Not yet."
"Well," said Pippin, "since Merry made mention of us all, there seems little reason to write more. There's nothing I could possibly put in a letter that will get me out of hot water with my father anyhow."
"Rest," said Strider. "Young Pippin has the right of it -- Master Brandybuck's letter is enough."
The three cousins settled into their blankets once more. Slowly the rustlings abated as each one found what comfort he could on the floor. The chair creaked under Strider as he took his post by the door once more. Merry imagined his letter reaching out through the miles, to the Shire, and in Buckland, his father and mother would know that on this night he was well, no matter what might happen in the coming days. That thought warmed him better than the fire until only Sam's snores and the quiet rush of flame lulled Merry to sleep. He sank into dreams of returning to the Shire astride a tall pony accompanied by the jingle of silver mail and the sound of a mighty horn. He came to the front of Brandy Hall. The door stood open, the hall was empty, and Merry walked in, alone.
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.