1. Coming Home to Crickhollow 1/3
The story takes place at the end of March in the year S.R. 1420, it is the night when Merry and Pippin return to Crickhollow after they brought Frodo's belongings back to Bag End.
Coming Home to Crickhollow
What Jack remembered and craved in a way
from Annie Proulx' Brokeback Mountain
For how long he and Pippin knelt on that hill
from Victoria Bitter's Displaced
"Back home," Merry sighed.
With a screeching groan the iron bolt found its place in the latch, and Merry touched the wood of the door as if to make sure the night was kept out. The damage the Black Riders had done to lock and timbers had been repaired, but long cracks were still visible. Tiny green chips of paint that the frost had forced from the splintered wood stuck to Merry's fingertips. It had been an icy winter, almost as cold as the winter of 1394 when sheets of solid ice had been floating on the Brandywine for months and snow pressed upon the Hedge like a white giant about to trespass into Buckland.
"It does feel like home." Pippin turned to him with a wide smile, but Merry thought he heard a question in his cousin's voice.
He nodded and headed towards the darker passage that led to the back of the small Crickhollow house. Spring had been in the air all the long miles from Bag End, but the nights were still cold. They needed to get a fire going. As Merry passed, Pippin reached for his hand and turned it to the light. Merry started back, but Pippin's touch was so gentle, the concern in his eyes so visible that he forced himself to stand still. He watched as Pippin smoothed the flecks of paint away from his skin.
"We need to have the door re-painted once it's warming up," Merry said softly, waiting for Pippin to release his hand. An odd feeling surged in his breast, one that he knew far too well, almost as sharp as pain.
"Yes." Pippin looked into Merry's face with the same smile as before. A radiant smile, Merry suddenly thought, so full of merriment. But the unspoken question seemed to linger in Pippin's eyes. What is it you want, Peregrin Took?
With a short laugh Pippin clasped Merry's fingers in his own and thus, hand and hand, drew him into the kitchen.
They managed to cook a decent meal with what cutlery and crockery was left in Crickhollow. Potatoes, yellow winter beans that Sam had provided them with - from the Cotton larder, Merry supposed - and newly smoked bacon from the winter butchering in Brandy Hall. Pans and pots they'd grown quite attached to during the last months were gone, as well as all the sharp knives which belonged to the Baggins household.
"We should have kept at least one good kitchen knife." Pippin sat at the low table and struggled to get the beans out of their hard shells. He was using a short blade which bore the white tree of Gondor on its leather handle. "Frodo wouldn't have minded if we'd kept a few. Not that he would have noticed, anyways."
"I am quite sure he wouldn't have. It was always only silver spoons of which they kept a close record in Bag End. And I doubt, now that Aunt Lobelia is off living in Hardbottle, that even silver spoons matter much to Frodo."
Pippin did not answer, he kept working silently on the beans. The light from the hearth was shining on the side of his face, and Merry thought how much Pippin had changed. It was not only his height and the vigorous long curls - there was something about how his jaw would set that made Merry want to reach for him, something about his eyes that startled Merry whenever he found a moment to watch Pippin unnoticed.
A log slid from the fire and sparks struck at the blackened chimney walls. Pippin looked up and golden specks shone in his eyes. Merry forced himself away and went to search for their one remaining pan.
"Merry, what do you think ...?"
Pippin's voice was but a low mutter as it drifted into the dim shadows of the larder. The small, three-cornered room led off from the kitchen, and the warmth of the fire did not reach the rounded outer walls. It was cold in here. Merry felt his breath warm in the closed-in space before him. The wooden shelves were all but bare, there was no pan.
"Of Frodo ..."
"What of him?" In a corner Merry discovered a flour box he had not noticed before. Fatty must have stocked up on commons before he had left Crickhollow. Merry let the finely ground meal run through his fingers. Last year's rye, he thought, then remembered where he had put the pan.
Back in the kitchen he opened the heavy beechwood trunk where they stored their crockery until they found a replacement for the Baggins kitchen cupboard. He went through the odd assortment of pots and bowls many of which had at one time belonged to the kitchens of Brandy Hall. At the bottom of the trunk he discovered the heavy iron pan.
"Ah, you found it."
There was a satisfied laugh in Pippin's voice and Merry responded, equally pleased, "I did. But now ... where's the lard?"
"We're out of lard, I'm afraid. As of everything else." Pippin was chuckling over the beans.
"Then I'll use the butter my mother gave us. There will be fried bacon with the beans tonight, Pip. My word for it." Merry put the pan onto the iron grate and watched the pale dollops of butter melt into a shimmering tarn. "What were you saying about Frodo there?"
"I was wondering what you think matters to him still, after all that happened." Pippin got up and added the beans to the onions. "When it's no longer silver spoons, I mean."
For a few moments Merry stood quietly beside Pippin and stared into the fire. What did matter to Frodo indeed? "The welfare of the Shire, I should think. And not only because he's the Mayor. He loves the Shire with all of his heart. It's why he went on that wretched journey to begin with." Merry took a deep breath. "To have the Shire restored and bloom, to have his life in Bag End back, to finish his book. To know Bilbo and Sam and everyone he cares for are safe and sound. I'd say that's what matters to Frodo still, as it always has."
Merry placed the slices of bacon into the hot pan where they sizzled in the browning butter. "Why do you ask this?" He looked up to see that Pippin was watching him, the Gondor dagger still in his hand.
"Sam matters to Frodo. More than anyone else." There was a strange challenge in Pippin's voice and Merry waited for him to say more. But Pippin only gave a small shake of his head, and Merry couldn't tell whether it was just a shiver running through his cousin's body.
"Yes, of course, Sam matters to Frodo." He still held the cloth the bacon had been wrapped in, felt its rough weave and found his fingers were trembling. And what is this to you? Merry moved to the table and sat down heavily on the chair. "They went on the darkest and most dangerous paths together," he said. "Frodo owes his life to Sam."
"And Sam his to Frodo." Pippin's answer came as swift as an arrow. He raised his arm, then looked at the blade as if he'd forgotten it. Abruptly he turned to the hearth, touching the stones with the hand that held the weapon. "There's a thing about them ever since they came back from Mordor ... like when there's fresh snow on the firs above Pincup. The wind takes it and the air is full of it, like flour when the lasses are setting out for a good baking. We would run under the trees with snow whirling all around. But you can't hold it. It's like water ... like starlight." Pippin seemed to speak to the fire alone, Merry could barely hear the last halting words. For a moment he feared that the younger hobbit would lean too close and his curls might catch a spark. But then Pippin turned. "Do you understand?"
Merry stared at Pippin, locked to his gaze. He seemed to remember a black-haired child run towards him, the morning light on the snow so bright he had to shade his eyes.
"I do understand," he whispered. "Don't take me for a blind fool. But why ... Pippin, why are you so angry at me?"
"You ... you see no chance for them." Pippin's hands were clenched at his sides, the knife a silver glitter in the shadow.
Of course Pippin would know, he always saw things long before Merry understood them. There had been that moment when they took their farewells from Bag End. Frodo and Sam were standing beside the covered cart, not touching, not even close, the Master of the Hill and his gardener. The stairs of Bag End lay bared to the morning's brightness as if they, too, missed the ancient oak that for generations had stood upon the Hill. All through their visit Merry had felt a hushed anxiousness in Frodo, seen the sheer exhaustion in Sam's every move. But then they stood in front of the gate, Frodo in his white embroidered tunic and no jacket despite the morning's cold, gloves tucked underneath Sam's belt with spiky bits of weeds clinging to them. Yellow rays caught in their hair and on their hands as they waved them good-bye, the promise of dawn lining the horizon. There was such happiness, such hope ...
Merry had brought the barely moving cart to an abrupt halt. Even now he did not know what he meant to say to Frodo, just that he needed to talk sense into him. He had thrown the reins to Pippin, meaning to climb from the cart and finally tell Frodo what he had not found words for all week.
"Don't!" Pippin's voice was low and fierce as he snatched the reins with one hand, the other heavy on Merry's thigh. You have no business here. Pippin had not said these words aloud, but Merry had heard them clear enough in the sharp crack of the reins when his cousin signalled the mare to pull back into the path. They'd not spoken again until they had passed well out of Hobbiton.
Merry shook his head as if to banish the memory, have it undone somehow. "Frodo ..." He had to clear his throat and start again. "Frodo was raised without much of a family, he belonged to Brandy Hall like we all did. But the name he carries, he carries only for himself. Frodo's blood and heart are his alone to give, there's no worthy line of ancestors that he owes it to. There's always been a streak of that in the Bagginses." Merry strove for a cheerful tone, even tried a grin, but his voice faltered and he moved his hand with sudden impatience. He was telling Pippin what they both knew well enough. It was their family's history, he knew this without a memory of when he'd first understood, knew it like the smell of pine-wood in the mornings when it lingered sharp and sweet in the Great Hall.
"Sam's bound up in ties of family," Merry said slowly. "He cannot abandon them, he cannot just step out of this life and this world. He might as well stop being a Gamgee if he did."
How Frodo's face had lit up when Merry handed him the old fiddle they had brought back from Crickhollow. Even with his damaged hand he held the bow, plucked at the strings, and played his half-forgotten tunes. Frodo knew too little of such ties as Sam was bound to, of that Merry was certain. Frodo did not understand how they put an unyielding claim on heart and life. Merry had seen it in the way Frodo listened to the fiddle's music, how he searched in its song for the quiet Bag End life he'd had before. Merry had seen the wishing in his cousin's eyes, that he could start a new life within the familiar folds of the old, even when so much had changed.
Pippin stood unmoving before the fire, the crackling logs and the soft bubbling from the pot were the only sounds in the kitchen. Merry had to turn his eyes away, he could not bear the way the younger hobbit stared at him. How to explain all this to Peregrin Took, a mere three years before his coming of age, the only son of the Took and Master of the Great Smials, future Thain to the whole of the Shire? How to make Pippin understand what this all meant, how Merry's heart was ripped to shreds by it?
There had been more in Frodo's eyes which Merry had not understood, a strange tune in his fiddling that Merry had not heard before. Snow on the firs ... He touched a bean shell from the lose pile on the table. The pale green inside was lined with fine silvery hair which felt sticky, prickly even, like the beginning of thorns. A faint trace of moisture stuck to Merry's finger, and he quickly wiped it on his sleeve. He felt Pippin look at him still, waiting for what else Merry might say. It was a rare thing that Pippin did not speak for so long, and Merry could not help but wish for his cheerful companion from the days before who would interrupt his ramblings and moods and ask more, and stranger questions than any Brandybuck could think of.
"Pippin?" he whispered.
The younger hobbit stepped close and put the knife on the table. "Frodo's blood and heart are bound to Sam. And Sam's to Frodo. That must count for something."
Merry looked up into Pippin's face, and part of him wanted to scream 'No, it counts for naught', but he did not. There was an edge of desperation in Pippin's voice that Merry could not bear, not for a moment. He quickly turned towards the steaming pots over the flames. There was their supper to be seen to, and he could say nothing to the question in Pippin's eyes.
But Pippin stepped between him and the fire, arms folded before his chest, chin raised, a gesture so stubbornly, so familiarly Tookish, Merry could not help but smile.
"And what is there to laugh about, Meriadoc Brandybuck?" Pippin glowered at him, but Merry felt relief spread warm in his breast. This anger was so much easier to take than the grim determination he had seen in Pippin on the Pelennor, and later, in the Shire, when they stood in the middle of Bywater Road with nothing but their swords between them and the evil Men. Merry raised his open hand. "I am not laughing at anything you say, Pip. It's just ..." He shrugged softly. "Oh, we haven't had a row like this for ages. Remember that fight we had about who was first up the Causeway?"
Pippin did not move at all. His face was turned to Merry with an expression of - surprise, disbelief, Merry could not tell. Could it be that Pippin had forgotten the time they raced down Maggot's Lane, screaming at each other all the way?
"I don't want to fight with you," Pippin said softly.
Oh, he must remember. The Brandywine had been all bronze and mist as they stood on the Causeway and watched the lights of Brandy Hall go on one after the other. But never in these long-ago summers had there been such hurt in Pippin's voice. "I-I know," Merry stuttered. "I don't -"
Pippin put his hand on Merry's shoulder, stopping him mid-speech. "I am not saying these things to outdo you or have the better of you, Merry. I'm not a child anymore. What I say I mean, with all my heart ..." Pippin's voice broke, and he half turned aside but did not take his hand away.
Merry stared at him, unable to utter a word or make sense of the fearful knotted tangle that pushed up his throat.
In the silence, the sharp sizzling noise from the fire sounded as if a branch was split in half. They both jumped, and Merry bumped his knees into the table. Pippin caught him when he stumbled for balance.
"Our supper." Pippin sounded just a bit unsteady, considering there was smoke billowing from the pan and the smell of burned pork rapidly filled the kitchen. He pulled Merry tight, held him close even when Merry loosened his arms from Pippin's waist.
"There was going to be bacon on the table tonight. But you have to let me go. Or I shall be serving strips of coal that won't even tempt a starving orc." Merry felt laughter rise from Pippin's belly, but the younger hobbit would not loosen his hold. Instead he moved even closer, and his lips brushed softly across Merry's cheek. "I shall throw you in the duck pond when we next visit old Maggot," he whispered. "And then we'll see who's first at the Causeway."
With this he released Merry and quickly moved to the beechwood trunk. He rummaged around in it and came up with the long two-pointed fork that had been part of the Crickhollow kitchen ever since Merry could remember.
"This will do," Pippin said and with a grin went to save what was left of the bacon.
The steam of the hot potatoes wound in hazy spirals towards the ceiling. Like smoke ... The smoke of pipe-weed after a good meal, Merry thought. Like the leaf we will be smoking after supper. Feet towards the fire-place in the parlour, maybe a glass of wine before sleep. But he could not help it, the thought of pipe-weed would always remind Merry of the polite old King. The memory of the Golden Hall came clear to his mind, as vivid as if he had sat at Théoden's side just yesterday. So different Théoden was from Saradoc. Master of their Hall and Land, both of them, but how unlike these two were: Man, liege-lord, an older and wiser friend until the very end the one, hobbit, father, and yet so stern and uncaring the other. Saradoc is my sire, and yet Théoden was as a father to me ...
With a startled sound Merry moved his hands from the bowl as if the heated clay had burned him. Pippin stood at the table, bean pot in one hand, the ladle in the other. He was watching Merry intently. "Are you tired? The road's been long." Underneath the light tone there was a quaver in Pippin's voice. Merry looked up sharply, but Pippin had turned back towards the hearth.
"No, no. Come, serve the beans, Pip." He was not tired, quite the opposite, he felt awake as if he had just come in from the cold. "I was just thinking."
Pippin stepped next to him and ladled the beans onto the potatoes. "You must've done some heavy thinking then. You looked as if you were dreaming with waking eyes. Dreaming or ..." He halted, the ladle trembling in the air. Merry turned quickly, moved to steady Pippin's hand. "Or ... staring. Like the dead." Pippin's voice faltered, and in the silence the ladle clattered to the floor.
Merry was standing beside Pippin before he knew how he had got up. He took the pot out of his hand and hung it over the fire. Gently he held Pippin's face in his hands. "I was healed, Pip. The Black Shadow has no hold anymore, not over me nor anyone."
Pippin nodded through tears. He tried to smile but only managed a twist of his mouth.
"It's come to an end, Pippin. The evil is gone. It can no longer reach us." Hot tears on his fingers, Merry let his hands fall on Pippin's back and drew him into a close embrace.
The younger hobbit hugged him fiercely. "I did not think they'd come to the Shire," he sobbed. "I thought no matter how badly things were going, we would always have the Shire. To come home to this!"
Pippin was shaking in his arms, and for a moment Merry could not think of a word to comfort him. They had been back nearly five months and still ...
"Sam took me up on the Hill yesterday," Pippin whispered against Merry's neck. "He planted a new tree right beside the stump of the big oak. It will take scores of years before there will be a good-size tree on top of Bag End again."
"I would have liked to see the sapling. When did Sam show it to you?" Merry spoke as softly as Pippin, murmuring into his ear as if he was telling him a secret.
"You were with Frodo in the parlour. When you talked about the seed for spring planting in the Southfarthing. I should have stayed. It's the Tooks' land, for the most part." Pippin breathed deeply, forcing the tears to stop. How he has grown, Merry thought, more so than many a lad already of age. And how strange that being a soldier of Gondor had made Pippin so much more the true heir of the Took and Thain. So unlike myself.
"I was wondering where the two of you had gone." Merry loosened his hold on Pippin and only then noticed how hard he had clutched him to his body. Slowly he moved his hands up from the small of Pippin's back to his shoulder blades. As always he was struck with Pippin's wiry strength, this fierce energy the skin could hardly contain. When they had lain together for the first time, there had been no smooth layers of flesh which now softened Pippin's solid frame. Pippin had been lean and travel-worn, craving their love-making with a fury that his healing body had hardly had the strength for. Those first weeks in the White City ... To Merry they seemed unreal now, like a tale he was told as a child before the roaring fire in Brandy Hall. A nightmare it was at first when he'd lain sick in the dark fever, and then Pippin was brought back to him from the Great Battle all hurt and broken. But Spring claimed Gondor and they wandered through a dream of white stone and sunlit vistas and ate rich, strange foods. In the evenings, members of the Fellowship would gather in one of the quiet courtyards and tell their adventures again and again. And the nights brought the pleasures that he and Pippin shared in the dark of their room.
He felt more than heard Pippin speak, a round of warmth at his throat. Just above my heart, Merry thought for no other reason than to calm the familiar sting which surged in his breast. Pippin was quiet, the shaking had stopped, he seemed wholly content just to be held in Merry's arms.
"Yes?" Merry moved his left arm so that he could hold Pippin by the shoulder.
The younger hobbit raised his head. "What were you thinking of?"
"When you were staring so? Just now? When I brought the beans?"
"Nothing much ..." The tightness leapt from Merry's chest into his throat and for a moment he could not breathe. He stepped back against the table, and Pippin clutched him in surprise, then lowered him gently to the chair.
"Look at me, cousin." Pippin was holding him firmly now, hurting him almost, digging through cloth into flesh. No longer a tweener, Merry thought, never mind his age and youthful looks. But then there was no reason why this should strike him now, when he'd had months to get to know this new Pippin. He sought Pippin's eyes and for an odd moment marvelled at the green glint within the brown, traces of Harfoot blood which showed in every other generation of Tooks. I'm as new to him as he is to me. The thought startled Merry, made him flinch from Pippin's gaze. Had he ever asked what he meant to Pippin now, after all that had happened? There were days when Merry hardly recognised himself, his voice dark like his father's, commanding ruffians and Shire-folk like this was who he was meant to be. His eyes burned as if with tears, but when Merry moved his hand across his face, he found it dry and hot.
Pippin crouched before him, there was no escaping his shining eyes. "I don't understand ... Merry, what is it?"
He could but shrug in reply. Pippin's hands lay heavy on his shoulders, although in a lighter grasp which steadied them both. He was thankful for the weight, it relieved his movement of its harshness and turned it into something soft and blunt like the regret he felt. But there were no words, and he could not trust himself to say things right.
"It is not about Sam and Frodo." There was no question in Pippin's voice, and Merry shook his head fiercely.
"No, no, I never meant ... I don't know what came over me, Pip. All this wretched week I wanted to talk to Frodo, about him, and Sam, and it never happened, and there was so much ado with unpacking all the gear and unloading the furniture and moving in and setting it all aright, and it seemed there never was time and I had to speak now or never. If not for you I would have caused more harm than anything, and I was so -" For every word that moments ago would not even form in his mind, another tumbled out of his mouth now without thought or reason. Merry saw the smile on Pippin's face, and it calmed him as he struggled to get a hold of himself. "I was ...", he started, then said: "I am truly sorry."
Pippin nodded and pressed his fingers on Merry's lips. The same firm touch, almost painful. "Then tell me what troubles you, Merry", he whispered. "Trust me."
And in this flicker of time Merry did, even though he did not know that he had not trusted Pippin nor why indeed he should not. He only knew Pippin's eyes and a flaring heat in his chest that almost scared him, it was so out of bounds, so wild -
I would gladly have given name and life for Théoden. This was the duty I chose. And who would know it but you? Merry took a deep breath. The sweet smell of onions drifted through the kitchen, and the sharper taste of the bacon. "I was thinking about King Théoden." Pippin nodded as if he understood. But he could not. Not if Merry did not tell him. "I was thinking about King Théoden and Saradoc."
Pippin laid his head to the side, a gesture Merry had grown so used to, he caught himself doing it whenever he had a serious question on his mind. "What about your father?" Pippin asked. "We can go into Bucklebury tomorrow and see him."
Merry shook his head. "I do not want to see him. He called me in before we left for Hobbiton. When you were with my mother to see if there's something from Brandy Hall that should go to Bag End."
Pippin nodded again, waiting for Merry to say more.
"He told me it was time I remembered what I owe to home and family. 'Now that you're done helping out wizards in the South and hobnobbing with walking trees'. That's how he put it." The words echoed gaily in the kitchen, much like his father had meant them. Merry well knew that Saradoc could not know the pains he caused his son.
Not the trace of a smile appeared on Pippin's face, and Merry felt warmth spread slow and sure from his stomach. All this time he'd felt there was but one road he could go, but if Pippin understood, if he could trust him with this ...
"Father wants me to marry, take my place as heir to the Hall. As soon as possible." Merry's voice gave out and he cleared his throat, started again, all the while feeling Pippin's eyes on him.
"It's like we never were gone, like everything is the same. And sometimes I can think of nothing else but how much I wish things could be that way." Merry's chest hurt all of a sudden, a piercing ache. He moved towards Pippin, steadied by his gaze alone, until their foreheads touched. "I don't know what to do."
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.