8. Bad Sick I
VIII. Bad Sick
In which Merry learns what love really feels like
(Note: Set in the winter of 1404 SR, so Pippin is 14, Merry is 22, Frodo is 36, Fredegar and Berilac are 24, and Pearl is 29. Bilbo would have left the Shire three years earlier, but it is 14 years before Frodo leaves the Shire with the Ring.)
1404 SR, Brandy Hall
"I am telling you, Merry lad, the secret is to let them think you are dimwitted and incapable of devising any type of attempt upon their maidenhood. Then, the next thing you know, they are the ones begging for just another moment behind the barn," Fredegar boasted. I laughed, partly because he was puffed up so, and partly because I knew it was true, if the stories about Freddy's luck with the hobbit-lasses were even half reliable.
"So you say, cousin," Berilac countered as we trudged across the snow-covered field back to the Hall, "but while I know you may have had more than your fair lot of lasses behind the barn, I've yet to see you sneaking off to a bed with one of them."
"Or been caught in a haystack with one of them, either," I added, and earned a snowball to the back of the head from Berilac. I suppose I deserved it, since Robin had found Berilac and Petunia Boffin in a most unbecoming (but quite intriguing) position last summer in one of the hayfields, and he was quite sensitive about the topic.
Still -- I stooped to capture my own snowball, and turned to level it at his chest just as his second missile caught me on the side of the face. "Hoy!" I yelled, and all-out chaos erupted. By the time it was done, Berilac and I were both quite wet, and Freddy was quite a ways ahead of us, comfortably dry.
That didn't last long, despite poor Fredegar's pleas for mercy. Fortunately for him, it was too cold out for a sustained attack, and we released our quarry and trotted back toward the Hall, shivering from the cold, Freddy trailing behind us. This winter had been downright nasty, snow and ice and biting winds that continued even now, into early March. In general, it had been a long, bleak and miserable season, made even more so by a vicious strain of the Winter Sickness that had struck half of the Hall at one point or another.
The three of us had been so restless with being cooped up inside that we had eagerly taken my father up on the suggestion that we hike out to the Hedge and make sure no tree limbs had come down across it after the last ice storm. (I think Father's suggestion was in no small part prompted by a new game of our own devising that involved a mop, a roopie ball and Celandine's old toy duck on wooden wheels.) The day was cold, but the sun was shining and the crisp, clean air tasted wonderful after the moist, wooly smell of the Hall after a long winter. Our appointed task completed, our thoughts turned to luncheon and dry clothing as we picked up our pace.
Uncle Merimac was standing outside the northeast entrance, wrapped in a coat and scarf and smoking his pipe. He also was moving his feet in that repetitive forward-backward motion that meant bad news. My footsteps faltered. I could not say why, but I wanted to wait outside a bit more. Just a bit . . . I forced myself up to the entrance. I could feel Berilac giving me a funny look, but I did not meet his eyes.
Uncle Mac took his pipe out of his mouth. "Inside, lads, and get yourselves warmed up," he said, looking down at the pipe in his hands and not at us. "Merry, your mother wants to see you in her parlor."
Berilac gave my upper arm an encouraging squeeze as he brushed by me and disappeared into the Hall. I was not in trouble. I knew I was not in trouble. Something bad had happened. Someone was hurt or sick or . . . Uncle Mac put his hand on my shoulder and pushed me gently inside. "Go on, now," he said gruffly, but I caught a glimpse of his eyes, and they were filled with pity.
Barely inside the door, I scrambled out of my outerwear and tossed it aside, uncaring where it fell, then ran down to Mum's parlor. She was seated at her reading desk, a letter held tight in one hand, the other hand pressed to her mouth. She looked up when I came in, and I could see the worry lines marring her forehead and the corners of her mouth. Even this small deviation from her normal composure was enough to frighten me even more.
"Mum," I gasped, heart thudding in my ears, "what is it? Is Da . . ."
"Your father is getting the ponies ready," she said, and though strained, her voice was steady. "Merry," she began.
My heart stopped beating. "Pippin," I breathed. If it wasn't Da, it was Pippin. I was suddenly so very, very cold, and it wasn't from the weather.
Mum's face was grave. "'Tis the Winter Sickness again," she said, and for a moment I could not see the room through the grey veil that covered my eyes. I passed a hand in front of them, then reached out with it to steady myself on the back of the sofa. No, no, not now, not when he'd been so healthy for years. We were past all this, surely . . .
"Now, don't fret yourself into your own sickbed, Meriadoc," Mum said in a voice as strong and unflinching as oak, and I took a deep breath to help gain control of my rioting emotions. "Paddin says he is right sick, and has been asking for you, so you must go, and I'll not have you riding alone in this weather, so your father will go with you. I would go myself, as well, but the carriages cannot get through the roads, and there is simply too much to be seen to here, what with so many of the household ill or recovering. But you must not think the worst. Pippin has grown into a right strong lad these past years, and I am certain he will be clamoring to get out of bed in no time and you will have your hands full keeping him entertained. So get into some dry clothing and then get down to the kitchen -- Ruby has set aside a hot plate for you -- and you'll be off, with no fuss and bother."
She stood up and took my hands, squeezing them both, then leaned in to kiss my cheek. She smiled tightly at me when I just stood there, immobile with the deep dread that had come over me. I had not missed her slip in calling her brother "Paddin," the name she (and I after her) had called him in childhood, and it spoke volumes to me about the direness of the situation. "Mum," I said thickly, "what does Uncle Paladin write?"
Her mouth tightened. Mum cannot stand when folks will assume the worst, and she downplays bad news. She also thinks her brother has a tendency to exaggerate facts. True as that may be, he had sent a messenger through this bitter weather to send for me.
For a moment she did not speak, and the look in her eyes was one of a mother desperate to spare her only child great pain, at least as long as she had power to do so. I met those eyes squarely, needing to know, and saw her relent slightly. "He writes that you should come at once, without delay," she said in a low voice.
We looked silently into each other's eyes for a long minute, and I knew she would not tell me more of what was in that letter. It didn't matter, because suddenly all I could think of was getting to Pippin as quickly as I might. He needed me and wanted me and I was not there. I nodded to Mum and leaned in to kiss her cheek. She reached her arms up to embrace me.
"Go change your clothes, Merry, and eat that meal. I'll see to getting a pack together for you, and your father is taking care of everything else. You just get yourself to our lad and be what comfort you can to him," she said, and though she hugged me with despairing strength, her low voice was still even. I have never seen my mother cry, and this has troubled me at times, but at that moment, I was glad she did not cry. If she had started to cry, then I would have started to cry, and the whole scene would have delayed my departure.
As I scrambled to obey, tearing in and out of clothing and shoveling food in my mouth, all with shaking hands, I wondered if Mum would cry once we had left, or if she had simply laid off tears sometime in childhood, as we set aside old toys and games. But my mind soon skittered away from the reflection, as it seemed unable to light on any one thing for longer than a moment, and was forgotten by the time Father and I rode away toward the Bridge.
The door to Uncle Paladin's private quarters was closed. I stood numbly in front of it, for I could not remember ever seeing it shut before, and was at a loss as to what to do. Surely there was a simple answer, but I had not been able to properly function, it seemed, since I first saw Uncle Mac outside the northeast entrance, my whole being and attention taken up with one word, a prayer in and of itself, that repeated with my heartbeat: Pippin. Pippin. Pippin. Pippin.
Fortunately, I did not have to try to deduce how to conquer the closed door, for it opened of its own accord, and Pearl, pale and weary, greeted me.
"I thought I heard footsteps," she said, and her voice was as calm as always, but without the faintest hint of her usual merriment. "Come in, Merry, come in." She reached out and drew me inside by the elbow, and then embraced me. I managed to order my arms to return the gesture, but I already was looking down the corridor.
"Is he . . ." I stopped, not knowing what I asked. Is he asleep? Is he fretful? Is he in pain? Is he better? Is he worse? Is he . . .
Pearl pulled back and patted my arm. "He's struggling," she said, and now I could hear the strain beneath her composure. "The healers are doing their best to make him more comfortable so he can rest. Father is with him right now; Mamma and the lasses are resting, at Hortensia's insistence." She drew a deep, quivering breath, and now I could feel her small hand shaking a little where it still rested on my arm. "But he is fighting, Merry, oh so very hard."
I nodded. That's my brave lad, I thought with fierce pride, eyes focused down the hall to the entrance to Pippin's room, where a servant had just exited laden down with towels and cloths. "My father is seeing to the ponies and our things," I told Pearl absently, already drawing away and starting toward that door. "I need to . . ."
I felt her hand on my back. "Come on," she said quietly. "He's been asking for you."
Pippin's room was so bright with lanterns and the fire that my first absurd thought was, 'Well, of course he can't get any rest with all of this commotion and light about.' Briony, the Took children's nurse, was putting nightshirts and linens into the chest of drawers -- restocking, it appeared. Hortensia, the chief healer at the Smials, was at Pippin's reading desk, now covered with vials and bottles and jars, sorting through them all. I noted that Pippin's books had been carefully stacked on a chair next to the desk. Uncle Paladin was seated in a straight-backed chair directly beside Pippin's head, and holding a wet cloth that he wiped gently across Pippin's face with a trembling hand.
I took all this in from the corners of my eyes, for as soon as I walked in the door, I could look at nothing but the small form in the bed. He had looked so big this past fall, I remembered, that I had told him he would soon be as tall as me, and he had pulled himself up even taller and puffed out a little to announce that he felt certain he would be taller than me by next summer. Now he looked like a small, frail, sick child, and there was little resemblance to the lad who had managed to dunk me in the River on Midsummer's Day. His face was as white as the snow falling once again outside, except for the bright red patches on his cheeks. The covers were flipped back and his chest was covered with cloths, apparently steeped in some type of medicine because they made my eyes water and my nose trickle. Beneath the cloths, his chest rose and fell in an unsteady rhythm. I could see the skin at his collarbone stretch with each inhalation from the effort it took to bring in air, and his breaths were so loud they seemed like rattling wagons to my ears. His mouth hung open, lips cracked and chapped, and I fancied I could see the air passing between them. His eyes were closed.
"Meriadoc." Hortensia startled me from my stupor when she touched my hand. I had not even been aware of her approach, but now she smiled kindly at me.
"How," my voice cracked, and I swallowed hard, "how is he?"
"He has the determination of a goat and the obstinance of a mule, and he went into this a strong lad," she said, and her words eased me slightly. "But you are old enough to know truths, and the truth is that it is bad. I do not know if he will live through this. He has been sick for a week, and seriously ill for four days, and day by day, the fight wears him down. If we are to win, it must be soon."
Her bluntness shocked me, and the words, "I do not know if he will live through this," wove themselves around my heart and squeezed so tightly I thought it might stop. Hortensia must have seen my distress on my face, because she patted my shoulder gently.
"Do not despair, though, young Master Brandybuck," she said quietly. "I will put forth all my skill, and he has fight in him yet. I am glad you are here -- he has asked for you, and I know you will lend whatever virtue and comfort you have to him."
'Lend it?' I thought. 'I will give him every attribute I possess if it will help,' but to Hortensia I only whispered, "I will do everything I may."
She nodded, satisfied, and guided me to Uncle Paladin's side. "Mr. Took," she said quietly, "let Master Meriadoc spell you for a while, and you can take some rest and see to your wife and daughters."
Uncle Paladin looked up as though dazed, and noticed me for the first time. "Merry," he said slowly. "Merry." He swallowed hard. "He's wanted you."
I nodded, and any measure of comfort Hortensia had brought me dwindled at the sight of my uncle's hollowed-out eyes and wan features. His voice was flat and without hope, and I was stunned out of my own grief and fear enough to feel sympathy for this kind uncle who had waited so long for this most precious son.
"Come now, Mr. Paladin," Hortensia was guiding him up, "let Mat take you to get a bite to eat and to see to Mistress Eglantine." I was even more befuddled than I thought, for Uncle Paladin's manservant had come into the room and right behind me without me taking note. It did not matter. Nothing mattered but the lad in the bed, waging his battle breath by breath, minute by minute. Dimly, I was aware of Mat leading my uncle away, and Hortensia guiding me into his chair. I sat and leaned forward until my face was inches from Pippin's.
"Pip," I said softly. "Pip." His eyelids fluttered, but did not open. I reached out and stroked his curls off his forehead with a shaking hand, noting the heat of his skin and how his hair was damp with sweat. "Pip, sweetheart."
His eyes opened oh so slowly, as though with great effort. His mouth closed a little, and his tongue moved out to dampen his parched lips. He swallowed and his breathing changed a bit. "Mer," he said, a breath, a gasp, a whisper. "Knew . . . you'd . . . come." The hand nearest me twitched, but apparently he did not have the strength to move it. I clasped it with one of my own and stroked gently with my thumb.
"Of course I came," I said softly. "Silly goose. Where else would I be?"
The faintest hint of a smile tugged at Pippin's lips, and then his eyes slid shut and his features slackened again. I put my head down onto the bed at his side, dropping my hand from his forehead. I was afraid to touch him any further, least I cause pain or discomfort. I buried my face into the sheets for a moment, then turned my head so I could see his face again. His fingers, still cradled in mine, lay near my head, and I moved ever so slightly so that I could kiss his fingertips.
"Pippin," I whispered, and then I was crying quietly, not noticing or caring if anyone else were in the room to witness my tears. "Pippin. Pippin." At some point, I stopped murmuring his name, but my mind repeated it with each breath until I finally fell asleep, my head resting on the bed still beside his fingertips.
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.