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The Care and Feeding of Hobbits  by Baylor

Somewhere in this heap of hobbits is the one who is supposed to relieve me from watch. I just have no idea how to determine which one it is.

I bend my knees and crouch near the mass of blankets and curls and limbs. Well, let's see, there are a number of hobbit heads here: one -- two -- three. Where in Overheaven's name is the fourth? Or maybe there are four heads here, and I simply cannot differentiate between them. Only the very tops of their curls are showing, as they have pulled blankets and cloaks up over their bodies from hair-covered toes to foreheads.

I lean in a little. "Merry," I hiss, hoping this will produce the desired response. There is no reply from the pile. "Merry," I try again, louder this time. One of the hobbits shifts slightly, and a small hand appears from beneath the blankets. Relieved, I think for a moment that my problem is solved, until the hobbit gives a soft sigh and I realize that it is just one of them shifting in his sleep.

We have been traveling by night, and the thin sunlight illuminating our daytime encampment gives me some assistance. The black curls in the center belong to Frodo, only he has such dark hair. But then on either end there are light-brown curls, one set more honey-toned than the other. One of those is certainly Merry, making little Pippin the hobbit missing beneath the blankets, as his chestnut curls are nowhere to be seen. I am not certain, however, which light-brown head is Merry and which one is Sam. Finally, I take my best guess and reach out a hand to tap a head. "Merry," I say again.

The hobbit rolls from his back to his side (at least so I think from the movement of his head) and groans. "I'm Sam," he says. "Mr. Merry's on the other end."

"My apologies, Sam," I say, sorry to have woken him without need. We have gone at a great pace during this first leg of our journey, and I know the little people have struggled to keep up. In truth, I feel poorly waking Merry for watch, though it is his turn and I would not insult him by taking his duties upon myself. I turn myself toward the other end of the hobbit pile and tap the second light-brown head. "Merry," I say with more confidence, and this time I get the desired response.

"What?" a distinctly surly voice says.

"It's your watch," I whisper, trying not to wake any more hobbits.

"All right," the voice says, now sounding more weary than surly, but there is no corresponding movement in the hobbit pile that indicates Merry is getting up.

I tap his head again. "Merry, get up," I say.

This has a most unexpected result, and I jump backward when a small figure abruptly bolts upright and tosses the covers off its head. "What's happening? Is it time to leave already?" It is still not my relief, but Pippin, astonishingly wide awake as he addresses me.

"No," I tell him, catching my breath after the surprise, "and my apologies for waking you. I was just trying to rouse Merry for his watch."

"Oh, all right then," Pippin says, and begins pushing the figure beside him out from under the covers, seeming to use both his hands and his feet. "Merry, get up!" he says, not at all quietly, and Merry's hands appear to swat at him.

The hobbit on the other side of Pippin begins drawing the blankets back around himself. "Who has woken Pippin before it is time to get up?" Frodo demands. "Can't we have a few hours of peace and quiet?" Pippin responds by diverting one hand from bereaving Merry of his covers to poke his other cousin in the ribs, rather hard from the looks of it.

"All right, I am up, I am up," Merry says crossly, spurred into movement. He crawls out from the covers and then stands in front of Pippin with his hands on his hips, scowling thoughtfully. Pippin freezes in place, watching Merry warily. I have the clear impression that, well, something is about to happen when Frodo says sharply, "Oh, no you don't, lads, I'm sleeping." His hand appears from beneath his reclaimed covers and latches onto Pippin's shoulder. A hard jerk, and Pippin hits the ground with a "whump!", and then Frodo flicks his wrist and the youngest hobbit disappears from view beneath a blanket.

Merry turns from the hobbit pile. "Thank you, Boromir," he says, his usual even temper apparently back in place. "Everything all right?"

"Ah, yes, it's been a quiet watch," I say, rather dazed by the complexity of waking a hobbit for watch. Such a seemingly simple thing . . .

"Have a good sleep, then," Merry says, perching himself atop a large boulder so he can look about.

"Thank you," I say, and then stretch out in my bedroll. These hobbits are curious creatures, I think just before I go to sleep. I do not know quite what to make of them.

Seven faces turn upward toward the boughs of the tree, watching the two figures clamber higher with assured deftness. The elf scowls in displeasure, and I hide a smile at seeing the normally serene elf disconcerted by so small a thing.

"I certainly could have retrieved the arrow myself, Aragorn," he says again for good measure.

"You certainly could have broken several bones when the tree limbs snapped beneath your weight," Aragorn replies levelly, his eyes not leaving the tree. I wonder if he is as nervous about the climbers as I am. The two figures are near the top now, level with the errant arrow, and one of them is inching forward precariously onto the limb the missile is affixed to, while the other one clings to the tree trunk with one hand and his companion's foot with the other. For all that they are so small, I wonder that the delicate branches hold their weight. I am also surprised at their fearless, easy grace in so precarious a place.

"I thought hobbits were afr-- ahem, disliked heights," Gimli comments.

"Well, they aren't something that we terribly relish," Merry replies, feet firmly on the ground, I note. "But Pippin is all Took, and that clan is less worried by heights than any hobbits you'll find. And Frodo's certainly got enough Took in him to fit that bill, as well. I'd rather stay on the ground, myself."

"Are you not cousins?" I query, somewhat puzzled. "Or do you not have Took blood?"

"Well," Merry is watching Pippin yank the arrow from the limb and scoot back to the relative safety of the tree trunk, "my mother is a Took, of course, sister to Pippin's father, Paladin, and my paternal great-grandmother was Mirabella Took, one of the Old Took's children, so I've certainly got enough Took blood in me, but in practical terms, and especially when it comes to climbing things, I'm a Brandybuck, through and through."

Everyone has stopped looking at the two hobbits in the tree, and now are looking at Merry. When our gazes turn inquiringly to Sam, he shakes his head and states unequivocally, "Sirs, there is not a drop of Took blood in me, and there isn't enough gold in a dragon's horde to persuade me to climb around like that."

I turn this over in my head. "So, Merry, you and Pippin are first cousins?"

He is still watching his kin's downward approach. "Well, yes, but we are also third cousins, descending down from the Old Took line, as Pippin's great-grandfather Hildigrim was brother to Great-Grandmother Mirabella."

This seems logical, so I proceed, my curiosity piqued. "Is Frodo then cousin to you both from his Took heritage?"

"Oh, certainly, Frodo has Took blood, but his mother was a Brandybuck, of course, so he and I are related several times over through both lines," Merry replies. "He is first cousin to my father, making him my first cousin once removed, coming down from Gorbadoc and Mirabella. But since Mirabella is also my maternal great-great-aunt, as well as my paternal great-grandmother, Frodo also is my second cousin once removed, and because Rosa Baggins, one of old Balbo's granddaughters, married Hildigrim Took, we are also third cousins once removed, again on the Took side."

I really could not come up with an adequate response to this recitation if my life depended on it. Beside me, Gandalf mutters in my ear, with unseeming delight at my bewilderment, "We will expect you to recount all of that later, Boromir, so I hope you have committed it to memory."

Now it seems I have stirred up everyone's interest. "So Frodo is more related to you than to Pippin?" Legolas inquires. "I had thought the two of them more closely related than you and Frodo, as they do favor each other."

"Oh, Frodo and Pippin are quite related," Merry reassures the elf. "They are third cousins once removed just as Frodo and I are, from the Took side, down from Rosa and Hildigrim, but they are also second cousins once removed, Pippin's father being Frodo's second cousin, also from the Old Took, but through Frodo's Brandybuck side, Mirabella also being one of Gerontius' children."

"So Frodo is a Baggins from Balbo?" Gimli asks, and Merry gives him a look that borders on exasperation.

"Frodo is a Baggins from his father, Drogo, one of Balbo's great-great-grandsons, but more importantly, he is a Brandybuck from his mother, Primula, one of Gorbadoc's daughters and sister to Old Rory, my paternal grandfather," he says in a rather affronted voice. "But heredity being as it is, you are right, Legolas, that Frodo ended up looking like a Took."

"What is this?" Frodo demands, swinging down from one of the tree's lower branches. "Are you slandering my family tree again, Merry?"

"I am doing nothing but raising you in the esteem of our companions by pointing out to them your Brandybuck line," Merry answers, "and it is not my fault you came out looking and behaving like a Took instead of a proper Brandybuck, who would never be caught running along tree branches like a squirrel. And at your age, too."

"I thought that was the Baggins in me," Frodo says, dusting off his hands and returning the ill-shot arrow (originally meant as a demonstration to the hobbits) to its chagrined owner. "I seem to recall Bilbo scaling a few trees, more daunting than this, in his day. And at my age."

"That was someone else's doing, and no fault of his bloodlines, I am certain," Merry states with a sideways glance at Gandalf.

"Meriadoc Brandybuck, I know enough of your family history, Took and Brandybuck and whatever else may please you, that I would advise you not go down that path lest I get the itch to begin telling stories after dinner," the wizard answers in an ominous voice, but I can see his eyes twinkling.

"Are you going to tell stories, Gandalf, really?" Peregrin asks, dropping from the tree and landing on all fours like a cat. "I have always wanted to know what happened to Hildifons and Isengar. Our family records don't say much of anything. Did you know them? Do you know what happened to them? Will you really tell us when we stop for dinner?"

Merry is grinning in a way that clearly shows he believes he has got the upper hand over Gandalf in the end, and Frodo is practically bouncing on the balls of his feet with pleasure at the wizard's plight.

"Yes, will you, Gandalf? We would love to hear all about your past adventures with other hobbits," the Ringbearer says, most certainly aware that he is just egging Pippin on. "You've always had a particular fondness for Tooks, though, haven't you?"

"Yes, Gandalf, you did used to come to the Tooks first for everything," Pippin states. "I don't know when the Bagginses became so high in your book. I would have thought a Took would have served you just fine as a burglar. Why ever did you take up with the Bagginses anyway?"

"Yes, Gandalf," Frodo says, all big blue eyes and and deceptively innocent expression, "how could you ever tire of taking Tooks with you on adventures? I'd have thought you'd want to associate with hobbits more connected to the Thain than we lowly Bagginses."

Frodo and Merry are grinning broadly, and I wonder at their boldness in taunting the wizard in a manner I would never dream of. Even Sam is hiding a smile as he fusses with Bill's baggage. But Pippin is looking up at Gandalf with sincere green eyes and an earnest, open face.

"But you wouldn't ever tire of the Tooks, would you, Gandalf?" he asks anxiously. "I mean, really, you just chose Bilbo because you knew he was a Took deep down, right?"

"But of course, Peregrin," Gandalf says, seizing his chance for graceful extraction. He lays a gnarled hand on Pippin's head. "I knew that Bilbo could be the finest hobbit in the Shire if only I could wake up a little more Took in him. And my plan turned out quite well in the end, don't you think?"

Pippin nods, and then asks, "So will you tell us about Hildifons and Isengar at supper? You do know what happened to them, don't you? I mean, you know all those types of things, don't you?"

I am amused, and a little touched, by Peregrin's innocent assumption of Gandalf's omnipotence, but Gandalf seems a mite wearied by it -- perhaps he has more familiarity with the young hobbit's persistence than I do.

"We will see, we will see," Gandalf answers with a sigh. "Come now, we have squandered enough time on Master Greenleaf's archery lesson. Come along, all of you, we must continue."

As we ready ourselves to march, I hear Pippin saying to his second cousin once removed and his third cousin once removed, "Frodo, do get Gandalf to tell us about Hildifons and Isengar tonight. I know he must know what happened to them, and I have wanted to know for so very long."

Aragorn comes over to me and hands me some supplies to affix to my pack. "If you are having trouble keeping that all straight," he whispers, "just remember -- Sam is Frodo's gardener."

Not only are these hobbits the strangest beings I have ever traveled with, their oddities seem to rub off on their companions, I think as I follow after a grinning Aragorn.

"Well, at least try to comb it or something," Merry is saying to Pippin in exasperation. The object of his exasperation has just finished what I suppose you could call his ablutions after breakfast, or supper, or whatever you would term it when you sleep all day and walk all night, before settling down to rest. However, there is still a broad stripe of dirt across his forehead, and his hair -- the cause of Merry's consternation -- is sticking up in the front, and matted into a snarled mess in the back.

"It's fine," Pippin says dismissively, then tries to move away when Merry grabs him by the collar and begins squashing down the gnarled curls with his free hand. "Stop that!" Pippin commands, squirming, but Merry has a firm grasp on him (and seemingly some experience with restraining a wriggling Pippin) and does not relent. Finally, though, he heaves a defeated sigh and releases his now surly looking cousin.

"I think you just need a haircut," Merry says decisively.

"Merry, no one out here cares what my hair looks like," Pippin replies, now sounding somewhat exasperated himself.

I have noted before the different levels of care the hobbits put into their appearance. Merry and Frodo both do their best to stay as clean and tidy as possible, from their hair to their faces to their clothes. Sam is always careful to keep his face and hands washed, and generally runs a brush through his hair once a day, but all in all does not appear to give a lot of thought to how he looks. But Pippin, I do believe, would happily roll about in the dirt and let his hair turn into a rat's nest and never give it another thought.

Frodo has come up beside his cousins and joins Merry in looking at Pippin distastefully. "Merry's right," he says, "you need a haircut. You look disgraceful."

Pippin puts his lower lip out a little in a pout, making me choke back a sympathetic chuckle, and then reaches his hands up to mush down his wayward locks, to little avail. "You two don't look so grand yourselves, you know," he mumbles sullenly.

Merry and Frodo eye each other critically, and then nod at the same time a moment later. "Right, so we all need haircuts," Merry says. "I don't suppose we have a pair of scissors?"

Sam has been fumbling about in his pack, and at that moment he materializes beside the cousins, holding a small pair of sewing scissors. He clears his throat. "Didn't think about needing them for haircuts, but I figured they might come in handy for something," he says.

"Sam, you're just a marvel," Frodo says admiringly, and soon he is seated on the ground, with Sam standing behind him wielding the scissors. Merry stands nearby to watch, while Pippin, still sulking a bit, plops down on the ground to observe out of the corner of his eye.

There was no discussion about who would cut Frodo's hair -- Sam simply took up his place behind Frodo, and no one questioned it. I find this a curious thing, but deduce that it must have to do with social standing. I suppose that, as Frodo's servant, it is assumed that Sam will be the one to cut his hair. But I also find it curious that everyone assumed that Frodo would be the first to receive his haircut. Surely not because he is the Ringbearer?

I am watching them (Sam is very intent on the task at hand, and seems to be somewhat skilled at it) and puzzling over this turn of events, when Gandalf joins me and lights his pipe. "Frodo is the eldest cousin, you know," he comments after a moment.

I turn to him, furrowing my brow in puzzlement. "I beg your pardon?" I ask.

"That is why he gets to go first," Gandalf clarifies, answering the question I had not asked. "Next to class distinction, seniority in the family line is the most important factor in hobbit society."

"I was wondering," I replied. "They all seemed agreed on how to proceed, but I was not certain of their line of reasoning."

Gandalf puffs a bit on his pipe, before adding, "Hobbits, in general, are very concerned with social order and the proper way of doing things. Do not forget that the three cousins over there also are members of the highest echelon of hobbit society, so these habits are even more ingrained in them."

It is strange to me to think of Frodo, Merry and Pippin as elite members of their society, but I know from our conversations that this is true. In fact, if I understand correctly, Pippin will someday inherit the most important title in the Shire, and Merry an only slightly less important one. And I have long noted the markings of the upper class in their clothing, especially compared to Samwise. All three cousins wear clothing of expensive material, with detailed needlework, while Sam's clothing is plainer, served by simple, if well-done, stitching.

Sam soon declares Frodo finished, and takes care to brush off the stray hair clippings from his master's jacket before letting him stand back up. "Thank you, Sam," Frodo says, running his fingers through his now-tidier-looking locks. "I feel much more like myself now." He turns to look at Merry. "Your turn. Shall I cut it?"

Sam clears his throat. "I'd be happy to do it, Mr. Frodo, sir, that is, if Mr. Merry is willing," he says, and gives them a small, bashful smile.

Merry and Frodo both seem surprised and pleased at the offer, so it is that Merry soon has taken the seat just vacated by his cousin. This behavior I understand, coming from a society that has class distinctions and servants. Sam is Frodo's servant, not Merry's, and therefore it is not entirely appropriate for him to offer his services to another member of a higher class without his master first volunteering him to do so. But under these circumstances, it is a kindness that I am certain is appreciated by both the master and his cousin. At any rate, all three seem pleased with the arrangement, and Merry soon is looking more like the chipper young gentlehobbit I met in Rivendell.

Merry having his hair cut has enticed Pippin out of his sulk, and he joins Frodo in watching with interest. Once Sam has finished, and meticulously brushed down Merry's jacket, he hands the scissors over to Merry, who takes Sam's spot as Pippin sits down in front of him. This is all done with a number of words of thanks and meaningless comments, but again with no discussion on how next they are going to proceed. Indeed, Pippin does not even join in the conversation, just settles himself and then scrunches up his face as Merry begins to tug at the tangles in back.

"I suppose they all know that no one but Merry is allowed to cut Pippin's hair?" I say to Gandalf in a low voice.

He chortles a bit, before replying, "I dare say so, though if Merry were not here, I imagine it would fall to Frodo. But if I were the wagering type, I would say young Peregrin has only ever had his hair cut by two people, his nurse and Merry. Hobbits are quite indulgent toward their offspring, and that rapscallion is the beloved baby of both the Took and Brandybuck clans. He has never been handled with anything but the utmost care in all his life."

After watching for a bit, I decide it is just as well that someone with experience is wielding a sharp instrument near Pippin's head. He is always fairly restless, but now is doing his best to hold very still, clearly knowing better than to peeve Merry during this process. However, it seems that every so often, he cannot help himself and twitches a mite, or shifts just a little. Fortunately, something alerts Merry to each movement just before it happens, and he moves the scissors away and patiently waits for Pippin to settle again. I am absolutely fascinated by this, and even Gandalf seems to be watching with keen interest. I cannot for the life of me work out what it is that lets Merry know Pippin is about to move, and in what direction, but their motions are as choreographed as an intricate dance. I also note that Merry often combs his fingers reassuringly through Pippin's curls, an action that seems to soothe Pippin quite a bit.

Still, the youngest cousin's knees are bouncing impatiently by the time Merry declares him fit to be seen again and releases him. Once Pippin bounds up, I note that Merry has simply chopped off the gnarled mess in the back, and that Peregrin's hair is now shorter than I have ever seen it. This does not escape Pippin, either, when he reaches up to examine the result with his fingers. I hear Gandalf give a small noise that I believe is a smothered chortle.

"Merry, it's too short," Pippin complains, but Merry shakes his head at him, unperturbed.

"No, it isn't," he states. "This will keep it from getting so snarled, since you seem to have forgotten how to use a brush. It also means I won't have to cut it again for a while, so be grateful. Besides, your hair grows so quickly anyway, it will be too long again before any of the rest of ours will."

Pippin looks a little mournful as he touches what remains of his curls, but does not complain anymore, and joins his cousins in turning to look at Sam.

"Come on, then, Sam, one good turn deserves another," Merry says, holding aloft the scissors. "I'll cut yours for you."

Sam flushes red. "Oh, Mr. Merry, really, mine is fine, I'm sure. There's no need for you to do that."

"Oh, no, Sam, if I have to get all of my hair hacked off, so do you," Pippin says decisively. "Let me cut Sam's hair, Merry. I haven't had a turn yet at being barber."

This suggestion brings a look of stricken horror to the faces of the other three hobbits, and Frodo quickly pipes up to put an end to that thought. "I think not, Peregrin. I am the eldest, and I haven't had a turn yet either. I shall cut Sam's hair," he says with an amused smile.

Now Sam is practically squirming with discomfort. I understand his dilemma without Gandalf explaining it to me. It is completely inappropriate for a master to cut a servant's hair, yet if Sam refuses, he will be going against his master's wishes and will offend him. Frodo takes note of the reluctance on Sam's face, and coaxes him a bit by saying, "Come on, Sam, I promise not to butcher it. I cut Merry's many times when he was a little lad, and you know I used to cut Bilbo's for him. Come along, have a seat."

So it is with a red face that Sam slowly, reluctantly, sits down in the spot Pippin just vacated and watches as Merry turns the scissors over to Frodo. This haircut is delivered in utter silence, Sam's look of discomfort never fading. Yet it is Frodo's face I am watching. He is intent on his task, yet has the same look of tender care on his face that Merry's had while he cut Pippin's hair. Sam's devotion to Frodo is blaringly apparent to anyone spending more than a few moments in their company, yet now I can see that Frodo is no less devoted to his servant. It is a rare blessing for both master and servant to share this type of bond, and I am suddenly grateful that the Ringbearer has this good fortune. He will need every small advantage he can find before this quest is over, I suspect.

Soon Frodo is finished with his self-appointed task, and proudly examines his handiwork. "Much better," he declares, then looks about at all of his companions in satisfaction. "I do believe I recognize you all again," he says happily, then puts his fingers in Pippin's curls, tugging a bit. "Merry, these are a little short," he comments.

"I told you," Pippin mumbles, still sounding rather put out.

Merry grins good-naturedly at Frodo. "I say they are just fine, and since I am the one who will have to comb through them when they are an abysmal mess, I think I should decide how long they are."

Frodo sighs. "Very well," he replies. "I don't wish to take over that task, so I will not criticize."

"And I can comb my own hair," Pippin adds, still in an aggrieved mumble.

"Of course you can," Frodo soothes, finger-combing the locks in question until they meet his satisfaction. "Are all of you ready for bed, then?"

They all are, and soon have created the by-now-familiar mound of bedding and warm hobbit bodies, out from which I can only see the tops of four sets of now-shortened curls.

A light dusting of snow is drifting from the grey afternoon sky, and I find it mesmerizing in my weariness. I shake myself and stand up, determined to stay alert on watch. I stamp about a bit to warm my legs, and survey the still, flat landscape, but find no indication of danger. Then I turn to observe camp, and find everyone still sleeping soundly, weary from the last arduous march.

My watch companion, however, I discover is also moving about a bit on the other side of camp, kicking up small flurries of snow with his furry feet and tipping his head back, eyes closed and smiling blissfully as he lets the snowflakes kiss his face.

I smile to myself as I sit back down to watch him. Finally, he catches note of my observation, and blushes a little. He walks over to me, still red-faced.

"I am sorry," Pippin says, "I suppose I am not much good as watch if I am running around like that."

"I am certain you would not neglect your duties and allow a foe to approach unnoticed," I say, gesturing for him to sit with me. "Besides, I think Gandalf was overly cautious in insisting we watch in pairs today. This land seems barren of all life."

Pippin settles himself beside me on the low boulder, pulling his legs up and digging his toes a little into the sparse snow. "It does not snow so often in the Shire, so it is always a splendid treat for us when it does," he comments as way of explanation for his behavior.

"It is so in my land, too," I tell him. "Though it snows often upon the mountains, in the city itself it only snows once every few years, so it is always a grand occasion." I smile to myself, remembering happier times when a snowfall could delight me as much as it still does my small companion.

"What are you remembering?" a piping voice interrupts my thoughts, and I turn back to Pippin. He blushes again, and ducks his head. "I am sorry," he says, "you just looked like you were having a happy memory."

I smile at him. "I was," I admit. "You reminded me of my brother, Faramir, for a moment, when he saw his first snowfall. He tipped his head back like you were doing, to let it fall on his face. I can hear his laughter even now, so many years later."

Pippin is looking at me with interest, and brings his arms up to encircle his knees, clearly expecting me to go on. I close my eyes and picture it again.

"We were quite small -- Faramir was about four -- and my mother woke us very early one morning, telling us she had a special treat for us. She bundled us in warm clothes and took us into the courtyard, and it was just cold enough that a perfect little snow was falling. I had seen snow before, but Faramir had not, and at first he was afraid to go into it. But I ran ahead and kicked some around and let it fall on me to show him that it would not hurt, so soon he followed. He ran around and let it fall on his face, and on his tongue, and kicked it about and mashed it in his hands. He asked my mother where it came from, and she told him the Valar send it when winter is too dreary, to make the world beautiful again until spring blossoms."

I open my eyes and see that the tale has delighted my listener, who is smiling broadly. "That is a good memory, Boromir," he says. "Thank you for sharing it."

"Thank you for reminding me of it," I answer, and smile back.

Pippin rests his chin on his knees. "So you have a brother? Do you have other siblings, too?"

"No," I answer, "just one younger brother, but he is dear to me."

"What is he like?" Pippin prompts.

I pause to turn the question over in my head, and finally say, slowly, "He is not much like me, save in appearance. He does not care for battle and glory, though he is a brave captain in defense of our home. His men love him dearly, for he has a great heart, and knows the little details of all their lives. But he cares more for learning and the beauty of our land than for adventure."

"You must miss him," Pippin says, and I nod.

"I do," I admit, feeling a pang of desire to sit and talk with my brother on the high walls of Minas Tirith once more. I turn back to the hobbit a moment later, and attempt to shake off my sudden loneliness. "And you?" I ask. "Do you have any brothers?"

"Oh, no," he answers, brushing a snowflake off the end of his nose. "But I have three older sisters. And, of course, I have Merry and Frodo."

I chuckle at this. "Three older sisters?"

Pippin nods and smiles. "Yes, they do seem like a lot sometimes. Pearl is the oldest, and she is married now and lives on the other side of the Tookland -- that is the part of the Shire my family lives in. She has two little lasses, and was to have another baby this midwinter. I suppose it has already arrived." His face is distant and wistful for a moment, and I wonder if this is the first time it has occurred to him that he has a new little niece or nephew that he has never seen.

"Then there is Pimpernel. She is not married yet, for she says all the lads are silly and the same. But Mamma says one day she will find one who does not strike her as so silly. Pimmie has studied much with our healer, and knows a great deal about herbs and such. She is very clever and nice, but not always so much fun.

"And then there is Pervinca." Pippin rolls his eyes and pulls a funny face intended to make me laugh, which it does. "She is closest to me in age, and we played together a lot when we were little, but she can be a great deal of trouble." He lowers his voice as if telling me a great family secret. "Vinca is rather loud, and not very good at keeping secrets," he confides. "She also likes to be in charge all the time. She is very pretty, and has many suitors, but I think they are all rather afraid of her. Father smacked the back of my head for saying so, though, so I keep those thoughts to myself now."

I chuckle at this image, and imagine that Pippin's poor parents have their hands full between the young lady he has just described and the hobbit beside me. "So no brothers, hmm?" I ask. "I suppose that is why you are so close to Merry and Frodo?"

"Oh," he says carelessly, as though these words should explain everything, "Merry is just my Merry, you know, whether we'd had brothers or not. But it is really because of him that I am so close to Frodo. They grew up together at Brandy Hall, before Bilbo adopted Frodo, and were very close, even though Frodo is so much older."

I know that Frodo is the eldest hobbit, but he does not appear to be much older than his companions, so I am surprised that Pippin mentions his age. "Frodo is not very much older than Merry, is he?" I query.

Pippin laughs. "Frodo is old, Boromir," he states emphatically. "He turned 50 this year, while Merry is 36, and only just come of age three years ago." He must note the look of surprise on my face, for he adds, "I always thought it was just a Baggins trait, him looking so young, and Bilbo before him, but now I know it is because of the Ring." His voice drops and grows somber at the end of the sentence, and his brow furrows in concern. I turn the conversation, still curious.

"And when did you come of age?" I ask.

"Oh!" Pippin looks back up in surprise. "But I have not. I am only 28, so it will be nearly five years yet."

Now my brow is furrowed in concern. I knew that Pippin was young, but I did not know that he was not even considered an adult by hobbit standards. I suddenly understand better the way his fellow hobbits treat him. He looks at my face, then turns the conversation hastily.

"Merry really was too young to be a playmate of Frodo's, but he was born just a couple of years after Frodo's parents died. Frodo did not have any siblings, so he was really quite all alone, for all that Brandy Hall is so filled with our relations. Aunt Esmie -- that is Merry's mother -- told me once that she thinks Frodo needed someone of his own to love very much, and Merry was such a nice baby that Frodo just adored him. Then when Merry was older, Frodo was like a big brother to him -- Merry doesn't have any brothers or sisters, either. Frodo taught him all kinds of things and they were always having fun. Frodo moved to Hobbiton with Bilbo when Merry was --" here Pippin scrunches up his face in thought "-- seven, but Bilbo liked Merry quite a bit too, of course, so he spent lots of time at Bag End, as did Frodo at Brandy Hall."

"And when you came along, you just insisted on going everywhere with them," I finish the story for him.

He blushes a bit and nods. "Well, they need someone to look after them, don't you think?" he says with self-depreciating humor, then adds quietly, "But I would not trade them for brothers of my own."

"I don't imagine you would," I answer, just as quietly, and he leans against my side a little in gratitude. We finish the rest of our watch in silence, watching the snow turn the world beautiful again.

Whomp! I land solidly on the dusty ground, knocking the breath out of myself. Thump! And then there's the elf, right on top of me. For one so graceful and light on his feet, he is surprisingly heavy.

But there seems to be no harm done, and we both are soon back on our feet, scowling up at the deceptively benign slope of loose gravel and tangled thickets. Well, I am scowling. Legolas is managing to look as unflustered as if he had intended to descend so precipitously all the time. At least we did not slide further down, where the ground sheers off to drop some 60 feet. We can now note the definite change in the terrain as we approach the mountains. Our path has been growing ever more difficult as the days go by.

Legolas and I are brushing ourselves off and making certain our packs are still secure when we are joined by the two younger hobbits, who have quite sensibly come down the slope on their bottoms, using hands and feet to control their descent. I may have thought this approach undignified had I not just landed face-first in the dirt with an elf on my back. Halflings may be small, but these that are my companions I have found to be as sure on their feet and as stealthy as the elf. In this instance, certainly they have surpassed him.

"All right, then?" Merry calls to us both as he reaches steady ground.

"Naught wounded but our pride," Legolas informs him, shaking gravel out of his hair. I give the hobbits a quick nod to show that I, too, am unharmed.

So, then, my pack is all right (though rather flattened), weaponry all accounted for and secure. . . . I pat myself down to make certain nothing is amiss, and then for some reason suddenly place my hand on the small pocket sewn into the front of my surcoat. It is empty.

My heart beating faster, I feel inside the tiny pocket with a finger, but there is nothing there. I begin casting about the ground, and though we have traveled by daylight today due to the tricky terrain my eyes discern nothing but dirt and rocks.

"Did you lose something?" This is from Pippin, watching me with great curiosity.

"Er . . . yes," I answer, reluctant to be made the center of attention over so trivial a matter. Both Merry and Legolas have joined Pippin now, and all three are clearly waiting for me to tell them what it is I have lost.

I clear my throat. "It is nothing, really, just a small trinket." I try to look dismissive. "You need not worry yourselves."

"Well, it must be something if you have carried it all this way with you," Merry points out sensibly.

I flush. "Well, it is just . . . it is a small ring that belonged to my mother when she was a girl. She gave it to me 'ere her passing, so that I might perhaps pass it on to a daughter someday. I do not know why I carry it with me; a foolish notion, I am sure."

Legolas and Merry both give me stern looks (disconcertingly identical on two so different beings) that show they do not believe for one second that the ring is not precious to me, and wordlessly begin to search the ground. But Pippin is all open distress and big eyes.

"Oh, but we must find it then, Boromir," he says earnestly, "if it was from your mother!"

So then all four of us are scrabbling about in the dust searching for a small silver band set with a tiny yet perfect pearl, a reminder of my mother's native sea-country. I am torn between breaking up this scene before the rest of the company arrives from wherever they are dallying, and desperation to find the trinket.

"Boromir," Legolas calls, but he is not holding aloft the retrieved item. Rather, he is peering over the edge. I join him and he points.

There it is, at the bottom of a very tiny, narrow crevice in the wall, about seven feet down, and completely unattainable. My heart aches to walk away from it thus, but there is naught else to be done unless one of us suddenly learns how to fly.

Merry and Pippin have joined us, and flop on their bellies to creep cautiously up to the edge and peer down. After a long, resigned silence, Pippin suddenly says, "I do believe I could get it for you, Boromir, if you held me over the edge."

I am aghast. Why, I would have to dangle him by his ankles to do this thing! And for all I have seen Peregrin scrambling up trees, I cannot believe that his inborn fear of heights is so diminished that he is willing to be suspended over a 60-foot drop just to recover a sentimental trifle for me. Besides, his kinsman would certainly never allow it. Merry is far too caring of his younger cousin’s welfare.

"I do believe you could, Pip," Merry says quite calmly. "Your hands are a bit smaller than mine." I know my mouth is hanging open, but I seem unable to snap it shut and provide an appropriate response.

"I think they are right, Boromir," Legolas adds, leaning over the edge to give the feat his own consideration.

I sputter incoherently for a moment, and then manage, "But I could not think of doing such a thing! I will not have you placed in danger just so I can have some small personal item back."

The hobbits twist their curly heads around to look up at me, wearing identical frowns. "Why?" Pippin demands. "You won't drop me, will you?"

Well, of course I never would, and so it is in short order that I find I am the one on my belly at the edge of the high drop, a fierce grip on two grubby hobbit ankles, Merry at my shoulder and Legolas crouched outward over the edge to help guide Pippin on his treasure hunt.

"You had better not drop him, you know," Merry says low in my ear in a tone completely lacking any teasing quality, and I wonder fleetingly if perhaps I should not have already taught him quite so much swordplay.

I do not reply, but just hold onto my squirming charge, and obey his and Legolas' directions ("Higher!" "No, more to the left," "Well, don't put my face right into the dirt, please," and one "Oi, Merry, there's a rock here shaped just like a mushroom!") until Pippin gives a triumphant "I have it!"

Ankles to knees to thighs to waist, and then Legolas reaches out to grip the hobbit by his jacket and we pull him back to solid ground. I swing him right-side up so I can see his beaming (if rather dirty) face, and there, clutched in his grip, is my mother's ring, whole and unmarked.

"Thank you, Pippin," I say as he places it in my palm. "Truly." I do not know how to tell him that not only am I touched that he would go to such measures for me, but that both he and Merry would so willingly trust me with his well-being, so I just clasp him firmly on the shoulder.

Peregrin will have none of it, though, and bounds right into my arms for a quick hug. "You are very welcome, Boromir," he says, delighted and proud. "I would hate to lose anything of my mother's ever. I would be so sad that I think I would just cry."

I return his embrace cautiously, startled yet pleased, and then let go. "Yes," I agree. "It has not much monetary value, but I do treasure it in her memory."

Pippin flashes me one last proud grin before bounding back to his customary position at Merry's side. "Did you see me?!" he demands. "That is one for Cousin Bilbo's book when we get back. I don't believe either you or Frodo would have dared do that."

"There are many things Frodo and I would never do that you don't hesitate to, so I don't see as how that alone makes something an accomplishment to be proud of," Merry says wryly as he attempts to dust his cousin off a bit.

"Oh, you're just jealous," Pippin declares, puffing out a bit. "Legolas, would you have let Boromir hold you over a mountainside?"

"Oh, certainly not," Legolas says decisively. "Why, I don't think there is another member of the company who would be so daring." He seems as oblivious to the scathing look Merry sends him as he was to the deliberately loud conversation between Frodo and Merry last week about elves who encourage hobbit-lads to act unnecessarily impetuous after a wood-gathering assignment turned into a ruins-exploring expedition.

Further discussion is cut short by the arrival of Frodo and Samwise down the small incline that began the day's adventure. "Be careful," Legolas calls warningly, but they both take the same sensible route of descending on their bottoms that the other two hobbits used and soon join us.

"Pippin, what did you do, roll down the hill? Look at you!" Frodo exclaims when he reaches his cousins. "Merry, whatever have you been letting him do?"

Merry looks askance at the accusation. "Let him do? Since when do I have any type of magical powers over errant Tooks? Especially this one! At any rate, you are the senior cousin here. If you don't approve of his appearance, perhaps you should keep a closer eye."

Frodo is finger-brushing Pippin's hair, sending dust flying from it and causing it to bush out from his head in a most unsightly manner. "Frodo, Boromir held me over that cliff," Pippin states proudly, unruffled by both Frodo's ministrations and his elders speaking about him as though he were not present.

"Oh, I am certain," Frodo says with a guffaw. "He better have not, or I shall have to report him to Briony as I did Fredegar when he dunked you by your ankles into that water barrel, and you know what happened to him."

Just then, the last three stragglers crest the hill, and Gandalf and Aragorn have us all moving again in a flurry of cloaks and bags and pony and boots and furry little feet. I find myself beside Meriadoc, and once we have spread out a bit again, I lean over to quietly ask, "Who, then, is Briony?"

"Oh, Pippin's childhood nurse," Merry says with a chuckle. "She is continuing her reign of terror over her third generation of Tooks with his sister Pearl's lot. And if you think you, man of Gondor that you are, should not quake at the threat of being reported to her, you are quite mistaken."

I am greatly amused and struck by the image of a young Pippin under the tutelage of an iron-fisted matron. "I am surprised, then, that Pippin is still so daring a youth," I comment.

Merry snorts. "Oh, he is not afraid of Briony in the least. But woe to the young hobbit who crosses her path and dunks her favorite charge in a water barrel. Or makes him eat a worm. Or dares him to climb into the chicken coup."

"Or dangles him over a cliff," I add, now smiling broadly.

"Indeed," Merry says solemnly. "But don't worry, your secret is safe with me so long as you never report to Briony that I let you dangle her Pippin over a cliff."

A firm clasp of our hands seals the bargain.

I cannot believe the folly of Gandalf and Aragorn, attempting the Redhorn Pass in the dead of winter. I believe Gandalf when he says Saruman is a great peril, but surely the Gap of Rohan is not so insurmountable as this mountain. When the Third Age is long past and forgotten, whatever new creatures inhabit Middle-earth are certain to be puzzled when they uncover our frozen remains -- and one enduring Ring -- some bright summer day.

At least we have stopped struggling upward, and taken what meager shelter we can against the cliff wall. A strong gust of wind covers me in snow to my drawn-up knees, and once I uncover my legs I turn my head with difficulty to see how the little folk fare.

They are nearly buried in the snowdrift, even though poor Bill seems to understand his purpose in standing in front of them and does his best to shield them. They are covered so deeply that I cannot even see Frodo or Pippin's faces, and Merry and Sam huddle in upon themselves in what must be bitter misery indeed if they are unaware of the plight of the other two hobbits for whom they normally show such care. I stand as swiftly as my frozen limbs will allow and grope about in the snow bank, pulling out the first hobbit I grasp. It is Frodo, and he shudders, then kicks, rabbit-like, when I pull him from his heap of snow, rousing him. I am even more incensed with the leaders of the fellowship -- did they intend to leave the hobbits to freeze or suffocate under a mound of snow?

"This will be the death of the halflings, Gandalf," I say to the wizard. "It is useless to sit here until the snow goes over our heads. We must do something to save ourselves." I struggle to kick aside some of the snow pile and set Frodo back down between Merry and Sam. Then I snatch Peregrin out of the snow that covers him to his curls. He is cold and limp in my arms, his hair wet and his face blue with the cold. I am suddenly fearful that for this little one it is already too late, but a small whimper causes me to gasp in relief and I clasp him to me even more tightly. I do not bother to put him back down in his freezing seat, but sit down myself and place him on my lap, wrapping cloak and blanket around us both.

"Give them this," Gandalf says, pulling a flask out of his bag. "Just a mouthful each -- for all of us. It is very precious. It is miruvor, the cordial of Imladris. Elrond gave it to me at our parting. Pass it round!"

When the flask comes to me I take my sip and feel the warmth, more healthful and enduring than any spirits that have ever passed my lips, flow through my veins, and the deep chill in my bones subsides somewhat. Pippin, huddled against my chest, is not truly conscious, but I place the flask to his lips and tip his head back to force the cordial in and he accepts it. He gives a deep shudder and seems to come around a bit as I hand the drink off to Gimli on my other side. "Are you all right, little one?" I whisper into his pointed ear.

He shivers miserably and clings to me, burrowing closer. I tighten my embrace slightly, hoping that I am warming him at least a little. "I am so very cold," he says in a dazed whisper through chattering teeth.

Whether the cordial wears off quickly or the storm worsens, I am soon freezing again as the snow and wind whip into our faces unrelenting 'til I can scarce make out my companions through the maelstrom. The other hobbits are fast disappearing again under their snowdrift, and this time Aragorn stands to fish Frodo out from under it and place him on his own lap. I slip a hand out of a glove and feel my small companion's face and feet. He is frigid with the cold, and shakes uncontrollably with every breath. The freezing air is cutting into my lungs every time I struggle to draw a breath, and I gather from Pippin's condition that it is doing the same to him. I did not jest when I said this would be the death of the halflings, and it may very well be the death of us all if we do not take some kind of action. This little one, at the least, will not see daylight again under these conditions.

"What do you say to fire?" I ask the wizard. "The choice seems near now between fire and death, Gandalf. Doubtless we shall be hidden from all unfriendly eyes when the snow has covered us, but that will not help us."

To my surprise, he relents. "You may make a fire, if you can," he replies. "If there are any watchers that can endure this storm, then they can see us, fire or no."

Legolas takes charge eagerly, and I know it must be a dire chill indeed if the elf feels the cold. He gathers the faggots we have carried with us, but his efforts to strike a flame in this cursed wind are for naught. Grumbling, Gimli joins him, but this storm surpasses even the skill of a dwarf. Pippin is limp against my chest again, though I can still feel him taking halting breaths. Aragorn stands, Frodo bundled in his arms, and moves to hand the Ringbearer to Gandalf so he can join Gimli and Legolas in their efforts, but Gandalf waves him off. It seems that he, too, has finally reached the conclusion that the halflings, and indeed all of us, are in mortal peril of freezing to death.

Gandalf picks up a faggot and holds it aloft, commanding, "Naur an edraith ammen!" and thrusts his staff at the stick. It bursts into flame. Thank the Valar!

"If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them," Gandalf states as he sits back down. "I have written 'Gandalf is here' in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin."

I do not care who sees at the moment, nor does the rest of the company seem to as we draw near to the fire. Legolas picks up Merry and hands him to Gandalf, who bundles the hobbit into his cloak and turns their faces toward the flames. Merry's blue hands emerge to reach out toward the warmth. The elf then scoops up Sam and sits down, drawing them near the fire. Aragorn and I likewise pull up as close as we dare to the welcome heat with our bundled companions, wedging the dwarf between us. Thus, each shoulder to shoulder for warmth, we turn our backs on the black night and our faces toward the heartening flames.

After a while, Pippin stirs in my arms and moves to peer outside of his coverings. "Oh, a fire," he says in blissful awe. He squirms around until he can point both his feet and his hands out toward the flames. He body still is shaking from the bitter chill, but at least he is aware and alert again, and I am enormously relieved. I press the slim body tightly against mine as we warm ourselves, and not for the first time, I wonder what possessed Gandalf to insist that this young one come with us, and what will come of that decision in the end.

The young one in question yawns against my surcoat and nuzzles against the soft material. "Are you cold, Boromir?" he asks drowsily. He has stopped shaking, for the most part, though an occasional shudder runs through him.

"Yes," I answer with a half-chuckle. "It is freezing out here, or did you not notice?"

"You seem too big to get cold," he murmurs, eyes drooping closed with the weight of his fatigue.

"Well, I am not," I assure him, and draw my arms a little tighter around him, surprised by the swell of protective urges I am feeling. "Are you any warmer?"

"Yes," he says, a near-whisper, eyes finally shutting. "I am cold, but it is not so bad now."

"Then sleep," I whisper back, and I indulge myself by pressing my face into those unruly curls for a moment. They are fine and soft against my rough face, and I fight off the desire to place a kiss atop that curly head. Peregrin may be young, but he is not a child, and I am a man of Gondor, not one of his cousins. But still, I leave my face to linger a moment longer, turning my back to the bitter wind to best protect the precious bundle in my arms.

(Note: Much of the above dialogue is directly from Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring," from the chapter "The Ring Goes South.")

The hobbits stand shoulder-to-shoulder and peer down into the depths of the bottomless chasm. Then four heads look up to stare apprehensively across the void to where I stand with the wizard and the dwarf, fully seven feet away. Gandalf has given us some extra light and it illuminates the doubt and fear on the hobbits' faces.

"Perhaps Aragorn and I should attempt to carry them across on our backs," I suggest to Gandalf, who shakes his head slightly.

"Do you think you could safely reach this side with the additional weight?" he queries.

I measure the distance with my eyes and think about the effort it took for me to leap across. I am about to answer, "Most likely," but Gandalf has already noted my hesitancy. "No, no," he mutters, and I can see those keen eyes thinking. "I am certain they can cross it, if they can overcome their fear." I wonder if perhaps the wizard wants to decrease the hobbits' dependence on us bigger folk, in case the day comes when we are not there to steady them over pitfalls.

Gandalf raises his voice and, using a falsely bright tone, calls across, "Come along then. You have all jumped this far before without even knowing it. Just give yourselves a bit of a run to start, and you will be fine."

"That is all good for you to say, Gandalf," Frodo replies, "as your legs are twice as long as ours." But he tightens the strap to his pack across his waist and heaves a great breath. "I'll go first, then."

"No, you won't," Merry says with grim determination. "If it does turn out to be too far for a hobbit to jump, we certainly shouldn't find that out by having you plunge, Ring and all, into the depths of Moria. I'll go first."

Frodo looks put out, and he addresses Merry with a sharp, "Hold on, now." There is a hushed and hurried conversation between the four of them (actually, it is more of a hissed confrontation between Frodo and Merry), and then Merry takes off his pack and sends it soaring over the chasm to land at my feet. Pippin appears frightened and Merry gives his upper arm a quick squeeze and flashes him a smile. He pointedly does not look at a clearly disgruntled Frodo, then takes a running start and bounds across the gulf.

He lands solidly on both feet on the other side, and I reach out to pull him further inward, making sure he is steady before I let go. He lets out a great gust of breath, and says decisively, "Well, that's over with."

Reassured by Merry's success, Frodo follows in short order. It is still plainly written on Sam's face that he expects to find naught but black air under his feet at the end of his jump, but he screws up his courage (and his face) and follows his master. He stumbles when he lands, leaving him on his rear end, but safe nonetheless. I help him to his feet, and Gimli hands him the cooking ware-laden bag that so narrowly missed the dwarf's head when Sam threw it over. Then I turn my attention to the far side of the chasm again.

Peregrin is staring down into the depths with a look on his face that says he is most certainly not going to attempt the crossing. He swallows hard and then looks over at his cousins with desperate eyes. "Ah, no," Merry mutters.

"Come on, Pip," Frodo encourages. "Gandalf is right -- you have jumped this far before without even realizing it."

"Just pretend it's that brook in the south field by the Smials," Merry adds. "You can clear it, I know you can."

But Pippin shakes his head frantically. "I don't think I can," he admits in a shaky voice. "I have never jumped so far, I know I haven't."

Behind Pippin, Legolas speaks to Aragorn in a low voice that does not carry to us. Pippin is gripping the shoulder straps to his pack across his chest fiercely, as though they can prevent him from having to make the leap, and still staring fixedly at the gaping black maw in the path.

I edge as far out to the brink as I dare and hold out my arms. "Come, Master Took, I promise I will catch you," I try to encourage him. "Just don't look down and you will be fine."

But he still just frantically shakes his head no. Aragorn drops to one knee and puts a hand on Pippin's back, their heads close together. He talks to our youngest member in low murmurs for a long time, and finally, reluctantly, Pippin nods his head in agreement. Legolas leans down to whisper something in the hobbit's ear and gives him an encouraging smile, but Pippin does not return it. He takes off his pack and hands it to Aragorn, then takes a deep breath. His face set in the expression of grim despair I have too often seen on the faces of young men heading into battle, he backs up, runs to the edge, and launches himself across.

He lands precariously close to the brink, and for a flash of a second, his face lights up with triumph. But then, even as I reach out to steady him, he begins to teeter backward, still off-balance and feet not on safe ground.

The world has slowed to stretch these seconds into minutes. All three other hobbits cry out. Gimli and Gandalf rush forward. Pippin gives the merest little squeak of fright and no more, and then he is somehow in my arms, which have continued to move of their own accord, pulling him to me. I feel my own balance begin to tip forward, toward the chasm, but then Gimli and Gandalf are dragging both of us back from the edge as I clutch Pippin tightly to me.

Now I am standing, somehow, with Pippin in my arms, his face pressed into my neck, his body still rigid with terror, heart pounding so ferociously that I can feel it against me. The world has not sped up again yet, and now seems distant compared to the solid reality of the young hobbit lad clinging to me so tightly it almost hurts. Legolas is suddenly beside us, and I think with detachment that he must have leapt at the moment Pippin began to slip, perhaps hoping to knock the hobbit to safety with his own body. One hand is on my back and the other is trying to pry Pippin's face from my neck, but Peregrin merely stiffens his body more and secures his grip tighter.

About my waist, three shrill hobbit voices are demanding that I put Pippin down, but I could not let go at this moment should we be attacked by all the legions of Moria. I press my face into his soft curls and breathe deeply against the curve of his neck. Then Aragorn is also across the chasm, speaking in reassuring tones, telling the hobbits to give us a moment to get over the fright, and they quiet as Gandalf herds them back a few steps. Merry, though, presses closer and reaches up to grasp Pippin's knee in his hand, as if to reassure himself that his younger cousin is indeed alive and safe.

"Boromir," Legolas says clearly, in the manner of one who has repeated himself several times, and with a lurch time begins to run smoothly again, and I am able to extend my awareness past the little being that now trembles in my arms.

"He is unharmed," I say by way of answer, and finally look up into the elf's anxious eyes. "We are all right."

He nods, and moves away to reassure the other hobbits. Sam, I note, has had to sit down, and Frodo is breathing raggedly. Merry backs up a few steps to give us room, but his eyes do not stray from his cousin. Aragorn puts a hand on Pippin's back and rubs in a calming circle. "Pippin," he says, sounding as though nothing more frightening than a tumble down a grassy knoll has just occurred, "it's all right now. Can you let go of Boromir?"

Pippin shakes his head slightly, his death grip on me not slackening. Aragorn moves around me and gets his hand in between my shoulder and the young one's face. "Can you look at me then?" he asks quietly. "Just take a deep breath and lift your head."

Pippin obeys slowly, and then seems to come back to himself once he raises his head and looks first at Aragorn and then at me. Aragorn smiles reassuringly at him, though I cannot command my face to do so yet, and puts a hand on his shoulder.

"Better?" Aragorn asks, and Pippin nods, taking some large, hitching breaths. Aragorn checks his pulse at his neck and then gently strokes Pippin's curly head several times. Pippin's face is white in the dim light, but slowly returning to its normal hue, and he shows no evidence of tears. He is made of stern stuff, this lad. He is frightened and shaken, but I am more so. His breathing eases and his trembling subsides as Aragorn rubs his back again, and finally he heaves a sigh and leans forward to rest his forehead against my shoulder.

"If it was the brook in the south field, I would be sopping wet right now," he says weakly, and now I can smile, no matter how feeble the jest. I hug him gently, then ask, "Do you want down now, or should I carry you for a bit?"

"Down please; I am all right," he says, but then presses his face into my neck again for a second. "Thank you, Boromir," he whispers.

"You are most welcome," I murmur back, and then gently stand him on his feet. He seems a little shaky, but it has yet been but a few moments. Merry promptly draws him into an embrace, whispering something in Pippin's ear. The youngest hobbit nods in response, then, taking his pack from Aragorn and shouldering it, he greets Frodo and Sam, and soon all three older hobbits are fussing over him with loving abandon. I force myself to remain standing on trembling legs and return the grateful smile Merry gives me over Pippin's head with a shaky one of my own.

"Now, now, don't fuss so," Gandalf scolds the hobbits, gathering them about him like a mother duck with her offspring. "The lad is quite all right, aren't you, Peregrin? Come along, we are dallying when we should be walking." I catch him placing an affectionate pat on Pippin's head, and then he is back in his customary place with Gimli at the front of our procession. The dwarf also pauses to slap Pippin on the back, causing the little hobbit to stagger a bit, but the lad smiles with pleasure as he does so.

Aragorn falls into step beside me at the back of our company. He lets the others move a little ahead before he says softly, "It is startling, isn't it, how endearing these young hobbits are?"

I let out a rough, short laugh. "Indeed," I say. "I do not think I knew myself just how endeared I had become."

I know now.

"That was well done," he answers. "I have no doubt you saved his life."

I struggle for words, only now realizing fully what this quest, these companions have come to mean to me. "We are a fellowship," I finally say, quietly. "There is not one of us that I would not do much more for."

"Yes," Aragorn agrees, and I hear in his response the double meaning that he, too, would do this and much, much more for any of our number. Speaking of which . . .

"And, Aragorn, you should tell that elf that he may have been able to push Peregrin to safety, but it surely would have been at the cost of his own foolish self," I say, fully aware that Legolas has been slowly dropping back closer to us.

"It is so like a man to try and steal all of the glory for himself by belittling the mettle of others," Legolas retorts in a tone only the immortal can perfect. "I am grateful that it was not necessary to plunge my foolish self into that chasm, however," he adds, and I nod my head in acknowledgment of the sentiment behind the statement.

From somewhere ahead of us, behind the glimmer of Gandalf's illuminated staff, the soft voices of the hobbits carry back to me.

"Really, Pip, I don't know what all the fluster was about. Sam was the poor fellow flat on his behind," Frodo is saying in a teasing voice.

"We really thought you could do it, Pippin," Merry adds, his tone still worried and quavering. "We never would have told you to try otherwise. I would have made Strider carry you across if I'd thought at all that it really was too far for you."

"I know, Merry," Pippin says, and I am amazed by the confidence in his voice, not yet a quarter hour after he pressed against me, both of us too frightened to move or even cry out. "But it was all right, then, wasn't it? Good old Boromir caught me. You should have known he would -- he did promise to."

I am touched by the certainty in Pippin's tone that I would not have let him fall, but the two companions at my side, man and elf, snort a little. I suspect that no matter how fierce my scowl, I will be called "good old Boromir" for more days than I care to hear it. Ah, well, I tell myself, resigned to my fate, you did say you would do much more for this odd company of brothers-in-arms.

I am weary beyond sleep, and troubled beyond thought, so I simply lie on my back and let the healing sounds, sights and smells of the Golden Wood work their way into my being. I do not know what the others faced tonight when the Lady Galadriel looked into their eyes, but for my part, it was bitter, bitter defeat.

There is no hope. I know this in my heart, in my bones, at the very core of my being. I have known it all along, I realize now. I just refused to believe it. All of our striving thus far has been to no purpose. The Fellowship has been doomed to fail ere we ever set out on this fruitless journey. These others have not seen the armies the Enemy gathers to him. They have not perceived the evil that dwells in the East. And for all that I have seen, I know it is just a glimpse, a glimmer, of his true strength.

There is no hope. We are on a quest of folly, and at the end of it, the White City will fall and the last vestiges of Man will be swept away in the black tide. But I am resolved to it. This is the will of the Council, this is the decision of the wise, and I have pledged myself to it. I will return to Gondor and captain the final defense, and we will fight to the last man, and the one thing that may have aided us, the one thing that would have given us any hope of victory, will remain unwielded. Yet such is the will of the wise, and of the fallen.

I am so wrapped in these black thoughts that I do not perceive right away that I am not the only member of the fellowship still awake, despite exhaustion and grief and troubled heart. Two soft, murmuring voices reach my ears as might the burble of a brook, wordless yet speaking, gently flowing over me.

I turn my head, and in the white light of the stars and the moon, I see that the Ringbearer and one of his cousins are awake and talking quietly to each other. It is warmer here in the pavilion the elves have provided for us than it has been on the road, so the hobbits are not piled atop one another and burrowed under blankets, but they are still lined up like four peas in a pod, each one touching the next.

At one end, Samwise is on his stomach, sound asleep and snoring. His face is turned away from the others, keeping watch even in slumber, and his shoulder is wedged against his master's back, so that he might know if Frodo stirs or is distressed in the night.

Beside his servant, Frodo lays on his side facing his cousins. Merry is on the other end on his back, an arm wrapped around Pippin, who is half on top of his elder cousin, his face firmly buried in Merry's shoulder. On his other side, Frodo is rhythmically, absentmindedly rubbing Pippin's back, soothing some nighttime unrest no longer apparent.

Frodo and Merry's faces are turned toward each other, talking in low voices that do not carry words to me, so I study their countenances. I can see lines of grief and strain where they were not before on Frodo's face, and I know he feels Gandalf's death in all its crushing weight. But for all the toil of our journey I can see stamped on his features, at this moment they are turned toward his young kinsman with a wistful, fond expression, and a smile curls about his lips. Merry's expression is similar, and blue and brown eyes shine at each other in the dim light. It occurs to me that they are remembering some happier time, reliving some amusing event, recalling some beloved story.

I am drawn to them, and I find myself rolling to my side and shifting forward to catch their words. Perhaps some fragment of the peace, no matter how bittersweet, I see in their faces will float this way and grant me the forgetfulness of sleep, if nothing else.

"Really, Frodo, no one would have ever believed you if for not the bruise on his forehead in the morning," Merry is saying with a grin. "I mean, bashing his head on the chandelier while Bilbo tripped over the footstool and old Ponto Goodbody crashed off the bench and ended up sleeping it off under the kitchen table. It just shows that no good ever comes of that brew of Ponto's."

"I saw it with my own two eyes and I could scarce believe it myself," Frodo replies with a silent laugh that shakes his shoulders. "I nearly packed up my bags and came back to the Hall, I was so bewildered. I did not know whether I should be amused or frightened. For all I may have seen adult hobbits stumbling about enough after one celebration or another, to see a Big Person, and a wizard at that, weaving about the room, waving his staff around and arguing with Bilbo about obscure points of dwarvish history -- well, it was quite an introduction to life at Bag End."

They are talking about Gandalf, I realize almost with shock. And not only are they talking about Gandalf, they seem to be recollecting a most unflattering story, and deriving great enjoyment from it.

Merry is chuckling. "Well, I never could be afraid of him, really, after hearing that tale, though I was too young for several years to quite understand what had happened." He sighs, then smiles again. "Do you remember that day we weren't keeping a close enough eye on Pip and he got himself all scratched up in the Gaffer's blackberry bushes and Bilbo had to patch him up? Bilbo came storming out of Bag End and took us to task, and we came inside and found --"

"Gandalf on the parlor floor with Pip's toy carved animals all around him, making him a little stable for them out of silverware, a vegetable platter, and the butter dish," Frodo finishes, his eyes aglow with pleasure. "And Pippin, sitting right on his lap tugging on Gandalf's beard, chattering away and giving directions, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. I think even Bilbo was a little thrown by that scene, though he didn't dare show it."

"Well, they were the best dishes, after all," Merry says, "and you know how fussy Bilbo is about those things."

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates --
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

they sing softly together, both shaking with silent mirth. Frodo buries his face in between Pippin's shoulder blades to stifle his laughter, and Pippin stirs a bit, making some sleepy dream noise. "Shh, shh!" Merry scolds, still grinning and quivering a little as he strokes Pippin's errant curls. The youngest cousin settles back down without waking, and I catch Frodo placing a little secret kiss on Peregrin's shoulder as he nestles himself back into his sleeping space. Merry lifts his free hand and stretches his fingers out to Frodo. Their clasped hands come to rest on Pippin's back, and it is mere moments later that I hear their breathing change to the deep, steady pattern of slumber.

I return to my back and let out a gust of air in amusement, disbelief, and something akin to awe. Here we are, the protectors, the warriors, too crushed by this blow to speak of it yet, while those we watch over are able to say his name freely, to even laugh at old recollections, to . . . I flounder, not knowing quite what I have witnessed. I think of the elves of Lórien, singing laments to Mithrandir that Legolas, who had called him friend, had not the heart to put into words for us. I cannot believe the little folks' grief is any less sharp; indeed, having seen Gandalf with them, how he guided and taught and nudged each of them daily in the most familiar way, nearly as a beloved uncle or grandfather, I know that their grief must surpass all of us in the Fellowship, save perhaps Aragorn.

Yet they are able to speak of him so soon, so fondly, with such pleasure, even tinged as it is by the shadow flickering at the edges of their eyes. This was no lament for Gandalf's death, this was, this was . . . this was a song celebrating Gandalf's life that I had eavesdropped on.

The more I learn of hobbits, the more amazed I am by them. I did not think we would be able to rouse them from their grief outside the eastern gates of Moria, so traumatized were they, so devastated by the loss, and in those first moments, physically hauling first Meriadoc, then Peregrin, to their feet, I cursed the Council and its folly, sending these innocents out to face this type of horror.

Yet it seems the wise are called the wise for good reason, for here I lay, plagued by grief and hopelessness, while mere feet away my small companions make their own peace with grief and turn dauntless faces toward hopelessness.

I swallow hard around the lump in my throat. Perhaps, I think, it is not so hopeless after all. Perhaps the wise did foresee things I could not when they prophesied that the hour of the little folk is at hand.

And with that thought, the peace that emanates from the hobbits envelopes me and fills me with serenity and, like them, I drift into healing slumber where my only dreams are of wizards still young enough at heart to sit on the floor and play with hobbit-lads.

Note: Bilbo's plate song is directly from Tolkien's "The Hobbit," from the chapter "An Unexpected Party."

I move backward, deflecting my foe's blade, and then push forward in attack. It is a beautiful day, and I enjoy the sound of metal on metal, the sweet smell of the grass, and the delight of the exercise. I drive my opponent a little further back with a flurry of blows, giving no quarter, but he rallies with a swift sideways dodge followed by an aggressive lunge toward a vulnerable spot. Unfortunately for him, I anticipate the move and take this opportunity to not only block the thrust but to disarm him and land him flat on his back.

Meriadoc scowls fiercely at me, but accepts my hand up. "Very good, Merry," I praise him, and I speak true. He has the workings of a fine swordsman in him -- sure of foot and hand, quick to anticipate his opponent's moves and plan counterattacks. Of all four hobbits, he has shown the most natural ability with a sword, and the most interest in developing this skill.

Merry, however, is quite definitely not pleased with his performance. "Not so very good," he replies grimly as I pull him up. "I am dead right now, in case you didn't notice."

I incline my head slightly in acknowledgment, then add, "But that is what we practice for, you know. It is the only way to learn."

Merry is not looking at me, but is putting his sword carefully back in his sheath, as I taught him to. Then he turns to peer back toward the pavilion, checking on his cousins, no doubt. I have come to notice that this is a habit with him, and he performs a "cousin check" at least once an hour. The scene there doesn't look any changed from when we left half an hour before. Sam had been mending Pippin's spare shirt when our practice began, but now he is sitting and simply gazing about the beauty of Lórien with a bedazzled look on his face, though the shirt remains clutched in his hands. There is no movement from the nest of bedding that I know contains Frodo taking a post-luncheon nap, with Pippin curled up beside him. Both are still exhausted, despite three restful days already spent in Lothlórien. The other three members of our company left after second breakfast and have yet to return, so for the moment, Merry and I are the only beings stirring in our little corner of the Golden Wood.

Having reassured himself that all is well with his kin, Merry drops down upon the soft grass and draws up his knees so he can rest his outstretched arms around them. He then lowers his head so I cannot see his face. I frown, wondering what is troubling him. Surely it does not bother him so that I disarmed him; I have done so many times before. I sit beside him unobtrusively and remain silent, waiting to see if my friend wishes to share with me what weighs upon him so.

"We weren't of any real use, you know," he says finally. "We stood no chance of defending ourselves. If you and the others had not been there, we would have been cut down in moments. For all that you have taught us, we are still just hobbits. We are small, Boromir, Pippin and Frodo and Sam and I. We are not great warriors, and no amount of practice is going to change that."

Ah, so this is the trouble. It is not entirely true, however -- Sam felled his orc in Moria, and the other three hobbits used their blades well enough to send some others fleeing with more respect for Shirefolk. But I understand his fears, and I will not say they are unfounded.

"That is why Frodo was given companions, though, Merry," I say quietly, which is at least the truth, if not entirely comforting. "That is why I am here, and Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli."

Merry snorts. "Yes, Boromir, but why am I here?" he asks. "Gandalf said he would rather trust to friendship than to wisdom or weapons, but that was when . . ." He falters, so I finish the sentence for him.

"That was when Gandalf himself was here to protect and guide Frodo," I say softly. "To protect and guide us all." Merry nods, finally lifting his head so that I may look into his troubled eyes. "And now you are afraid that he erred in his decision."

Merry nods once, jerkily, and then looks away from me. I ponder my response carefully. In truth, I had thought that Gandalf and Elrond's folly of allowing a hobbit to bear the Ring to Mordor had been compounded further by their decision to send his two young cousins on this hopeless quest with him. Samwise I could understand -- he certainly would never be parted from Frodo, and he does countless little kindnesses and services for Frodo daily that go far in easing his burden. But these two younger hobbits -- I had once thought their inclusion in the fellowship not the wisest choice.

But in my travels with them, I have seen how close a bond these four have with one another, and the great strength they draw from each other. Frodo is far from his homeland, surrounded by people who were complete strangers mere months ago, and whom he now must place total trust in, even to put his very life in our hands. His guard has come down somewhat, but there is a difference in the way in which he and the hobbits are able to interact with each other. Only when the four of them are together are they completely relaxed and at ease.

And I also see how each of his companions bolsters Frodo in a different way. Sam is his constant helpmate, always making sure Frodo eats enough, is warm enough, is sheltered as much as may be from the elements. Merry is the one with whom Frodo can creep off with and talk to at length, about matters as light or as pressing as his need may be. He is the one Frodo can turn to in order to get another hobbit's opinion on events, to hear another's trusted thoughts on how to proceed or what to make of something outside his knowledge. And Pippin can always be called upon to lighten Frodo’s mood; indeed, to lighten the hearts of all the Fellowship. His cheerful spirit and innocence reminds us all of the reason we pursue this Quest. He is also the one that Frodo can seek physical comfort from, even if it is in the manner of Frodo doing the comforting. I oft have noted how when he is fussing with Pippin's wayward curls or clothing or trying to tidy his disheveled appearance that the tension from Frodo's face drains, and the light returns to his eyes as whatever Pippin is saying never fails to amuse him. Right now, as Merry and I sit in silence, Frodo is curled up in sleep around his younger cousin not for warmth or safety, but for the mere cocooning comfort of that small body, a liberty he would never take with anyone else.

I take a deep breath. "I do not know if they made the right decision, Merry," I say. "Only time will tell us that. But I do know that strength lies not only in the sword, or in a warrior's stature. There are other kinds of might, and I am beginning to understand the value of them, through my friendship with you and your fellow hobbits. I see daily the strengths you all lend to Frodo, and I cannot think but that he must need you all by his side as surely as he needs my sword."

Merry, his face still turned toward the horizon, smiles wistfully. "Hobbit sense and hobbit love," he murmurs, and I feel it is more to himself than to me.

"Indeed," I say, not sure of what he is thinking, but agreeing that these are the virtues I am fumbling about trying to name.

Merry's smile broadens, and he turns to look at me again. "It is something my father said to me, just before we left. He guessed there was some type of dire trouble afoot, and said he hoped it would not prove greater than hobbit sense and love could handle."

I smile back at him. "He sounds like a wise hobbit," I say.

Merry ducks his head a bit. "He is my da," he says simply, then adds, "I told him that I would rather have those things on my side than great armies of men." Then he looks back up, blushing a bit. "Not that I am not glad you are here," he says hastily, clearly fearful of offending me.

I raise an eyebrow at him in what I hope is a menacing manner. "Do not make me fight you for the honor of all men, Meriadoc. You may not like the result."

He grins at me, the glum mood dissipated. "Shall we go again, then?" he asks, and I respond by standing back up and drawing my weapon. He follows suit and we soon are once more engrossed in the intricacies of sparring. I am pressing forward again, looking for my opening, about to take my final blow -- and then somehow my weapon is flying out of my hand and the cruel tip of a steel blade is stopped scarce an inch from my heart.

Merry's face is a mixture of pride and embarrassment as he moves his sword away from the kill position, and then stoops, intending to pick up my weapon and return it to me. But I am too quick for him, and without giving it any thought, I have picked him right up off the ground with a proud roar and swung him about in delight. I am immediately embarrassed, and set him back down, but when I do so, I note that he is beaming with bashful pride and pleasure.

"Well, that looked like one for the Shire," says an amused voice from behind us, and I turn to find that Aragorn has returned at some point and is lounging nearby, watching us. Merry's face turns a bit redder, but I clap him on the back.

"I regret to inform you that we were battling for the honor of all men," I tell Aragorn, and he laughs.

"You did a poor job in our defense, then," he says, adding, "but as this foe was so skilled and swift of hand, I suppose all of mankind will have to overlook this one failure on your part."

Merry's face is still red, but he bows to Aragorn quite formally, and states, "You should be doubly forgiving, as the conquered is also the teacher and deserves his due for many hours of diligent tutoring. I am glad that his patience has finally paid off."

For all that Merry does show a great deal of promise in wielding a sword, this is the first time he has bested me, and I cannot help but feel proud of my student. I clap him on the back again as he sheaths his weapon.

"Well done, indeed," I say, and he nods up at me.

"Thank you, Boromir," he says sincerely. "Thank you for everything."

I bend down to earnestly look into his face, and speak in a low voice meant only for his ears. "I still do not know if they made the right decision, Merry, but I do know this -- I am proud to be able to say that I have been a brother-in-arms with Meriadoc Brandybuck of the Shire, no matter what end we all come to."

His face is awash with a gratitude that warms me in a way few other things have. "If my father knew you, he would be very glad to know that you are helping Frodo, and not just with your swordsmanship," he says, and I think that it is the highest praise I have ever received. I leave my arm to rest about my comrade's shoulders as we return to check upon the one we both seek to uphold, each in our own manner.

Note: The conversation with his father that Merry refers to is not from canon, but is a shameless self-promotional reference to my story "Take Them As Was Willing, from the chapter "Buckland."

Every warrior has instincts that tell him when an enemy approaches, even when his physical senses can detect no sound, no smell, no movement, and my instincts are sending little pinpricks tingling up my spine with warning. At first I dismiss them, thinking I must be mistaken, for surely no foe can approach us within the well-protected borders of Lothlórien. But as they persist, I begin to surreptitiously canvass our surroundings while outwardly following the tale Frodo is relating of one of his early excursions with Bilbo. I can find nothing amiss, however. There are the three hobbits, comfortably sprawled on pillows and cushions in the open-sided pavilion the elves have set aside for us, munching on berries and nibbling on pastries. Directly across from me, Aragorn, his back to one of the mallorn trees lining our enclave and his long legs stretched out in front of him, is listening to Frodo with pleasure, smiling softly. I am similarly arranged on a cushion with my back resting against one of the benches in the pavilion. Far to my left, under the trees, I can see several elves strolling along, but they are surely not the threat. But something approaches, I am certain of it.

Then I spy the barest shiver of one of the bushes near the pavilion. I note Aragorn's eyes flick to the bush, and I know he has seen it too. He shakes his head at me ever-so-slightly, so I do not go to investigate or call out, but I remain watchful.

A single leaf falls from the bush as the approaching foe darts from it and dashes behind a tree trunk so quickly that I nearly miss the barest glimpse of bouncing chestnut curls. The three hobbits, their backs turned from the danger, continue with Frodo's tale -- he is being much aided by both Merry and Sam -- unaware of the small figure now on its belly, creeping silently like an adder toward the pavilion. It slithers along until it is behind the stack of cushions the hobbits are reclining against, and very nearly out of my sight. I see only the top of a wiggling hobbit posterior as the enemy prepares to pounce.

Unfortunately for him, he also snickers in glee just the barest bit as he crouches. The hobbits do not appear to pay the almost indiscernible noise any heed, but I am so enraptured by what must be about to happen that I notice the slight changes in their bearing: Frodo taps his crossed foot on his knee, Merry tenses his body into readiness, and Samwise eases himself the slightest bit away from the cushions. None too soon, for with a battle cry impressive to have come from such a tiny being, the enemy launches his small self over the barrier of cushions and onto his waiting cousins.

Forewarned as they were, the foe stands not a chance, and Merry has him before I can so much as blink, using his greater body weight to hold his prisoner still until he secures his hands. Which leaves Frodo free to go in for the kill.

"No no no, Frodo!" Pippin shrieks in what appears to be both delight and terror. "No no no no tickling!"

His pleas are to no avail, and Frodo seems to have every sensitive spot mapped out. Poor Pippin, betrayed by his own delight at his impending ambush, is red-faced and gasping for breath by the time they release him to sprawl limply on the cushions, still twitching every so often and emitting the occasional giggle.

"You are so very mean," he says sorrowfully, casting big, unconvincing eyes at his elders. This time it is I that betray myself with a snicker. Pippin turns those eyes upon me accusingly and, straight-faced, I discreetly point at an unwitting Aragorn to deny that I find any humor in poor Pip's plight.

Merry settles himself back into his spot on the cushions. "We are so very mean?" he says. "We do not go around creeping up on people and pouncing on them like some kind of wild animal. You are lucky that Aragorn didn't draw his sword and kill you in defense of Frodo."

"He wouldn't," Pippin replies, unconcerned. He stretches lazily, like a cat. "How did you know I was behind you?"

Frodo has wandered over to the table looking for yet another bowl of fruit. These hobbits have appetites the like of which I have never before seen. He meanders back to the cushions, bringing the bowl with him. "Because you laughed, goose," he says fondly. "When we take our journey back up, we shall have to gag you every time enemies are about."

Frodo says the words lightly, but they remind us all that this is just a respite, and even greater dangers than we have so far faced await us once we leave this haven. An uneasy silence settles on us for a moment, and then Aragorn breaks it by asking Pippin, "Well, Master Took, did you have a pleasant look about the woods of Lórien? Did your companions tire of your company and send you back or are they returning as well?"

The hobbits had indeed been, as the Lord of the Galadhrim had said, worn with sorrow and much toil when we had arrived, and for several days they had slept long and often, and none slept sounder than the smallest one. But when his vigor returned, it was seemingly boundless, and, though I would not sound harsh, he was a great deal underfoot. The previous day, he had upset a wine jar onto a stack of blankets, twice awakened a napping Frodo, pulled everything out of Merry's pack looking for pipeweed and then neglected to repack the contents, and scraped the soles of his feet trying to slow his descent after a failed attempt to climb up a smooth-barked mallorn tree like some type of curly topped insect. I strongly suspect that it was Aragorn's doing that when Legolas had joined us for breakfast this morning, he had proposed taking Pippin with him to explore more of Caras Galadhon. Gimli, as was his wont these days, accompanied them, and I just now could see the tall figure of the elf and the stout one of the dwarf approaching over a hillock.

"I had a splendid day," Pippin answers Aragorn as he helps himself to fruit from Frodo's bowl. "Legolas and Gimli are coming, but they are rather slow." Behind his cousin, Merry rolls his eyes and Frodo chokes a little on his fruit.

Pippin ignores them and stuffs more fruit into his mouth, then says around it, "We went very high up in the trees, even higher than we went the first night we got here, and there are whole houses and halls up there, and we went to a big open place and listened to a lot of elves singing and playing instruments and ate a very, very good luncheon, and then we walked all around on roads that stretch right between the trees, and we went up and down a lot of stairs, and Legolas talked to lots of other elves, but most of them only speak Elvish, so they didn't talk to me or Gimli, though Legolas told us what they were saying, and then we came down to the ground and walked around in some very pretty parts of the woods and then we came back here for I think it must be time for supper."

"And we certainly don't want to ruin this magnificent day by being late for it," Legolas adds to Pippin's rapid recitation as he strolls up. One can never tell when an elf is being mocking, but Pippin seems unconcerned by Legolas' comment and contents himself with polishing off another pear. Really, I don't know how these hobbits' stomachs can hold as much food as they consume.

"Whmph err eee mmphing?" Pippin says. Frodo and Merry both frown severely at him and Frodo says in a reprimanding voice, "Don't talk with food in your mouth, please, dearest."

"And we are eating as soon as you pick your lazy body up and help get supper around," Merry adds, apparently having understood the fruit-obstructed question. I don't know how the hobbits can be so particular about mealtimes, given that they have eaten incessantly throughout the day every day since our arrival, but somehow they manage to attack each meal as though they have not had any food in many hours.

Pippin acquiesces eagerly, and we soon enjoy another pleasant repast together, getting a more detailed accounting of the day from Legolas and Gimli, after which we all are soon reclined upon the cushions again in sated contentment. Aragorn, Gimli and Merry light their pipes, and Legolas hums softly to himself as he watches the stars.

As for myself, I watch the hobbits under half-lidded eyes that threaten to close despite my wishes. I wish now that I had first come to know them in a peaceful place such as this, rather than the harsh environment of the road. I regret that I did not spend more time with them in Rivendell. Never would I have imagined that such a seemingly simple people would present me with so many conundrums. I watch Sam bring Frodo a blanket to ward off the chilling night air, wrapping it about his master's shoulders with gentle care before setting himself down at Frodo's side. Pippin is sprawled, half-asleep but watching Legolas and listening with quiet delight to his wordless song, his head on Frodo's lap, eyelids ever lowering as Frodo strokes his curls. Merry is beside them, legs stretched in front of him and crossed at the ankles, talking quietly with Gimli, but with the corner of his eye always upon his kin and comrades. Frodo, too, is listening to and watching Legolas, a small smile playing about his lips, but then his eyes catch mine and we study each other for a moment before his smile deepens and he tilts his head in acknowledgment of me. I smile back at him and flick my eyes to the now-sleeping Pippin, allowing the smile to become a fond grin. Frodo returns it and then looks down with indulgent love at his young cousin.

There is so much more to these little people than I ever could have fathomed: more resilience, more courage, more joy, more love, more strength, more perseverance. Coming to know them has been a gift, one that has allowed me dare to hope that this complicated people will be the one to save us all, even from ourselves.

My heart would believe this, even though my mind turns ever more frequently to the massing armies that await us in the East, and the grim knowledge of the strength of the dark power that opposes us. Yet something deep within my heart says, "Do not despair! All is not yet lost, and hope remains."

Whatever we face, certain defeat or victory beyond all hope, I will see it through as befitting a man of Gondor, heir to the Stewardship, one of the Fellowship chosen at the Council of Elrond. As will my companions, I will go to my end with honor, even though all else be wrenched from me by the Enemy. But here amidst the mallorn trees, surrounded by a company I never would have imagined when I set out from the White City, I would listen to my heart and trust these small folk to redeem us all.

I want to believe my heart. But why then, I wonder, does my hand twitch so at the glimpse of a gold chain about Frodo's neck?

I have learned much, and taken many counsels, since returning to Minas Tirith, but I have yet to hear of the event most pressing on my mind from the one who witnessed it. It is need of this knowledge that leads me this evening to the guest houses of the steward. A light gleams from an upper window of the house I seek, so I know someone is still waking. No one answers my rap at the door, so I let myself in, as I was wont to do years ago when Mithrandir studied in the city.

The old wizard and his companion are upstairs, and I am glad to find them both still awake. Mithrandir peers sharply at me from beneath bushy eyebrows before I can knock at the half-open door.

"Come in, then, my captain," he says sharply, startling the hobbit beside him, who is munching on some bread and unaware of my presence. He promptly scrambles off his chair to look at me with frank curiosity. Mithrandir is reading something, and parchments are scattered about the tabletop, save where the hobbit's dinner lies.

"Sit, then," Mithrandir invites (in a manner that is really more of an order), and I do. "Master Took, you could offer our guest some refreshment."

The little being stands straighter and puts his hands neatly behind his back, and I think with amusement that he has been taught manners at some time in his life. "Would you like something to eat or drink, sir?" he asks politely. I smile a bit at picture he presents: he has taken off his surcoat and untucked the shirt beneath it, his braces dangling, wears no shoes after the fashion of his kind, and the curls that looked brushed, if not entirely orderly, in my father's chambers are rebelliously springing out from his head.

"No, but I thank you," I answer, "and I would not take you from your evening repast, as I know you have waited upon my father all this day. Please, sit and finish your meal."

Peregrin looks as though he is going to say something in reply, but Mithrandir casts him a quick, cutting look and instead he just murmurs, "Thank you, sir," and climbs back up into his chair.

"So, Captain Faramir, which of your troubles brings you here tonight?" Mithrandir asks gravely. I have glanced over the parchments on the table, and I note that they all have to do with the ancient history of Cirith Ungol. I know, then, which of his troubles lie upon on the wizard tonight, but while they may be the most pressing, they are also the ones we can do the least about. But then, the concern I am about to lay forth is not something that any action will resolve, either.

"A trouble for which there is no balm, I fear, but one that I would know the full breadth of nonetheless," I answer. "I actually am not here seeking you, Mithrandir, but your companion."

Peregrin has just finished the last of his bread and is washing it down with water. He puts the cup down with a startled clunk. "Me, sir?" he asks in surprise.

I swallow hard. "I know you were with my brother at his death, and that you have relayed those circumstances to my father. But, if you will indulge me, I would hear it from one who was there, and not from the lips of the steward. Will you tell me of Boromir's last deeds?"

The hobbit's mouth is open, but I do not know if it is in surprise or distress. He snaps it shut and swallows hard himself, then looks at Mithrandir for guidance. The wizard has put down the parchment in his hand, and is looking at me with sympathy. He nods to the hobbit.

In a stilted voice that quavers at times, Peregrin relays what he knows of the final day of the company from Imladris, and of Boromir. But this is a far different tale from what I had expected, after what I had learned first from Frodo, and then from my father. Indeed, this is the type of tale I would have expected to hear about my brother, before these dark days befell us.

And I hear things that the young hobbit does not utter. I hear his friendship for my brother, and his anguish at his death. I hear his admiration, and his affection. I hear the words of one who knew and understood much of my brother's moods, of his failings and strengths. I hear gratitude, though in the end Boromir could not protect this small soldier. And, if I am not mistaken, I hear love, love of the man, apart from the deeds of which we now speak.

I do not interrupt but allow him to tell his tale in his own manner. We are silent when he finishes, and I see that this telling has wearied Peregrin so much that he is shaking slightly. Indeed, it has worn me to hear it, but at the same time, I feel somewhat lighter. I will set what I have learned aside for now, to be studied and pondered later, should we ever come to peace again. Yet I am glad to have learned that Boromir's fate was not ill as I had so feared, and that I saw true the peace in his face as he passed me, onward to the sea.

I finally stand, and address the hobbit. "Thank you," I say. "I know that was a difficult tale for you to relate, but I am grateful you did so. You bring me some comfort on the matter. I have wearied you, though, so I will leave you in peace now."

Peregrin hops off of his chair, and bows low to me, as Frodo and Sam had done. But when he looks back up at me, the formal manner fades away, and he addresses me as a friend.

"Boromir spoke to me of you," he says in that earnest little voice. "He missed you very much."

My eyes sting suddenly, and my breath trembles a little in my throat, but my voice is steady. "Yes," I answer quietly. "Yes, I miss him very much, too. Thank you, Peregrin, and good night."

I am to the foot of the stairs when I realize that I have neglected to speak to Mithrandir about a number of issues more pressing to our current situation than the one I have spent the last half-hour on. I pass my hand in front of my face and steady my breathing, returning to my focus, then turn and go back up the stairs.

But a noise from inside stops me at the slightly ajar door, and I linger in the corridor. It comes again: a keening, gulping whine. The hobbit is crying.

I venture closer to the door and peer inside. To my amazement, Mithrandir has pushed his chair back from the table so that he may embrace Peregrin, who is kneading his hands in the wizard's robe and pressing his face into the wizard's beard. "There, there, my Pippin," Mithrandir is saying gently. "You did very well, and I believe you brought Faramir some comfort. You have been a brave lad, and no one will ask you to relay that tale again."

The hobbit answers, but I cannot discern his words, just a high-pitched, tumbling blur of syllables. Mithrandir answers him, though, with a sad, "I know, my lad, I know," and then rubs his back in soothing circles.

For a few moments, the only sound is the small soldier's grief, but it slackens after a bit and turns to hitching breaths. Mithrandir moves him away, and then hands him the napkin from the table to wipe his face off with. "I am sorry," the hobbit mumbles as he scrubs at his wet checks.

"No, no, Pippin, do not be sorry that you mourn a friend," Mithrandir says. "But take comfort in this. Think how delighted he would be to see you now, a soldier of Gondor. He would be proud of you, as I am."

Peregrin nods his head, and as I watch, his back straightens and his shoulders lift. "I was thinking of him, you know. That is what put it into my head, as you said. He gave his life for mine, and I should like to do something worthwhile with it. I should not ever like anyone to think poorly of him when they meet me."

Mithrandir smiles, and I am struck by the grandfatherly love and pride in his eyes. He lays a hand on the hobbit's head and answers, "Boromir knew well the full value of that which he defended, and I have no doubt that you will do honor to his sacrifice. Now, it is late and you must be to your duties early, and I, no doubt, earlier. Go to bed, Peregrin, and enjoy the slumber of the virtuous."

I can see only a glimpse of the hobbit's face from my position, but I catch the far edge of a large smile for a moment, and then he has hurtled his arms back around the wizard and pressed his face into Mithrandir's neck. "I am glad you are back, Gandalf," he whispers, and then scurries off to bed.

I sneak away undetected, unwilling to disturb them further tonight. I have no claim to be proud of this small, defiantly courageous being, but I give him my admiration freely. He has my gratitude as well, for he has given me something back tonight that I feared lost forever after what I learned of my brother's actions from Frodo. It seems I need not look upon his final deeds with despair after all, but may know that they were honorable, and worthy of the man he was.

Once outside, I pause in the street to turn my eyes toward the ink-black sky. The evil in the east has poured itself over the beauty of night, and at first I cannot detect a single light from above. Then, to the south and east, down the river and toward the sea, I find a single glimmering star, valiantly beating back the dark mantle that hangs over all the lands.

And I let myself utter the words I have longed to say for more than a year now, that I feared I never could speak.

"Well met, my brother."

THE END





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