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Warning: Short, dark, ugly, sad. Bad things happen to good Hobbits. Not for the soft-hearted.
He's following me, Master Frodo. I know it, I can hear the pat and slap of his feet on the stones, stealthy as old Sneaker ever was, and the sound stops when I stop. I know it's not just an echo. Sometimes in the dark, when my head nods, he comes so close I can hear him breathing. He never comes within my arm's reach. He knows better. He don't dare show his face to me. But I'll catch him tonight, see if I don't.
Four days since we left the Company, and we wandered in that cursed Emyn Muil, round and round, up and down, and fogs froze us and the rain wet us through, and those dark things flying overhead with a scream to chill your bones. The stones cut his feet till they bled, and yet he never made no complaint, just tossed off a joke when Mr. Merry and you near cried over them. He weren't suited to hard travelling, Master Pippin, poor lad. I reckon he never thought, not really in his heart, that he would ever feel anything crueller than Tookland cobblestones under his heels, and wouldn't never feel no cold wind sharper than a breeze in Winterfilth.
Mr. Merry was all right, long as he had Master Pippin to look after, you know. All our wandering had worn him down and took the colour out of his cheek-I seen him once or twice secretly tighten his belt after giving Master Pippin his own bit of lembas bread-but it hadn't taken the heart out of him yet. Reckon he still felt like it was going to be a grim slog to that Mountain of Fire, but then back home in time for tea, and him and you and Master Peregrin Took heroes of the Shire with a grand tale to tell. Reckon he's sorry now him and Master Pippin decided to hide in the brush right where you were trying to slip off in the boat. I'll lay bets that he wishes he'd stayed back at Crickhollow with Mr. Freddy, 'cause if he had Master Pippin would've stayed as well, and-
There you are, Sam Gamgee, putting cart before the pony again. It was really that nasty stinker Gollum what started all the bad trouble, wasn't it, Master Frodo? Not that we hadn't trouble before, what with losing poor Gandalf in Moria, and then getting lost from the Big Folk and Gimli when you went off to think. I wonder sometimes how they're faring. There was a powerful lot of Orcs in the woods when we left, by the sound of it. I hope they got through.
Ah, but there I go again, such a ninnyhammer I am. Anyway there we were, you remember, all hunkered down, bone-cold and weary, and Master Pippin near falling asleep on his turn of the watch. I reckon that's how Gollum got hold of him, when his head was nodding, and we were so tired we didn't know nothing was wrong till that Gollum laid in with his teeth, and he drew enough breath to shriek. Mr. Merry settled his hash, the little sneaking wretch, threw him off Master Pippin with one hand, whipped out his Barrow-sword and ran him through. We stood around him in the dusk, breathing like wind-broke ponies, Master Pippin clutching his bleeding shoulder, and we watched that Gollum crumble to rags and dust. Good riddance to him, I thought, but you looked sick and sad, Master dear. I would have offered him mercy, if I could, you said. And I didn't understand it, how you could pity such a twisted, nasty thing what had hurt your own kin...
Oh! Oh dear. I must have nodded off for a while, a long while by the heavy feel of my legs and the ache in my back. I wonder what time it is now? Hard to tell when you can't hardly see the sun for the gloom. But the sky looks a bit paler and the rocks are casting shadows on the ground, so I reckon it must be late morning. I suppose I should eat a bit, even if it sticks in my throat. There's still the Elves's waybread in the bottom of my pack now, and my water bottle is full. Somehow it just doesn't satisfy, but I reckon the homesick ache in my chest is what makes it stick right in my craw. If we were home I reckon it'd be time for a nice second breakfast in the back garden, with some of those spicy sugar-biscuits to fill up the corners after, though it's no good wishing. I can almost see it, you there with your book, and when I'd come in with your tea you'd look up and smile and invite me to sit and fill my own cup, though I wouldn't 'cause my Gaffer would have a fit. You never cared about a thing like that, what folk thought was proper. Oh Master. I do miss you. I wish you were here for real to talk to. I miss you so.
Time for another start.
The wound in Master Pippin's shoulder weren't deep, you remember, and it didn't bleed well enough to wash it clean. I didn't have nothing for it but that little bit of salt I had stowed away. His poor face pinched when I sprinkled it on, the breath hissed out through his teeth, and he near broke Mr. Merry's hand he was holding.
"Steady, steady, Pip," Mr. Merry said, petting his hair like he was a faunt.
"I'm sorry, Master Pippin," I said, and I was, too. "But salt is all we've got, and who knows where that Sneaker's teeth have been."
"In his head, I would suppose," Master Pippin said. "I don't imagine they got around much on their own."
It was a poor jest, but we all had a good laugh, didn't we? It did me good to see the shadows rush away from your eyes, just for that little bit. I wish...I wish...
Well, if wishes and buts were sweets and nuts, every day would be merry Yuletide, as my old Gaffer would say.
My old Gaffer. What I wouldn't give to see his face just once more, and Rose, and my brothers and sisters, and Tom and Nibs, and the sun setting all red and gold behind the Hill at Hobbiton. I don't reckon that's too likely, lost as I am. I think I need to sit a bit, Master, and have a cry again. I'm so tired, and my legs ache something fierce, and it's getting too dark to see.
Remember how we held Master Pippin up when he began to stumble. And when he couldn't stumble along no more, and Mr. Merry was carrying him on his back, how sweet he still laughed and kept up a long, low murmur of feverish talk, nursery songs, and foolish old riddles. And how when we came at last to that great cliff we wondered how we would get down with him so bad off, and wore ourselves out with wondering and laid down to sleep in the rain. In the morning poor Master Pippin was quiet in Mr. Merry's arms, and I wished I had that Gollum within reach of my own two hands so's I could run him through myself, and spit on his dust. It was some ease to my heart to see his poor dear face, so young, all care and hurt gone away. Poor old lad. How we wept, but Mr. Merry just tucked his Elf-cloak around him. "He's cold," he said, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that he wouldn't never be cold no more.
And when we finally walked away, holding hands for the small comfort of it, Mr. Merry just kept looking back at that little heap of stones we'd made, and he never said anything. He didn't say anything for a long time.
I remember when Mr. Merry finally spoke again it near scared the life out of me, coming as it did in the quiet. We had ate a bit and laid down to sleep, though our hearts were too sore to rest. He came close and sat near you when he thought I was asleep, and reached out his hand and touched your hair. I near wept, thinking that love for you was bringing him back from grief. "Bring him back," he whispered. "It can bring him back." Oh, I felt cold down to my bones: I knew what he was after, but I didn't know what to do. I should've roused you, but I was afraid.
"Merry?" you said, and there was such a world of blind love in your voice. Why didn't I shout out to you, Master? Why didn't I?
Mr. Merry's voice was so gentle and reasonable, like it was back at Crickhollow and he was telling you how he and Master Pippin were going with you, and would stand by you no matter how long the road. "Give it to me," he said. "Just for a little while-"
Oh, then I stood up and yelled, but he already had a hand reaching out to take the Ring out from around your neck, and you scuttled back with such a look as I had never seen on your face before. "Get back! Don't touch me!" And you put your hand on your sword hilt.
"I need it," Mr. Merry wept, and his voice was a pleading sort of cry, like a hobbit begging for water in a terrible desert. "I need to see him, I need to tell him..."
How you stood there with the tears in your eyes, Master. "The Ring can't bring him back, Merry, nothing can. It would only be a shadow, a mockery of the one we knew."
I had my hand on your sleeve. I wish I had had a better hold of you, both hands at least, but I had drawn my sword. I saw Mr. Merry's face crumple up and I let out my breath, but then he threw himself at you, and I heard cloth tear and the sounds of your good vest buttons pattering down into the rocks.
It all happened so fast. I had your sleeve, Master, and he had hold of you, and all of us struggling together this way and that closer and closer to the edge we couldn't hardly see in the dusk and the gloom, and then I was holding naught but a bit of woollen cloth and you were falling away from me. Just for that little while I saw your dear face so clear, like a white star falling down into the dark, and then you were gone.
And Mr. Merry was standing still, with a broken bit of silver chain in his hand, and a little gold Ring swaying at the end of it that didn't seem one copper-penny worth of what we had both lost, no matter how much those great and powerful folk had thought of it.
What it boils down to is, he's gone off, Master, scared to come near me after what he did, but not able to keep away, neither. I reckon he's close. He's got nothing to eat nor drink, and he's as lost in these hills as I am, turning and turning again to face the same jagged drop-off or sheer wall or pile of broken stones. I picked the cursed ring out of the dust where he had let it fall and put it in my pocket, though I rightly should have sent it as far as my arm can throw. Right heavy it is, too, and I don't dare think of it too long else it sings its song to me same as it did to Mr. Merry: Take me, claim me, it says, and you can have it all back. Mr. Frodo in the parlour at Bag End with his books, and poor Pippin with his fair voice singing, and Gandalf, and your Rosie and the sun setting red and gold behind the Hill, too, but your voice in my heart tells me that's a lie. I have my sword drawn, close beside me on the ground where he can't see it. I'll sit quiet here with my head down until he comes close again.
Oh, plague me, but I did fall asleep! I sat right there with the rain pelting down on me, like a cow standing in a field, and really, truly fell asleep, for all that I meant to pretend. I opened my eyes a crack and there he was, crawling toward me across the rocks. The light was growing and thunder from the storm that soaked me through was rumbling off into the distance again. I could see enough to tell that he'd torn at his clothes and cut his hands and feet on the rocks, and his eyes were like empty holes in his white face. I was glad at least that you couldn't see your Merry then; you wouldn't have known him, Master dear. Forgive me Master, but such a rage was in my heart, I didn't care, I didn't care that you loved him. He wasn't your Merry anymore.
My hand slipped on the hilt of my sword as I tightened my grip. Steady, Samwise, steady. No worse than skinning a hare, I told myself, and a quicker end than he deserved for what evil he did, whether he meant it or no, but he was touching my feet, and crying quiet as a little child left alone in the dark. "Sorry, I'm sorry, Sam, don't leave me, I never meant it, I don't want it, I want to go home, please take me home..."
I cried, too. I remembered Merry laughing in the sun, I remembered his good heart, his sharp mind, our Mr. Merry that we was all so proud of-for he was my Merry, too. For all that I was just a gardener's son and him the heir to the Hall, he was my friend. I would have offered him mercy, if I could, you said, and then I understood, Master Frodo. The last lesson you ever taught me, and one that hurt the most to learn.
I set my sword aside and reached out my hand and he flinched away, but I didn't do nothing but run my fingers over his brown curls, all stiff with dirt. Poor Merry, poor old Merry. We didn't none of us see this coming, we were just simple hobbits with no idea how cold and hard the road could really be, though those wise folk knew all along, didn't they, Master? I could cry out loud and curse them all for that, but I just don't have the heart. My hating them won't mend nothing.
"Merry, look at me," I said, and he did. No more Mister, cause he's no more the young master now than I am plain old Samwise Gamgee. We've both been too deeply hurt to ever be those things again. "We've got to go on now as best we can, and I won't leave you, and I promise to not lay hands on you if you promise to be good. Do you promise?"
"I do, I do," he said, and I saw his look jump right quick to my jacket pocket where that blasted thing sleeps, and I put my hand over it.
"Not on that," says I. "Never on that. Keep your eyes to yourself, Merry lad, and we'll have no trouble, see? I've still got my sword." He flinched again, though he was always better with a sword than me, and I wouldn't have hurt him then anyway. "There now," I said, making my voice softer. He'd lost his Elf cloak, so I put my sword away, and I buttoned up the only button left on his coat and pulled up his collar, and brushed some of the dried mud out of his hair, and somehow I found enough tenderness left in me to cup his worn face in my hands and wipe away his tears. "Come along."
So he's taken my hand, Master, and we've gone on to finish what you started, if we can. I'm making sure he gets a bit of Lembas bread and a drink when he needs it, and when dark comes down and he cries and shivers with the chill or the rain or the shriek of those dreadful things near or far, I put my arms around him because that's what you would want me to do, though it's cruel hard sometimes when I remember your laugh or your smile, or the touch of your hand. I smell a powerful stink on the wind now and then: I reckon there's a nasty bog to cross, if we ever can come to it. Perhaps we'll find a way down to it today, or tomorrow, or not. It may be that we'll just go on together, Merry and I, till we get too tired and then just lay down for a good long sleep. When we wake maybe we'll see you again, dear Master Frodo, in some kind green place just for weary hobbits, where everything is as it should be, and there's no place for them great and powerful Men, and Elves and Wizards, that thought the little hopes and hurts of small folks weren't as valuable as a shiny band of gold that was never worth nothing at all.
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