10. Interlude Four
Day blended to night blended to day and I could not tell the difference. There was only this single, unending moment of misery that would not pass. I was drowning in myself, lungs searing, throat tearing, head swimming, body burning up. I floundered in the dark waters, flailing, desperate for rescue, and someone grasped my hand gently and I felt a cool cloth glide across my body, but it brought me no comfort. "Shh, shh now," a familiar voice soothed.
Waking images, dreamscapes, and memories blurred into one until I knew not what was in this world and what was in the other. My cousin slumped over in a chair, exhausted and grey-faced, his head resting upon my bed, and kissed my fingertips where they lay on the linens. This confused me -- this was something that had happened already, had it not? Was that before, or was now before? Then he scrambled to support me as the wracking coughs took me so violently that finally I dove into dangerous, painless blackness, and I could not stay despite the fear I heard in my cousin's voice as he called out to me not to leave him.
I thought I saw Frodo looking down at me, blue eyes shimmering with worry. A gruff voice ordered, "Sit him up, sit him up now!" A door slammed and feet scurried along the passageway. I saw my father, younger than I ever remembered seeing him, twirling a wee, laughing lass that was my sister while my mother watched, holding a small baby and smiling at their combined joy. I smelled sweet grasses I could not identify and the blowing of horns filled my ears. We peered desperately down at Frodo, pale as death and motionless on the cold ground, and Sam said, "Thinking we can trust him is not enough, not with my master as he is."
From somewhere, I thought I heard my mother's voice, and I wished for her with an almost unbearable intensity. I could smell the good, baking smells of our familiar kitchen, and Mum leaned down to tuck a bit of gingerbread, still warm, into my mouth. I smiled up at her, and she smiled back and stroked the hair off my brow. "What a big lad you are!" she said. "Why, you will soon be as big as a pony, and then we will have to send you out to a stall in the stables to live! Would you like that, to live in the barn with the other wild animals?" I laughed, because she was silly, but I nodded vigorously at her, and then flung my arms about her waist in sheer joy that this was my mum.
I dangled my legs down from Bilbo's lap and fiddled with the wondrous toy boat come all the way from a place called Dale, listening fascinated as Bilbo continued, "And then Smaug snapped, 'Your information is antiquated. I am armored above and below with iron scales and hard gems. No blade can pierce me.'"
The kindly voice changed abruptly to one of such evil that I thought I would die of fear at the very malevolence it possessed. "Thou fool! No living man may hinder me!" and I knew that in that voice alone was the power to devour my soul if I would let it. I sought to throw off my terror and found myself crawling, weeping, through the mud toward a kindly faced old man who lay upon the ground. I must help him, somehow I must help him. He needed me, had wanted me with him, and at his side I would stay forever. Suddenly the man was gone, and it was the face of my own dear lad that lay upon a field of death, surrounded by groaning and screaming wounded men. My hot tears fell upon his broken body, and then I touched his face, but he did not open his eyes. Oh, please, sweetheart, open your eyes! I was filled with greater terror than I had been even at hearing that cold, cold voice. Comforting arms suddenly held me close, and I heard my father's voice saying, "There, there, son, 'tis a bitter thing, I know." I shuffled down a hallway, toward a patch of sunlight that gleamed through an open door, feeling emptiness and grief, but knowing I must go forward and enter to face the new day, however much I dreaded it.
I clung tight, tight, tight to Frodo as he held me, chest-deep in the River. "It's all right," he reassured me, "I've got you. But you're never going to learn how to swim if you don't get into the water, you know." I reached inside myself for all of the courage I could find, and unwound my limbs from his body. He held me firm about the waist, and I bobbed in the water.
"Now, stretch your arms out in front of you and start kicking your feet," he instructed, and I obeyed. "Now, move your arms like I showed you," he added, and I did. Frodo loosened his hold on my waist, but I could still feel his fingers about my ribs, making sure I did not slip beneath the water. And then, suddenly, I was moving forward, and my body was miraculously staying above the water of its own accord.
"Good!" Frodo said. "Look at you, you're swimming!" He laughed, and I laughed too, proud and delighted and happy. But then I started to sink a little in the water, and I gulped in a great mouthful of the River. I coughed and sputtered, and even as I heard Frodo say, "Oh, no, that's all right. What a good start, though -- you really swam!" I was aware that I was coughing and sputtering in another body, in another time, and that not just my mouth but my lungs were full of water. I gagged and hacked wretchedly as someone pounded mercilessly on my back and I began to cough up vile substances from deep within my body.
"Are you awake?" I heard Frodo asking me in a falsely calm, overloud voice. "Are you with us?" I wanted to snap at him that just how did he expect me to answer while I was choking, but instead I just hacked up more poison from my inflamed lungs. My chest and sides hurt with a deep, slicing pain that I had not known before, and each cough exacerbated it and I felt I could not bear this anymore and wanted only release. A particularly violent cough tripled the pain in intensity, just before sending me back to the darkness I now sought as a blessing, slumped back in the safety of my cousin's embrace. As I slipped away, I felt a soft rain falling upon my cheeks.
A falcon circled above me and cried out.
Echoing cries of my name seemed to be ringing in my ears and the vivid image of the falcon was still before my bleary eyes when next I opened them, and I blinked in confusion several times until the great bird faded and in its place my eyes saw only my cousin, exhausted, in rumpled clothing, hair unkempt, and the most welcome sight of my life. Acting purely out of instinct, I tried to reach out for him, and in a harsh voice that seemed not to be my own, I croaked, "Pip."
My arms dropped limply back onto the bed even as I tried to raise them, too weak to wait to be embraced, but it didn't matter because he was out of his chair like an arrow from the bow and was holding me both tight and gentle at the same time with trembling arms and bathing my face in his tears. "Merry," he sobbed. "Oh, Merry-mine."
I made some inarticulate sounds before deciding it was useless to try to speak yet, not that I needed any words, anyway, not with Pippin. I clung to him, breathing in that unique Pippin smell that never failed to remind me of the day he was born -- baked apples and falling leaves and gingerbread.
He finally pulled back a bit, and all of my world was taken up with red-rimmed, wet green eyes. "Merry," he said again in a tremulous voice. He looked so tired, my poor lad, his cheeks sunken and pale, and dark circles shadowing his eyes. I had scared him badly, and how well I knew that feeling, and how it would be long before that fear would fade sufficiently to become a memory and not a daily consternation. My poor Pip.
"Pippin," I whispered back at him, and smiled. I wanted to reassure him, tell him he could stop being afraid, but for now my smile would have to do. There would be time for talking later.
He smiled back and then leaned in to rest his forehead gently on my shoulder. I managed a little tug on his braces that told him it was all right to climb up beside me, and he did, curling up into a familiar ball at my side, careful not to jostle. Maybe he would sleep, and I found such comfort in his nearness.
"I'm glad you're here with me," I managed to rasp out, and he gave a half-laugh that was nearly a sob.
"You're glad that I'm here?" he asked incredulously, lifting his head to gaze at me, an odd expression on his face. "Merry, I'm . . . I . . . you . . . you almost . . ." He broke off, his lower lip beginning to tremble, then mastered himself, managing a tiny quirk of a grin. "You silly hobbit, I'm the one who's glad you're here."
I nodded at him, but even as I did so my eyes were drifting shut again. "Tired," I muttered. He gave my cheek a gentle caress and blessed me with a soft smile of understanding. I let my eyes close and nestled my face against his soothing hand.
"Go to sleep now," Pippin said in the most tender of voices. "I'll still be here later, you know."
"I know," I whispered. "Thank you, Pip."
"You're welcome, Merry," he whispered back, and it was the last thing I heard before I fell into a deep, forgiving slumber.
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.