Merry loved to watch Estella laugh. She would tilt her head just so, and her long lashes would flutter delicately, but her laugh rang from deep within her to fill the room with peals of warm alto joy. He'd heard her laugh across the main Brandy Hall dining room, across the Brandywine River, amidst sheets and pillows, muffled by certain bits of his anatomy. He'd wondered sometimes, on the Quest, if he'd ever hear it again. Now he propped his head up on his hand and felt Stel warm in in the curve of his arm and just listened to her as she laughed.
Eyes shining gold in the early sunlight, still laughing, she rolled towards him to hook her leg behind his knee. "Merry, oh, Merry, ambassador of the Shire," she giggled as she sank fingers into his hair. "Extending hobbit friendship and warmth to all parts of Middle-Earth."
"When I wasn't freezing my bits off." Merry kissed her wrist. "I had to climb up a bloody snow-covered mountain in a howling blizzard, and go through a tar-dark mine, and got dragged off by orcs. I was quite often cold."
"True," Estella gently flicked his eartip. "But even then I'm sure you were a perfect gentlehobbit."
Her tone dripped with irony; Merry gave her a wounded look, and she giggled and pulled him down into a long kiss that led to further interesting intimacies. Merry had quite forgotten the conversation by the time he lay curled round Stel, her long reddish-black curls spilling across his heaving chest. She kissed his shoulder and took a deep breath and pulled his arm more securely around herself as they drifted down again, and Merry had let his eyes fall shut by the time she said, "There was a pair of kinsmen, weren't there? Among the friends you made?"
"Brothers," Merry murmured. "Boromir and Faramir. Boromir was with us in the Fellowship." His voice hitched.
"Ah. I remember." Estella craned her neck to kiss his cheek. "I understand. I was hoping I'd be able to introduce Davy to you, watch you fight it out over me." Her laugh was half a sob, and Merry cradled her head in one hand and kissed her forehead. "Did you see it?" she asked in a small voice, winding her arms tighter, and he curled more closely about her, feeling her warm and soft and alive, burying his face in her hair. "He fell defending me and Pip from orcs," he murmured, "but we were carried off, so we didn't see him die."
Estella nodded, gently rubbing her cheek on Merry's chest. "They hung Davy in the Budgeford marketplace," she replied. "When they captured his band, as a warning to us all." Merry felt a minute quiver, and realized Estella was trembling; he kissed her brow again, and stroked her hair. "Freddy had vanished already, and I didn't know what was worse, seeing Davy dead, worrying Freddy would face the same fate, worrying what fate had taken you. Hard days to love lads." She pressed her face to his chest, taking a heaving breath, and then gave a little chuckle. "So I resolved to stick to my friends and making arrows."
"Indeed," Merry agreed, holding her as tightly as he dared. Estella pressed her cheek over his heart for a moment longer, then turned her face up to his. "And Boromir's brother. Borofar?"
It was Merry's turn to laugh, as Estella's smile shone. "No, no, Faramir. He's a capital fellow. Pip adores him. He's the Prince of Ithilien now, the Steward of Gondor."
"Gondor?" Estella wrinkled her brow. "I need a map to keep up with your tale, Merry. I thought you travelled with Elves."
"Well, one Elf. Two if you count Glorfindel. Boromir and Faramir are Men." Merry was about to elaborate when he felt Stel tense, heard her suck in a breath; he felt himself come out in goosebumps as he watched the smile fall off her face and her hazel eyes turn cold and brown as winter mud. "Stel?" he asked, chilled and confused, his belly winding in a knot.
"Men." Her voice as cold as her eyes, Estella unpeeled her arms from Merry, and shoved his arms from around herself. "Men. You made friends of Men, Meriadoc?" Merry gaped, and then winced as she disentangled their legs with a kick that nearly dented his shin. "Are you the same Merry Brandybuck who led the Battle of Bywater?"
"Yes, Estella, I am!" Merry was angry before he even knew why, and still confused, but Estella was angrier. She sat up, back ramrod straight, folded her arms over her lovely breasts, and glared down at him. "Are you blind?" she hissed. "Didn't you see what they did to us? Didn't you see Doderic's scarred face? Didn't you see Freddy when you carried him from the Lockholes? Didn't you see Rosemary's grave?"
"I saw!" Merry pushed himself up to face her. "I saw ruffians die on my sword! I saw Bag End full of filth and disorder. I saw the Witch-king standing over my dear friend, and you can't know the horror of that."
Estella tossed her head. "And you don't know what we suffered here, while you toured Middle-Earth and hobnobbed with kings. You don't care, if you'd befriend those who tried to ruin us."
It was as if a vast chill gulf had opened between them, there in the warm little bed. For a blood-pounding moment Merry wanted to reach across it and shake Stel, drag her back to him by force. What was wrong with her? "Boromir and Eowyn and Faramir and the King are nothing like the Men who invaded the Shire, Stel!" Merry held out a hand, but Estella turned her head away, and then turned away entirely, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. "Estella?" His voice cracked. "Stel? Where are you going?"
Dressed in nothing but her hair and her cold anger, Estella stood proud as a queen. "I'm going home," she said in a flat voice, and picked up her nightshirt.
"But you haven't had breakfast---" She cut off his words by slamming the door behind her. Merry sat in the bed, blinking, one hand planted in the hollow warmed by her body, his skin tingling with cool air where hers had so recently heated it. Though his legs ached to run after her, his hands to clutch her soft shoulders till he could persuade her to stay, he sat there, the bed cooling beneath his hand, tears of shock running down his face; he listened to Pippin's sleepy exclamation, to Estella's brisk bustling, to the front door's slam. Footsteps came up the hall, and Pippin stuck his head in, took a look at Merry, and was beside him in an instant. "Lover's quarrel?" he asked softly.
Merry folded his arms, but slumped against Pippin's shoulder. "We were trading names and tales, and when I told her of Boromir and Faramir she got cross."
"Cross doesn't cover it, Merry, she nearly knocked me over." Pippin rubbed his back. "Is it because they are Men?"
Merry whipped around. "Peregrin Took, were you listening---"
"Easy on, Merry, don't bite my head off." Pippin smiled warmly, but with worry round the edges. "I was asleep till hobbits went shouting and slamming doors, I'll have you know. I just, well, what other Men could Estella have seen besides the ruffians we've cleared out? And there's a new tale every day of their handiwork, a new wound on the Shire to bind, and you know how especially fond she and Rosemary were of each other."
"And she was also kissing-friends with Davenard Chubb-Took, till he led a band of rebels and the ruffians hanged him." Merry sagged against Pippin, feeling cold with understanding and heavy with grief; Pippin wrapped both arms round him and rubbed his shoulders. "I might have had to wrestle him for her hand. Now it looks I've lost her to him, and Rosemary, and Freddy, and every other hobbit the ruffians harmed." Merry heard his own bitterness, and blanched. "I mean, Pip---"
"Shh." Pippin stroked Merry's hair. "Estella had her kissing-friends, but when I rode to Tookland she ran out and wouldn't let anyone stop her from asking me if you'd come home. I saw her face when she saw you again, I saw the way she kissed you. You haven't lost her. We just have to tell her not all Men are at all like the ones she's seen."
Merry shook his head, clenching his fists. "Thinking Eomer and Strider, thinking Eowyn and Theoden King and Boromir, are anything like those orcish---" but the anger broke against reason, and Merry unfurled his hands and wound his arms round Pippin. "And how could she know they aren't? If she'll listen."
"She'll listen, once she's cooled." Pippin kissed Merry's brow, and Merry turned his face to smile wanly up at him. "When did you grow so wise, Pip?"
Pippin returned the smile, arching one eyebrow. "There must be someone with intelligence in this party," he replied, green eyes sparkling; Merry remembered, and managed to laugh as he squeezed Pippin's shoulders.
Merry let Estella have a half day's start to cool down, and let Pippin feed him three times, before he set out for Budgeford. Pippin made no move to come with; Merry turned as he rode away, looking at the chestnut-haired tween standing in the doorway, and wondered where the lad had gone who could hardly be kept out of his hair, where this sometimes-solemn, even quiet Pippin had come from.
It had been a long year, Merry thought, and could almost have been angry at Estella again, for questioning his loyalties and discounting what he and Pip had endured, till he reminded himself of what she had. As if he heard Merry's thoughts, Stybba whickered reassuringly; for a winter's day it really was quite pleasant, warm and bright, which meant that Merry had nothing to distract him from the worries chasing themselves round his head.
Thoughts of Stel Bolger, his friend's sister, his childhood playmate, a plague in his teen years, a kissing-friend in his tweens. Merry had thought of Estella when he was away, more than any other lass; when he returned the lasses he'd known timidly stared at him, adulation and wariness in their eyes instead of recognition and friendship, but Estella welcomed him home by flinging herself on him and kissing him breathless, punching his arm and teasing him for his new height. He'd thought of her through the weeks of chasing and searching and fighting to cleanse the Shire, had talked to Pippin and Frodo and Sam and his mother about her, had thought to himself when he wrote inviting her to visit that perhaps he might ask her if they could be handfasted. He wasn't ready to wed yet, but he thought he'd found his girl for when he was, he really did.
Still, it was an old and sensible rule with tweens, that the surest way to woe was to have friends who disliked each other. And the friends Merry had made, especially his shieldsister Eowyn and Boromir, more than a friend, well, how could Merry carry them in his heart and live with a lass who hated them sight unseen? But how could he live without Estella's quick wit, her tart tongue, her laughter?
Merry clenched his hands on the reins and rode on through the bright winter day.
"Miss Estella? She ain't home, Mr. Meriadoc." Merry opened his mouth to tell the round-faced young maid that she needn't lie for her mistress, but something in her open face, made him look again, then lean over from his saddle. "Come here," he said, and the girl came to him; carefully, lest he be rough, he reached down to take her chin in his hand and look into wide brown eyes. Unexpectedly, he found himself reminded of Sam. "She's not here? You're certain?"
"Yes, sir, I am. She left four days ago to go visiting in Buckland, I think. Mayhap she's still there?" The maid held his gaze, plump little mouth set firmly, but a tear rolled from the corner of her eye, and Merry realized he must be frightening her despite his care; he released her chin and patted her cheek gently. "Thank you, my dear," he said with his most charming smile, and she blinked, and smiled back, and then blushed and curtseyed. "Would you need aught, sir?" she asked, steadily, though her cheeks were now as red as roses. Merry made a note to find out her name, well-trained and sturdy lass that she was, and thought of Stel laughing at him when he asked, and smiled.
"No, my dear, thank you." Merry patted her cheek again. "And don't tell your master and mistress and Master Fredegar I came by, would you?" Freddy would forgive him better once Estella had, after all.
"Yessir, Mr. Meriadoc," said the girl, now dimpling. Merry smiled to himself, both glad and sorry Pippin wasn't with him. "Good day, sir!"
"Good day!" Merry called back, and turned to set Stybba on the road again. If Estella weren't home, where would she be?
'Didn't you see Doderic's scarred face?'
she had said. 'Didn't you see Freddy at the Lockholes? Didn't you see Rosemary's grave?'
Rosemary's grave was in the garden of her aunt Elecampane Headstrong's house, in Michel Delving.
Merry rode west.
Young Miss Bluet Clayfoot looked around carefully as she gave Merry a wrapped parcel of food, then dared to stand a-tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Merry smiled at her and bowed gallantly before mounting Stybba and setting off again. He'd forgotten that most inns were still closed, but the folk in Frogmorton fell all over each other competing to offer him and his pony a night's lodging. Merry had settled on the Clayfoots, whose round-eyed children listened raptly to his slightly modified tales of fighting orcs and walking trees, and whose tweenage daughters cast such looks from beneath their lashes that he wedged his bedroom door with his pack. He was on this trip to find his girl, after all, not acquire another. Merry stretched out diagonally on the little bed, and imagined Pippin loose among the Clayfoot daughters like an amiable fox in a willing henhouse, and laughed and closed his eyes.
As Merry rode through Bywater, prickles ran up and down his spine. He thought of dropping in on Frodo and Sam, of eating Mrs. Cotton's good cooking and smiling at pretty Rosie, of the Cotton lads' hero-worship and jarring back-slaps. Still, the longer he took, the more likely he was to miss Estella; besides, Merry recalled the look on Frodo's face when Sam's Gaffer had scolded him for selling Bag End, when he surveyed at the Lockholes, when folk brought him tales of deprivation and abuse from the long year. He very much didn't want Frodo to give him that sad-eyed smile, with or without an apology, as if any of this devastation were his fault. Merry stretched out his arms and murmured, "Stybba my lad, how about a good run?" and nudged his pony into a fleet gallop.
By the time Merry reached Michel Delving it was midday, and he winced when he dismounted, and laughed at himself; compared to the ride to the Pelennor, this should have been nothing, really. He shook out his legs and led Stybba to a well near the Town Hole, noting with satisfaction that the Malt Maiden
was back in business; its lass-shaped sign was still propped by the door instead of re-mounted above it, but a fresh coat of bright paint was drying in the sunshine.
"Mister Meriadoc?" Merry turned and found three young grown hobbits regarding him admiringly, two of them helping a third with his crutches. "Lordly Mister Merry, it is you!" The one on crutches was the speaker; he hobbled forward on twisted, scarred, nearly hairless feet, and Merry hurried to meet him. "Patwise Moss," he said, face splitting in a wide grin, as he held a hand out. "My brother Pinders, and his friend Bando. " The other two looked awed, and Merry nearly blushed, but put on an appropriate smile and took Patwise' hand. "Well met, Master Patwise, Masters Pinders and Bando."
"I owe you thanks," said Patwise, clutching Merry's hand between both of his. "I don't know how much longer I'd've lasted in those Lockholes. I owe you my life, you and Mister Peregrin Took, the bravest hobbits in all the Shire."
That's Frodo and Sam
, Merry thought, but he'd long ago given up arguing that point. He felt himself blush, and sketched a little bow with his head as he replied, "The Shire holds not a few brave hobbits, not least those who survived the Lockholes and the Troubles."
Patwise grinned even wider at that, and Pinders and Bando smiled through their awe. "Thank you, sir. Come, let us stand you a mug!"
The offer made Merry grin in return, but he shook his head. "I've business in town, I must attend to it," he replied apologetically, and Patwise squeezed his hand and released it. "Later, then, Mister Merry. And, thank you, sir. Thank you."
Whistling, Merry walked on down the road to Mistress Elecampane Headstrong's house, Stybba ambling behind him. Several other hobbits had greeted him, and two lasses had kissed him, and all throughout the town folk murmured warmly and watched him as he passed. It was almost enough to turn a hobbit's head, Merry thought with just a bit of well-earned pride, as he strolled up the road between stands of tall dried grasses, feeling how long his legs were, whistling a walking-song.
A dark patch by his foot caught his gaze; he looked down and noticed that the cobbles were stained in their crevices, and rimmed with darkness. He blinked, and looked up to see the road bending, both before and behind him. Daffodil's shaking voice sounded in his memory, describing the deserted bend in the road, the Men who'd ambushed them, Rosemary pushing her to safety. Oh.
. A chill breeze blew across Merry's neck, through his thoughts, and he shivered.
Merry had liked his cousin well enough, but he had many vivacious cousins around his age. She'd been Estella's dear friend and Freddy's sweetheart; Freddy hadn't wanted to leave the Shire with the conspirators in part because he'd planned to ask her to wed him. Merry had expected to dance at their wedding, and in thoughts of his and Estella's he'd always seen Rosemary in the image, helping Stel dress and holding her flowers. Now he stood where she must have been murdered.
Merry looked to the edges of the dark-rimmed cobbles,; the patch was wide, far beyond his feet. Even with his hard-won knowledge of how much blood a hobbit might hold, the thought of it made him swallow hard, eyes prickling. No wonder Estella had been so angry. For a chill, doubtful moment he wondered why he was chasing after her, to hurt her further with his presence and pleas. He'd be lucky if she didn't throw something at him, and he'd deserve it if she did.
Still, she was Estella, with her long curls and her laugh and her eyes like elanor
blossoms. If he could walk across Eriador for Frodo and stab the Witch-king for Eowyn and watch all night by Pippin's bedside, he could face Estella to bring her his apology, whether she accepted it or spat in his face.
Merry squared his shoulders. "C'mon," he said to Stybba, and they walked faster.
Merry gave Stybba a handful of oats and tied him loosely to the garden gazebo where he wouldn't wander, and he couldn't do the dried lawn that much damage. Then he walked as quietly as he might around the corner of Mrs. Elecampane's house, following a faint sound of weeping that made his gut and heart ache.
Estella was sitting right where he thought she would, at the head of Rosemary's grave, a sprig of the memory-bush in one hand, the other pressed to her face as she sobbed dully. Merry's feet stuck fast amid the bedded-down flowers, as he watched her weep and fought his own tears. He bit his lip and snuffled, and that gave him away; Estella looked up, and swallowed hard, her tear-streaked face and unreadable for a long moment.
Then she held out her arms, and he let a long, long sigh.. "Hullo, Merry."
"Stel. May I?" he asked, needing the reply; she nodded, and he went to sit beside her, draping his cloak round them both. "Your hands are cold,' he told her, chafing them.
"I suppose they would be. I didn't go in." Estella leaned against Merry's shoulder, smudging tears from her face with the heel of her hand. Merry lifted his hand cautiously to her chin; when she allowed this, he tilted her face towards his and kissed away the tears.
Estella gave a little giggle; even half-crushed as it was, it sent a thrill of glad relief through Merry. "A handkerchief would be faster," she said hoarsely, turning so he might reach both cheeks. "There's better than fast," Merry replied, lightly brushing her lips with his as he went on to the other cheek, tasting salt and pain and her soft skin.
After a little while, Merry sat back, and they looked at each other again. "I'm sorry," they both said, and both laughed. "Oh, Merry," said Estella, wet-eyed and smiling, "I'm sorry. I know the friends you keep. The whole Shire knows your deeds. I should have had more faith in you."
"Stel, I'm sorry, too." Merry cradled her cheek in his hand, resting his cheek against her hair. "I'm sorry to have grieved you. You'd just told me how Men took two of your dear friends and nearly took your brother. I should have seen how you'd hear it."
Estella shook her head beneath his. "The King is a Man, isn't he? He can't
be like the ruffians. But all I can see, when I hear your tales, when I try to think of him, is one of those great brutes in a cloak and a crown."
Merry snorted a laugh. "Oh, ho, that's a thought. I mean, I'm sorry, Stel, I'm not laughing after you."
Estella giggled, and this time it didn't sound crushed. "Tell me about the King, Merry. Give me a better picture."
"King Elessar?" Merry pressed her closer, and breathed in the scent of her hair, and called up memories. "Pippin once asked me, 'was there ever anyone like him?', and I don't think there was, not since the great kings of long ago. He is tall, even for a Man; before Pip and I grew we hardly came above his waist. His eyes are like deep-set stars, and he has the kind of quiet voice everyone hears. He's a terrible cook, but he does enjoy a good smoke."
Estella nodded. "So did the other king, didn't he, of the Horse-Lords?"
"Theoden King? No, though he thought it was interesting, I had meant to tell him all about the history of pipe-weed, but then he died on the Pelennor." Merry's voice hitched again, as he remembered, Eowyn like a slender flame before the darkness, Theoden's kindly smile even as he lay dying. Estella tightened her embrace, and whispered hoarsely, "and you nearly died. Pippin told me. You almost didn't come back to me, Merry."
"But I have come back, if you'll have me." Merry felt tears hot in the winter air, running down his face..
"I'll have you, Merry. I'll have you." Estella lifted her head and kissed him, sweet and warm, then drew back to rummage a handkerchief from a hidden pocket in her skirt. "Here, I'm not licking your face clean," she said, hazel eyes shining, and Merry grinned and kissed her again, just a little giddy with her forgiveness and relief.
Then he scrubbed his face, while Estella looked out over the garden and at the memory-bush. "Rosemary told me once," she said in a low voice, and Merry listened. "I was cross with Freddy, and she defended him; I asked her how she could, and she said that I didn't see Freddy the way she did, that we all see each other differently. She was right. Your friends, they must be different. Just as you and Frodo are different from those awful Sackville-Bagginses."
"I should hope so!" Merry sputtered, and Estella smiled at him, fit to warm his heart. "They are
different. I hope, one day, to see them again, that you'll be able to meet them."
"I would like that." Estella kissed Merry's nosetip, and stood up. "And I think I'd like that breakfast you mentioned yesterday."
"It's closer to teatime," Merry belied his complaint by pulling her close. "Will you come back with me to town? The Malt Maiden
's open, I'm sure we might find a meal there." Will you come back with me to Crickhollow?
squirmed on Merry's tongue so that he had to shut his mouth firmly on the words, lest he ask for too much.
Estella slipped her fingers down to tangle with his. "Then we have a visit to finish," she said; he gaped, and she smiled triumphantly at the shocked delight on his face. "And we'd best be back to Crickhollow soon, before Pippin thinks we ran off and got married. He'd never forgive me if he didn't get to stand at our wedding."
Merry opened his mouth, but no words came out. Estella looked at his face, and threw back her head, and laughed her wonderful ringing laugh.
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.