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Fate and the High King's Falcon  by Baylor

"Then Pippin stabbed upwards, and the written blade of Westernesse pierced through the hide and went deep into the vitals of the troll, and his black blood came gushing out. He toppled forward and came crashing down like a falling rock, burying those beneath him. Blackness and stench and crushing pain came upon Pippin, and his mind fell away into a great darkness.

"'So it ends as I guessed it would,' his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above:

"'The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!'

"For one moment more Pippin's thought hovered. 'Bilbo!' it said. 'But no! That came in his tale, long, long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!' And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more."

-- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, The Black Gate Opens

Day Two of the New Year (March 26 SR)

The dwarf's roar of anguish rushed over the battlefield, and Legolas nearly dropped the end of the litter he was carrying. He knew that sound of uttermost grief -- he had heard it once before, at the discovery of Balin's tomb. It was a dwarf's cry of mourning, of sorrow at the loss of a loved one, close as kin, and it could mean only one thing -- their long hours of searching were over, and Pippin was dead.

Legolas saw the wounded soldier he was helping to carry delivered safely to the healers, then turned to sprint across the corpse-strewn field toward the source of the agonized cry, now faded away. It had come from the foot of the foremost hill, before the evil place where the Black Gate itself had stood, the place where Prince Imrahil's picked men had fallen heavily in the Dark Lord's initial brutal onslaught. They had searched here first, where their friend was last seen, fighting valiantly in the very first rank of the king's warriors, but could not find him amidst the piles of carcasses, severed body parts and pools of muddy gore. Beregond of the Guard Legolas himself had discovered, insensate but alive, but no where among the mighty soldiers of Gondor and the foul carrion of Mordor did he or Gimli discover a small hobbit of the Shire. 

The sun had been setting on the first day of a new Age when Legolas found Beregond. Through the long night, Legolas and Gimli had continued their labors, bearing the wounded to the healers, closing the eyes of the dead, dealing out mercy or swift death to still-living enemies as was warranted, but never ceasing their search. The dawn brought light but little hope, and passed into late morning with no reward for the friends' pains. 

Gimli must have returned to their starting point. The field was finally somewhat clearer, and as the wounded and the dead were taken away, easing the search, Legolas' heart had grown ever heavier. He feared they cleared a path to their own loss. Cresting the hill in long, leaping steps, the elf looked down with unwilling eyes upon the scene he both dreaded and expected. 

Gimli son of Glóin, dwarf of the Lonely Mountain, hero of Helm's Deep, chosen of the Council of Elrond, one of the Nine Walkers, and favored one of the Lady Galadriel herself, knelt among the bodies in the muck and the filth and the refuse, weeping heavily. In his arms was a small, broken form, coated in black blood, still and lifeless. 

Legolas approached more slowly now, starting to feel his own anguish threatening to overwhelm him. He had been overcome with joy and wonderment yestereve when Gandalf had led them to Frodo and Sam's small healing tent, but now he was choked with grief to think Frodo must meet the new world he had brought into being with this bitter blow. He could not yet think of telling Merry the news.

A small cluster of men stood about the dwarf, grief and awe warring on their faces. One of them hailed Legolas as he approached, bowing his head respectfully.

"The Master Dwarf rolled the carcass off him alone ere we could come to his aid. He will suffer none of us to take the perian from him to a proper resting place," the man said, nodding to the massive body of the troll-chief nearby. Legolas blinked in surprise and uncertainty for a moment -- Gimli had turned that mighty beast alone? It did not seem possible. Then he sickly understood that Pippin had lain, crushed, for a day and a night beneath that foul body, and anguish tore through the elf's body like a physical wound.

"The Ernil i Pheriannath's sword was still in his hand, and the beast has been pierced through the heart," the man continued in awe. "He must have slain the creature only to be trapped beneath it as it fell."

Legolas was dizzy with this news, his mind as yet unwilling to fully process the horrific image of their little Pip meeting his end in such a gruesome and lonely manner. Had their little one died quickly, or, as was more likely, had he lingered long in agony before finally giving up his fight and allowing the Valar to take his bright spirit to the Overheaven? "I will attend to them both," Legolas heard himself saying as from a distance. "Leave us for now, but later, burn that foul carrion." 

The men bowed and respectfully retreated, and Legolas could finally draw near the dwarf, could fall to his knees beside him and place an arm about his friend's shoulders, could let his own tears fall on the dear face, recognizable still through the grume and the crushing.

"We are too late, too late," Gimli cried in agony, rocking the inert body as if it yet could be comforted. "He slew the troll -- did you see, Legolas, my friend? He slew that mighty beast, but we never saw his little foot and now we are too late." With that, the dwarf buried his face in the dead hobbit's shoulder and wailed and rocked and would not be consoled.

To Legolas, it seemed they stayed in this tableau of grief for the length of an age, but finally he dried his own tears and resolved to lead his friend away. Neither of them had rested or eaten since the previous day, and though he could do naught for Pippin, he would see Gimli cared for. And he would take the small soldier's body to his king, and to Gandalf, and see it attended to as befitted a hero of this grim battle. 

"Come, my friend," he said gently to the dwarf, "leave off your grief for now. Let us take him to Aragorn, and then you must rest." He tried to pry Gimli's face from the body, but the dwarf was too immersed in his grief and would not pull away. Legolas did not want to force Gimli, but felt this lamentation was perhaps more harmful than healing for his friend, so, finally, after several failed attempts to get the dwarf to rise and relinquish Pippin's body, he regretfully moved to pry the little form from Gimli's cradling arms. 

Oh! the shock! Legolas recoiled in astonishment. He had touched but a limb, yet how could he be mistaken? Blood had thrummed under his fingers, life faint but dogged had met his touch. This could not be! He had not perceived any breath, any movement that would indicate it. Was it his own desperate wish that it be so causing his heart to mislead him?

Tentatively, Legolas reached his hand back out and placed gentle fingertips upon Pippin's brow. There. There it was -- that familiar lifeforce that burned brilliant blue, that sang in tripping, happy plucks and chirrups, that rushed along like a brisk autumn gust. Trembling, fading, sinking, yes -- yet, for the moment, clinging tenaciously to this world with all its unseen strength.

Gimli sensed the elf's shock and it drew him from his despair. He raised his head to look into his friend's stunned face. "What?" he demanded, startled. "Why do you look so?"  

In the next second, Legolas snatched the hobbit from Gimli so quickly that the bewildered dwarf had no opportunity to react or stop him. Before he could gain his feet, Legolas was speeding off, calling over his shoulder in a voice that brooked no argument: "Find the king! Send him to the healing tents! Tell him this smallest soldier of Gondor yet lives and has great need of the healing hands of Elessar! Go! Now! He is yet alive!" 

Gimli staggered to his feet and stared after the swiftly disappearing form of Legolas. He swayed for a beat as his mind tried to put meaning to the elf's words, but then everything fell into place and a roar of triumph and hope issued from his lips. Moving with the shocking speed of Durin's Folk, he rushed toward the captainry to find the king. 

Aragorn did not ask for directions to the correct tent -- he could hear Legolas stridently giving orders as soon as he approached. Urged on by the dwarf at his side, the king sprinted toward the tent. 

He had finally resigned himself to the loss of his friend, had not even dared to hope he might receive such tidings, not after so much time. The thought of Pippin's death had grieved him deeply, and he knew not how he would break it to the other hobbits, or how he could possibly console Merry. But perhaps he would not have to do so, after all, thanks to the blessed stubbornness of hobbit-will.

Ducking under the half-opened flap, Aragorn entered to a scene of organized confusion and the shrill screams of the wounded and dying. This was one of the tents where the most grievously injured were attended to when first brought from the field. Either their wounds were treated and then they were sent on to one of the infirmary tents for convalescence, or, if there was no hope, made as comfortable as possible here until the end came. The shadow of death loomed dark over this tent. 

In a corner away from the rows of cots where men lay dying, Legolas had laid Pippin out upon a table. His slender hands, full of hidden strength, held the hobbit down on his side tightly, and ere Aragorn had reached them, he saw why. Pippin shuddered, and convulsed, wiry limbs involuntarily flailing, then vomited black blood into a basin one of the healers held beneath his mouth. He continued to cough, choking and gasping as he brought up more vile substances, once the thrashing had ended. Aragorn crossed the gap in long strides and laid a hand on the hobbit's brow, pushing back locks wet with blood and sweat. "Tell me," he ordered brusquely.

The healers looked frightened by the king's countenance, and Legolas looked grim. But the woman holding the basin beneath Pippin's mouth answered in a low voice that did not quaver. "We could find no breath or heart beat when the elven prince brought him in, my lord, but on his urging we cleared the mouth and nose and ere long he coughed and began to vomit this foul substance. Still it comes, and he has yet made no cry." 

Legolas' face was tight with anxiety. "Gimli told you? He slew a great troll and was buried beneath the monster for all this time. This is the creature's blood all over him. He must have swallowed and breathed in enormous amounts of it." 

Pippin was hacking weakly now, and all his body shivered and trembled. They had removed his helm, and wiped off the area around his nose and mouth, but nothing else appeared to have been done for him. 

"Someone bring several tubs of water over here -- warm, if possible," Aragorn ordered, moving his hands gently along Pippin's body. "And cloths and bandages, and some blankets." He winced as he came to the left leg -- both the knee and the ankle were flattened out at impossible angles from Pippin's body. "All right, little one," he murmured, "let us see what slaying the troll has done to you."

The morning was interminable for Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli, made more so with each uncovered hurt. It seemed to the three friends that nearly every inch of the hobbit's body bore some type of injury. The helm had cut a raw line about Pippin's head that bled beneath his matted curls, but it was to Aragorn's relief that he surmised the gear also had done its duty and protected the hobbit's head from more serious injury. Both eyes were grotesquely swollen and would not open in the least, and Aragorn's gentle fingers deduced that the socket around the left eye was fractured. Pippin had bit through his lower lip with his upper teeth, requiring several stitches, and during one of the intermittent vomiting bouts he brought up a back tooth that had been dislodged and swallowed.

The sword hand was broken, battered and crushed -- a raw, crumbled mess that unclenched only with persistent effort, Legolas holding the forearm and Aragorn slowly opening the hand. One of the healers asked the king in a hushed voice if they should prepare to remove the hand, but Aragorn sharply replied in the negative, coating the hand in a salve to fight off infection and then binding it flat to a splint. In response to Legolas and Gimli's concerned faces, he stated that the hand was too swollen to be treated yet, and that he would have a better idea what could be done for it after some time had passed.

Ribs on both sides moved beneath Aragorn's hands -- some cracked, some broken. Pippin's belly was mottled and bruised, swollen and tender to the touch, but Aragorn discerned no rigid spots. Still, he feared that the broken ribs and the crushing pressure of the troll's weight could have caused Pippin to be bleeding inside, and ordered tonics to staunch such trauma brought over.

Then there was the left leg to deal with. Nothing was broken, amazingly enough, though Aragorn had to set two toes on the right foot. But the dislocations had to be reduced, so Legolas and Gimli held the little body still while Aragorn forced the limbs back to their natural order. This proved unnecessary, as Pippin did not stir during the procedure, and the elf and dwarf saw the king's face darken. 

Finally, the hobbit was clean and bandaged and bundled in warm blankets on the table. Aragorn had forced a number of healing concoctions down Pippin's throat with great difficulty: to stop any internal bleeding, to ward off infection, to reduce swelling. After flushing the swollen eyes as best he could, Aragorn made compresses steeped in a sweet-smelling concoction for both eyes and then bandaged them into place. More wrappings encircled Pippin's head, ribs, mangled sword hand and leg. Aragorn sighed heavily and leaned against the table, utterly spent. 

"I have done all that I may, my friends, but I am most troubled by his stillness," he confessed. "If nothing else, the reductions to his leg should have roused him with their pain. He must have been breathing very shallowly for all that time beneath that foul beast, and while that may have saved him from drowning in the troll's blood, I fear it means he had but a little air. His body is here, but I know not where his mind wanders, or if it shall return. He is beyond any attempt to call him back -- the physical injuries are what threaten him, not despair or exhaustion or some other weapon of the Enemy."

Gimli let out his breath in a harsh "harrumph." "But he breathes easier now, already much improved from this morning. And look -- the color returns to his skin, and he is warmer. No, no, he just needs a good, long rest, surely, and soon after he will be talking until we once again tire of the sound." 

Legolas did not comment, and softly touched the bruised and battered face. "Shall we put him in one of these beds, then?" he asked Aragorn. "The infirmary tents are nearly full, and not many wounded now are coming in. It may be more restful for Pippin here." Aragorn agreed, and so Legolas laid Pippin in a cot off on its own, Gimli carefully propping up the injured leg and hand with pillows. Then he and Gimli took up their unspoken watch, but Aragorn kissed Pippin's brow and murmured words only Legolas' sharp ears discerned, and then left to rest.

Day passed into twilight passed into night, and Pippin did not stir. Gimli fell asleep standing up beside the hobbit's bed, and Legolas guided him to sit on the floor and leaned his back against the cot. The dwarf slumbered on, chin in his chest, snoring softly. Someone had brought Legolas a chair, and he sat so he could lean over the cot and stroke the ever-rebellious curls and sing soft elven lullabies. Pippin's breathing evened out and deepened each hour, but still he did not wake. 

The moon was waning when the first stirrings of life from the little being on the cot caught Legolas' song in his throat. At first, just a finger, then his uninjured leg. Then the little face crumpled up a bit and his breathing quickened. His left hand groped blindly across the blankets and Legolas reached out to clasp it in his own. 

"Pippin, dear heart," he whispered. "Do you wake?" 

But Pippin, apparently content to have found someone familiar near, slipped back into his stillness and stayed there for another hour before he began to stir again. This time, it was with a sharp cry that jolted Gimli to his feet to hover anxiously by the bed. 

"Pippin, Pippin," Legolas soothed, still clasping the undamaged hand in one hand and stroking the hobbit's brow with the other. "It is all right now. The battle is ended and evil has been overthrown. You are safe. You have been hurt, but Aragorn has been here to care for you, and Gimli and I are here now and will not leave you. You cannot see because your eyes were hurt, but they will be better soon. Do not be afraid now, our brave little hobbit." 

But Pippin did not seem to understand, and he cried out fearfully, pathetic little bleatings and sobs accompanied by blind, aimless flailings that Gimli attempted to gently still, lest Pippin injure himself further. The healers brought a sleeping draught, but Pippin would not let it pass by his lips, and Legolas forbade the healers to force it into him. Finally, to his friends' heartbreak, he managed to form a single coherent word that he repeated in pleading whimpers: "Merry Merry Merry Merry Merry . . ." 

At length, Gimli, desperate to end the hobbit's confusion and pain, carefully but firmly took Pippin's face between his two hands and leaned in so close that his beard tickled the hobbit's neck. "Young hobbit," he said in the same commanding voice he used when telling Pippin not to touch something, "listen to me. Merry will be here very soon, but Legolas and I are here now. You have been hurt, but you will be better soon. Now, you must take your medicine, and then you must sleep and grow strong once more. Do you understand?" 

Pippin had stopped moving at this rough handling, and now he furrowed his brow as if trying to recall how words worked. After a long, silent moment, he answered, "All right, then, Gimli," in his own clear voice, making his friends exhale deeply in relief. Deciding to press ahead while he had the advantage, Gimli presented the sleeping draught and commanded Pippin to drink, and once it was gone, ordered him to sleep. Pippin gave one last show at resistance by asking, "Merry will be here soon?" but then promptly fell asleep when both elf and dwarf assured him that Merry would be there soon.

As Legolas tucked the blankets more securely about the patient with care, Gimli straightened his tunic and headed for the door. "Master Dwarf, do you go to your rest as well?" Legolas called after him.

Gimli snorted. "No," he answered. "I go to tell Aragorn and Gandalf that our Peregrin has returned to us. Then I go to make sure someone has thought to send for Meriadoc. We have both just told him Merry would be here soon, and I am thinking that if we do not have a cousin to produce relatively quickly, our young friend is going to have a lot to say about it." And he turned on his heel and strode away.

Legolas smiled and leaned close to Pippin's pointed ear. "Do you see what terror you hold over great warriors?" he whispered into it. "Do you see how the mighty and honored scurry to fulfill every desire of your little heart?" 

Pippin did not answer, but in slumber, his fingers tightened a bit about Legolas' hand. 

Day Three of the New Year (March 27 SR)

The morning after Pippin's awakening, the entire encampment moved to North Ithilien. Legolas patiently walked his faithful Arod while Gimli rode astride, carefully cradling the injured hobbit, who slept deeply with the aid of a draught. They were directed to an infirmary tent upon arrival in the fair country, but after one look at the large, noisy tent filled to capacity with moaning men and the stench of blood, Legolas artfully secured a corner of the supply tent and a cot from the healer woman, where Pippin could have quiet and rest.

Gimli had discovered that Éomer had already sent for Merry the previous day, but his arrival from Minas Tirith would no doubt take several days, and Legolas and Gimli had their hands full of fretful, malcontented hobbit. His fever would rise at random times, and he was childish and churlish with pain and discomfort and blindness. He wanted none of the medicines they had been instructed to give him, and they would persuade him to take one draught only to find it muddled his thinking even worse, making him even more argumentative about taking other medicines. Or they would succeed in coaxing all of the prescribed remedies into him only to have a bout of vomiting bring it all back up, thus necessitating that the process begin again. Gimli did fairly well for half a day by telling Pippin that everything he was being given was ale, but by afternoon, Pippin was clearer and would have none of it. 

It was all exhausting, but neither elf nor dwarf would suffer any stranger to care for their friend, and as both Aragorn and Gandalf were busy caring for Frodo and Sam and could not be spared for long, they carried on as best they could. But on the second day in Ithilien, his fever spiked in the early evening, and that night he was fretful and hot and confused and inconsolable. Legolas pressed most of a sleeping draught past his lips, only to have Pippin be sick all over the bed and the elf moments later. Bed and hobbit and elf were finally cleaned up and back in order when Pippin began crying for Merry again, and this time nothing anyone could do or say would calm him. 

Gimli had hemmed and hawed and muttered in his own language a great deal during the evening, but when Pippin began pleading for his cousin, he stormed out of the tent like a black cloud, and without a word to Legolas.

"Wherever does the Master Dwarf go?" the healer woman, coming over to help upon hearing the commotion, asked Legolas as she watched Gimli's departure.

"Perhaps he believes he can carry his cousin here quicker on his back than the ships of Minas Tirith can arrive," Legolas said sharply, tucking another blanket around Pippin's shivering form. The woman sniffed in an offended manner, but handed him a cool cloth to press to the hobbit's feverish brow.

Gimli returned within the hour, and the healer woman gaped openly when he brought the great wizard Gandalf with him. But the wizard did not restore the hobbit to health with a white light from his staff, or bring him his cousin on the back of an eagle, or do any of the many great deeds the other healers whispered about. No, instead, he leaned over the cot and put a hand on Pippin's brow and said in a kind voice, "Now, now, what is this tale I hear, hmm? All of this fuss, Peregrin -- you should see what a state Gimli is in." At the foot of the cot, Gimli snorted and crossed his arms over his chest.  

"Gandalf," Pippin said in a half-sob, and reached his arms out. 

"Oh, there, now," Gandalf said, and scooped the hobbit into his arms before anyone could protest. He claimed the chair a moment later, cradling Pippin to him like a small child and bundling blankets over the little form. 

"Aragorn told us not to move him overmuch," Legolas objected weakly, but Gandalf replied with, "Master Greenleaf, you fuss as much as the patient. Go and rest! And take that overzealous dwarf with you! Leave me alone with my lad, if you please, and do not come back until morning!" 

Legolas opened his mouth to protest, but Pippin did seem to be settling down, contentedly nuzzling his face into Gandalf's beard and yawning hugely. "Go on now!" Gandalf commanded. "See, he just needed to be held, and I believe I can be trusted with that task. Off with all of you!"

Cowed, they slunk off. As they left, Legolas overheard Pippin murmur, "Gandalf, I dreamed that you left."

"Oh, did you?" Gandalf answered. "Well, I am here now, aren't I, my lad? And I forbid any unpleasant imaginings while I am in the room, so you will just have to dream about nine-course meals and the best ale the Green Dragon has to offer. Now, I do believe I promised you some stories about the Old Took, did I not? Let us see . . ." 
Day Five of the New Year (March 29 SR)

Worn out, Gimli slept the night through soundly, and when he arose and stepped out of the tent he and Legolas shared, he saw the first of the arrivals from Minas Tirith coming across the fields. Moving in the swift, efficient manner only a dwarf possesses, he strode to meet them and find Merry.

The camp was busier than usual with the arrival of the great ships. Men rushed to unload supplies and greet friends left behind in the city. Gimli dodged around two unhappily lowing milch cows and then spotted his friend.

The young hobbit had just come from his ship and was clutching his small bundle of belongings, looking toward the big encampment in bewilderment, not certain where to start. He spotted Gimli quickly, though, and ran to meet him. He answered Merry's question even as the hobbit opened his mouth to ask.

"He lives, Merry. Hurt, but recovering. Come, come, he asks for you," Gimli said, putting an arm around Merry in a half-embrace that also supported the obviously somewhat-shaky hobbit and steered him in the right direction.

"One of the Eagles came to see Faramir, and told him that Frodo and Sam had been rescued from Mordor itself," Merry said in a slightly dazed voice. "It does not seem possible. But there was no news about Pippin, or you or Legolas. I did not know if that was good or bad. And he could not tell us how Frodo and Sam fared, just that they had been found. I have been frantic, torn between imagining the worst sort of things, and hoping for things that seem impossible."

"Well, you shall know the lot of it shortly," Gimli said gruffly, noting the shadows under Merry's eyes and the paleness of his face. "Legolas and I are both fine, so put your mind at ease about us. But, here, I know where you need to be."

Gandalf had left near dawn when Legolas had returned, and the elf swiftly moved from the chair at Pippin's bedside when Merry entered the tent. Merry had eyes only for his young cousin, taking in the extent of the injuries with disbelieving eyes. Gimli had grown used to Pippin's appearance over the past days, but now he saw anew the battered form -- brilliant with the colors of bruising and nearly hidden in bandages and swelling, the injured hand and leg carefully propped on pillows -- and mentally berated himself for not preparing Merry more for the sight. Merry numbly climbed into the chair beside the cot and reached a tentative hand out to stroke Pippin's hair.

"Pip, sweetheart," he whispered. "My Pippin."

Pippin, who had been dozing, yawned abruptly. "Hullo, Merry," he said drowsily, then went back to sleep.

"Do not be fooled," Legolas said quietly over Merry's shoulder. "He has asked and asked for you, and seemed to find Gimli and I poor substitutes."

Merry nodded absently to show he had heard, but for a long time he wanted only to sit by the bed and watch Pippin sleep, and gently touch the myriad injuries as if to assess their extent while Legolas quietly explained each injury and described its recovery. Eventually Merry shook off the odd, remote mood, and Legolas and Gimli had food brought in, and they ate and Merry heard all the tales there were to tell. Pippin woke briefly, and Legolas and Gimli were secretly pleased to discover that he was no more a cooperative patient for Merry than he had been for them, but finally the afternoon remedies were consumed and the surly patient made it up to all of them by saying, "Merry, did Legolas and Gimli tell you that Frodo and Sam are here, too? Isn't it splendid that we all are all right and together again?" before immediately falling back asleep. 

Satisfied for the moment, Merry left Legolas to watch over Pippin and allowed Gimli to lead him to report to Éomer and to see Frodo and Sam. He was quiet and thoughtful when he came back, but only said to Legolas that he had never seen Frodo look more haggard, or more peaceful.

Pippin was sleeping deeply now and often, but seemed clearer, more himself, each time he woke. To the delight of Legolas and Gimli, Merry coaxed an entire mug of broth into him in the evening, and gave him a report on Frodo and Sam that Pippin seemed to listen to. Then Legolas and Gimli amused themselves by listening to Merry tell Pippin the tales of their childhood. Pippin kept falling asleep, but each time he woke, he demanded that the tale start back up, so Merry kept up a steady cadence. He seemed satisfied with his cousin's progress, considering what had been explained to him about the severity of Pippin's hurts. When the healer woman came by to check on the patient and warned that sometimes a bad turn could come late in the recovery, Merry listened gravely, but said to Gimli and Legolas once she left, "These healers don't know what a stubborn little thing Pippin is, or they would not doubt that he will be fine."

Merry slept the night in the chair at Pippin's side, feet propped on the edge of the cot, despite Legolas and Gimli's protests. They both thought that Merry looked poorly: wan and tired from many days of fear and anxious inactivity, and not sufficient recovery to his own injury, but they could not persuade him to retire to the bed they had had brought in to their own tent for him. The elf and dwarf both noted with concern that Merry still favored his right hand, but resolved between themselves to see if the problem improved with some proper rest, should they ever persuade Merry to take some. For the moment, they decided the best medicine for both hobbits was being at one another's sides once again.

Day Six of the New Year (March 30 SR)

Pippin had a good morning, and even ate a little watered-down porridge before returning to slumber. Merry was dozing again himself, feet back up, when a whimper from the bed jolted him abruptly upright.

Pippin's face was taut with discomfort, and he was worrying his upper lip. Merry immediately reached for his hand. "What is it, Pip?" he asked with concern.

"Don't know," Pippin whimpered. "My stomach hurts."

Legolas, who had been sorting supplies on the table across the tent for the healers, crossed to the cot in enormous strides. "Where does your stomach hurt, Pippin?" he asked, perching on the edge of the cot and moving the blanket down. Pippin's uncovered abdomen was vibrant with color and still visibly swollen, and Merry closed his eyes briefly against the sight. Legolas touched Pippin tenderly with his fingertips.

"Don't know," Pippin answered in a quavery, frightened voice. "Just hurts."

Merry's eyes were alarmed, and Legolas' face was anxious and uncertain, but he shook his head when Gimli asked if he should fetch someone. "Perhaps he just was not ready for breakfast yet," Legolas said. "Let us wait and see if it passes in a bit."

The pain did not pass, though, and got steadily worse over the next quarter hour. Gimli fetched the healer woman, who then fetched one of the master healers, who recommended a hot, mustard compress for Pippin's stomach. But Pippin's sweat-soaked face scrunched up in pain when the healer applied it, and he cried out for Merry to help him.

The tent was rapidly descending into chaos at this point, with Pippin's pathetic cries for help, and Merry shouting at the healer to stop, and Legolas suggesting other remedies, and the healer shooting off orders to the woman. Gimli decided to do what he knew he should have done from the start -- he stormed off, and across the camp, right into the king's tent, and demanded that the Lord Aragorn come with him immediately. The half-frightened esquire stammered that the lord was very weary from his toils, and had left orders not to disturb him without dire need, but Gimli's response was of such a nature that it woke Aragorn without need of the esquire's assistance. Once he understood the reason for the disturbance, he bolted off across the camp at a run that left the dwarf hard-pressed to follow.

The scene in the tent had not improved during Gimli's absence, and now Pippin was emitting high-pitched little shrieks. Merry seemed torn between comforting his cousin and inflicting bodily harm upon the master healer, who was taking none too kindly to this reaction, while Legolas tried to restore peace and the woman frantically searched through supplies for items called for by the healer. Everyone but the two hobbits calmed as soon as Aragorn entered and began to firmly give instructions that all scrambled to obey.

Pippin had curled onto his side in a little ball, and Merry was standing over him as protective as any mother over her cub, one hand on Pippin's head and the other around his back. "Merry, let me see him," Aragorn said quietly once he had sent Legolas, the healer and the woman to the other side of the tent to fetch various supplies. Merry responded by moving his arm away from Pippin's back, but did not step away, so Aragorn went around to the other side of the bed and reached over to lay a hand on Pippin's stomach.

"Shh, shh, little one," he comforted when Pippin cried out sharply at the touch. "Here, I need you to uncurl for me so I can see what is wrong."

"It hurts too much, Strider," Pippin sobbed in response, and could not unlock his limbs. He cried out again when Aragorn attempted to roll him onto his back anyway and instantly Merry's other arm was encircling his cousin once more, blocking Aragorn.

"Merry, please, let me help him," Aragorn said in the quietest, most reasonable of voices.

"You're hurting him," Merry said tensely. He was shaking slightly. "Can't you see you're hurting him?" Legolas had come up beside him and tried to move Merry away from Pippin with gentle arms, but Merry shook him off roughly. Aragorn tried again to move Pippin, causing the younger hobbit to wail and the older one to clench his jaw. "Stop it!" Merry shouted at the king. "Don't hurt him worse!"

Legolas and Gimli both reached for Merry at the same time, but Gimli got there first, and before Merry quite knew what was happening, the dwarf had grabbed him by his collar and hauled him out of the tent. Gimli let go once they were outside, but placed his sturdy body between the distraught hobbit and the entrance. He blocked Merry's attempt to go back in, and for a moment he thought Merry was actually going to hit him. Stunned, without thinking, he grabbed Merry again as the hobbit came toward him and did what seemed the most logical thing at the moment -- dunked his friend's head into the chill water of a nearby rain barrel.

Merry struggled and kicked, but then Gimli released him and backed away and he stood stock-still, water running from his hair and face onto his body, breathing heavily. He and Gimli considered each other for a moment, and then the fight went out of Merry and his face crumpled up.

"I just can't bear it," he said brokenly. "He's hurting and no one will make it stop. I don't know how to stand that." He took a step and stumbled, but Gimli caught him, and held him as he sobbed.

Aragorn found them seated with their backs against the rain barrel two hours later when he finally emerged from the tent, his face somber. Merry looked at him bleakly but could find no words, and then Aragorn crouched down in front of the hobbit and smiled gently.

"I think it has passed," he said quietly. "Something inside of him was bleeding. Such a thing is grave, but not completely beyond my skill. I have done what I can, and believe the danger is over, for now, at least. You must keep him very still for the next few days, and send for me immediately if the pain returns. I have given him something for it now, so that he may sleep, and left instructions that should keep him comfortable."

Merry reached out for Aragorn's hand and grasped it gratefully. "I am so sorry," he said. "I know you were trying to help him."

Aragorn shook his head. "You need not apologize, Merry, for loving your cousin. But do this for me -- after you have seen him, go take some rest, and get outside of that tent for a bit. Pippin will yet need many days of care, and they may be trying at times. He will need you to be strong and clearheaded. You do him no good if you are distraught with exhaustion and strain."

Merry shook his head. "I won't be able to rest away from him, Aragorn."

"Perhaps I wasn't clear, Master Brandybuck -- that was not a suggestion," Aragorn said seriously. "You are still recovering yourself, and it is apparent to me just looking at you that you are not yet well. Pippin has many friends here willing to watch over him as he sleeps, but he will want you upon waking. Trust that you will be sent for immediately should he need you, and go and rest where you are not listening for him even in sleep. I guess it to be many days since you have slept truly well."

Merry looked for a moment like he would put up a fight, but then nodded in weary agreement and blinked watery eyes. He and Gimli got to their feet, and Gimli laid a hand on the king's arm. "I will make certain he rests, Aragorn, if I have to pick him up and carry him away to a bed."

Aragorn gave them a genuine smile now, and answered, "Then I know I leave you in the best, though perhaps not the gentlest, of care, Merry." And with that, he strode away across the camp.

Pippin was still and white on the cot, and even in sleep Gimli and Merry could see the lines of pain etched in his face. Merry went straight to him and sat by the bed, leaning in close to his cousin's face to murmur things Gimli's dwarvish ears could not distinguish.

Gimli scanned the tent, now still and hushed, the healer and the woman cleaning up and putting away supplies. The linens and blankets on Pippin's bed were new, and Gimli spied fresh blood stains on the soiled ones the woman was leaving with. His eyes fell on Legolas, seated across the bed, tenderly cradling Pippin's good hand in both of his hands, and thought that the elf looked nearly as poor as the hobbit. His face was tense and grey with exhaustion -- only after Helm's Deep had Gimli seen him come close to looking thus. He crossed the tent to stand at his friend's elbow.

"You look abysmal, Master Elf," he said bluntly. "Go and rest now."

"Yes," Legolas said in a distracted voice. "I just wanted to be certain he was sleeping first. He . . ." His voice trailed off and Gimli's eyes glimmered with concern as he looked into the elf's face.

"Aragorn said the danger has passed for now, yes?" Gimli prompted, and Legolas nodded.

"Yes, yes, it has," he answered, sounding more focused. "You are right, I am weary. I will turn the watch over to you." He leaned forward and kissed Pippin tenderly on the brow. As he did so, Merry looked at him for the first time since coming back into the tent and was visibly startled by Legolas' appearance.

"Legolas, you --" he began, but stopped when Legolas stood, smiling serenely.

"Do not stay overlong, Merry," he said. "Aragorn said Pippin will sleep through the night, and that you need to go rest. I will go now, and look for you shortly." With that, he left them with the patient.

Merry in turn took Pippin's good hand in both of his own. Dwarf and hobbit sat in silent vigil for a time, until Merry finally said, "I have never seen Legolas look like that."

"No," Gimli said gruffly. "Nor have I."

"Is it . . . Do you think it was all because of Pip?" Merry asked.

Gimli tried to soften his voice. "He loves Pippin dearly, Merry. It has been trying for him, these past days, to see him in pain and not be able to offer much comfort. This sudden ill turn no doubt frightened him as much as it did you and I. And Aragorn."

Merry nodded, eyes firmly fixed on his cousin's face, on the lines of pain slowly easing away. "I forget, sometimes, that he is not just mine, and that other people love him just as much as I do. I am sorry for that, Gimli, and I will try not to forget again."

Gimli wasn't quite sure what to say, so he harrumphed, which served most occasions. He let Merry stay for a bit longer, then drove him off to bed. Once he was alone with the sleeping Pippin, he hunched over the hobbit and grumbled, "You had best heal soon, young hobbit, before you have driven all these fey folk to their own sickbeds for worry over you. Besides, I find it disturbingly quiet in here."

In his sleep, Pippin sighed a bit and scrunched up his nose.

"I agree, it is no good," Gimli said. "Though, naturally, I must claim to wish for a little peace and quiet once you are well and running that mouth at full speed again."

Gimli received no response, but he contented himself with watching the color slowly return to Pippin's wan features.

Day Eight of the New Year (April 2 SR)

Aragorn had wanted to examine Pippin's injured leg for several days, but the swelling around the joints had not abated enough to allow it. This day, he found Pippin sleeping and was loath to wake the hobbit for the exam, especially after Merry informed him that Pippin had been running a low fever that left him tired and aching. Merry was full of questions and concerns and thinly veiled suspicions about the slow pace of Pippin's recovery that led to a lengthy discussion with the king, and resulted in Pippin waking and Merry being quite put out, summing up his list of grievances with, "Well, now you've woke him."

"You woke me, Merry," Pippin said somewhat crossly. "What is going on?"

"I wanted to examine your leg, Pippin," Aragorn answered, moving to sit on the cot beside the hobbit. "But first, Merry tells me you have had a fever." He stroked Pippin's sweaty curls back from his forehead, checking his temperature at the same time. "How do you feel? Do you have any more pain in your stomach?"

Pippin lifted his good hand to rub fretfully at the tip of his nose. "No, it just still aches like yesterday, but you said that was normal."

"Yes, it will be somewhat tender," Aragorn answered, adjusting blankets and the altered man's undergarment that served as the hobbit's nightshirt to expose Pippin's stomach. "Just let me check," he murmured, using gentle hands to assess the affected area. Pippin winced and shifted a bit on the cot, trying to ease his discomfort. Merry, still at the foot of the bed where he and Aragorn had been talking, scowled his displeasure and moved to sit on the bed by Pippin's head and take Pippin's good hand in his own.

Satisfied that the internal injuries were healing, Aragorn again moved blankets around until the left leg was uncovered. Prodding at the joints, he determined that the swelling had finally reduced enough to allow for a proper exam. Standing, he raised the leg with one hand, supporting it with his other hand under the upper calf.

Aragorn started with the injured ankle, carefully rotating it while still supporting the leg with his hand. After moving the ankle gently, he had Pippin do so himself, and was pleased when the joint performed as it ought with but a little tenderness. When he went to manipulate the knee, however, Pippin drew in his breath sharply and his face pinched with pain. Merry flinched in empathy, and Aragorn stopped immediately.

"Where did that hurt, Pippin?" he asked, gently fingering the knee.

"In my leg," Pippin said. "Up the thigh."

Aragorn frowned and moved his fingers along the thigh muscle. Merry leaned in closer to watch him, earning him a warning glance from the king. Merry held his ground and merely returned Aragorn's look steadily, surreptitiously scooting down a bit on the cot to obtain a better vantage point for supervising.

Pippin's breath caught again as Aragorn's fingers found the source of the pain. Lowering the leg to the bed, Aragorn bent to explore it with his fingers. "I am sorry, Pippin," he murmured when the hobbit made a small, involuntary squeaking noise.

Pippin swallowed with visible effort. "I know, Strider," he whispered, groping about for Merry's hand. His cousin immediately returned to his perch near Pippin's head and began stroking the palm of Pippin's good hand reassuringly with his thumb.

After a long silence, Aragorn sighed and straightened. "Let's finish looking at your knee," he said, rising and raising the leg again.

"What's wrong with his leg?" Merry asked sharply.

"I need to see how his knee is before I can say for certain," Aragorn answered patiently. "Tell me if any of this causes pain in your knee, Pippin."

"All right," Pippin said tiredly, giving Merry's hand a little squeeze. "It's all right, Mer."

The knee also proved to be in working order, though many of the movements Aragorn required of Pippin proved painful for the leg itself. Once he was satisfied on account of the joint, Aragorn lowered the leg back to the bed and cautiously felt the thigh muscle again.

"Pippin, I am afraid the muscle has been torn here," he said at length, running his fingers up from the side of the knee toward the front of the leg. "There is not much I can do to heal this injury, though I think it will likely mend itself, given time. I want you to stay off it for a bit longer, though, so no sneaking out of bed." This last was in a teasing tone, and Pippin gave Aragorn a half-hearted smile of acknowledgment.

"I was planning on dancing some jigs at the local inn tonight, but I suppose I will get over the disappointment," he said.

Merry's eyebrows were drawn together in consternation, and he frowned disapprovingly at Aragorn. "But isn't there anything you can do to help it heal?" he asked. "And how long will it be before it is completely better?" The question, "Will it get better?" he left unvoiced.

Aragorn stood up from the cot. "Actually, Merry, there is something you can do to help it heal. Come over here, please," and he gestured beside him. Merry rose and pulled over the nearby chair and climbed onto it in response to Aragorn's prompts.

"Now," Aragorn lifted Pippin's leg aloft again, "hold the leg like this," and here he cupped the heel in his left palm and held the calf in his right hand, "and now you, Pippin, just push your leg out against my hand." Merry saw the muscle in his cousin's leg contract with the effort and Pippin tightened his jaw. "All right, that's enough," Aragorn said after a moment, and carefully lowered the leg.

"What did that do?" Merry asked.

"It strengthens the muscle without the strain of actually carrying Pippin's weight," Aragorn said. "Pippin, you should push hard enough that you can feel the exertion, but not so hard that it causes great pain. And keep increasing the length of time as the leg strengthens. Merry, you should make certain that you are providing enough resistance by holding the leg still and pushing back slightly, but be careful not to push so hard you move the knee. Let's see," the king finished with a nod to Merry to pick up Pippin's leg.

This second effort left sweat beaded on Pippin's forehead, and Merry looking remorseful. Aragorn, however, was clearly pleased as he crossed to the other side of the bed and sat down beside his patient to unwrap the broken sword hand.

"That was good," he told the cousins. "Do that at least four or five times a day, about half a dozen exercises at a time. It will make a big difference when Pippin is ready to start walking around again."

Merry hopped off of the chair and leaned over Pippin to watch the battered hand emerge. Pippin, sensing the movement, sighed impatiently. "Merry," he said in exasperation.

"Sorry," Merry whispered, standing up straight. He decided instead to sit on the bed near Pippin's head again and hold the good hand while he studied the injured one, yet swollen and black and blue. Pippin scrunched up his face in pain during the exam, and still could not move the fingers at all. Aragorn did not push him to try, but simply bound the hand back up firmly after a few moments of examination.

"How is it today?" Pippin asked.

"It is still difficult to tell because of the swelling," Aragorn replied. "But for now, it looks as well as can be expected. There is no sign of infection, and there is blood flowing through it." He stood and gently patted Pippin's good knee. "You did very well, Pippin. I know you are tired, so rest now. I will come back to see you later tonight if I can. If I cannot, then I will come to see you by elevenses tomorrow, all right?"

"Thank you, Strider," Pippin mumbled, clearly at the end of his strength now that he had been given permission to sleep.

Aragorn smiled gently, and reached over to squeeze Merry's shoulder before leaving. Merry gave Aragorn a lopsided half-smile in return, then leaned back against the pillows and absently stroked Pippin's curls. He startled a bit moments later when Pippin spoke, for he'd thought the younger hobbit was already asleep.

"You shouldn't give poor old Strider such a hard time, Merry," Pippin reprimanded. "He is only trying to help me get better."

Merry scowled. "I am not giving him a hard time. I just want to know what is happening."

"It sounds to me like you are giving him a hard time, and you should stop it," came the counter. "You ought to know by now that he'd never do anything that's not good for me. Merry, I had a troll the size of Farmer Maggot's goat barn fall on me. There's bound to be a tiny problem or two when that happens to a person."

Merry grimaced at the blunt analogy and gave a small "Hmm," not ready to abandon his self-defense, but not really able to truthfully state that he had not been rather critical with Aragorn, and undeservedly so. He buried his nose in Pippin's curls and inhaled that unique Pippin smell of fruit and leaves and baking spices and shut his eyes against the relief and pleasure of it. "I have never been on my own when you were sick before," he said after letting out the breath in a long exhale.

Pippin, who had begun to doze, twitched a bit in surprise. "What?" he asked.

"I said," Merry pulled his face away from the top of Pippin's head, "that I have never been on my own when you were sick before. There were always adults and healers -- hobbit healers, I mean -- people who knew better than I what to do in charge of everything. I never had to worry about any of it. I just did whatever they said, and the only thing I had to do was comfort you or entertain you or just be there with you."

"But that is all you have to do now, Merry," Pippin said sleepily. "Aragorn and the healers know everything else to do."

"I don't always feel like they do," Merry admitted in a low voice. "I mean, I know that they do, and I certainly trust Aragorn and know what a great healer he is, but still -- they are Big People, Pippin. You are still hurt, and Frodo and Sam are not even awake, and I am the only hobbit here to make sure all of you get taken care of properly."

Pippin laughed a little, affectionately and drowsily. "Oh, my silly Merry," he said, unclasping their fingers and blindly reaching up to unerringly find his cousin's face. "Why are you worrying so? Don't you know that everything is all better now?"

Merry opened his mouth to reply that everything was most certainly not better, what with three of the four of them still in healing tents, and then realized that was not what Pippin meant. "I haven't thought about . . ." he answered slowly, trailing off to think furiously. A moment later, he let out a gust of air and laughed softly. "Everything is all better, isn't it, Pippin?"

But Pippin was sound asleep, nestled contentedly into Merry's chest and unconcerned with the world outside the safety of his cousin's arms.

Day Nine of the New Year (April 3 SR)

"Oh, but Legolas," Pippin was wheedling, "no one will know, not if you stop dawdling and we go now."

"Pippin, for the last time, no," Legolas answered, tossing his hands up in exasperation. "Aragorn said you were to stay quietly in bed, and the Valar only know what he will do to me if I take you strolling about the camp. Not to mention what Gandalf and Gimli and especially Merry would do to me. In fact, I do not know why you have chosen me as a likely mark for your devious little plans."

"Because when I told you there was something I wanted, you said I could have anything my little heart desired," Pippin countered, undaunted. "Oh, come now, Legolas, I won't be able to rest properly until I have seen for myself that they are all right. I have been so good, for days now, and I will not bother anyone about it again if you will take me now. Oh, please please please," and he put on his most endearing, beseeching face.

Legolas crossed his arms in front of his chest and bit back the retort that it would not exactly be seeing them, as Pippin's eyes were still bandaged. Then, just having thought that made him feel poorly about refusing Pippin, and, of course, it was hard for the hobbit, worrying and only getting second-hand reports, and he had been a very good patient, for days now . . .

"I suppose I was outmatched from the start," Legolas thought resignedly to himself moments later as he smuggled a blanket-wrapped Pippin out of the tent and across the camp.

"It smells nice out here, Legolas," Pippin said, wriggling his face out of the blankets. "Is it nice here? Is the camp very busy? It sounds like lots of things are happening."

"Ithilien is as nice as it was when we marched through it with the army. And the camp looks just like it did then," Legolas answered, reaching a hand to cover Pippin's face back up, careful not to smother the hobbit in the process. "And you promised to stay out of sight."

Pippin subsided, no doubt afraid that pushing his luck would end the excursion. They arrived at their destination and Legolas hissed, "No noise!" at his bundle before going in.

The healer seated inside stood and bowed respectfully when he entered, and Legolas inclined his head in response. "Good day to you," he said. "Tell me, is the Lord Aragorn or Mithrandir within?"

"No, Prince Legolas, just another attendant," the man replied. "Shall I send for them?"

"No, no," Legolas said. "I will be but a moment. I have brought some . . . special blankets preferred by the Shirefolk, to make the pheriannath more comfortable. I will just take them right in --" and he swept by the man into the interior, where he dismissed the other attendant. If either healer noted that the elven prince's bundle of "special blankets" giggled a bit, they were both wise and discreet enough to keep it to themselves.

Now Legolas uncovered Pippin, and the young hobbit became uncharacteristically somber. "Sam first, all right?" he said, surprising the elf.

"All right," he murmured, and then gently set Pippin down upon the edge of Sam's bed. When he was certain Pippin was steady, he took the hobbit's good hand in one of his and guided it to hover over Sam's shoulder. "Sam's right beneath your hand," Legolas said, and then moved back a pace.

Pippin's face was still and solemn as his hand carefully made contact with his friend and began to explore. His fingers crept over the still-dry skin, found and measured the once-stout arms, skimmed over the protruding collarbone, and padded across the familiar features so delicately that Legolas wondered if he could feel each new line and tiny healing mark. He finished at Sam's hair, and sat quietly finger-combing it, before leaning forward and unerringly finding Sam's cheek to press a kiss to. "Dear Sam," he said lovingly.

Legolas silently moved closer and whispered, "Are you ready?" He was loath, suddenly, to make any sound and disturb the reverent quiet of the tent.

Pippin nodded and held out his arms to be picked up. Legolas accommodated and soon had him perched on his cousin's bed. Again, he took the good hand and placed it just above Frodo's shoulder. "All right," he whispered to Pippin, who nodded.

In all the many ages to come, this memory would never diminish for Legolas, of Pippin carefully discovering and evaluating every small hurt on the Ringbearer's body. The hobbit made no sound at all, and his face was quiet and respectful. He left the damaged hand for last, and then touched it with a reverence that Legolas had not imagined lived inside the flippant little Took. Finally, he brought the bereaved hand to his lips and softly kissed the bandages. "Frodo," he said tenderly, then began to silently cry.

Legolas picked him back up and patted his back and rocked him, but Pippin shook his head even as he buried it in the crook of the elf's neck. "No, I'm all right," he said, sniffling. "I just really thought I would never see him again."

Someone in the doorway sighed heavily and Legolas started while Pippin gave a little squeal. "Well, now you have seen him, and if you don't want to get caught, you had best hurry back," Gandalf said. "Didn't you tell the Lord Aragorn that you wanted some custard, Peregrin? I just saw him headed across the camp with some."

Pippin squealed again and smacked Legolas' shoulder. "Hurry up, Legolas! You will be in dreadful trouble!" he commanded.

The elf was looking from wizard to hobbit as if he was uncertain what was transpiring. "I am sorry, Gandalf, he just really wanted to see them, and --"

"Caught, Legolas, you will be caught!" Pippin clamored, smacking his shoulder again. "Bye, Gandalf!" he added cheerily.

"Good-bye, Pippin. Be a good lad," Gandalf said, then helpfully held the door flap open for Legolas. "You'd best run," he said. Legolas decided not to question the wizard's good grace and dashed off as quickly as he could without jostling his giggling companion.

The Lord Aragorn did indeed have custard for Pippin, and if he noticed that Legolas' hair was a bit out of place, as though he had just come in from a sprint, the patient was much too grateful and engaging for the king to give it much thought.

Day 10 of the New Year (April 4 SR)

"Are you ready?" Aragorn patiently asked Pippin for the fourth time.

"I think I have to go," Pippin answered nervously, fingers plucking at his blanket.

"That was your first excuse," Aragorn said. "The sooner we start the sooner this will be over with, Pippin."

Pippin took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. He blindly reached out with his good hand and said, "Merry?" in a little, quivering voice.

"Right here," Merry promptly answered, grasping Pippin's hand in his own good one. "You didn't think I'd left, did you?"

Pippin shook his head slightly, squeezing Merry's hand tight. "All right," Aragorn said. "I'm just going to unwrap the bandages first, Pippin."

For days now, Pippin had been pestering his caretakers about removing the compresses and bandages over his eyes, but now that the time had come, he was nervous and twitchy. He had postponed the moment by asking for the privy, another pillow, a drink of water, and another blanket, but now he had run out of delaying tactics. He flinched when Aragorn began to unwind the bandages.

"Pippin," Aragorn's voice was gently admonishing, "this can't possibly hurt."

"No," Pippin agreed, but he held on to Merry's hand all the tighter.

The faces around the bed were grave and anxious. Aragorn was deeply concerned at the eyes apparent lack of healing. The swelling was slow to go down, and yellowish liquid indicative of infection drained from them. Additionally, the left eye socket had been broken, and he feared a bone fragment may have got into the eye itself and damaged it. In short, he wasn't certain Pippin would be able to see again.

At first, Merry had forbidden anyone to tell his young cousin of this possibility, but after some agony over the decision, determined he had no right to keep it from Pippin. To everyone's surprise but Merry's, Pippin had taken the news well, and had said there was no point fretting over it until the bandages came off. But that had been the day he had begun asking to have his eyes unmasked.

Aragorn finished unwinding the bandages and handed them to a hovering Legolas to set aside. "I'm just going to take the compresses off," he told the nervous hobbit, who nodded slightly. Gently, the king peeled the compresses off, revealing the battered eyes. Merry swallowed hard and gave Pippin's hand a squeeze.

Aragorn, quietly telling Pippin of each move before he made it, washed goo and medication off the exterior of both eyes and then gently felt the sockets and lids. Pippin began to chew on his upper lip but held still. The eyelids were a glorious purple color, but the swelling was reduced enough that the shape of the eyes beneath was identifiable. A line of sticky yellow drainage held the lids firmly together.

Finished with the cleansing and evaluation, Aragorn placed a fresh compress, damp and steaming with heat, onto the right eyelid and held it in place for several minutes. Then he gently pulled it away, patting a bit at the drainage, softened and loosened from the moisture and heat. "All right, Pippin, just open your eye now," he said.

Pippin was holding Merry's hand so tight that his cousin feared neither of them would have a good hand between them at the end of this, but he didn't complain. The lids separated slowly, eyelashes coming off as the goo reluctantly gave way.

"Breathe, sweetheart," Merry said abruptly, and Pippin obeyed by taking a sharp, shuddering breath.

"Merry," he wailed anxiously, and turned his face slightly toward Aragorn, seeking reassurance.

"I know, Pippin, you're almost there," Aragorn soothed in response. He could see lines of pain and stress on the hobbit's face. Merry clenched his jaw and looked ready to put an end to the procedure, but held himself back lest he be removed from the tent.

Finally, the lids were apart and the eye open, but it was coated in pus and film. "Legolas," Aragorn prompted, and the elf moved beside the bed to hold the eye open. Pippin was breathing frantically now and trembling.

"It's all right, Pip," Merry reassured him. "Aragorn just needs to wash your eye out, right, Aragorn?"

"Right," Aragorn said firmly, reaching for the solution he had prepared for this purpose. He gently flushed the eye with the liquid and used a soft cloth to pat away the refuse that trickled down his patient's face. After the third flushing, a clear green eye looked back at him.

Both king and hobbit let out gusts of breath in relief and grinned at each other. "Strider!" Pippin crowed, before glancing upward. "Legolas!" A look at the foot of the bed generated a "Gimli!" and, finally, looking to the left prompted a happy "Merry, Merry, Merry!"

Merry was laughing, but his own eyes were a little damp. "Hullo, Pip. Did you think it was someone else all this time?"

"No, but it is good to see your face," Pippin said decisively.

Aragorn flushed the eye a bit more, then had the patient demonstrate that he could open and close it and move the eye about in all directions. He also tested the hobbit's range of vision and found nothing at all amiss.

Satisfied, Aragorn switched places with Merry while Legolas moved back to the foot of the bed. Everyone was breathing easier through the opening of the left eye until Pippin finally had it open and they all saw the dried coating of blood on it.

"What?" Pippin said, frightened again as he took in their grim faces. "What's wrong with it?"

"There's just a little old blood, Pippin," Aragorn said calmly. "This is the broken eye socket, so I'm not surprised. I'm going to flush it out, like I did the other eye. Legolas --"

The elf moved back to Pippin's side to assist. Everyone was silent as Aragorn worked, and Pippin kept his good eye fixed in a frightened gaze on his cousin. Merry smiled reassuringly at him and stroked his thumb across Pippin's palm, but his features were tight with anxiety.

Finally, the eye was clear, but it looked back at Aragorn unfocused. He held a finger in front of it and put his other hand over Pippin's right eye. "Look right here, Pippin," he said.

For several hushed moments, the pupil did not change, but then suddenly it contracted and the sharp green eye was looking right at Aragorn's finger. Pippin grinned, proudly pleased, and everyone sighed in relief.

Aragorn, ever cautious, tested it as carefully as the other, and to his disappointment discovered that the peripheral vision seemed to be gone. Pippin, however, shrugged it off when Aragorn woefully told him that perhaps it would return with time.

"Really, Strider, I did almost end up as a permanent cushion to a troll," he said, oblivious to the horror-stricken looks that appeared on Merry, Legolas and Gimli's faces. "If all I have wrong with me is not being able to see out of one little corner of my eye, I don't think that's such a bad outcome."

Aragorn laughed, and tousled Pippin's hair. "Indeed. I quite agree," he said, and his face lightened as though a great burden had been lifted from him. "Soon you will be running about causing trouble as though you never had been hurt at all."

"If you let me out of bed, I will be," Pippin said, looking hopeful, and not at all subtle.

Aragorn chuckled. "How does this sound? After luncheon, you may walk about the tent with someone's help. We will see how things go for a couple of days, but if you continue to be a very good and obedient patient, perhaps you will be up and about in time for Frodo and Sam's feast. I am still expecting that to be on the 14th or 15th day of the New Year, if they continue to recover so swiftly."

Pippin put on a look of mock-affrontation. "Really, Strider, I can't imagine a better or more obedient patient than me," he said.

Aragorn laughed and leaned over to kiss the hobbit's brow, but Pippin prevented the action by grabbing Aragorn's face and pressing a kiss to his beard, surprising the king.

"Thank you for taking such good care of me," Pippin said. "Thank all of you for taking such good care of me." He beamed happily at each of them, then threw a pillow at Gimli's gruff face for good measure. "You too, Gimli," he said.

The dwarf harrumphed. "Are you certain he does not need to stay in bed for the next, say, month or two, Aragorn?" he asked. "Stay quietly in bed?"

Pippin chucked his other pillow at Gimli, satisfying everyone completely that his sight was fine when he hit the dwarf square in the nose.

Someone had left a scone on the table. Pippin had been looking at it for nearly five minutes now, wondering how it possibly could have been overlooked at breakfast. Or then again at second breakfast and elevenses (which were being served only upon his insistence, and were quite skimpy).

Perhaps, he mused, Merry had meant to have it at luncheon. Or to have as an afternoon snack. Or to have at tea time.

Perhaps, he thought after eyeing the scone a bit longer, Merry had meant for Pippin to have it at luncheon.

It would be a very Merry thing to do, he decided a few moments later.

And surely Merry would not mind if Pippin had the treat he had set aside for him a little early.

Thankful all over again for his recovered eyesight, Pippin used it to confirm that the tent was momentarily empty save for himself. If he scooted down to the end of the cot thus, then it was no more than half-a-dozen steps to the table . . .

The journey was tentative and teetering and a bit painful on the wounded leg, but it was not long before Pippin was just about to gleefully close his fingers about his prize --

"Peregrin Took!" a voice so like his Uncle Saradoc's bellowed at full volume, and Pippin snatched his hand away from the scone as though it had just caught on fire.

"It wasn't me!" he squealed before thinking, because, of course, there was no one else it could be, and he was caught right in the act. Ruefully, he turned to face Merry and seek forgiveness.

But to his bewilderment, Merry did not look angry. In fact, Merry had that look on his face that he only got when he was trying not to cry. "Merry?" Pippin asked tentatively.

Merry gave himself a little shake and hurried over to Pippin's side. "Come on, back in bed," he ordered, grasping Pippin's left arm so the younger hobbit could lean on him as he steadied him the few steps back to the cot. Pippin, disconcerted by Merry's reaction, meekly let himself be led and then tucked back in.

"Did you want this scone?" Merry asked, already walking away from the bed to fetch it for Pippin. But he stopped at the table with his back to his cousin, the fingers of his left hand clutching at the edge of the surface, his right hand twitching at his side.

"Merry, I'm sorry," Pippin said uncertainly. "Are you angry with me?"

There was no answer. Merry lowered his head and continued to clutch at the table for dear life, shoulders now shaking. He abruptly made a snuffling sound, and Pippin realized with horror that Merry was crying.

"Merry!" he exclaimed, and began to climb back out of bed.

"Oh, no, you don't," Merry snapped, spinning abruptly and moving to push Pippin back in the bed, tears still trickling down his face. He fumbled for a handkerchief in his jacket pocket and then swiped angrily at his wet face with it as he sat alongside Pippin. "No one said you could get out of bed by yourself yet, Pippin," he said from the safety of the handkerchief. "You could hurt yourself worse, you know, by trying things you're not ready to do yet."

"Sorry, Merry," Pippin said meekly, patting his cousin's knee. "Don't cry, Merry. I won't do it again."

Merry made a strangled noise of annoyance and emerged from the handkerchief, smiling even as he still cried. "Of course you will do it again, Pippin, and anything else you think you can get away with. I'm not angry, and it's not why I'm crying. I'm sorry, I don't know what it was. I just . . . You . . . I didn't," he stammered, finally blurting out, "I didn't know that I'd ever see you walking again, Pippin, or stealing my tea, or that you'd even be able to see my tea, or-or anything, Pippin. I was a-afraid that you would never, never be able to, or be here to --"

"Oh, Merry," Pippin said tenderly, and held open his arms. Merry was nestled within them a moment later, sobbing onto Pippin's shoulder while Pippin stroked his back and kissed his hair.

Merry finally cried himself out, and lay heavily in Pippin's arms, drained from the outburst. Pippin patted Merry's head reassuringly a few times, and then eyed the scone some more. Merry took some deep, steadying breaths and untangled himself from Pippin, who ducked his head to look into Merry's eyes and smile encouragingly.

"Better?" he asked, and Merry nodded, finding and making use of a fresh handkerchief atop a nearby trunk of supplies.

"You're still bad for getting out of bed alone," he muttered a moment later, poking Pippin gently in the chest for emphasis.

"It was awfully nice of you to save that scone for me, Merry," Pippin answered hopefully.

Accepting half of the scone from Merry a moment later, Pippin studied his cousin thoughtfully. Merry climbed up on the foot of the bed to consume his half of the treat.

"You do have a lot to be grateful for, you know, Mer," Pippin said seriously.

"Yes, I do," Merry replied just as seriously. "So much so that it overwhelms me sometimes."

Pippin nodded solemnly in understanding. "I can't even imagine how horrid it would have been for you, bringing me home blind and crippled and mangled," he said, popping a bite of scone into his mouth.

Merry raised his head to give Pippin an incredulous look. Pippin ignored it and blithely continued, "I remember all the dreadful trouble you and Fredegar got into when I fell off the back of that cart after you hadn't kept a good enough eye on me at the Golden Perch. That was just one little broken wrist, and Briony scared the two of you away from the Smials for half a year. Can you imagine what she would have done to you if you'd brought me home looking like this?"

Pippin was doing a poor job of hiding a smile now, but Merry's face was utterly solemn.

"Exile, Pippin," he answered. "Exile would have been the only safe route left to me. Perhaps they would have taken me in at Rivendell, though that might be too close to the Shire for me to be safe from her."

"And I doubt Lord Elrond would appreciate having to arrange a special watch on his lands for elderly, bad-tempered --"

"Overprotective --"

"Bossy --"

"Sharp-tongued --"

"Hobbit nurses."

"With very good aim," Merry added, finishing off his scone and then crawling up to the head of the cot to hug Pippin fiercely. Pippin returned the hug with enthusiasm.

"The things I save you from, Merry," he giggled.

"Wherever would I be without you, Pip," was the sincere answer.

(Note: Briony is my invention and can be found in several of my other stories. Pippin's childhood nurse, she was the terror of Merry's youth.)

Day 11 of the New Year (April 5 SR)

The big excitement of the next day was a bath -- a real bath, in a tub, not a sponge bath. Pippin was gleeful, and Legolas and Gimli soon discovered that hobbit bathtime (or at least Took bathtime) involved a great deal of splashing, sloshing, kicking and rather loud singing.

Merry was highly amused by their reaction, and so pleased to see Pippin in good spirits that he encouraged him in the bath play by splashing water in Pippin's face and prompting "Next verse!" until a large wave came over the edge of the tub and drenched Gimli. Legolas, choking back laughter, handed the dripping and sputtering dwarf a towel and then plucked the not-terribly-repentant hobbit from the tub and began drying him off.

"I think you are quite clean by now," he said when Pippin protested.

"I think we all are quite clean by now," said Merry with a grin, more than a little damp himself. He grabbed a towel with his left hand and began rubbing Pippin's hair with it.

There was more protesting when Legolas attempted to dress him in a fresh nightshirt, causing the patient to declare that he wanted real clothes today, but all three caretakers were firmly agreed that real clothes would make sneaking out into camp entirely too easy. Pippin seemed ready to dig his heels in on the issue and cause a ruckus, but the arrival of luncheon shifted his interest.

He ate with relish, seemingly trying to make up for days of little nourishment as quickly as possible. The others were glad to see it, having just observed scrawny limbs and protruding ribs and hipbones during the bath. Pippin also talked between each bite about the upcoming feast and his intended role of serving Aragorn with great enthusiasm. His caretakers worried that he was building himself up for disappointment, should Aragorn not let him attend after all, but Pippin dismissed their gentle warnings.

"I can't not go," he said decisively. "It's a feast to honor Frodo and Sam! They will miss me if I'm not there." And he determinedly tucked another sausage into his mouth.

Pippin's burning desire to attend the feast was excellent leverage in securing his cooperation for any number of behaviors, and Merry wielded it expertly after lunch to convince Pippin that some quiet time was in order.

"I won't nap, though, Merry," Pippin said as he acquiesced to reclining in the bed.

"Then just close your eyes to rest them," Merry encouraged him as he tucked the blankets around his younger cousin.

Pippin sighed, but obediently closed his eyes. "I really don't see how just lying here helps me get better, though," he said after a moment.

"Perhaps if you closed your mouth and rested that," Legolas suggested. Pippin cracked open an eye to glare at him as Merry reprimanded, "Not really very helpful, are you, Legolas?" Properly chastised, the elf subsided, and after a few moments of true quiet time, Pippin's features eased out in sleep.

Merry yawned and put his feet up on the cot. "I could not nap for a bit, too," he commented.

"Go ahead -- Gimli is," Legolas answered. Merry turned to look and sure enough, Gimli was nodding into his beard at the table.

"How can he sleep like that?" Merry marveled as he slouched into his own chair to find the best position.

"How can you sleep like that?" Legolas countered. "I have never met such people for sleeping in chairs. Lie down with Pippin -- there is room enough."

"I don't want to jostle him," Merry answered, crossing his ankles and folding his hands on his stomach. He was asleep a moment later, and did not wake for a good hour, when he heard Pippin suddenly exclaim, "Beregond!"

The nappers opened their eyes to find the soldier looking abashed and regretful. "I am sorry to wake you all, truly," he said. "I just hoped to find Pippin awake."

"Oh, I was not sleeping, Beregond," Pippin assured him. "At least, not much. And I would have been angry with Legolas if he'd let you go again without waking me up. I have missed you twice now because of everyone making me sleep all the time. But how splendid you look! I was worried, you know, because I knew you were hurt, and Legolas found you himself, didn't he? It is so good to see you!"

During his rather lengthy greeting, Pippin had climbed carefully to his feet atop the cot, putting him at the perfect height to hug Beregond, who returned the embrace gently. The soldier's expression was an odd mix of concern, amusement and bewilderment when he pulled away.

"You look much better, yourself, than you did when I was last able to come to visit you," he told the hobbit, eyeing him critically. "I am glad to see you so well. I was quite worried for you."

"Oh, we hobbits are tough," Pippin scoffed, plopping back down to sit on the bed. "Will you be going to the great feast, Beregond? I'll be serving Aragorn, of course, if I have to do it standing on only my right foot and pour his wine with my left hand, and Merry will be serving Éomer. Frodo and Sam won't know us, we'll look so grand in our uniforms!"

"So you are going?" Beregond asked, gratefully accepting the chair Gimli brought over. "The king will allow you abroad by then?"

"Well, I am almost completely better," Pippin said, dodging the question. The others noted that Beregond had also avoided answering; no doubt there were many things still uncertain about his future.

"Yes, of course," Beregond said tactfully, then leaned forward a bit closer to Pippin. "I have been wanting to thank you, Pippin. You saved my life, you know. I was certain I had met my end when that evil beast bent over me. I will never forget the valor and skill of arms you displayed in my defense. It would have been a near-incomprehensible feat for a man of great stature, but that you alone slew that monstrous creature -- well, in addition to my thanks, I will give you my apologies for underestimating you. I knew you were a marvel, and had braved many dangers, but even so, I did not do you justice. I, and my family, are ever in your debt."

Pippin appeared a little overwhelmed by Beregond's words, and looked away when he mentioned the troll. His three companions noted it immediately; Pippin had not spoken seriously to anyone about the battle, and brushed it aside whenever it came up. He was smiling and looking at Beregond again by the end of the soldier's heartfelt speech, though, and reached for his hand.

"You do not have to thank me, Beregond," he said sincerely. "You were so kind to me when I came to the City and was so all alone. And you owe me no debt whatsoever; you are my friend, after all, and I have no doubt that you would have done the same for me."

Beregond's smile was so joyous that it spread to everyone in the room. He took Pippin's small hand in both of his. "Well, then, consider this an act of friendship, and not of gratitude, if you will. I also wanted greatly to speak with you regarding another matter. You have met my son, Bergil, of course, but my wife and I also have two daughters, and we are to have another babe this midsummer. Should it be a boy, I would very much like to name him Peregrin, with your permission, of course."

Pippin's mouth dropped open for a moment in astonishment, then it curved into an enormous smile. "You want to name your baby for me?! Truly?! No one has ever been named for me, ever! How wonderfully splendid that would be! Did you hear, Merry?" Here Pippin whipped his head around, searching for his cousin. "Beregond is going to name his new baby Peregrin! Did you ever think when you named me that someday someone else would name somebody for me?" He paused, reviewing his last sentence. "Well, you know what I mean," he added, grinning proudly.

"I never doubted it, Pip," Merry said, emerging from a corner to come stand beside the bed. "How could you have grown up to be anyone but someone people would want to name their children after?"

"Well, I certainly never thought it," Pippin said, looking at Beregond with glowing eyes. "That is the most splendid gift ever, Beregond, truly!"

Beregond laughed, though he looked a little startled by the enthusiasm with which his announcement had been met. "Of course, there is my wife to convince, but I am certain I will have Bergil on my side. And mayhap soon you will meet the rest of my family for yourself, and then she will be certain to agree."

"Oh, I can help there, Beregond," Pippin assured him. "I can be very persuasive."

Gimli coughed, and the noise sounded suspiciously like a chortle. Legolas was managing to look serenely innocent. Merry, uncertain if Gimli had laughed and distrustful of Legolas' countenance, scowled at them both for good measure before turning back to his cousin and Beregond with a smiling face.

"That is a truly splendid gift, Beregond," he said. "I have not seen you to tell you, but Bergil was most attentive to me in Minas Tirith. He is a kind, brave lad, and it is a nice thought that he may have a Pippin of his own some day soon, provided the baby is a lad."

Beregond returned the smile. "I hope you will be kind enough to grant him some advice on helping to raise a Pippin, seeing as how you have done such a admirable job in that field," he said, and Merry flushed in pleasure and modesty.

"It has had more to do with the Pippin than with me," he said in a low, sincere voice, reaching out to stroke Pippin's curls affectionately. Pippin beamed back at him.

"You've had something to do with it, Merry," he said with a mischievous grin. "After all, how else would I know how to get into the pantry unnoticed? Or where the loose plank is in the fence at the Bracegirdle farm? Or which inns serve the best ale, and which ones have the prettiest serving-lasses? Or --"

"Yes," Merry cut him off, "I suppose I have had something do to with it, most of it best left unmentioned, thank you very much."

Pippin subsided and did not mention the rest, but after Beregond left, he whispered in his cousin's ear, "And where all the creaky floorboards are en route to the cellar kegs at Bag End. I never would have known that without you there to teach me, Merry."

Merry just covered his face with his hands and muttered, "And to think, someone is being named in honor of you, Pip. Who would have thought we'd see the day?"

That night, Legolas crept into the tent to shake Merry gently. "Oh, I am nearly asleep," Merry groaned in response, then jerked upright. "Is he all right?" he demanded, already fumbling about for his discarded outerwear by the light of the moon coming through the open flap.

"Yes, yes, I am sorry," Legolas hastily assured him. "He is sound asleep, and Gimli will stay until morning. I just could tell you were not quite asleep and wanted to ask you something."

"Oh," Merry said, letting the tension run out of his body and flopping back down on his bed. "In that case, whatever do you want and why must you ask it now?"

"You gave Pippin his name?" the elf asked. "Is that hobbit custom, or was there some special reason you were allowed to name your cousin? You must have been just a child yourself, were you not?"

Merry yawned hugely. "Legolas, I cannot believe you woke me up to tell you a bedtime story. Do you really want to know?" When Legolas nodded, Merry sighed. He shut his eyes, but continued speaking. "Don't laugh at me, but I had an omen when he was born. He was born too early, you know, and I believe everyone truly thought he would die that first day of his life. But he is my strong little lad, even now, isn't he?"

"Yes, he certainly is," Legolas answered quietly. "And I would not laugh, Merry, to think you had an omen about Pippin. What was it?"

Merry opened his eyes to look into the elf's face. "I was young, myself, just eight years old. My family arrived at the Took estate that morning by chance, and found the baby just born but so frail. We children were shooed off and told to behave and I wandered off alone for a bit, to sit and think. So, I was sitting and thinking, and really quite sad, because I had been wanting a little lad cousin forever, and just kept getting more lass cousins all the time, and now here was my lad, and he might die. And while I was thinking this, I looked up and there was a peregrine falcon flying overhead, coming to rest atop a tree. They are not common in my country, and we had just been at Bag End, so Bilbo and Frodo had been filling my head with all kinds of nonsense, and I somehow became convinced that the bird was an omen to me, and that it must have to do with the new baby. We looked at each other, and after a while it flew right over me, circled three times and cried out before flying away. So then I was completely convinced that it was an omen that the baby was going to be all right, which of course he was.

"Anyway," he concluded, "the whole story came bursting out of me that evening to my mother and Pippin's father, who was so delighted by it that he named the baby Peregrin. And that is how I gave Pippin his name."

Legolas' face was quiet and thoughtful. "Thank you, Merry," he said. "I am glad to have heard that story." He stood, then hesitated. "I have not much experience myself with omens," he added slowly, "but I do not doubt their reality. Nor do I doubt that you and Pippin are deserving of one. You should not describe it so, Merry, as though it were a childhood fancy. I do not believe that it was."

Merry's face was somber as well. "I do not really believe it to be a childhood fancy, you know, though it is Pippin who deserved it, not I. But my people tend to make light of things we do not completely understand, rather than give them the reverence they deserve. Thank you for treating it thus."

Legolas smiled at him, and reached out a hand to gently touch the sleep-tousled honey-brown curls. "Sleep well, Meriadoc of the Shire," he said.

"Good night, Legolas," Merry answered, but he lay awake for a while, thinking about omens and fate and friendships.

(Note: In writing this story, I found that it was connected to many of my other stories. I have tried to make this tale self-explanatory, but please do not hesitate to let me know if something requires further explanation. The story Merry relates above to Legolas appears in its original form as the chapter "Just In Time for Supper" of my story "I Always Know You.”)

Day 12 of the New Year (April 6 SR)

Merry caught his tongue between his teeth and narrowed his eyes, focusing all of his attention on the stubborn leaf brooch to his cloak. He could fasten it well enough with just his left hand by now, but this morning had obstinately decided that he ought to be able to close the clasp with his right hand and he therefore would do so. If only his fingers would cooperate!

His fingers slipped and fumbled, and Merry felt a drop of sweat roll down his furrowed brow. He stubbornly kept trying. If Frodo and Sam could crawl up Mount Doom, if Pippin could stay alive buried beneath a troll for more than 24 hours, if Gandalf could actually return to life, then he, Meriadoc Brandybuck, could force his fingers to obey his will.

Or not. The brooch fell from his hand altogether, and his cloak slid from his shoulders. Drawing breath to tell the brooch in no uncertain terms exactly what he thought of it, Merry was bent to retrieve it. A large, strong hand intercepted him, plucking up the adornment before he could.

"I know, Master Meriadoc, that you were not about to say anything derogatory about something the Lady of the Golden Wood gifted to you," Gimli said, snagging Merry's cloak from the ground as well and draping it back around the hobbit's shoulders.

Merry gave him a wry smile. "No, of course not," he said, and allowed Gimli to fasten the clasp. "How was Pippin's night?"

"Uneventful," Gimli answered. "He was awake early enough and demanding breakfast. I do not know how hobbit parents keep their broods fed."

"You just make the older children tend to the younger children," Merry said absently as buttoned his waistcoat, opting to use his left hand in front of Gimli. "And have plenty of food on hand at all times."

Gimli chortled. "I think that is a bit of an understatement," he said, and sat on the edge of his bed. "I thought I'd take a brief rest, as I told Aragorn I would be on hand to lend him some help later today. Are you off to see Pippin?"

Merry nodded. "For a bit, at least. Éomer needs me later today. I'll make sure that Legolas will be around, so that Pippin isn't alone. Have a good rest, Gimli, and I will see you later."

"Thank you, Merry," Gimli answered, then called out as the hobbit began to leave the tent, "And have Aragorn look at that hand, would you?"

Merry paused, left hand holding back the tent flap, right hand curled idly at his side. "I'm just a little tired," he responded after a moment, not turning to look at the dwarf. "It's healing well enough. I don't think I need to bother Aragorn about it."

Gimli's eyes crinkled. "If I know the king, and I do, he would rather you did bother him about it. Just have him take a look when he comes by to check on Pippin. Humor me, Merry, for all the pains I have taken for you."

Merry smiled lightly, and turned his head so Gimli could see his profile. "You make it hard to refuse, Gimli," he answered. "If I keep having trouble with it, I will let Aragorn know. But, really, I am just tired this morning."

"Then Aragorn will say you are just tired, and accuse me of fretting overmuch," Gimli said. "Have him look at it. And don't forget to bring Pippin something for 'second breakfast' -- the servants at the mess tent still do not believe it is a real meal."

Merry grinned, nodded and ducked out the door. Gimli let his eyes rest on the tent flap thoughtfully for a few moments before lying down to rest. "Young hobbits," he muttered to himself, "are a great deal of work."

Merry was busy with Éomer, and Gimli was assisting Aragorn with various tasks, so Legolas was left with the task of getting Pippin off to sleep on what looked to be his last night as a patient, provided Aragorn gave him permission to leave his bed in the morning. Supper consumed, medicines taken, pillows fluffed and blankets tucked, Pippin snuggled down into the bed and looked expectantly at Legolas. The elf raised an eyebrow at him.

"Don't I get a story or a song or anything?" Pippin complained.

"I think you're getting quite spoiled, you know," Legolas answered, but he sat down willingly enough upon the edge of the bed.

"I know," Pippin said affably, "but I figure this isn't going to last much longer, so I'd best make the most of it."

Legolas laughed, making Pippin beam with delight. "Actually," now the elf sobered, "I have a gift of a sort for you, but I fear you will find it rather sad."

"A sad gift?" Pippin asked in surprise.

Legolas was searching through his garments as he spoke. "I meant to give it to you long ago, but there were always more pressing matters. And then once I recalled it, I wanted to find a chain for it so you could keep it safe. I have waited too long, but here it is, nonetheless."

He drew a slender silver chain out. Dangling from the end of it was a small silver ring set with a tiny pearl. Pippin's face was solemn as he reached for it.

"Oh," he said in a tiny voice as Legolas folded it into his hand.

"It was a liberty, I know, but I took it when we prepared his last honors. I hoped to give it to his brother, but the circumstances seemed poor for such a moment. Besides, I thought it more appropriate if you be the one to return it to his family, and that perhaps you would like to keep it safe until then."

Watching the hobbit study the ring, Legolas saw a new kind of wise melancholy appear on Pippin's face. The ring had belonged to Boromir's mother when she was a girl, and Boromir had carried it with him in her memory. It had slipped out of his clothing one day after a precipitous decent down a slope, and tumbled into a crevice, out of reach. Pippin had been gloriously boastful (and quite dirty) after he had retrieved the ring for his friend by demanding the great man dangle him by his ankles over the high ledge. Merry had been proud, Frodo had been askance, Legolas had been amused, but Boromir had been sincerely grateful. The other members of the Fellowship had noticed a marked change in the man's sentiments toward the hobbits after that, and toward Pippin in particular.

"Thank you, Legolas," Pippin said now, and slipped the chain around his neck. "I will keep it safe, and I would very much like to give it to Faramir."

Legolas reached out to smooth a twist in the chain, and then rested the palm of his hand on Pippin's collarbone, over the ring. "I miss him, too," he said simply, and Pippin nodded before reaching for his friend.

He was a little damp and sniffly when they pulled apart, so Legolas fetched a handkerchief before Pippin could decide to use the sheets to wipe his nose. Once he was cleaned up and resettled in bed, Legolas resumed his perch at the edge of the mattress and took Pippin's broken hand gently in his own. The hobbit's good hand was carefully fingering the ring.

"A story? Or a song?" Legolas asked, but Pippin shook his head.

"Neither, thank you. But will you sit for a bit?" he answered.

"Of course, dear heart," Legolas said tenderly. He was quiet and watchful as Pippin lay wrapped in memories that soon lulled him to sleep. Once he was confident that the hobbit was asleep for the night, Legolas slipped outside the tent, mindful to stay within earshot. He watched the stars kindle and the moon wax, humming softly. An occasional lyric, half-formed, wove its way from his throat. He remained oblivious to the looks of awe and delight he garnered from passersby.

By the time the moon was waning, the elf looked quite pleased with himself. He returned to the tent to check on his charge, and found the hobbit's face peaceful in sleep, his hand loosely clasping the ring at his neck.

(Note: The tale of Pippin retrieving the ring for Boromir originally appeared in the chapter "Making Good Use of Your Hobbit" in my story "The Care and Feeding of Hobbits.")

Day 13 of the New Year (April 7 SR)

Aragorn thought he might be the only person in the tent breathing as he carefully examined each of Pippin's wounds the next morning. He tried to ignore the onlookers and focus on his patient.

The eyes seemed better than he'd ever hoped for, though the peripheral vision in the left one had not returned so far. Pippin's battered face in general had improved remarkably over the past fortnight -- pale yellow shadows of the bruising remained, but even his bottom lip was much better and the stitches were ready to be removed.

The broken ribs likewise were doing well, their recovery facilitated no doubt by the forced period of inactivity. Aragorn determined to leave them lightly bound and let them continue to heal. Pippin still had a small tender spot on his abdomen, also now yellowish in appearance, but that was to be expected and no reason for alarm. Discoloration mottled his body still, but everywhere had faded from vibrant blues and purples to subdued yellows and violets.

A less well-trained healer might not have even been able to anymore discern that the left ankle and knee had been dislocated. The torn muscle worried Aragorn a bit, but it was time to start letting Pippin walk on it more and build up its strength. The broken toes felt almost healed, to the king's amazement.

The worst remaining injury was the mangled hand, but it could remain bound and splinted without hindering Pippin's activities overmuch. Aragorn frowned as he turned it carefully in his own hand -- he feared that some bones would have to be reset soon, but said nothing. He wrapped it back up and set it down atop the blanket, then smiled at his patient.

"Well, Master Took, how would you like to serve me at Frodo and Sam's feast?" he asked.

"Would I?" Pippin bellowed, and was out of the bed before Aragorn could blink. The king heard the three onlookers exhale heavily as one, and then Pippin had tackled Merry in a hug with a whoop.

"I told you he'd say yes, Merry!" he crowed in delight. Merry grinned happily and allowed himself to be mauled as he hugged Pippin tightly. Gimli chortled with pleasure and a smile danced about Legolas' lips.

"Won't Frodo and Sam be amazed to see us so towering and in our uniforms and everything!" Pippin continued to Merry in delight, then turned to Aragorn. "And don't forget, Strider -- just tell them we are here and all right, or we won't be a surprise to them at all."

"Yes, I recall my instructions," Aragorn said as he stood and plucked Pippin out of his cousin's arms. "Now, I have some rules, too." He sat Pippin on the edge of the bed and then sat back down in the chair, leaning forward to look the hobbit in the eye. Pippin schooled his face into attentiveness.

"You're to rest for a bit after luncheon today, and then be in bed by nightfall," he stated. Pippin nodded. "No running about or strenuous activity, and if you feel you need to sit down or rest, you're to do so immediately." Another nod. "If you don't feel well tomorrow morning -- for I believe Frodo and Sam will awaken and be ready then -- and especially if you have a fever, you're to see a healer, and you're not to attend." This nod came only after a disappointed look. "And," the king concluded, "if I find that any of my food or drink has been subjected to hobbit-tasting before it is set in front of me, you will spend the remainder of our time in Ithilien cleaning up after the horses."

"Really, Strider, if I ever did such a thing it would be only to make certain you were getting the best of everything," Pippin responded.

"Of course," Aragorn said dryly. "I don't suppose anyone could find some more suitable clothing for the king's esquire?"

"There are some things ready for him, I believe," Legolas volunteered. "I will go find them now."

As the elf departed, Aragorn turned to the other hobbit in the tent, standing close by Pippin's bed. "Now," he said, "come here and let me see this hand of yours, Master Brandybuck."

Merry opened his mouth to protest but bit his tongue at the commanding look Aragorn gave him and reluctantly moved closer and held out his sword hand.

"What is wrong with your hand, Merry?" Pippin asked, distressed.

"Nothing," Merry answered, wriggling his fingers. "It's healed just fine."

Aragorn put two of his fingers in Merry's palm. "Grasp my fingers as hard as you can," he ordered, and Merry obeyed, not with the strength of several weeks before, but not with unexpected weakness either. Then Aragorn reached inside his vest and brought out a single grape. "Now pick that up with your fingers," he said.

Merry's hand shook a bit, but he reached out for the grape, only to have his fingers fumble at it unsuccessfully. He finally grasped it between a finger and his thumb only to have it drop back into the king's hand as he tried to pull it away. Flushing with embarrassment and frustration, Merry guiltily met Aragorn's eyes.

"Merry!" Pippin cried. "Why can't you use your fingers?"

"It's getting better," Merry said in a low voice.

"I hear differently," Aragorn replied, and Merry cut a nasty look at Gimli. The dwarf was not affected and glowered back at the hobbit with good-intentioned severity.

"It's all right, Merry," Aragorn soothed. "Here, let's see if you can do this," and he touched the tip of each finger to his thumb one by one. Merry managed to connect only two of his fingers to the end of his thumb. He blushed even redder and swore.

"Merry," Aragorn said reprovingly. He did not swear himself, and moreover, he had heard Frodo reprimand Merry for not watching his language on enough occasions to know such words were not acceptable among gentlehobbits.

Pippin had risen to stand by Merry's side, and now he put his arms around his cousin. "It's all right, Merry, isn't it, Strider? His hand will get better, won't it?" Pippin's voice was a little shriller than usual.

"I don't know," Aragorn said honestly, "but I can recommend some things that might help." He showed Merry a few hand-strengthening exercises, and also advised that Merry spend some time each day practicing something that required fine hand coordination, like buttoning. After hearing numerous assurances from Pippin that Merry would do everything he had suggested, Aragorn left to attend to Frodo and Sam.

As soon as the king had departed, Merry fixed a steely glare at Gimli. "It was getting better just fine without all this fuss, you know," he began, but Pippin interrupted.

"Merry Brandybuck, I don't believe you!" he exclaimed, then recited in a fairly good imitation of Merry's Buckland accent, "Pippin, no getting out of bed. Pippin, it's time for you to rest. Don't do that, Pippin, you'll strain your eyes. No, Pippin, your leg isn't strong enough for that. Pippin, eat more vegetables, they're good for you. Pippin, no more sweets, too much is bad for you.

"Besides," he concluded, ignoring the guffawing Gimli, "you made me a promise once that you would take care of yourself just as good as you take care of me. You'd better do every single thing Strider said, and maybe I'll forgive you for forgetting your promise. But no more pretending you're all right when you're really not!"

Merry's earlier ire had vanished and now he looked remorseful. "Oh, Pip, I'm sorry," he said. "I just didn't want anyone to worry when you and Frodo and Sam are hurt so much worse. You're right -- I'd never let you act like you were all right if you weren't."

Pippin leaned over to kiss Merry soundly on the cheek. "No, you certainly wouldn't," he said affectionately. "So no more of that. I'm going to be watching you now, you know."

Merry sighed. "So it seems," he said, but he was smiling.

Pippin nodded firmly in satisfaction, then put his hands on his hips. "Now, where is Legolas with my clothes?" he demanded of his audience at large. "If he thinks I won't go to the feast like this and serve Strider, he's wrong."

"I don't know that Aragorn would approve," Gimli said tactfully.

"Oh, I'll just say it was Legolas' fault," Pippin said carelessly, just as the elf entered the tent carrying a small bundle of clothing.

"It was not," Legolas said immediately, setting the clothing on the bed. "Whatever it is, it was Pippin's fault."

"Legolas, I do believe you're finally learning how the world works," Pippin said with a touch of pride. "Now, help me get dressed."

Poor Gimli had a sudden coughing fit, but Merry and Legolas got Pippin outfitted quickly enough and they quitted the tent and went outside to discover the bright new day.

(Note: Merry made the promise Pippin refers to in the chapter "Promise Me Right" of my story "I Always Know You.")

(NOTE: Marigold deserves additional credit for this and several other upcoming chapters, in particular “The hands of the king,” and “Are the hands of a healer.” She was pivotal not only in advancing the plot, but in generously adding many wonderful passages to the story. She truly is the unsung hero of this story and of my other works, unflaggingly making sure I am on the right course, freeing me from any nasty entanglements that come along, and giving me a hearty shove when I seem to be stuck. So if you enjoy what you’re reading, please remember her in your feedback.)

Both hobbits' newly made dress uniforms were delivered to the tent all four friends now shared that evening, and Pippin made a grand fuss over them, insisting both he and Merry try them on at once and see what they looked like.  

First he insisted that much be made of his cousin, who did indeed look very distinguished arrayed in the livery of Rohan, especially (if one listened to Pip’s intimations) after he had taken it upon himself to make several rather unnecessary tugs and adjustments to the impressive garments. Wisely though, judging by the glare Meriadoc had finally fixed upon the tween-ager, Pippin had stopped fussing just short of an actual attempt at “having a go” at smoothing down Merry’s already tidy curls with “a lick and a spit,” a procedure that Legolas had observed more times than he could count during his acquaintance with this pair, but always administered the other way around.  

Pippin, who looked no less noble adorned in the silver and black garments of the City, was now preening and trying to see as much of his own reflection as was possible in a silver plate. Pippin was quite outspokenly finding it woefully inadequate to his requirements, much to the amusement of Legolas and Merry, whose irritation had passed as swiftly as it ever did, when Gimli approached him, looking oddly bashful. The dwarf had retrieved something from his belongings that he now held behind his back. 

"Ahem," Gimli said, just as Pippin noticed him and turned to ask, "What do you have there, Gimli?"

Gimli shifted a bit, uncomfortable. "You were holding it when I found you, but somehow it fell from your grasp before you reached the healers. I was in a fine state the next morning when I realized it was gone, but fortunately, I managed to find it before we left the battlefield. I don't think a soldier of the White Tower should be without one on such a grand occasion." And here Gimli moved his hands from behind his back to present Pippin with the Westernesse blade that had served as his sword for all these months and miles.

Pippin's face sobered as he tentatively reached his left hand out for the hilt. His fingers closed about it and he took the sword, studying it intently.

"Thank you, Gimli, that was incredibly thoughtful of you to go and find it," Merry answered for his cousin, moving closer to Pippin to place a hand on his cousin's shoulder. "Pip," he whispered in Pippin's ear when the younger hobbit still did not respond to Gimli.

"I never let go of it, Mer," Pippin whispered back, eyes fixed on the blade. "Just like Boromir told us -- never, ever let go of your sword, or you may never get it back. But then it was gone, so I thought I must have let go of it after all."

"Indeed, no," Gimli said solemnly. "You grasped it firmly still when I rolled that beast off of you. You did not let go until the battle was over and won, just as he taught you."

Now Pippin looked up, his eyes shimmering with unshed tears. "Thank you, Gimli," he said sincerely. "I -- thank you."

Gimli ducked his head and made a series of harrumphing, grunting noises, then managed to say, "Well, I could not have you serving the High King in that grand outfit and no sword at your side. Hardly seemed fitting."

Pippin smiled, and to Merry he suddenly looked grown-up and wise. It occurred to Merry that it was not so much that Pippin had changed as that he had become more Pippin, more of that he was meant to be. "Now if only I can keep clean throughout the whole day," Pippin said, and Merry saw his cousin was indeed still there, young hobbit and soldier all at once.

"And please don't forget to comb that hair," Aragorn said from the door flap, making the four friends turn toward him. Pippin grinned cheekily, all tween-ager again.

"It is asking a lot, Strider, but I will do my best for you," he said, bowing low, and Aragorn laughed as he entered the tent, followed by Éomer . Merry pulled himself up straighter at Éomer 's entrance.

"And do not forget, I am 'Strider' only amongst friends," Aragorn said, placing a hand on the unruly curls in question.

"Yes, sir," Pippin said seriously, but his face was still shining when he turned it up to look at his king.

Éomer  turned to Merry, his face amused. "I hope Éowyn has not taught you to address me by any of the names she had for me in our childhood," he said to the hobbit, who laughed.

"She has not yet had the opportunity," Merry said, "but perhaps she and I will soon be able to have that conversation."

Éomer chuckled, and Aragorn smiled in amusement. "Perhaps I shall join you for that conversation, Merry," he said, and Éomer mock-scowled at him. Then the High King looked down at Pippin, his hand still on the hobbit's head. "Well, Master Took, you look very handsome in that uniform, I must say." 

“Thank you, sir. But just look at Merry, too! Doesn’t he look . . . doesn’t he look . . .” Pippin seemed to having trouble finding just the right word, and Merry started to blush. “Pip,” he began in a low voice, but too late, as Pippin said, “. . . elegant! No, courtly! Courtly is better!” Merry turned a bright shade of red and gave him a look that said he was going to pay for that remark later, but Pippin didn’t care, and just beamed at him, as did the others. Both hobbits looked elegant and courtly in their attire, though each was obviously prouder of the other than of himself.

Aragorn looked Merry over carefully, with as much approval as he had looked over Pippin, and nodded his agreement. “Courtly, indeed, Master Brandybuck, and well I know your brave heart that beats unwavering whether it be beneath bare rags after miles on a lonely road or beneath the grand livery of Rohan that you now wear, and well deserve. Were it not that Rohan looks to Gondor I would be most jealous that Éomer King is your liege lord and not myself. But in serving him, you serve me as well, and I know that he values your great worth and appreciates his good fortune, so I will be content. Besides, I must not be greedy and claim that all of the bravest warriors of Middle-earth serve at my side. For do I not already have Master Took sworn to my service, with a heart that matches yours? Peregrin, you look nearly ready to serve the High King. I see Gimli finally returned your sword." 

Both hobbits were somewhat overwhelmed by Aragorn’s words, but Pippin managed to pull himself up straighter and Aragorn obligingly moved his hand so that Pip could preen a bit. "I am ready," he said. "I don't believe Frodo will even know who I am at first." 

Aragorn smiled softly. "You are not quite ready, though," he said. "I do not think the High King should be served by anyone less than a knight, do you, Pippin?"

Pippin's face fell in disappointment. "Oh," he said in a tiny voice. "Are you supposed to be served by a knight?"

"Well, I will be the High King," Aragorn said solemnly. "Do you not think I deserve to be served by a knight?"

Pippin struggled to get his face composed. "Yes, of course," he said. "But, I mean, well -- maybe there is some other way I could help you tomorrow. I should like to do something, that is, if you will let me."

Aragorn's lips twitched. "To be a knight, Peregrin," he said in a voice that was both gentle and commanding, "a soldier must prove his faithfulness to his sovereign, as well as demonstrate generosity, self-denial, bravery, and skill at arms. You, in true Took fashion, managed to accomplish all five in one act." The king extended his hand. "Your sword, soldier of Gondor."

Pippin's expression rapidly changed from disappointed to bewildered to bashfully proud. The tips of his pointed ears flushed red, but after a moment's hesitation, he handed the hilt of his blade to Aragorn and looked up at him uncertainly. He suddenly found Legolas at his elbow. "Kneel on one knee, Pippin," the elf whispered in his ear, then gave him a supporting arm when the injured leg didn't quite want to comply. Properly situated, Pippin looked up at his king.

"Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the Shire, I proclaim you Knight of Gondor," Aragorn said, lightly touching the blade of Pippin's sword to the hobbit's right shoulder. "May you ever defend her lands and her king with the faithfulness and bravery that have earned you this title."

Pippin's ears were scarlet now, but his face was beaming. Beside him, it was hard to tell who was most likely to burst from pride -- Merry, Legolas or Gimli. When Pippin went to stand and the bad leg wobbled again, three hands reached to steady him, but he waved them away and gained his feet unaided. Aragorn handed him back the hilt of his sword and Pippin fastened it to his side.

"Thank you, sir," he said in a near-whisper, uncharacteristically shy over the unexpected honor.

"No, Pippin, it is I who must thank you, and all of your fellow soldiers, for making this day possible," Aragorn answered, then knelt himself on one knee to draw Pippin into an embrace. Pippin went willingly, and if both king and knight's eyes were shimmering with tears when they pulled away, the onlookers were too busy surreptitiously wiping the corners of their own eyes to take note.

There was a great deal of embracing and shoulder-squeezing and back-slapping that followed, but the congratulations eventually made their round and Éomer had the chance to survey Pippin. "So, the High King's attendant is finally properly knighted, outfitted, and armed, yet my own seems to be without a weapon. It strikes me as an unfair thing," he said.

Merry shifted uneasily. "I lost my blade at Pelennor, sir," he said, thinking that surely Éomer  knew this by now.

Éomer  bowed his head in acknowledgment. "And you could not have lost it to a better end," he said seriously. "But, still, I will not be outdone by our High King, nor will I suffer him to be served by a knight when I am not." Thus saying, he produced a gleaming argent blade from beneath his cloak and solemnly held the hilt out to Merry.

The hobbit took it slowly with both hands, blinking uncertainly. "This is one of your knives, Legolas," he said after a moment, feeling the perfect balance and lightness of the weapon as he admired the intricate elven runes on the blade. He knew the weapon was deceptively ornamental-looking -- its edge was sharp and deadly, and it had served Legolas for more years than the Brandybucks had inhabited Buckland.

The elf was unobtrusively loitering near the back of the tent, but now he moved forward. "And I am honored to know it will be worn by such a valiant soldier of the Riddermark," he said. "When I heard that Éomer  sought an appropriate weapon for you, I was eager to offer it."

Merry blinked, completely overwhelmed. "Say 'thank you,' Merry," Pippin whispered teasingly in his ear, making Merry smile and look up. "Thank you," he said sincerely, looking first at Éomer  and then at Legolas. "Thank you very much."

"Théoden King would have made you a knight of Rohan," Éomer  said, his face grave, "but I hope you will allow me to act in his stead. I will have you properly honored later, after the King has been laid to his final rest, as we do not perform such ceremonies while in mourning. But I would have you sworn to me now, if you will have it thus."

Now it was Merry who looked grown-up to Pippin, tempered by grief into wisdom and strengthened by trial into fortitude, standing tall and proud and noble beside him. This was not the brash young cousin he had left the Shire with, but a different Merry, possessing a quieter, deeper confidence. There was an aura of greatness about his cousin that had been veiled to Pippin until now. The younger hobbit pulled himself up straighter and moved away from Merry's side to join Legolas and Gimli and Aragorn, standing respectfully together to witness the scene.

Merry did not answer Éomer , but simply knelt on one knee and presented his king with the hilt of his sword. Éomer  accepted it and addressed the hobbit solemnly.

"Do you pledge to serve the Riddermark and her King, to protect her lands and her people and her horses, until death or King dismiss you from this charge?" he asked.

"I do," Merry answered, and Éomer  lightly touched him on each shoulder with the knife's blade before handing him the hilt. "Then rise, Meriadoc, son of Saradoc, sword-thain to Éomer  King. I name you knight of Rohan. Take your sword and bear it unto good fortune!"

Merry blinked back sudden, unbidden tears, hearing another voice saying those last words in the noisy dining hall of a battle fortress, but he accepted the hilt and stood tall and straight before his king. He and Éomer  solemnly regarded one another for a long moment, then burst into smiles at the same time. The four onlookers likewise smiled with pride and respect, pleased at the apparent love between soldier and king. Éomer reached down to clasp the hobbit on the shoulder, and Merry reached his hand up to grasp Éomer 's forearm.

Watching them, Pippin suddenly realized that he and Merry were not just knights of Gondor and Rohan in name, token titles to honor their deeds, but that they truly belonged to these lands and these people as surely as they belonged to the Shire. What an adventure we have been on, he thought, and who could have ever seen this end to it?

Pippin felt a soft squeeze on his shoulder and craned his neck to see Aragorn behind him, looking proud and pleased.

"Would you have thought all this, Strider, back at the Prancing Pony?" Pippin asked. "Could you ever have pictured it?"

"It is the best of all my dreams, Pippin," the king answered. "And it will be better yet, and then even more."

Pippin did not think it possible, but it seemed too cheeky even for him to point out to the High King, so instead he just reached his hand up to rest on Aragorn's fingers on his shoulder. Besides, he thought, if I am wrong, what a splendid thing to be wrong about.

Day 15 of the New Year (April 9 SR)

Merry found Sam on a hillock behind his and Frodo's tent, contentedly smoking his pipe as his gaze aimlessly wandered over Ithilien. The younger hobbit hesitated for a moment, wondering if perhaps Sam preferred his privacy, but then the gardener turned and smiled at him.

"Mr. Merry, do you know that someone found a pipe somewhere around here and set it out for me, along with a pouch of what I could swear is Longbottom Leaf," he said. "It was right nice of whoever that was, but I can't for the life of me figure where the leaf came from, seeing as how all of ours was gone long ago."

Merry grinned lopsidedly at Sam as he sat down beside him, pulling out his own pipe and pouch as he did so. Sam watched as Merry lit the pipe, noting with some concern that he used his right hand merely to steady the pipe.

"Your senses do not deceive, Sam -- it is Longbottom Leaf," he said. "Pip and I scavenged it at Isengard. I imagine it was meant for Saruman, and it's troubled me on more than one night how it got there. You know, Lotho bid me out of some pipeweed land in the Southfarthing two years ago. I thought at the time he did it to spite me, but now I find myself wondering what has happened to those crops."

Sam's face darkened. "That's a troubling thought, Mr. Merry," he said. "However this weed came into that Saruman's hand, it wasn't a good thing. I hope folks at home are farin' all right -- I do worry about my poor Gaffer."

Merry put a hand on Sam's shoulder. "I know you do, Sam. I miss my folks too, and wonder about them. But we Shirefolk have done all right by ourselves in these grand affairs -- I'm sure that those at home are managing quite fine without us."

Sam smiled. "Aye, I reckon." The two sat in companionable silence, smoking, for a bit, until Sam roused himself and looked about. "Where is Mr. Pippin hiding at? I thought he'd be along right after you. Is Strider keeping him busy?"

Merry coughed nervously. "No, no, actually, he stayed in bed today. I think yesterday may have been too big a day for him. He's not been allowed up at all for but for the past couple days, and he was tired and cranky and a bit feverish this morning. So we tucked him back into bed, and I imagine he's still sleeping."

"Well, then, what are you doing here?" Sam asked in surprise, and then turned furiously red when Merry looked at him, open-mouthed. "Oh, Mr. Merry, I'm sorry, I was just so surprised, knowing how particular you are about Mr. Pippin --"

"It's all right, Sam," Merry said, laughing. "I am particular about Pippin, aren't I? In fact, there are some who might say I'm a little too particular. And there are others, especially among dwarves, who might say that I'm enough to drive one mad and that I ought to go have a walk and a smoke and leave the saner people to some peace."

Sam laughed. "Well, I'm sure that those people are keeping a good eye on Mr. Pippin in the meantime," he said, then sighed. "It sure is good to be with everyone again -- you and Mr. Pippin and Legolas and Gimli and Strider and all. And Mr. Gandalf! He was the biggest surprise of all. You don't know how we missed the sound of friendly voices, Mr. Merry."

Merry didn't answer, but took Sam's hand in his and squeezed gently. Sam squeezed back, then let go to brush at his eyes. Merry looked away for a moment, and when he turned back, Sam was complacently smoking his pipe, no sign of damp eyes.

"So now I'll ask -- where is Frodo? He is not ill today, is he?" Merry asked.

"Oh, no, just taking a nap," Sam said. "I ought to be able to hear him from here when he gets up. I suppose I am rather particular about him, meself."

"Are you, then?" Frodo said from behind them, startling both younger hobbits. "I suppose I'll believe that, though it seems you overestimate your sense of hearing, Sam."

"Mr. Frodo, you should ought to have called for me," Sam sputtered, but Merry only mildly said, "Hullo, Frodo. Join us?"

"I will pass on the smoke, for now, but I will sit with you," Frodo said, stretching out beside Sam. "The fresh air tastes too good for me to desire pipeweed, I find, though I would thank whoever found us some pipes and set that weed out for us."

"I'm sure it was no trouble for him, cousin," Merry said. "In fact, I'm sure that he is so happy to see you again that it was a pure pleasure to do any little thing for you."

Frodo smiled at Merry, who was ducking his head and looking at him from the corner of his eye. "Well, thank you anyway," he said softly. "Now, did I hear you saying something about Pippin while I was getting dressed?"

Merry answered with frown. "Oh, he is not feeling so well today," he answered. "A little feverish and overtired. I think he tried to do too much yesterday. I should have paid more attention, but he was just so excited about seeing you and serving Aragorn at the feast that there wasn't much reining him in."

Frodo smiled affectionately, but his eyes were troubled. "He was hurt very badly, then, wasn't he?" he asked softly, and Merry nodded.

"Yes, he was -- yes," Merry said. "But he's much, much better, Frodo, truly. That sword hand is a mess, and Aragorn says it still needs something done about it, and he tore a muscle in his left thigh -- that accounts for the limp -- but it is healing nicely. And there were . . . other problems, that are over and done. I am trying not to worry anymore, and you should try not to start worrying, for he has had the best of care and treatment. It could not have been better were he the king's own son."

"I believe you," Frodo said gently. "And what about my dear Merry? How is he healing? I am worrying a little about him, for he doesn't use his sword hand much these days."

Merry held the hand in question in front of him and frowned at it as he flexed it. "It is healing some," he said. "Aragorn has given me some things to do every day to help it, and I've been dutiful -- especially with Pippin asking me about it every five minutes. I am sure it will be fine in a couple of weeks."

"It seems Sam and I have not fared so poorly after all," Frodo said. "Aragorn's only instructions to us have been to sleep and eat and drink, all as much as we can."

Merry laughed shortly. "Now there are some healing instructions," he said. "Throw in being served your meals by the lasses down at the Green Dragon and it's an idyllic existence."

Frodo threw back his head and laughed, a real, genuine, from-the-belly laugh, and it spread to Merry and Sam, who felt themselves warm from toes to curls at the sound of Frodo laughing, at the sight of Frodo's blue eyes sparkling.

In a nearby tent, the High King and the great wizard Mithrandir paused in planning the ordering of the reunited kingdom and the onset of the new Age, both turning their heads to better catch the sound of hobbit laughter drifting over the hills of Ithilien. The king smiled softly to himself, but the wizard threw back his head and laughed in pure delight, a fountain of joy overflowing.

Day 16 of the New Year (April 10 SR)

Pippin's fever had risen sharply by the next morning, and his tentmates were alarmed to see red streaks creeping up his right arm from the injured hand. Legolas and Merry set to work applying cooling cloths while Gimli wasted no time in fetching the king.

Aragorn found Pippin bundled in a blanket sitting on Legolas' lap while Merry wiped his cousin's fever-flushed face. Pippin looked at him blearily and whispered, "Strider, I don't feel well."

"I can see that," Aragorn answered gravely, pulling a chair over to where Legolas sat at the edge of the hobbit's bed. He placed a hand on Pippin's brow to check his temperature while feeling his pulse at his neck with his other hand before saying, "Let me look at this hand."

Pippin offered Aragorn the injured hand, sitting up straighter. "I'm sorry, Strider," he said miserably. "I know you have lots of important things to do and instead you have to spend all this time taking care of me."

"Peregrin Took." Aragorn's voice was reproachful. "What could I possibly have to do that is more important than taking care of you?" He smiled kindly at the hobbit, and Pippin returned the smile gratefully, if wanly. The king then set to work uncovering the damaged hand.

Gimli steadied the arm and accepted the bandages that Aragorn unwrapped while Merry tightly held Pippin's good hand and Legolas cradled the hobbit close. The bandages gave way to a sight that made everyone's breath catch in their throats.

The hand was obviously infected, an angry red swath running from the base of the palm up Pippin's arm. The skin in the affected area was taut and shiny. Moreover, Pippin's fingers still looked mangled, all wrong angles. "Oh, no," Pippin said, and started crying. "Strider, look at my hand!"

"Oh, Pip," Aragorn answered with concern, touching the hand gently and feeling the heat radiate from it. "I see it. That isn't good, is it? No wonder you feel bad."

Merry's face was white and his eyes wide, and Legolas and Gimli looked shaken. The hand had looked badly healed but not greatly swollen and with no trace of infection just two days prior. No one had said the word "amputation" to Pippin, but the other three had heard it regarding this hand should infection set in, and their fear was apparent. Aragorn carefully turned the injured hand over between his two larger hands, looking at it closely, then sighed heavily.

"Pippin, we have to stop this infection, and that means I have to cut and drain your hand," he said. "And these fingers must be reset. It's possible they are aggravating the infection."

"So you have to break my fingers again?" Pippin asked, understanding immediately.

Aragorn nodded and put a comforting hand on Pippin's knee. "I am sorry, Pippin. Let me get some supplies and someone to assist. It should be done right away."

Pippin nodded, still sniffly and wet-eyed. "If you can't fix it, will you have to cut off my hand?" he asked tremulously.

"Pippin!" Merry exclaimed. "Who told you that?" Aragorn's hand quickly encircled the older hobbit's upper arm to calm him.

"I may have to do that yet, Pippin," he told his patient, "but only after I have tried everything else, and only if it is a choice between the hand and your life."

Pippin met Aragorn's eyes steadily, then nodded woefully and tried to press closer to Legolas. His good hand squeezed Merry's ferociously. "All right," he mumbled.

"All right," Aragorn repeated softly. "I'll be right back."

The four friends were silent for long moments, and then Pippin said, "No one told me, Merry, but that's what happens when your hand is all mangled, isn't it? I'm not stupid."

Merry raised Pippin's good hand to his lips and placed a little kiss on the knuckles. "No, you're not," he answered. "I didn't want you to have to know about such awful things is all."

"I know about awfuller things, Merry," Pippin said, and something in his tone made tears spring to Merry's eyes.

Aragorn returned with the healer woman who had been helping tend to Pippin, ending the conversation. The king began laying instruments out on a clean linen cloth on the small trunk in the tent.

"Do you want to remain on Legolas' lap, Pippin?" he asked, and Pippin nodded.

"Can I?" the hobbit asked.

"Yes," Aragorn said, setting medicinal supplies out with the instruments. "Would you clean the hand?" he asked the healer woman.

She was already approaching the hobbit, a small bucket of steaming water in one hand and a vial and cloth in the other. "And here I thought I was done with you," she told Pippin tartly. He smiled faintly in reply as she sat down.

"Hullo," he said, and let her take the hand.

"This will smart some," she warned before wetting the cloth with clear liquid from the vial and then washing the hand with it. Pippin gritted his teeth and shut his eyes but did not fight her.

"And this should not hurt a bit," she said kindly when she had finished, and put the hand in the small bucket of hot water. Pippin sighed a bit in relief, and Legolas rubbed his back. The healer woman vacated the chair and stood at Aragorn's side as he gave her instructions in a low voice. She nodded, then set to work sterilizing a small knife over a candle while Aragorn carefully washed his hands in a basin of water. He then sat down and pulled the chair up close to Pippin.

"Let's see what we have now," he said, drawing the hand from the bucket. After having soaked for several minutes, the skin was no longer shiny, but it was puffy and red. Aragorn gently dried it off with a small cloth, then carefully felt along the palm, focusing on a new scar near the bottom of the palm where something had sliced in during the initial crushing. Aragorn wet a corner of the cloth with a brownish liquid from yet another vial and swiped over this area of the hand.

"Gimli," Aragorn said quietly, "would you hold Pippin's arm still at the elbow and shoulder. And Legolas, make sure his upper body doesn't move. Merry, I'm sorry, but I need more room."

Merry looked reproachfully at Aragorn but moved out of the way. Pippin tracked him with frightened eyes as Gimli grasped the younger hobbit's shoulder and elbow.

The healer woman handed Aragorn the sterilized knife without being asked, and Pippin instinctively drew back, pressing into Legolas. "You don't have to watch, Pippin," the elf said, turning the hobbit's head into his chest. He tightened his grip and nodded to Aragorn that he was ready.

"Pippin, just breathe deep and steady," Aragorn said. "This actually should not hurt a great deal. I'm starting now."

The king carefully sliced into the infected area and within seconds a thick yellow substance began to ooze out. Pippin gave a little squeak, but did not move or cry out further. Merry wrapped his arms tightly about his chest and took a faltering half-step forward, then two deliberate steps back. The healer woman steadied the hand itself, holding a cloth beneath it to catch and clean up the foul matter coming out of the infected area.

Once the incision had stopped oozing, Aragorn gripped Pippin's forearm and began pushing into the limb with his thumbs, down from the elbow toward the hand. This prompted more infected matter to seep from the incision, and Pippin's breath to hitch.

"All right, Pip?" Legolas asked, cradling his head with a hand and stroking his curls. Pippin nodded, but did not pull his face away from the elf's chest. Aragorn repeated this pressing procedure from several different angles on the hand and arm, until no trace of the yellowish substance discharged from the wound.

"I know this isn't pleasant, Pippin," he said at one point, "but it's important we get all of the infection out, or you could suffer from blood poisoning, which can be very, very serious."

"Yes," Pippin said in a tiny, muffled voice, head still buried in Legolas' shirt. Three sets of troubled eyes fixed on Aragorn as he said this, wondering exactly what "very, very serious" meant, but the king did not elaborate for hobbit, elf or dwarf. Finally, the draining was complete and Aragorn sat back with a sigh as the healer woman brought back the bucket, filled again with hot water, and had Pippin soak his hand again for several minutes. She then cleaned the wound one last time with the brownish liquid.

"All done," she said briskly, moving away, and Pippin finally emerged, heaving a sigh of relief.

"That wasn't so bad," he said, looking carefully at his hand. The swelling was greatly reduced, and the skin no longer taut and shiny.

"No, but I have to stitch that up now," Aragorn said, nodding at the wound he had put in Pippin's palm. He got up to rewash his hands and then returned with a needle and a thick black strand of horse hair. Pippin watched calmly, even when Aragorn warned, "I'm afraid this will hurt more than when I cut into the hand, Pippin." The hobbit merely nodded that he was ready and willingly extended his hand.

Aragorn started, estimating that the wound would require about a dozen stitches. It was clear from the start that this procedure was more difficult for Pippin than the cutting and draining had been. His face going white and his breathing quickening, he returned his face to Legolas' chest. After a moment, he began to whimper.

Merry, still tucked away into a corner of the tent, clenched his jaw to stifle his objections to anything that caused his little cousin pain. Gimli adjusted his grip on Pippin's arm when it began to twitch involuntarily.

"Should you not give him something to ease the pain?" the dwarf burst out roughly, startling everyone.

Aragorn kept his eyes on his task. "I will when this is over, but he still has to have those fingers reset, and I don't want any of the medication to have worn off when I do that," he said steadily. "I would have to give him too much if he had it now -- he's built up some resistance to the pain medication we've been giving him. He also may want some after everything is done, and I could not offer anything if he were to have it now. But, Pippin, if it is too bad, I could give you a little something now. Just know that it will limit our options later."

"No, I don't need anything now," Pippin said in a high, fast voice. "Just hurry, please."

"I am, Pip," Aragorn reassured him. "It will be over soon."

No one spoke as the king finished stitching up the hand, but finally it was done and he wrapped the palm in fresh bandages. Merry began pressing closer as soon as Aragorn set aside the needle and snipped off the extra horse hair, so when Aragorn finally pushed the chair back and moved away, Merry was beside his cousin in an instant.

"All done, Pip," he said in a low voice, rubbing Pippin's back. Pippin turned his head away from Legolas' chest, revealing damp eyes and a white face. "You were so brave," Merry said quietly. "I'm so proud."

"Uh-huh," Pippin said, and leaned into Merry's embrace wearily, breathing heavily and sniffling a little. Legolas stroked the hobbit's hair and tilted his head down to smile into Pippin's face encouragingly while Gimli patted Pip's knee. Aragorn and the healer woman busied themselves preparing for the resetting of the bones, and allowed the three friends to comfort Pippin, and to brace for the coming ordeal.

Once the supplies were in order, Aragorn re-approached his patient, a mug in his hand.

"All right, Pip?" he asked first, and Pippin nodded gamely. Aragorn handed over the mug and cautioned, "That is fairly strong, so don't worry if you feel a bit fuzzy. It should help a lot, though." Pippin nodded and obediently set to work draining the mug.

"Do you have to re-break all of his fingers?" Merry asked in a low voice.

"All but the thumb, it looks like," replied Aragorn, who had taken the injured hand back into his two hands and was looking carefully at each finger. "I'm going to need room again, Merry."

Merry scowled a bit, but delivered a quick kiss to Pippin's forehead and moved out of the way so the healer woman could approach and take the mug away from Pippin. She set the mug away and returned in a moment, her hands full of splinting materials.

Pippin was listing a bit in Legolas' loose embrace, his eyes slightly unfocused, so the elf drew him close and adjusted the hobbit so his grip was secure. Gimli held Pippin's shoulder and elbow again and Aragorn grasped the hobbit's wrist firmly.

"Are you ready, Pippin?" he asked quietly.

"Uh-huh," Pippin said groggily.

Aragorn took the hobbit's index finger in his other hand. "All right," he said. "On three. One. Two. Three --" and with a lightning-sharp movement, he yanked the finger straight. The SNAP of the bone breaking reverberated in the tent, amazingly loud. From his corner, Merry gasped.

Pippin drew in a long, ragged breath, his face going completely white. Then he let out a series of short, sharp cries, and tears leaked from his eyes.

"We know, Pippin, we know," Aragorn soothed as he accepted a splint and bandages from the healer woman. He had the finger properly set quickly, and then leaned in to place a comforting hand on the hobbit's upper arm and peer critically at his face. Pippin had stopped crying but was taking gulping breaths. "Can you go on?" Aragorn asked seriously, not certain what he would do if Pippin said no. But Pippin nodded yes, still unable to speak, so Aragorn positioned himself to repeat the procedure on the middle finger.

Pippin screamed as the bone broke, and then began to keen, high and in the back of his throat. Aragorn did not ask him if he could continue this time, but moved on as quickly as he could, determined to get the ordeal over with, for everyone involved.

When the ring finger broke, Pippin gave a strangled little scream, and abruptly went limp and silent in Legolas' arms. "Pippin!" Legolas said in a commanding voice, just as Merry cried out, "Pip!" in anguish, and rushed forward. The healer woman caught him and moved him firmly away. Aragorn did not look up from splinting the ring finger, but asked in a strained voice, "Legolas?"

The elf was checking the hobbit's pulse at his neck, but Pippin was visibly breathing heavily. "I think he's just fainted," Legolas reassured everyone.

"Don't try to wake him," Aragorn murmured, and Legolas nodded. The king moved right on to the final finger, and the SNAP rang out for the last time. As Aragorn set the splint, Gimli abruptly said, "Merry."

Everyone turned to see Merry swaying a bit on his feet, his face as white as Pippin's. The healer woman handed over her supplies to Gimli quickly and was beside Merry in an instant, guiding him into a chair. "Head down, head down," she said quietly, using a hand to push Merry's head forward. He took deep, gulping breaths and covered his eyes with a shaking hand.

"I'm all right," he said thickly. "I just didn't realize how much it would hurt him."

The healer woman patted his back reassuringly, then went over to the supplies and returned with a mug. "Have some water," she encouraged, pressing the mug into his hand. Merry took it gratefully and drank.

Aragorn finished with Pippin's final broken finger, and then proceeded to splint the entire hand. Pippin remained limp and unresponsive throughout, his breathing slowing. Legolas accepted a damp cloth from the healer woman and washed the sweat off Pippin's face.

Once he was finished, Aragorn pushed himself up from the chair, the strain of hurting Pippin to heal him showing on his face. He sighed. "All right," he said, "that is over with. I'll stay with him for a bit, and I'll leave plenty of medications to keep him comfortable. He's going to hurt when he wakes up. For now, let's just get him back into bed."

Gimli was shifting uneasily while the king spoke, so Aragorn turned to him and raised an inquiring eyebrow. Gimli nodded toward Merry's chair, and they all turned to find that Merry had apparently fallen asleep slumped against the back of it.

"Did he faint?" Legolas asked with concern as Aragorn quickly approached the hobbit. He checked his pulse and laid a hand on his brow, then took the mug from Merry's slack hands and sniffed suspiciously at it. The king turned sharp eyes at the healer woman's back. She had not turned from packing up supplies, and now said calmly, somehow sensing the eyes on her, "I raised five boys, and sometimes they just do not know when a little rest is the best thing for them."

Rather than argue with a woman who had raised five boys, Aragorn simply tucked Merry into his bed to sleep the draught off, while Legolas put Pippin into his and Gimli propped the injured hand up with a pillow. Once the healer woman had left, Aragorn extending his thanks to her, Legolas turned to his companions and said, "Just be certain none of us accept anything to drink from her. I dare not think what she imagines is the best thing for us."

Aragorn, settling into a chair and lighting his pipe, said mildly, "You've been spending too much time with these hobbits, Legolas. It's made you entirely too cheeky -- I fear you may be completely ruined for your father's court now."

"What a pity," Legolas said with a complete lack of concern, and stepped outside as Gimli joined Aragorn in smoking. Through the partially open flap, they could hear him humming an unfamiliar tune that had oft been on the elf's lips of late.

Pippin woke to find himself nestled into a fellow hobbit body he immediately identified as Frodo's. His head was tucked into Frodo's shoulder while his older cousin softly stroked Pippin's hair. Years of memories of waking countless times in this very position flooded over Pippin so vividly that he half-expected to smell the familiar fragrance of Bag End's garden wafting in through the open window and hear Merry's voice, yet undeepened by adulthood, calling, "Hoy, slugabeds, are you going to sleep all day?"

But then he spied Frodo's bereft hand laying on the blanket, and smelled the piney air of Ithilien, and Bag End vanished with waking. He found he was blinking back tears as he turned his face into Frodo's chest.

"Are you in pain, dearest?" Frodo asked tenderly, touching Pippin's cheek, and the use of the familiar childhood endearment prompted the tears to fall.

"No," Pippin answered in a quavering voice, though he was aware that his hand was aching and throbbing and that he still felt somewhat feverish. "I just thought we were home for a second, and that none of it had happened."

Frodo did not answer, but kissed the top of Pippin's head and let him have a quiet little weep. When he was done, Frodo mysteriously produced a handkerchief, and Pippin laughed a bit as he accepted it.

"How do you always have one of these on hand, Frodo?" he asked. "Do you have a magical means of replenishing handkerchiefs so that you are never without?"

Frodo chuckled. "Why, yes. It is called 'Sam,'" he said, and Pippin giggled as he wiped his nose. "Feel better?" Frodo asked as Pippin deposited the handkerchief over the side of the bed. Pippin nodded and nestled back into Frodo, sighing with weariness.

"Are you certain you don't need something for this?" Frodo queried, lightly touching Pippin's heavily bandaged hand.

"I don't need anything," Pippin mumbled. "Don't leave." He gripped Frodo's shirt with his good hand and pressed a little closer.

"All right," Frodo murmured. He stroked Pippin's hair until the tween-ager's eyes shut again, and then gently traced the shadows of bruises still faintly visible on his younger cousin's face. Pippin opened his eyes again to look at Frodo inquiringly.

"It was a very big troll, wasn't it?" Frodo whispered.

Pippin nodded, his lips trembling. "It was so big," he admitted, "and I didn't feel like a hero. I still don't."

"Neither do I," Frodo confessed, and Pippin nodded solemnly.

"Were you very afraid, Frodo, before the Eagles came?" he asked. "Did you think you'd come to the end of your story?"

"To my part, at least," was the answer. "But I was not afraid, Pippin. It was over, and I was glad. I would have sent Sam away from me, back home safe and happy, if I could have, but that was all I wanted at that moment." He was quiet for a minute, and then tugged on Pippin's ear. "Were you afraid, Pippin?"

"Not -- not right then," Pippin said in a hesitant voice. "It seemed so -- easy, suddenly, and not at all like I would have thought. But I am glad I am still here, and you too, Frodo."

Frodo touched Pippin's bruises again with feather-light fingers. "I am glad you are here too, dearest," he said. Pippin blinked slowly, thoughtfully, at him, but then Frodo kissed his brow and whispered, "Sleep." Pippin obeyed, and his dreams were full of the colors and smells and textures of Bag End, and the sounds of his cousins' voices.

Day 21 of the New Year (April 15 SR)

Merry was not quite halfway back from the mess tent when he realized that he might have overestimated how much food one hobbit could carry on one tray. Carefully balancing the overflowing tray with his left hand, he reached for a teetering tart with the right. The passing of a horse-drawn cart threatened to disrupt this delicate balance, causing Merry to hold his breath for a moment, but then he managed to find a particular tilt to his body that righted everything. Unfortunately, the particular tilt that balanced the tray made moving forward awkward.

"Ahem," a familiar voice coughed above his head, just before the king reached out for the tray. Merry kept possession of the tart.

Aragorn looked down at the contents as the two began to move toward the tent. "Really, Merry, you are only two hobbits, you know," he said.

"We are four hobbits, thank you very much," Merry replied, quickly dispatching the tart, "and one of us slept through breakfast and I'd like to see him make up for it at second breakfast. Building up strength and all. Not to mention that the other two haven't had six square meals a day since I don't know when."

Aragorn dipped his head apologetically. "Your pardon, Master Brandybuck. But I would suggest you draft someone to help in the delivery of elevenses. And luncheon, and tea . . ." he said, and Merry grinned.

"Aragorn," he asked, "when you are the king and living in the fine palace at Minas Tirith, will you serve second breakfast and elevenses and afternoon tea? It would be a fine tradition to introduce to the people of Gondor."

"They will be served only to hobbits, Merry, only to hobbits," was the answer, followed by, "How is the hand?"

Merry held his right hand out in front of him and touched the tip of his thumb to the ends of three fingers. His aim failed on the ring finger, but Aragorn noted that the hobbit moved his fingers with much more ease and confidence than he had just a week prior. "It has been working much better," Merry said, "though sometimes when I am tired it is still cold and numb."

"That may never go away," Aragorn said. "I am afraid that it is often so, that great deeds come with a price. But I do not have to tell you that. Still, if you are able to use it the majority of the time without difficulty, I am satisfied. And I believe a month from now, it will be improved even more."

"I am faithful about those exercises, you know," Merry said. They had come to the hobbits' tent now, and paused outside.

Aragorn smiled at the hobbit. "I know you are, and I know that there is no lack of persons about to make sure that you stay that way," he said. "Now, how was Pippin this morning?"

"He wants to get up," Merry said flatly, just as a petulant voice was heard from within.

"Frodo, I can lie about all day in real clothes just as easily as I can in this silly nightshirt. I don't see why I can't get dressed."

"Because you can decide to go strolling about the camp in real clothes much more easily than if you're in that silly nightshirt, as you proved when you gave us the slip yesterday. It is your own fault you can't get dressed, and you know it."

There was the distinct sound of a small body being tossed in frustration against pillows. "I just wanted a bit of fresh air. Do you know how tedious the inside of this tent can become after days on end?"

"As tedious as your whining?" Merry asked, jerking open the tent flap and going inside. "I am sorry you find recovery so dull, Pippin. Perhaps you would prefer another bout of illness brought on by disobeying your healers."

Pippin stuck his tongue out at Merry, then abruptly retracted it as Aragorn came in behind his cousin with the laden second breakfast tray. "Good morning," the king said. "Is everyone in fine spirits today?"

No one looked to be in particularly fine spirits, with Pippin fretting to be up and about, and Frodo and Merry exasperated with Pippin's fretting, and Sam put out to hear his Mr. Frodo spoken to thus, even by his beloved baby cousin. Still, the arrival of food does amazing things for hobbits, and being well-versed in their ways, Aragorn decided to join the four for second breakfast before examining Pippin.

An empty tray and a half-hour later, everyone was in a much better mood, and Aragorn let Merry and Sam (with Frodo supervising) clean up the scant remains of the meal while he sat on the edge of the bed to look at his patient. He found Pippin to be bright-eyed and without the low fever that had plagued him the first days after the hand had been reset. The hand had not shown further signs of infection, but the constant fever had worried Aragorn more than he had said to the other hobbits. He had feared that the poisonous infection in Pippin's hand had spread to the hobbit's bloodstream and that he could still worsen and die. But the fever had broken early the previous day, and the change in Pippin had been almost instantaneous. After nearly three weeks of forced inactivity, the young hobbit was beside himself to be abroad.

Satisfying himself that all signs of illness had indeed dissipated along with the fever, Aragorn unwrapped the bandage on the broken hand, then each of the broken fingers, one by one. Pippin was quiet and cooperative, as he always was during these examinations, though Aragorn knew they pained him. Sometimes he could scarce believe this was the same little hobbit who had made such a fuss over his midge bites on the road to Rivendell.

"It looks better, doesn't it?" the hobbit in question asked, and Aragorn nodded.

"It does indeed. The bones are healing nicely, and I think I can take those stitches out in a couple more days," he said. The hand certainly looked battered, but the telltale redness and swelling of infection were nowhere to be seen, and the mending bones were now aligned correctly. Aragorn turned the hand palm down and studied the back of it, looking at its structure. "Pippin, I do believe you may regain normal use of this hand once it is fully healed," he mused. "I will not promise you anything, but this is remarkable. I would not have thought it possible when I first examined you, and certainly not after the complications."

Frodo laughed, and both healer and patient turned toward him. "It is good to know we hobbits are still surprising you, Aragorn," Frodo said, eyes twinkling with amusement.

Aragorn smiled wryly at him. "Do you find me a slow learner, Master Baggins?" he asked.

Merry, having finished with his part of the clean-up, set the tray aside to be returned to the mess tent and came to stand at Frodo's side. "That's really not fair, cousin," he said to Frodo. "Certainly not when he's finally figured out how all the meals work. Just this morning he told me he's going to serve second breakfast and elevenses and afternoon tea at the palace."

Pippin giggled, and Aragorn gave him a look of mock sternness. "You will not enjoy six meals a day so greatly, Master Took, when you are required to bring each of them to me and not partake of your own until I am finished," he said.

Pippin giggled some more and Aragorn began to splint the broken hand again. "Let's just wrap the fingers together, if that suits you, Peregrin," the king said. "You should find that much less cumbersome while the four of you are about today."

"So I can get up?" Pippin asked in delight.

Aragorn nodded. "If Sam remembers where he hid your clothes," he said with a wink to Pippin.

"When would I ever forget a thing like that, Strider?" Sam said, a bit stung, but Frodo soothed him with a hand on his shoulder.

"Come on, Sam, let's go retrieve Pippin's things before he decides to tear through camp in that nightshirt," he said, steering the gardener toward the tent flap. "We'll be back directly, Pip, and I promise you an entire afternoon of wanderings and fresh air."

Merry edged closer to the bed. "So, he is better then?" he asked, managing to sound hopeful and frightened all at the same time.

"For good, I think, this time," Aragorn replied, putting one hand on Pippin's head and the other on Merry's shoulder. Merry let out his breath in a gust and gave the king and his knight a lopsided smile.

"It is about time, Pip," he said to his cousin. "I was beginning to think you so dreaded the thought of having to do everything Aragorn tells you to that you were contriving ways to stay in bed."

"Merry," Pippin said with exasperation, "when have I ever not done what Strider told me to do?" He looked slyly at the High King out of the corner of his eye.

"Yes, Merry," Aragorn said mildly, "I think he is all better now." As an afterthought, he added, "May the Valar protect us."

"Oh, they do, Strider, they really do," was Pippin's sincere answer. Day 28 of the New Year (April 22 SR)

A new contingent from Minas Tirith had arrived the previous day, and to Merry's delight his Stybba had made it from Dunharrow to Minas Tirith and on to Ithilien at the command of Éomer, who seemed to feel that having his attendant dangle behind someone else on their steed lacked in proper standing. He had fetched Frodo and Sam and brought them to admire the good conformation of the little pony, which they were doing in fine fashion. Sam, especially, seemed enamored of the shaggy grey pony.

"A gift from the King of Rohan himself?" he asked Merry again. "And a good little fellow he is, isn't he?"

"Nearly so good as your Bill, Sam," Merry said gently, touching Sam's elbow. Sam smiled a bit tremulously and presented the grateful Stybba with another piece of fruit while Merry and Frodo exchanged a wistful smile behind his back. Sam gave Stybba a final stroke to his withers and turned to look over some of the other horses tethered nearby.

"Why, whatever is Gandalf's horse doing with Mr. Pippin?" he said a moment later. Frodo and Merry followed Sam's eyes to a strange scene away from the other animals. Pippin was flat on his back looking up into the large eyes of the great horse, who was studying the hobbit intently and snuffling him all over, mussing his uniform in the process.

"Oh, no, he's going to be filthy and grass-stained and wrinkled," Merry groaned, but Frodo and Sam looked somewhat alarmed.

"Is that safe, Merry?" Frodo asked uneasily. Just then, Shadowfax bent his neck and butted Pippin with the side of his head, rolling the hobbit over.

Frodo and Sam both gasped in alarm, but Merry just shook his head. "It's perfectly safe," he assured them in the manner of one familiar with these strange goings-on, "except for his uniform. They're just teasing each other -- Pippin probably is withholding fruit intended for Shadowfax."

Despite Merry's assurances, Frodo and Sam watched with growing trepidation as the horse began to nudge and roll Pippin about on the ground in front of his legs. They could hear Pippin giggling, but it still seemed to them that Pippin's small body was very dangerously close to the massive horse's large hooves and powerful legs.

"Hullo, both of you!" a fair voice suddenly carried from the other direction. The three older hobbits' gazes turned to Legolas approaching from the camp. "Shadowfax, Pippin is still getting better, you know. Perhaps you should find some gentler game. And you," the elf pointed a finger at the errant hobbit, "are getting filthy! Look at that uniform!"

"Oh, Legolas, you sound like Merry," Pippin grumbled good-naturedly. He did not bother to rise, but produced several pieces of fruit from the rumpled, dusty, grass-stained uniform and fed them to Shadowfax. The horse rolled penitent eyes at Legolas as he accepted the offering, and then affectionately nuzzled Pippin's face, nibbling on the hobbit's curls as Pippin stroked his nose.

"Doesn't he sound like Merry?" Pippin addressed the horse. "'You can't serve the king with your hair looking like that!' 'What did you do -- stick your entire face in the custard?' 'Did you somehow manage to discover a swamp on your way across camp?'"

"Or maybe you were just being rolled around on the ground by a horse," Merry said dryly as he neared his younger cousin. Frodo and Sam let out gusts of laughter at the look on Pippin's face as he quickly popped up into a sitting position. Merry scowled at Pippin, who turned to scowl at Legolas.

"Thank you, Legolas, for letting me go on with Merry right here," Pippin said. "You could have told me he was coming."

Legolas merely reached out to stroke Shadowfax's neck. "Why, Merry, where did you come from?" he said mildly, his serene face denying any previous knowledge of Merry's approach.

The horse made a funny noise that was neither a snort nor a neigh, and that Merry identified as Shadowfax's way of addressing Pippin. "Oh, you're not any help either. You might have warned me yourself, you know," Pippin said crossly, then stood up and began trying to put himself to rights. "There!" he proclaimed a moment later, having succeeded in shaking some of the dust off of his clothing and out of his curls. The latter, however, now were twisting out every which way from his head. Frodo and Merry crinkled their noses in distaste, Sam tried very hard not to laugh, and Legolas' mouth drew up in a troubled bow, but Shadowfax apparently approved of the clean-up, a fact he demonstrated by resuming his grazing of Pippin's hair. Pippin absently reached up with his good hand to scratch the horse's lowered head behind the ears, making Shadowfax close his eyes in momentary pleasure.

"You can take a Took out of the Tookland," Frodo murmured beneath his breath, but Pippin heard anyway.

"Now, look here, cousin!" he began indignantly, only to be cut short by Merry.

"You don't really have much standing at the moment to contradict that particular saying," he said reprovingly. "Come on, then, I don't know what we can do about that uniform, but you'd best at least wash your face and brush your hair and then we both have kings to report to. And thank you greatly, cousin, for stopping by to say hello to Stybba."

"Merry, I did so go see Stybba, and I didn't even make him work for his fruit," Pippin said indignantly, giving Shadowfax a farewell stroke to his nose before trailing off after Merry in the direction of camp. Shadowfax made his Pippin-noise again, a bit sorrowfully, and then turned to snuffle Frodo and Sam thoroughly. The two hobbits held very still, unwilling to admit any uneasiness but not accustomed to such treatment.

"You are learning bad manners from that one," Legolas scolded the horse. "These are the most honored heroes you will ever meet, yet here you treat them as though their only function is to produce treats for you. These, Shadowfax, are the Ringbearers, whom I do not believe you have been properly introduced to."

Shadowfax snorted, then lowered his head before the hobbits respectfully. Later, Sam would swear that the great horse nearly bowed to them. Frodo, for his part, did bow, followed a bit uncertainly by Sam.

"It is an honor," Frodo told the chief of the Mearas. "I have heard much of your deeds, and of your kindness to my kin, and your friendship with Gandalf. I thank you, for your part in these great events of late."

The horse lowered his head again in acknowledgment, then tossed his neck to signal his departure. His tail flicked Legolas in the face as he trotted off.

"I do believe that horse is rather put out with you for letting Mr. Pippin get himself into trouble with Mr. Merry," Sam said seriously to a slightly stunned Legolas. Frodo made a noise that may have been a laugh, but when Legolas looked at him, he was merely covering a yawn with his hand.

"Now, don't trouble yourself about Pippin," he advised the elf. "I'm certain he is not put out at all, and you needn't worry that he will seek retribution over the matter."

Legolas' eyes widened a bit. Sam, attentive to the yawn, feigned or no, began to fuss that his master had had enough excitement for one day. Frodo allowed Sam to steer him back toward their tent, a somewhat anxious Legolas in their wake.

Day 29 of the New Year (April 23 SR)

"Where did you get this again, Merry?" Frodo asked doubtfully, sniffing at the pale liquid in his mug.

"From Drâmyn and Unomer*," Merry said, happily pouring an inch into everyone's mug. "I tried a bit already, and it's a sight better than that peach concoction of old Ponto's, may his memory live on."

"I am not reassured," Frodo replied, but Merry had just filled the last mug and was lifting his own for the first toast.

"What shall we drink to, Merry?" Pippin asked.

"To Frodo and Sam, of course," Merry said, but Frodo frowned at him.

"There's been quite enough of that over the past few weeks," he said. "We should drink to the return of the king."

"To the beauty of the Lady Galadriel," Gimli put in.

"To the dawn of a new Age," was Legolas' suggestion, and Pippin's was, "To the end of the war."

"We can't drink to all that, at least not in one round," Merry said, exasperated. "Sam, help me out."

Sam had watched the others as the toasts were being suggested round the table with a small smile on his lips, and he now raised his cup confidently. "To dear friends," he said quietly, and was met with the clinking of glass and a chorus of "To dear friends!" He then downed the questionable brew in one smooth gulp and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve.

"It's right good, Mr. Merry," he said after a moment's contemplation, "but I don't know that it's better than Mr. Ponto's."

Pippin was coughing a bit, his eyes watering, and Gimli patted him on the back. Frodo set his glass down after a tentative sip and wrinkled his nose. "Merry, stronger does not necessarily mean better, you realize," he said. Merry was a mite flushed himself after polishing off his glass, but he gamely defended his find.

"You just don't remember what that peach swill tasted like," he said, his voice a little raw. "This is a vast improvement."

Gimli licked his lips and heaved a contented sigh, seemingly quite unaffected by the draught. "Ah, that hit a nice little spot, but it is no replacement for a fine ale. I, myself, will stick with Gondor's finest for the rest of the evening." Then, noting the odd, puzzled look on Legolas' face, he added, "Well, what do you think, Master Elf?"

"What a strange refreshment," Legolas replied after a beat. "It is not terribly unlike a cordial, yet with an odd aftertaste. But I will say, I much prefer it to ale, which I have never developed a great liking for."

"Then you should stick with the brew for the rest of the night, Legolas," Pippin advised sagely, earning him suspicious looks from his kin. "It is nice, isn't it? I do not think it is so strong as Cousin Frodo fears, at least not for an elf." And he helpfully refilled Legolas' glass, to the top this time.

The evening was given over to festivities, as the company was drawing near the end of its stay in Ithilien, and the six friends had bagged a table off to the side, relieved that for the first time in too long there were no ceremonial duties to perform. An impromptu band was playing, and the field was filled with the sounds of music and merriment. A long, large table fairly groaned with the weight of food, and casks of ale were conveniently scattered about the field. The evening was the warmest yet that spring, and a soft breeze ruffled the hobbits' curls as they sat swinging their legs from their chairs.

Many rounds later, they had drunk to the Lady of the Golden Wood, and to the return of the king, and to the end of the war, and to the dawn of a new Age, and even to Frodo and Sam. And then to the Shire, and to Bilbo, and to dear old Ponto Goodbody. Gimli and Merry were red-faced and full of merriment, both determined to keep pace with each other. Merry had taught Gimli a hobbit word-play game only to discover that the dwarf was quite clever at it, resulting in Merry having to take more than a few swigs of his ale. Despite matching them ale for ale, Sam was still quiet and unobtrusive, ever mindful of his master's needs, quick to hop up and deliver more food and ale. Frodo, for his part, had slowly nursed his pints over the course of the evening, and kept a watchful eye on Pippin's consumption. In fact, he was concentrating so hard on keeping track of how much ale Pippin had consumed that he paid little heed to anything else his youngest cousin was doing, including filling up Legolas' glass with the brew at every opportunity.

The world seemed a grand place to Legolas at the moment, with all his dearest friends surrounding him. Gimli, Merry, Frodo, Sam . . . and most especially the little hobbit at his side, once again helpfully refilling the glass before him.

"Pippin, you are just a splendid friend, just absolutely splendid," the elf said solemnly.

"I am, aren't I?" Pippin answered, green eyes sparkling. "Are you having a good time, Legolas?" Legolas nodded slowly, picking up the glass to sip at it some more. "Do you know what we should do, Legolas?" Pippin whispered in delight.

"What?" Legolas whispered back, leaning in conspiratorially.

"We should sing some drinking songs," Pippin said.

"Now there is a fine idea," Merry interrupted, catching the last part of the conversation as he and Gimli finished yet another round of word play. "Which one shall we have first, Pip?"

"No, Merry, Legolas wants to sing," Pippin said. "He told me just the other day that he wanted to learn some hobbit songs to take with him back to his own land. Didn't you, Legolas?"

Legolas could not recall having said any such thing to the hobbit, but that was of little consequence, for singing hobbit drinking songs seemed the most heart-lifting idea he had had in weeks. "Will you teach me?" he asked Pippin solemnly.

"Of course!" Pippin said. "I know all the best songs." And he leaned his head in close by Legolas', the elf ducking down so Pippin could whisper in his ear.

The dwarf and the elder hobbits now were looking suspiciously at the pair. "I do believe Legolas has had quite enough of that brew," Frodo said. "How much has he drunk?"

Merry lifted the jar and squinted to see better in the flickering light of the torches, and through the haze brought on by the pints. "Well, about three-quarters is gone, but surely Legolas hasn't drunk all that himself. We all had a shot to begin with -- how much else have the rest of you had?" He turned his head to survey and found his answer in three grimly set countenances. "None, of course," Merry muttered. "So, how much can an elf drink?"

"I have never seen any elves drink anything stronger than wine," Frodo said.

"That," Gimli pointed at the jar, "is a fair shot stronger than any wine I have ever encountered. Legolas, my friend," he called across the table, "how are you feeling?"

Legolas looked up from his conference with Pippin. "I feel splendid, Master Dwarf. What a wonderful evening this has been, here with all of my friends. My wonderful, wonderful companions," he answered, no hint of slurring in his voice. Then he let Pippin tug his head back down by an ear to continue their consultation.

"Hmph," Gimli said. "He seems fine. Just very happy. Perhaps elves can drink a lot."

"Still," Frodo said, a bit worried, "perhaps we should put it away. Trust you, Meriadoc, to locate something like this even out here leagues away from civilization. Set it aside before it causes any trouble."

At that moment, Pippin and Legolas broke off their huddled whispers. The elf promptly sprang to his feet in a fluid motion, drawing eyes from nearby tables. Bowing to the field at large, Legolas drew in a deep breath.

"Too late," Merry said wryly, and Legolas -- very loudly -- began to sing.

Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go!
The tavern lights are all aglow.
Fair Daisy is my favorite lass
When she brings me a fresh glass,
And I raise a toast to all my mates
That we shall have the best of fates.

The elf was drawing attention now, and seemed delighted with it. So delighted, in fact, that he climbed on top of his chair, swaying only slightly, so that all present could better hear him.

Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go!
Over hillock high and valley low
This day has led my weary feet,
Earning me this amber treat.
Ah! there's nothing like a golden brew
To help us see the cold night through.

The crowd was cheering in approval now, and Pippin looked ready to burst with glee. The other hobbits and Gimli looked torn between horror and amusement, struggling with grins that wanted to break free. Legolas paused and looked down at the hobbit, who prompted, "Rain may fall and wind may blow," and the elf was off again.

Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go!
Rain may fall and wind may blow,
But snow nor rain nor sleet nor hail
Will keep me from my promised ale.
Just up the road I can see the inn
And hear the laughter from within.

The chair, Legolas decided, was too low for everyone to see him properly, so he climbed up on the table.

Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go!
To heal my heart and drown my woe.
No matter what troubles darken my day
The wine will chase them all away
With friends and laughter and rising song
To see me through to the next fair dawn.

The elf had rather theatrically drawn breath to continue when he suddenly spied the king striding purposefully toward their table. "Aragorn," he called out, "will you join me in the next verse?"

"No, my good elf, I come to ask you to join me," the king replied, his lip twitching. "I seek your counsel, if I may pull you from this merriment."

Legolas hopped lightly off of the table and bowed grandly before the High King. "I am ever at your service, Aragorn, as you well know," he said.

"Come, walk with me," Aragorn said, draping an arm about Legolas' shoulders and then using it to steer him as Legolas began to walk in a different direction than the king had indicated. "Here, this way. Let us go somewhere a little quieter." As he drew the beaming elf away, he cast a chastising glance at the table behind him.

"Well, he doesn't need to look at us that way," Merry said huffily, just as Frodo, whose hands had covered his eyes for the final two verses, groaned, "Pippin!"

"What?" Pippin asked, all innocent eyes and naive face. He squawked suddenly as large, gnarled fingers fastened onto one of his ears. "Peregrin Took!" a stern voice intoned.

"What?" Pippin said with more urgency and less innocence. "I didn't do anything!"

"Oh, really?" Gandalf said. "Then was it someone else who plied Legolas with that vile homebrew of the Rohirrim and then convinced him to stand on a table and treat the entire camp to a rousing rendition of 'Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go!' It was Frodo, no doubt. Or Gimli, perhaps?"

"He was having a good time, Gandalf!" Pippin squeaked as the pressure on his ear increased. "Legolas loves to sing!"

"Imagine if he had reached the final verse!" Gandalf chastised, then bellowed, "Meriadoc, turn over that brew this instant!" Merry, caught off-guard and suddenly in the line of fire, gave it over without hesitation. It disappeared into Gandalf's robes. Then he guided Pippin out of his chair and away from the table, his hand still grasping the tween-ager's ear.

"I trust that the four of you can finish up the night without further spectacle or humiliation of any of your remaining companions," Gandalf addressed the table. Four heads nodded as one. Gandalf turned on his heel and strode away, Pippin scurrying to keep up and insure that his ear remained attached to his head.

Gimli glared at the curious crowd and made a low noise in his throat. Suddenly, the onlookers all had other things to do or look at. The four companions sat in stunned silence for several moments, then Sam finished the last of his ale and set it down with a satisfied sigh.

"I take it back, Mr. Merry," he said. "That brew is better than old Mr. Ponto's after all."

(*Note: Drâmyn and Unomer belong to Llinos, and you can find them in Recaptured! She kindly lent them out to the party, as they are dear friends of Merry's. Ponto Goodbody is my invention and can be found in several of my stories. A semi-retired healer of Hobbiton, he prepared a certain liquid concoction of peaches and grain every year that made him very good friends with Bilbo. The drinking song is my composition, but is a variation on the one Pippin and Sam sing in "The Fellowship of the Ring," in the chapter "A Short Cut to Mushrooms.")

Day 31 of the New Year (April 25 SR)

Legolas was far, far from Ithilien, in a land he had yet to see that smelled of brine and wood and timelessness, when small, cold feet tucked themselves against his knees. Then the world smelled again of pine and heather, and of the hobbit burrowing into his side with his unique scent of apples and dried leaves and some strange spice Merry had told him was cinnamon.

"Are you cold, Pippin?" he asked, automatically reaching a protective arm down to curl about his unexpected visitor.

"Uhm," Pippin answered, and pressed his chilly nose into Legolas' ribs.

Legolas seldom actually lay down in his cot at night, but Éomer had led a small contingent north to scout, taking with him Merry and, surprisingly, Gimli, riding behind Éomer himself. Pippin had reassured Merry repeatedly that he certainly did not need taking care of and could spend a night on his own just fine, but Merry's brow did not unfurrow until Legolas had whispered to him that he would stay in the tent that night while Pippin slept.

Now, Legolas wondered if Pippin had had a bad dream, or if he had been merely cold, or perhaps lonely. The hobbits had separate cots, but more mornings than not found Pippin curled up beside Merry, having awakened at some point and sought the familiar security of his elder cousin.

Legolas shifted his blanket about until Pippin, who had wrapped himself in his own blanket before creeping into the elf's bed, was tucked beneath it. Under the double layer of warmth, the small body began to feel warmer to Legolas. Pippin gave a little sigh of contentment, and sleepily rubbed at his nose.

"I was thinking," he said with a yawn.

"What were you thinking about, dear heart?" Legolas asked.

"I was thinking about all the stories Frodo and Bilbo and Merry used to tell me when I was a little lad, and how things that happen in one story change what happens in another story without the people in the stories ever knowing about each other," Pippin said, sounding drowsy. "And how things that seem bad in one story turn out in the end to be good things in another story, and how some things that seem very good to start with aren't good at all in the end. And then -- Sam said we're all still in the same story, going on and on, and things that are happening to us that seem bad might not be bad once the story is finished. It's like they were supposed to happen, like it was fate, even though it all seemed wrong or bad when it was happening to us. I can't make it all quite make sense, but it seems important," he finished.

Legolas stroked the hobbit's curls. "It is all part of the song," he said. "The one great song that is still being sung."

"And to think I had a little part in it," Pippin said, his eyes shutting against his will and his voice dropping to a whisper. "Though I suppose my part was the drinking-chorus section."

Legolas shook with silent mirth, then sang quietly,

Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go!
While I have friends, there can be no woe.
When things look their worst
I'll just burst into verse.
Sorrow, anguish and despair will flee
In the conquering face of our shining glee.

"Legolas, you made up a drinking song," Pippin whispered with delight.

"Surely not," Legolas replied. "I think you must be dreaming, Pip."

"Not even I could dream up the Prince of Mirkwood composing hobbit drinking songs," Pippin asserted, and then squawked as elven fingers pinched his ear. There was a sudden tussle involving tickling elvish hands and kicking hobbit feet that ended with the hobbit snuggling contentedly into the elf's shoulder.

"I knew my part was a drinking song," Pippin said with a resigned sigh as he began to drift back toward sleep.

"Perhaps that is just part of your song," Legolas said, and Pippin made a sleepy noise of agreement as his eyes shut. His breathing deepened into sleep moments later, and Legolas lay humming the drinking-song tune deep in his throat. When his mind returned to rest, this time it wandered through green fields and orchards, over small fences and babbling brooks, and past the golden lights of tiny inns.

(NOTE: The wonderful song found in this chapter, "Fate and the High King's Falcon," is the work of the dazzling talented Llinos. I remain humbly in her debt for crafting such a remarkable poem, and one that encapsulates the very heart of this story. I understand that Marigold beat her with stickses to make certain the poem was completed on schedule, so I am yet further indebted to her. In addition, Marigold first conjured up the image for me of Pippin listening in wonder to a song about his deeds, thus inspiring this entire story. Please remember both of them in your feedback, as you would not be reading this story without their efforts.)

(From Llinos: I would like to dedicate Pippin's Song to Marigold, because without her muse and dedication to prodding and bullying me, I most definitely would not have written it. It is in every sense her poem -- she just graciously allowed me to write the words down.)

(From Marigold: This story and song in tribute to Pippin and his deeds has been a niggling idea of mine for well over a year, and was something that I never thought would actually be written because of it's very scope and grandeur - if it couldn't be done with the proper magnificence, better it not be done at all. But then I met Llinos, and soon after that, Baylor, two incredible, gifted writers, that both give me great pleasure by allowing me to meddle in their tales. Together they have crafted this amazing present for Pippin, for me, and for all of you.

Thank you Baylor, for the months of work that you have put into this story, and for letting me poke at it and add my own bits here and there, and thank you Llinos, for the amazing single-minded effort you put into writing Pippin's incredible Song, putting all of your other work aside until it was finished. I was there watching you through the writing of the first stanzas and know just how much this took out of you. I love you both more than I can say, and not just because you have brought this 'niggle' of mine to life. I hope the other readers appreciate the efforts of both of you as much as I do, and take the time to tell both of you so!)

Day 32 of the New Year (April 26 SR)

An early departure time and the amount of work needed to pack up camp prevented great amounts of merriment on the army's final evening at the Ithilien encampment, but as twilight swelled into night, the king sent for each member of the Fellowship until all eight were accounted for about a small fire behind the king's tent. Merry and Pippin, finally done with their duties and arriving last, found not the High King seated before them, but Strider the Ranger, wrapped in his grey cloak and smoking his pipe.

"Well, Strider!" Merry said in surprise. "If you're here then I suppose it's no supper and walking all night until we collapse."

"Only if you survive the midges and the snow and the brambles and the wind, Merry," Aragorn replied in amusement. "But if the king were here he would tell you to sit and enjoy the fire and a satisfying dinner while you take your leisure." He gestured to a small table set with dinner. Pippin was already looking it over.

"The king feeds us much better than Strider ever did on the road," he said, "though from the looks of it, Frodo and Sam have already been at this table and taken the best of everything for themselves."

"We did not," Frodo said indignantly from where he lay on his back contemplating the night sky. "That was Gandalf."

Gandalf laughed. "It was only because I have not had my pick of the platter in so long, as Master Took generally beats me to supper," he said. Pippin did his best to look affronted around his mouthful of grilled fish.

Merry and Pippin settled in to eat with relish, and the rest of the Fellowship, bellies already full, reclined where they would, Gimli and Aragorn drawing on their pipes. There was some idle talk, but for the most part the eight companions were quiet, simply enjoying being together.

Legolas, though, did not sit, and paced slowly away from the fire, watching the stars, turning to check on the Fellowship every so often. When Merry and Pippin had finished their meal and settled in next to Frodo and Sam, Legolas turned and came closer to the loose circle about the fire.

"Are we ready?" he asked Aragorn, and the High King nodded. The hobbits all turned curious faces to the elf, who was clearly preparing to make some type of announcement.

Legolas bowed to the hobbits, to their surprise, and his eyes shone as he spoke. "I have a small gift for you, Pippin, and I hope it will give to you some small portion of the joy you have gifted to me," he said.

Pippin's eyes grew wide, and he looked a little frightened. He had apologized for the drinking-song excitement, of course, and Legolas had readily forgiven him, but still . . . Before he could give voice to his growing trepidation, Legolas began to sing.

The omen came soaring in from the sea, 
An untamed bird, both wild and free. 
It looked down on the green and rolling land, 
Far away from the ocean strand. 
The innocent child gazed up in awe; 
He saw a falcon -- then so much more. 
He heard a promise in its eerie cry, 
Promise of a love that would never die. 
His heart beat faster and he knew for sure, 
This was the one he had waited for. 
The Peregrine Falcon’s wayward flight 
Heralded the birth of the High King’s knight. 
The knightling was blessed with beauty and grace, 
Sweet of temper and fair of face. 
He filled all others with such light and love; 
The Spirits grew envious, watching above. 
Death jealously stalked the frail bird from the start, 
For the fledgling was small, although great in heart. 
Fate reached cold fingers to ice his sweet breath, 
Steal his dear heart and freeze it in death. 
But his soul was too warm, Fate’s fingers were burned, 
Death drew back his hand and the lesson was learned: 
No matter how small, how tender, how frail,
With such goodness and love, Evil cannot prevail. 
The young falcon thrived in the lush green hills, 
Ignored all woes and cast off all ills. 
His cousins were older and wiser than he, 
They were nervous of Fate and his cold decree. 
They nurtured the small one, keeping him near, 
Safe from danger and free from fear. 
Precious to many, but one above all, 
Taught him to walk and would not let him fall; 
With the twin of his heart he learned to run, 
Into merry adventures, mischief and fun. 
So they became each, a part of a whole 
Bonded together in spirit and soul. 
Whispers grew of a dark, nameless fear, 
A time of terror was drawing near. 
No one else listened or seemed to see, 
But four hunted sparrows were forced to flee, 
Away from the golden shades of the Shire, 
Into peril that was dangerous and dire. 
Black riders thundered along in their wake, 
Pounding the earth and making it shake. 
When such Evil threatened his kith and his kin, 
The little bird found new courage within: 
'We’ll stay by your side, right to the end; 
We’ll never desert you, our cousin and friend!' 
The great and the mighty agreed in debate, 
Evil must be destroyed, ere it was too late. 
Of elves, dwarves, or wizard, men mighty and bold, 
None there dare handle the corrupt band of gold, 
So an innocent childling, faithful and true, 
Offered to try what the strong could not do. 
A Fellowship picked from the brave and the best, 
Would guard and protect him throughout his Quest; 
But bow, sword or axe, magic staff and great shield, 
Were as nothing beside what true love can yield, 
So the little hawk ruffed up his feathers with pride, 
He would fight for his kin and not be denied! 
Then he fluttered his wings and learned how to fly, 
Staying close to the ground and never too high.  
He chirruped and twittered and sang his sweet song, 
Lifting up hearts as they journeyed along. 
The ice-covered mountain threw down its cruel snows, 
He wanted to sing, but the tiny bird froze. 
In the depths of the mines he tried to keep still, 
Then the goblins awoke and he made his first kill. 
But almost as soon as his courage awoke, 
The great leader fell and the little bird broke. 
Loved like a Grandsire and now he was gone, 
But hawklings can't cry -- they just have to fly on. 
Then vultures descended, the foul Uruk-hai, 
Scattered the little birds, making them fly. 
The tiny brave falcon knew it was his part 
To lead them away, though fear filled his heart, 
But the warrior eagle, mighty and great, 
Could not leave his two precious chicks to their fate. 
His dear little ones that he'd learned to cherish, 
He could not, he would not, allow them to perish. 
He fought with such rage, so that they might survive 
And gave his life's blood to keep them alive. 
The small falcon wept and a promise was made, 
If it took all his life, the debt would be repaid. 
Tied, torn and hurt the small bird was taken, 
But he knew in his heart he would not be forsaken. 
In that darkest hour, with his courage awoken, 
He tore off his brooch to leave as a token. 
Although his defiance brought whipping and pain, 
The three hunting hawks knew their chase was not vain. 
Hungry and weary, he held on to his hopes, 
And a little bird cannot be tied up with ropes. 
He beat his small wings until he broke free, 
Then flew to the safety of forest and tree. 
The brave half-grown falcon gave all he could give, 
So Fate then decreed that the fledglings should live. 
In the deep of the forest a wonder occurred, 
The little ones chirruped and a strange legend stirred.
Old as the mountains, forgotten and sad, 
The happy bird's trilling made their hearts glad. 
Like a mighty great tree that grew from a bud, 
Like the tiniest rain drops that start a great flood, 
Like the first chinks of light that herald the sun, 
Like the silvery motes from which moonbeams are spun,  
When their light feathers touched like snow from on high, 
An avalanche started, that shook earth and sky. 
So the great wizard learned that two tiny birds 
Could charm even the trees with their innocent words. 
When floodwaters roared like the Sundering Seas, 
The power of Orthanc was brought to its knees. 
Those two tiny nestlings had caused it to fall, 
The mighty cast down by the smallest of small. 
Then the Riders rode in and found their way barred 
By two stoic eaglets, who proudly stood guard. 
They chirruped and had such a sweet song to sing, 
Their melody charmed a great army and King, 
While the three weary hunters did not chide or chafe, 
Happy to see their chicks both whole and safe. 
So the truants came gladly back to the fold, 
With adventures, wonders and tales to be told. 
But little birds have inquisitive eyes, 
And a bright shiny bauble is a sweet prize. 
The magpie conquered the falcon that day, 
Till he became victim of his own prey. 
Though the wise owl refused, he could not resist 
To steal just one look, before it was missed. 
But the glass held dark raptors, evil and grim, 
The falcon quaked at the vileness within. 
Malevolence sought to rape his pure mind, 
But sweetness and light was all He could find. 
Most mortals could not such Evil endure, 
But the falcon's heart was too precious and pure. 
Frightened and hurt the fledgling was shaken 
By the power that dwelt in the orb he had taken, 
But kind, gentle hands soothed the tiny bird's fright, 
Then bore him to safety, through the black night, 
To the shimmering City of the white gleaming towers 
With roads of cold stone and scant trees or flowers. 
Here dwelt the sire of the eagle who fell, 
A Nobleman haunted beneath a dark spell. 
Then the little bird knew that the time had arrived 
To make good his debt to the one who had died. 
Bravely he spoke out and offered his sword, 
And pledged his allegiance to the great Lord. 
But the Steward was filled with worry and care, 
The Blackness had clenched his soul with despair. 
All words of hope sounded empty and hollow, 
One son was dead and the other would follow. 
He condemned his line to a grim fiery death, 
Defying cruel Fate to steal his last breath. 
But the little bird knew that Fate was the liar 
And the innocent had to be saved from the pyre. 
Bravely he flew and brought the wise one, 
And together they rescued the Nobleman's son, 
He thought of the debt and the promise he'd made, 
Then saw in his heart, a small part had been paid. 
The war still raged on but the falcon was stronger, 
His feathers now fledged, a nestling no longer. 
But his heart was aching for want of his other, 
Closer than friend and dearer than brother. 
Then from out of the battle's turmoil and din, 
Wandering alone, he found his soul's twin 
Who had fought a great foe, and paid the price, 
He was injured and lost and his arm was like ice. 
His little heart wrenched at his precious one's plight, 
He bit back his tears and held him so tight, 
Keeping him close with his sheltering wing, 
Until he was healed by the hands of the King. 
Then the small falcon knew the course he must serve, 
To fight for the King with each sinew and nerve, 
And proudly he swore to follow his task, 
To do all and more that his duty might ask. 
Grown to a soldier, the brave little bird, 
Marched to the war to hold good his word. 
He fought not for glory or the hope they could win, 
He fought for his friends, his country and kin. 
Like a terrible ocean the enemy poured, 
Wave upon wave, a great ravening horde, 
Evil and death rode out through the Black Gate, 
But the falcon stood firm, not afraid of his fate. 
Then the battle began and death was now near, 
He drew his small sword and fought without fear. 
He slew the foul monster for the life of his friend, 
And even in triumph, accepted his end. 
The little bird knew as the dark filled his eyes 
No more would he see green fields or blue skies, 
No more would he sit with his ale by the fire, 
No more see his loved ones or home in the Shire. 
Cries heralded the eagles as they flew overhead 
But crushed in the dark, he knew he was dead, 
The falcon's freed spirit now soared to the sky, 
'Little one, please come back! It's too soon to die!' 
The battle was over and victory proclaimed, 
They tended the fallen and succoured the maimed. 
As a foul beast was lifted with loathing and dread, 
The little bird lay there, broken and dead. 
So tiny, so fragile, his hour had been brief, 
Now all they could give were their tears and their grief. 
They thought of his kin, but not how to explain, 
For the void of his loss would bring so much pain. 
Then the Valar were moved by the sadness and strife, 
They let fall a small touch, one brief chance of life, 
Then all of Creation seemed to pause for a breath -- 
As Fate pulled the Falcon from the deep well of death. 
The Falcon's soul flew far away from the earth, 
The furthest he'd been since the day of his birth. 
Pain upon pain made his mind fly away, 
Till the King called him back and bade him to stay. 
Gently he whispered in the wounded one's ear, 
Words soft and sweet that a small bird could hear: 
Your wings are now fledged and you need to soar, 
Mel tithen fileg, al-revia thar-taur! 
He had to hold on, he had to stay true, 
So the falcon heeded the voice that he knew: 
Mel tithen fileg, al-revia thar-taur! 
Remember you must find your way back once more. 
The little bird turned from the lure of the sky, 
Sweet voices were calling, 'Don't give up and die, 
'Please stay, little one -- you cannot just leave, 
'You have to hold on -- you have to believe.' 
He struggled to reach his body once more, 
Back to the pain that he'd fled from before. 
He tried to cry out as if he would say, 
'Please help me I'm lost and I don't know the way!' 
But soft healing hands answered his fears, 
As they mended his hurts and soothed away tears. 
So gently they nursed him until he was whole, 
And safe once again with the twin of his soul. 
The small bird grew strong as the long days went by, 
Till his wings were healed and once more he could fly. 
Although he'd not looked for any reward, 
He was proud to have given the great King his sword. 
Now the falcon was grown both in stature and grace, 
With a spark in his eye and pride in his face, 
As his King named him gallant, daring and sure, 
Chivalrous and brave, stout-hearted and pure. 
His heart leapt a beat as he finally knew, 
The omen of his beginning was true, 
So proudly he knelt to receive his birthright, 
For Fate had named the falcon -- the High King's Knight! 

Legolas bowed again to the hobbits. Four stunned, open-mouthed faces stared back at him, and then Pippin stood up.

"But that wasn't all about me, was it?" the tween-ager asked in a trembling voice. "I didn't do all that -- I couldn't have. Is that really my song, Legolas?"

Legolas bent down to look the hobbit in the face. "It is really your song, Pippin," he said firmly. "And you really did do all that."

Pippin's face froze in bewilderment, and he opened and shut his mouth several times, without words for once in his life. Then his expression changed, and it was like the rising of the sun it shone so bright.

"Is it better than the drinking chorus section?" Legolas whispered, and then he was on his back with an armful of hobbit.

"Legolas, you sang my song!" Pippin gasped in wonder.

"Yes, but you wrote it," Legolas answered, wrapping his arms about the hobbit and uncaring of the fact that he had landed on a number of discarded dishes.

Gimli, Gandalf and Aragorn exchanged jubilant smiles, but the other three hobbits still looked amazed. "You know, I forgot it was our little Pippin that the song was about," Sam said in wonder. "It was like one of the old songs about the great heroes, wasn't it, Mr. Frodo?"

"It was just like that, Sam," Frodo said softly, amazement giving way to pride and gratitude.

Merry's open mouth had curved into a smile, and his eyes shone. "And it was a song about a great hero," he added, and then suddenly Legolas had his arms full of two hobbits as Merry caught Pippin, still on Legolas' chest, into a hug.

Frodo could only resist for another moment before he wrapped his arms around Pippin and Merry both as best he could, trapping Legolas ever more firmly on top of the unwashed dishes. Sam stood and debated with himself with a moment, but then the other hobbits all held out arms to him. As Sam lost himself in a tangled embrace of limbs and curls and one now-quite-crushed elf, he heard Gandalf laughing, and it seemed to him that the wizard's laughter was almost like a song itself.

Minas Tirith 
The First Year of the Fourth Age (May by Shire Reckoning)

"Pippin, what is that around your neck? I noticed it the other day, too." Frodo reached out to finger the silver chain and drew it out from beneath Pippin's shirt. A small silver ring set with a pearl hung from it. 

Sam came over to examine the ring as well. "Why, that's Mr. Boromir's ring from his mother, isn't it? The one you got for him out of the crevice," Sam said in surprise. 

Pippin nodded, watching Frodo's face carefully. From his chair by the hearth, Merry watched the exchange with keen eyes but did not leave off smoking his pipe to join his fellow hobbits near the table. The Fellowship was housed in the grandest guest house the king could provide, with opulent parlors and sitting rooms, so naturally the hobbits had taken to spending all their time in the comparatively simple kitchen, where they were to be found this evening, "filling up the corners" after supper.

"Legolas took it at Parth Galen so he could give it back to Boromir's family," Pippin explained. "He gave it to me to keep safe until I could give it to Faramir." 

Frodo smoothed the chain, a trace of a frown on his face. "You should give it to Faramir, Pippin," he said, using his best elder-cousin voice. "You've had many a chance to do so by now." 

"Oh, I already took it to him, Frodo," Pippin said. "But he would not have it back. He said I should keep it, to remember Boromir by. I feel rather bad about it -- it belonged to their mother, after all, and I don't know what I shall do with it. But it was Boromir's, and I do like having something of his near. It reminds me that I . . . well, it reminds me of him," he finished lamely, clearly changing his mind about what he intended to say. 

Frodo smiled softly now, but had yet to meet Pippin's eyes. He inspected the ring carefully. "I believe it was made for a girl," he said thoughtfully, "which would make it the perfect size for a hobbit-lass. I suppose you shall just have to get married someday, Pip, and give it to your bride as a wedding gift." Now he lifted clear blue eyes that sparkled with mischief and peered into Pippin's green ones, expecting to find them horror-struck. But the tween-ager just looked thoughtful. 

"That is a grand idea, Frodo," he said. "I think Boromir would have liked that." 

Frodo laughed, and carefully tucked the ring back inside Pippin's shirt. "Is this the same lad who told me last year that for all lasses are pretty and fun for flirting with, it was just unbearable to think you would have to actually marry one and spend the rest of your life trying to appease her?" 

Pippin blushed -- he had been late to discover lasses, and then had realized with deep disappointment that the serving lasses and traders' daughters whose company he had learned to relish were not in the pool he would be choosing a wife from. He had spent an entire month the previous year bemoaning this situation after his mother very pointedly seated him next to his third cousin Almira Banks for every Litheday festivity. The unfortunate Almira had a laugh "like a pig that has caught its leg in a trap," in Pippin's words, and a vast disinterest in adventures, ale, roopie, and conkers, and a decided dislike for ale-drinking songs, leading a woeful Pippin to declare to Frodo that if he had to marry someone like Almira, he may as well just give up speech now and save himself the trouble later. 

"Well," Peregrin said now, limping only slightly as he moved to set his mug down on the table, "I have faced trolls and orcs and Balrogs and Ringwraiths and, on more than one occasion, a very put-out Gandalf, so I suppose that I could survive marriage. Though there's no need to think on it for some time yet," he added hastily. 

"Plenty of time yet," Merry said, rocking his chair back on two legs and blowing smoke rings. "He has to wait for me, after all." 

"And what is Master Brandybuck waiting for, is what all the available lasses in Buckland want to know," Frodo said. 

"Oh, he is waiting for Sam," Merry answered with a cheeky grin. "But perhaps that won't be a long wait once we get home, will it, Sam?" 

Sam blushed, but then dodged the question by addressing Pippin. "I think it's a fine idea, Mr. Pippin, that you give that ring to a wife someday. Mr. Boromir was right fond of you, and I think he would have been mighty pleased to see you give his mother's ring to your bride." 

Pippin had pulled the ring back out and was looking at it again. "Thank you, Sam," he said quietly, and Frodo and Merry's faces sobered as they watched him. He put it away after a moment, adding, "I hope you're not waiting on Frodo to get married, Sam. He is so old and dotardly now that we'll never get him married off, and you'll just end up losing your chance with Rosie." 

Sam turned a glorious shade of red, and Merry laughed so hard he tipped his chair over. Frodo said, "Peregrin Took!" in a fairly imposing voice, but then started to laugh, thereby ruining the effect. Pippin lost his composure, and the innocent face he had assumed, and no hobbit can be in a room full of laughing mates and not join in, so the still-flushed Sam abandoned his efforts at indignation and all four of them laughed until their sides ached.

Fangorn Forest
The First Year of the Fourth Age (August by Shire Reckoning)

Gimli squirmed a little to the left. When that did not help, he tried rolling to the right. Then he readjusted the pack serving as his pillow. Finally, he let out an anguished roar of frustration. "A forest," he moaned. "Why did I ever agree to go with you to a forest? There are no tree roots to disturb one's sleep in the Glittering Caves of Helm's Deep, you recall."

"I do not recall that we spent a night in Helm's Deep," Legolas answered with amusement from where he lay, still and serene and perfectly comfortable. "And besides, think about all those sharp little stones that would have dug into our backs if we had. Can you not feel how the earth itself is alive here, vibrating with ancient memories? It thrills my heart."

"Perhaps I could if I could find a patch of clear ground to lie on," Gimli answered. "I tell you, Master Elf, the trees are moving their roots about purposefully to disturb my sleep!"

Legolas laughed. "Perhaps they sense your discomfort, and respond to it likewise," he said. "Lie still, listen to the forest, feel its life about us, and perhaps then it will let you rest."

Gimli held very still, listening intently, but the only thing he heard was Legolas' breathing, so instead, he listened to that. Whether Legolas was breathing in tune with the forest, or if the rhythmic sound merely helped him to relax, the dwarf found his body curving into the shape of the roots quite comfortably after a while. A breeze stirred the canopy of leaves above their heads, giving the two companions a glimpse of a sea of bright stars. The quiet of the night pressed into the dwarf; not unpleasant, but vast in its emptiness, until he spoke merely to hear the sound of a voice.

"It pained me to part from Aragorn, but it burns me now not to hear the sound of those young hobbits' voices."

Legolas sighed. "I share your feelings, Gimli. When we departed from Rivendell, I thought I could not become used to their constant chatter should I spend a century with them, but after these few short months, I long for it when it is gone."

"We shall be glad of the quiet soon, I expect," Gimli said gruffly. "No more will we be awakened by demands for food. Or for story and song. Or to play childish pranks. No, our lives, and our sleep, may now continue without such disturbances."

They lay silent again for a while, and then Legolas said, "We shall have to journey together over the mountains and visit them before too long, I suppose."

"Well, yes, of course," Gimli agreed. "We shall want to see that Frodo got home safe and happy in the end, as he so deserves. And besides, I shall need to settle up with Merry about a certain matter come Midsummer next year."

"Gimli," Legolas' voice was distinctly suspicious, "have you and Merry been placing wagers again? Have you not learned?"

Gimli chortled. "Never you mind, Master Elf!" he answered. "But we shall see how swaggering young Master Brandybuck is when his predictions fail to come true."

Now Legolas' voice was amused. "I hope you did not take him up on that wager about Sam being married to that lass come this time next year. Frodo told me he is quite confident it will not take Sam long to settle that matter once they are home."

Gimli snorted. "I've never even heard him mention the lass, Legolas!" he said. "And surely all the young lasses in the Shire will have their eye on our Sam once he returns home a hero."

"All right, all right," Legolas answered. "I just hope you did not bet more than you are willing to part with, and that includes your pride." He sighed. "I suppose they shall all settle down and live quiet, domestic lives in their hobbit-holes now."

Gimli muttered something that Legolas chose to ignore, then said, "How many little Frodos do you think the Shire will name in his honor in the years to come?"

Legolas' eyes were dark with some sadness. "They should be beyond count, but somehow my heart says they will not be. But Sam will give us a Frodo-lad, at least." After a moment, he added, "Was it not a wonderful sight, Gimli, to see Pippin holding his namesake ere we left the city?"

"It was indeed," Gimli replied, his voice warm with the memory. "I feared the babe would tarry and we would have to leave without knowing if we left behind a young Pippin to terrorize the good people of Gondor." Then he chortled deep in his throat. "And that is one matter in which I was not bested by a hobbit!"

Legolas groaned. "You must know Merry better than that by now. He is simply toying with you, Gimli, mark my words. He is giving you small victories to let your confidence grow. Just please promise me you will not let Merry raise the stakes any higher."

Gimli made a series of displeased, grumbling noises and then subsided into silence. After a while, he asked, "So I suppose you know the lass' name, as well?"

"It is Rose Cotton, though I am quite confident it will be Rose Gamgee a year hence," was the prompt answer. "What are you going to have to do when you lose?"

Gimli let out a long breath through his nose. "Sing the drinking song at the wedding festivities. Including the final verse."

Legolas, to give him credit, did not laugh, though he was silent and quivering for a very long time. "Shall I teach you the words?" he finally managed to get out with only the slightest hint of irony in his voice.

Had there been anyone about, which fortunately there was not, no one would have believed their fantastic tale of an elf and a dwarf, lying amidst the tangled roots of Fangorn Forest, singing a hobbit drinking song. As for the trees and the stars, they kept that tale to themselves, weaving it into the fabric of the one great song.


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