"I didn't think it would end this way."

"End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take.

hain Peregrin I was dreaming, curled up in the highland meadow in a little nest of crushed grass, with the tall stems waving gently above him, warm and scented with sunlight. He had been sleeping like a stone for the better part of several hours, but a dream had just slipped quietly into the silence of his mind and warmed his latent consciousness, like embers shifting in the grate: just enough to stir his thoughts, but not enough to wake him.

He had not intended to sleep while he waited for Merry, but the strain of keeping up appearances for his children this day had taxed him sorely, and by the time he had been able to slip away, his blood had been rising and his heart beginning to tremble with dread. Climbing to the meadow, he had only just been able to drop his pack and stumble out into the grass on his stick before the tumult overbore him: the struggle for preeminence waged by the natural rhythms of the Shire and the Wide World went clashing through his body, and his heart was forced to pound out such bold and dissonant rhythms that he thought despairingly it could not be long now before it burst asunder. He did not know when or where he had fallen, but when the spell was over he was lying flat on his back in the grass, and there he stayed, gazing up at the pale blue sky and breathing in such ragged peace as was left to him, too exhausted to do anything more than curl around himself, and close his eyes, and sleep.

The dream drew upon the warmth of the sun and the fragrance of the grass to wrap him in a gentle blanket of consolation, but it was short-lived, for the low sigh of the breeze and the rustle of the bending grasses shadowed his relief with a sense of separateness so acute that even in sleep his body stirred in anguish. He did not remember why he was so alone now, or indeed that he had chosen to be; all his sleeping self knew was that his isolation was unnatural, and painful, and that he longed for Diamond, who was lost to him, and Merry, who was coming.

The dream found him walking in a wood, and there was beside him a wide stream of clear, cold water in a deep stony bed. Sunlight filtered down through the leaves and branches of the wood and sparkled and skittered over the surface of the water; he smiled to see it flash now as the water flung itself against the stones and splashed up, leaping toward the sun. It had been a trick of his, when he was young, to infuse water with light in this way. He remembered as a child sitting before the fire in the parlour, flinging drops of tea upward off his fingers, waiting with passionate attention for the momentary sparkle of brightness and colour that flared up in the firelight, small incandescent showers, like fireworks against the night sky. It had always been that way with him; when his sisters took their candles up to bed, they had been fearful of the shadows cast along the walls, but he saw the pearl-white flame, and all the other colours bound up in it, and the warm circle of light without. Later, he had learned to fear shadows, but even so, only those that were born of darkness.

He walked beside the stream now, watching it shimmer and listening vaguely to the music of its passage, and suddenly he heard woven into the song of the water the sound of high hobbit voices, of laughter and singing and idle talk—not the roar of sound he had come to know so painfully of late, but quiet snatches of this voice or that, comfortable and easy, the gentle sounds of Shirefolk at work or play. He looked eagerly around, but the wood was very still in its sieve of golden light and he could see he was alone. He gave up a tremulous sigh and in his sleep he writhed a bit; somewhere in his mind, beyond the dream, he acknowledged the foolishness of his self-imposed seclusion. He had held himself apart for too long; he hoped that Merry was really coming, and that he would come soon.

The stream dropped down suddenly as the forest floor gave way to a steep, rocky slope, and the water splashed downward on a stair of tumbled stones, the flying droplets flashing up into the sunlight in bright bursts and drifting down again in pale green mists. He scrambled after and once again he heard the hobbit voices lacing through the liquid song, and he caught his breath, for these were voices that he knew!

Diamond's voice! And Merry's! He surged forward, laughing softly for joy. At the bottom of the hill, the plunging water pooled briefly, then emptied into a serene and silent stream that passed out of the golden wood into a deeply shaded grotto where the leafy canopy was low and dense. The Thain entered eagerly into the dim, though when he passed out of the sunlight he shivered a little. Quickly he looked over his shoulder and was relieved to see that light yet filtered through the wood behind him, and that just beyond the edge of the trees there was a wide meadow, warm and green beneath the bright day.

He turned back to the grotto, to the rustle of dark leaves and the quiet movement of water, and the faint echo of those beloved voices. The very air was shadowed here, and hushed, he thought, but he did not feel afraid, only curious and anxious to find Merry and Diamond. Looking round, he was surprised to see a tall hedge of yew growing along the bank on the other side of the stream, thick and luxuriant and so very high that he could not see the wood beyond. After a moment, in which the shadows seemed to play him tricks, he discerned, tucked within the handsome foliage, a finely crafted door, pale green in colour, and arched and crowned with vines of wild roses that had pushed up through the hedge on rambling stems to lay upon the lintel. Into this door was cut a small round wicket, like the windows at the Smials, and through it could be seen a brilliant gleam of light, as if, in some garden beyond, the sun was shining brightly. A vivid thread of light, so intense as to appear almost liquid, shimmered along the ground beneath this threshold, and the green panels glowed somewhat, as if they themselves were imbued with radiance. A path of smooth, flat paving stones led up from the grassy riverbank toward the door; he gazed, bewildered. He knew the Shire well, but he had never seen this place before.

Then he caught the gentle sound of Diamond's laughter amid a soft murmur of voices, and the breath went out of him.

"Di?" he whispered, staring at the circle of light in the strange door. "Diamond—are you there?"

For a moment there was a breathless silence, such as he had often heard in the woods, when some bird or other wild creature he was watching suddenly became aware of his presence. He waited, his heart beating anxiously, and then the roses rustled on the lintel as it seemed a breeze whispered through the hedge, and Diamond's voice came across the water. "Pippin?" she wondered softly, and he could almost hear the catch in her throat, the faint resonance of that wild, elemental joy that always rose in her when she was especially glad or taken by surprise. "Pippin!"

"Diamond!" he cried, and suddenly Merry was there, calling out to him, too: "Pippin! Where are you?"

"Merry! Di! I'm coming!"

With a rush of joy he splashed through the stream, all but forgetting himself as he slid over the stones that lay hidden beneath the water and clambered up on the bank like a youngster, slipping on the patches of pale green moss that covered the rise to the sward, groping for the paving stones. But when he gained his feet, ready to run forward, no path awaited him, nor any door nor hedge either: instead, he raised incredulous eyes to the misty golden wood, and the sunny meadow beyond.

"What—?" He whirled and saw with dismay that the strange place was still on the far side of the stream; that he had not come across after all. "No!" he cried. "Diamond!"

"Pip!" Merry's voice was urgent.

"I'm trying!" he cried, and turned again to the stream. He was halfway across, with the water purling around his knees, when Diamond's voice arrested him, a soft caress close upon his ear. "No, dearest," she said regretfully, and even as he drew his breath to cry out he knew that the way was somehow barred to him and no matter how many times he crossed over the stream the place would remain beyond his reach, and she with it. Oh, no, please! Diamond!

"I love you," she said and he felt her flow away from him, just as the water in the stream was doing, brushing gently past, intent on other matters and bound by rules of other realms that were not his to know.

"Diamond!" he cried despairingly, and woke up.

For a moment he lay still, trying to remember where he ought to be. The garden door was yet clear in his mind, and the light beyond it, and the sound of Diamond's voice, and Merry's, too. But the spring blue sky above him and the thick grass all about brought him back to his situation with a start, and he sighed to fully realize the other place had only been a dream. He closed his eyes again, feeling gently disappointed to have regained a reality without Di; still, he was glad to have felt so close to her again, for yet a little moment. Then, wishing to hold her just a little longer, he summoned his memories, recalling with a tender smile a day long ago when he had stumbled upon Diamond hidden in tall grass like this during a game of hide and seek with the children, and how she had laughed and tried to tickle his feet and how he had thrown himself down beside her and kissed her because she was always so lovely and he was always so happy to be with her. And she had kissed him back, just like the first time on the green at Long Cleeve. It had always seemed like the first time, he thought, no matter all the years that passed. He wondered if Merry searched for Estella in his dreams, and if he ever found her. He hoped so.

The dream of Diamond's voice was fading, but Merry's seemed to echo on. Pippin could still hear him calling urgently: "Pippin? Pippin!! Where are you?" He shook his head a little to clear out the cobwebs, his hands over his ears. Why did it go on so?


His eyes flew open. Of a certain that bellow was no part of any dream!

"Merry!" he cried. "Merry!" His heart leapt; he sat up in the grass, looking round. A waving sea of green surrounded him, with here and there a bright stem of wildflower, and above it all the pale blue arc of the sky. He bent his head, listening, but all he heard now was the sound of the grasses whispering and far away the screech of a falcon, crying for its mate. "Merry?" he called, uncertain suddenly. "Are you there?"

"Pippin? Oh, save us! Yes, I'm here!" Merry's voice was some way off, but the sound of relief was so sharp in him that the Thain's brow furrowed with misgiving. The surge of gladness he had felt initially at the sound of Merry's voice fled; he knew at once that kind of relief was the aftermath of fear.

What was wrong? The Thain knew Merry had his own worries, of course—if the odd letter that had preceded him was any indication—but he had not sensed in the message or in the bond that lay between them anything so desperate as this. He fingered the pocket where he had slipped Merry's letter this morning; the paper crackled, folded beneath the soft, quilted fabric of his jacket. He had memorized the cryptic lines—Arriving day after tomorrow. Hear me out!—but he was more than a little puzzled about what they meant. He shook his cottony head, frowning. He had been slightly amused by it at first, but really, it wasn't like Merry to send a letter like that…to leave so much unsaid….

Merry called sharply: "Pippin, are you all right? I can't see you!"

Are you all right? Are you—?

The Thain caught his breath. With a cold shock of dismay he realized they must know: that despite his attempts to put them off, Fair and Goldilocks and Galen and Laury—and oh dear! very likely Amethyst, too!—knew far more than he had ever wished them to know. And powerless to get any critical information from him, they had taken their concerns to Merry!

He groaned, hissing softly through his teeth. How had this happened? He'd been so sure he'd thrown dust in their eyes, so confident—being the only one who actually understood what was happening—that they could not sniff him out! The Thain covered his face with his hands, and squeezed his eyes tight shut, the better to think it all the way through.

Of course he had marked Fair's disquiet on those few awkward occasions when the lad had seen more than he should; and Amethyst's quick, discerning glance and too-tender embrace when she alighted from the trap that had brought her a week ago from Whitwell. So, too, had he seen the way Goldilocks had made quietly sure he was all too well-provisioned when he went up the hill and how she stood watching him go, just inside the door; and he had known full well what Galen and Laury were about this morning. But he had been so careful to distract them from the truth, and to be so gently and honestly affectionate with all of them from the beginning—a strategy, certainly, but entirely heartfelt and born of his love for them and his wish that they might never be hurt by knowledge of things better left outside the Bounds, and better left unsaid within….

And really, in the end, how could they ever be expected to imagine such a thing as this—his children who were born and bred and safely grounded in the Shire, as he hoped they might ever be? He did not want them to know what took him in the end. He was old, and old hobbits died every day, didn't they? Better his children should think he had died wandering happily in this meadow above their mother's resting place than to learn that he had suffered beforehand, that he been brought to his knees and broken on the world in this appalling way, by accident, really and no one to blame. His heart ached for them—I didn't want you to know!—but when he thought of Merry, it bled outright.

He'd intended to explain things, of course—he had been half-heartedly working on a letter—but he had not thought Merry would take it well, especially when he found out there was nothing he could do to change what must happen here—what would happen—one of these days. He himself was resigned to his fate (it seemed the best response he could make) but for Merry's sake, he could honestly wish it was not so. Too vividly he remembered Estella's death: how shattered Merry had been, how terrible the darkness that had enveloped him. More than anything he regretted what this would do to Merry; sometimes, after a particularly difficult spell, when he knew he must die of this soon or late, he would find himself overcome with weeping, remembering Merry's torment during those long months after Estella's passing and realizing how it hard it would be for him now, to carry on alone with no one who could share his memories, or understand his grief.

"Pippin, keep talking to me!" Merry was shouting—from somewhere to the north, the Thain decided, squinting at the sun's afternoon progress toward the west. There was only the slightest touch of urgency in Merry's voice now; anybody but the Thain would think he was himself. "Talk to me!" Merry commanded. "I'll follow the sound of your voice!"

This wouldn't do—sitting hidden in the grass like a rabbit, or a faunt at play, waiting to be found! He needed to get up! But this was not so easy now as it had been when he was younger: nowadays his limbs grew stiff if he was still for too long, and he had been lying on the ground for a very long while, albeit on a soft and fragrant pallet. He looked about and located his walking stick lying nearly concealed in the grass a few feet beyond his reach, where it must have been he dropped it when he fell. He leaned far over to get it, and as his fingers closed on the bright inlays of silver and carnelian, he blinked suddenly and an impish grin stole slowly across his aged face and brightened the muted spring green of his eyes. He pulled the stick toward himself and, righting it on the vertical, lifted it as high as he could with both hands, swinging it gently back and forth above the grass. The silver bands flashed like a beacon in the sunlight.

"Here I am, Merry, and quite all right," he called out cheerfully. "See? Right here!" He rocked the stick back and forth, his head cocked to one side, listening for Merry's response.

There was a gasp, and an inarticulate sputtering came to his ears, followed by Merry's voice, deeply put-upon: "Pippin! For pity's sake!"

The Thain smiled; Merry could be so predictable. "What's the matter? Can't you see my stick?"

Merry growled fiercely—"Gah! I see it! I'm coming!"—and the Thain laughed softly to himself. There! That should divert his worry for a while! Merry always growled at his stick, as if the sight of it was a personal affront. The Thain thought it very fine, and useful as well, and being a sensible old hobbit, was not too proud to use it as circumstances required, but Merry, though he was years older and considered by all to be very wise and thoughtful, was not always (to the Thain's way of thinking) very sensible. Merry didn't like the notion of getting old any little bit, and so he had for a long time now rather successfully pretended he wasn't (getting old), but was, like Bilbo Baggins, going on forever, and never aging a minute. The stick seemed to serve only one purpose for Merry—to remind him that neither of them was getting any younger—and the Thain knew the sight of it never failed to make his oldest friend cross and irritable. Well, he thought (quite sensibly), waving it above his head and watching, bedazzled, as the sunlight found its reflection in the hammered silver, better Merry be cross than frightened right now. A thread of sadness tugged at the Thain's mischievous smile; no doubt there would plenty of time for other feelings later, when they had heard each other out.

The swinging stick came to a sudden, smacking halt then as Merry plowed out of the sea of grass and caught it up with a fierce, arcing sweep of his hand. "Pippin!" he exclaimed reprovingly; but he looked more desperate than angry, and the stick trembled in his fist, high above their heads. The Thain could see that momentarily Merry's attention was fixed on the stick, but he saw also that his eyes were wide and dark in a face that was too pale. The Thain knew too well what that darkness in Merry's eyes meant; he knew, too, that it would never yield to such an innocent distraction as this in the end. Still, he stayed the course he had chosen in hopes of delaying their mutual despair:

"Hullo, Merry!" he said brightly. "Have you been calling for me long? I hope not; I fell asleep waiting and I only just woke up when I heard my name."

Merry looked hard at him, then blew a great ragged sigh, lowering the stick to the ground beneath his hand. "Save us, Pippin!" he breathed, and he sagged a little without seeming to realize that he was leaning on the stick. "I thought you—I thought—no, I won't say it! But you're all right, aren't you?" He let the stick fall and flung forth his hand. "Here, I've got you."

ippin at once put his hand in Merry's and gratefully allowed himself to be drawn to his feet. Merry's hand was worn but steady, and even if his eyes were dark wells of pain, still his presence brought such a heady sense of relief to Pippin that he could not help but draw him into a joyful embrace. He had every wish to spare Merry the story of his trouble here, but at the same time it felt so good to be able to let go for just a moment, to put his head down on Merry's shoulder just long enough to take a breath. Somehow, it put him in mind of the days when they were young, and looked after one another. "Merry!" he said gratefully, as he drew away. "I'm so glad you've come!"

"Are you?" Merry had gripped him fiercely in return, but now his voice was harsh, and he held him at arm's length and fixed him with a stare so starkly penetrating that Pippin felt he must lower his eyes or be found out straight away. It was no good, though. There was a moment of silence, tight and expectant, and then Merry said softly, "Pippin, why didn't you tell me?"

The tears sprang so quickly to his eyes that for the space of a breath he did not know what to do. Instinct saved him. "Save us, where has my stick got to now?" he thought to utter in a befuddled sort of way, and he turned aside, making a slow pretense of searching for it, all too aware that tears would most certainly not pass the burning scrutiny Merry bent upon him. He was awkwardly surprised: he had not thought that leading Merry this little dance would hurt either of them, but it was obvious now that Merry was deeply alarmed and not a little unhappy, and that he himself had been sadly overbalanced by the call of the world beyond the Bounds. He cleared his throat of the hard knot rising there and blinked the tears out of his eyes as he bent to tease the stick out of the grass, taking the moment slowly in order to steady himself. He took a deep breath before he straightened up; then smiling diffidently, he met Merry's stormy blue gaze with hopeful, if artless, resistance:

"Tell you what?"

Merry's eyes narrowed. Pippin could see the old brown scar he had of the Uruk-hai smudged like a shadow on his brow as the breeze ruffled and lifted his snowy locks, somewhat thinner now, it was true, but bright as adamant in the sunlight above that dark and challenging stare. Nothing had ever really diminished Merry, Pippin thought admiringly; he bore that dark reminder with the same vigorous ambivalence he had always reserved for hard times, injury and age. Merry had never really warmed to the considerable grandeur that was Buckland's opinion of Meriadoc the Magnificent ("makes me feel as though I must brush up my toes twice a day!") but it could not be denied that he embodied it nonetheless. It seemed that only loss disarmed him, for he suffered brutally when losing people that he loved.

The Magnificent was glaring like an Uruk now. "It's no use, Pippin," he said darkly. "I'm immune to your tricks. Don't waste your time ladling out that wretched sauce for me!"

Pippin's mouth fell open; since it had, he caught his breath. "Sauce!" he exclaimed indignantly, stepping back. What in the Shire was this? It sounded like something Fair would say—surely it could not be that all his careful plots had been dismissed so easily as this?! "Sauce?" he repeated incredulously. "Sauce?"

Merry's eyes glinted with amusement. "So they say," he said wryly and suddenly he raised a battered finger in front of Pippin's nose. "And make no mistake, Peregrin, I shall know it when I hear it!"

Pippin stared at the finger, and then at Merry; then he closed his mouth and shook his head disgustedly. "I suppose Fair and Galen met you in the drive," he muttered, frowning at the ground.

"In the drive! Pippin!" Merry caught his sleeve. "Fair met me on the Stock Road—two hours out, if you please, and I can't think when I've seen him in such a state before! It was Galen met us in the drive; I think he'd been waiting there since you went up the hill." Merry hesitated, watching him narrowly; his hand fell away. "He's having a hard time of it, Pip," he said quietly.

Pippin closed his eyes and set his teeth in the distressful little gesture that all his life had been his response to realizing foolishness or failure on his part. Not that he'd had a lot of failures—and it was a very long time since his ridiculously foolish youth—but it was a reaction that was singularly and naturally his own, and still surfaced from time to time when he reproached himself severely for any bit of business that did not come right. And this most certainly had not! Disconsolately, he kicked the grass.

Plague take this wretched state of affairs! He had meant to keep it to himself, to spare all his folk, in particular, his children, and most especially his youngest. All of them would be distraught, of course—and he was sorry, so bitterly sorry! They had been such a fond family, close and caring, even over distance, and he loved them all and knew how each would grieve. Galen's situation, however, was the worst, for it bore not only on his feelings but on his profession as well. His Talents and skills had never been so unfairly challenged as they would be in this, and Pippin hated the thought of burdening his son with a loss that even the Elves could not have circumvented. He set his stick into the soft earth and bowed his head over his hands. "Save us, Merry—!" he whispered despairingly. "I meant to spare you all, and most especially him!"

"I know," Merry said quietly, touching his shoulder, "but Pippin, did you really think we would give you up so easily as that?"

Pippin shook his head wordlessly. How much simpler it would have been if they had never known the truth, if they had given him up as easily as that! Away across the hills he heard the faint echo of the falcon's cry yet drifting on the wind and his heart went out to it, so despairing did it sound, as if its wild spirit was choked with regret, like his. How could he explain to Merry what he had done, and why? He had never before in his life embraced despair of his own will, or denied himself a reason to hope—but it had been a long winter and a cold and reluctant spring.

"Pippin." Merry's hand brushed lightly over the curls on the crown of his head. He knew this gesture—long between them a blessing and a promise of loyalty and hope—but even so, it wrung his heart. He looked up. "You don't understand yet, Merry," he said.

"No, I don't," said Merry, searching his face and frowning slightly. "But I mean to." He looked about the little nest, then away over the meadow. "You said you were sleeping, Pippin…here?"

Pippin drew breath gratefully: apparently they weren't going to have it out right this minute. "Aye," he answered, relaxing a little, stretching his back, which was a little stiff. "Strange…it is years since I slept so soundly in the wild!" And suddenly his mind's eye was full of his dream, of the door in the yew hedge, and the stream and the shadows and the light, and he was seized with a sudden, ardent wish to tell Merry what had passed there.

"I—I had a dream of Diamond, Merry," he confided, surprised to find his voice was trembling. "I couldn't see her…but she was…somewhere…and I heard her voice… as if she knew I was there…!"

Merry turned to look at him and his face softened even to the hard darkness of his eyes. "I know that dream," he said softly, "or one like it," and he smiled his crooked smile, the one that put his heart into his eyes. "Bless you, Pippin! I hope you have it often!"

A look passed between them then, a tacit affirmation of their long lives and the losses they had faced and shared and in some cases still endured, and of the trust they had reciprocated always. Pippin sighed; of course he would tell Merry the truth, when the moment was right: when they were quiet and comfortable and he could explain slowly and carefully and bring him gently to the point of it all. He set about recovering himself: brushing bits of grass from his jacket and trousers, rewinding his scarf. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and got a good one-handed grip on his stick. "Well, then!" he said, smiling expectantly.

But Merry was looking rather fixedly at him. "Are you all right, Pippin?" he asked. "You look a little pale…ought you to be resting still?"

Faith, it was nearly impossible to hide anything from Merry, and probably foolish to try! The fact was, Pippin knew himself to be a little less than sturdy this afternoon—considerably less than usual, in fact, and falling off still, which was worrying—but when he considered his morning's ordeal at Galen's hands, and the fact that, in all the time he had spent up here since he had been ill he had never before lost consciousness or fallen into such a black sleep, nor been confronted upon waking suddenly with anything like Meriadoc the Magnificent in all his blazing authority, refusing to be diverted and demanding answers on the instant, he was inclined to dismiss his odd sense of unevenness as natural to the occasion. Further, his mind was still grappling with how best to soothe everyone once the truth was out; certainly, that was enough to make anyone feel a little shaky!

He lied cheerfully: "Nonsense—I'm fine! I'm just a little stiff, from sleeping on the ground, you understand. I think I shall have to build another Hut if I am forced to sleep up here again, though!" He put a hand to his lower back with a sheepish smile.

Merry smiled sympathetically. "I admit I was grateful for my little bunk last night," he said, and he sighed. "Much as I hate to admit it, the verge doesn't seem to have the charm it once did. Take this little nest, now: pretty as it is, Pippin, I don't think it will prove a comfortable place for the hard talk we are soon to have."

Pippin tried to school his face. "We're to have a hard talk, are we?"

"Yes, we are!" Merry said briskly. "But I think we should both like to be as comfortable as possible; what do you say we walk back to that great stone by the stairs? I think I saw your pack there and I confess to a deeply personal interest in it at this moment: Fair tells me that Goldilocks packs you splendid teas—and I could use something to eat about now, Pip. I think you could, too, for you do look a little peaky despite your nap. Come, let's feed you up, for I mean to tax you very soon with all manner of merciless questions."

"Tea!" Pippin's heart leapt and his stomach rejoiced at the thought—even as his mind flinched at the prospect of Merry drilling him with questions. "Faith, I had almost forgot about it! Goldilocks does pack a most satisfying tea, Merry. Do let's go and get it! I'm starving!"

"All right, then." Merry turned toward the track he had beaten through the grass. "Follow me!"

Pippin smothered a smile of relief. He was embarrassed to think that he could not have led the way to the stone, but it was true: on his own hilltop, he had completely lost his bearings! It came, he knew, of being so hopelessly overwhelmed—of falling blindly into that roar of chaos and then sleeping like the dead—but he was deeply reluctant yet to speak of it to Merry, and so he was grateful when his cousin took the lead and he could walk easily along behind with his stick as though he, too, would have chosen this way. As they went, though, he marked with consternation the myriad other trails in the grass that headed off in directions Merry did not follow. It was clear that he had taken his search all over the high meadow and Pippin could imagine now how frightened he must have been, and of what. He looked for, but could not see his own marks, and he guessed that the grass must have sprung up again while he slept to cover over his passage.

"Merry," he said hopefully, as they walked along. "About these merciless questions: I wish you would not ask them. You won't like the answers, you know, and I shan't be able to take them back once they're out." Merry looked over at him, but his only response was to raise one implacable eyebrow and shake his head before turning back to the trail.

Pippin sighed, and knowing himself overborne for the time being, contented himself with imagining the contents of his pack. He was famished after sleeping away the afternoon, and found himself looking forward to Goldilocks' tea with quite as much anticipation as Merry was. It was odd to think that while he was seemingly so near to death his appetite was not in the least diminished. Not that he wasn't grateful: the little meals he had eaten up here in the meadow, so gently pressed upon him by Fair and Goldilocks on his departure each day, had given him such sweet, quiet comfort—the knowledge that he was loved and looked after, and that, barring his own indisposition, all was right with the Shire. Things will go on as they always have, he thought bravely, conceding with respect to the way of the world. It's just that my part is very nearly played out. He could not think Merry would understand his willingness to accept this, of course, and there was, indeed, a part of himself that hesitated still, plagued in his most anguished moments by a shadowy sense of something left unfinished.

The grass was not so high as it had seemed when he was lying flat at the bottom of it and looking up at the sky. It was tall enough, of course, leaping up as grass did in spring, but not so high that the two of them couldn't see over it standing up—the extra six inches in height they both enjoyed had always had its advantages. Still, it brushed above their knees and was thick enough to make walking a bit like wading in a swamp, and Pippin's stick—not at all the crutch Merry considered it to be, but a decent short-staff that rose just shy of his collarbone—did make the walk easier. He managed to keep up with the determined pace Merry set, walking abreast of him for the most part, but he thought that without the stick he might have struggled along behind, and in any case, he found himself a little breathless. Merry seemed to be, too, but Pippin thought the better of teasing him about it when, peeping sideways, he caught sight of a decidedly defiant look in his eye.

They came out of the grass about ten feet from the stairway and the stone. The ground here was hard and uneven and the grass grew only sparsely and in weedy tufts around the few close outcroppings of rock. Pippin stood for a moment caught by the view away to the north, hills and hedgerows and fields and byways as far as he could see to the haze on the far horizon, where the Water came wandering south, a pale grey thread that flashed silver in the sunlight only as it made the deep curve east to Hobbiton. He let go a tiny sigh before he turned away. Merry stood at the top of the stone stairway, looking down upon the barrowfield in silence.

His pack was sprawled beside the stone. Something about the way it lay spoke to the desperation of his passage earlier—the shatterbrained way, perhaps, that he had flung it aside—and he knew that Merry must have marked this and worried over it. He bent his head with a grimace, grieved to think his every move seemed to cause Merry the very pain he meant to spare him.

He settled himself on the stone, set his stick to the side, and reached down to draw the pack toward him. Suddenly there was a clatter behind him on the stone, and something hard banged up against his arm. Looking round, he saw that an object had caught in the straps of the pack and was now entangled with it; a laugh came bubbling up within him when he saw what it was.

"Hoy!" he said, reaching to pick up a long, smooth walking stick, much the same size as his own, though not so handsomely carved and polished. "What's this?" he said ingenuously. "Is it yours, Merry?"

Merry had turned from the stairs and swelled now with indignation. "Mine!" he said scornfully. "Certainly not! How many times have I said I don't want a stick? A staff now—tall, you know, something along the line of Gandalf's—might serve—but, oh no! Galen forced that wretched twig on me when I set out—and Fair backed him up! They seemed to think I should need it before I climbed very far." He inspected his cuffs. "They were wrong, of course. All I got was a pain in my shoulder carrying it up here!"

"Ah!" said Pippin, his eyes dancing. "I see." He pitched the staff to Merry, who flung up a startled hand to catch it. "Now, how do you suppose it came to be so muddy on the bottom?"

Merry's brows beetled in vexation, but Pippin crowed with laughter; he could not help himself and in any case he was genuinely pleased to find a reason to laugh, for it always made him feel better. And after a moment, Merry smiled grudgingly and sat down beside him. "I'm sure I don't know what I think of Tooks these days, Peregrin," he said, poking at the dirt with the end of the stick. "I know they care for you, but I never saw such a relentless lot of nursemaids in my life! You don't need that sort of thing!"

Pippin grinned and set the pack between his knees. "Oh, it's not so bad, Merry," he said, untying the strings. "And say what you will, I expect your own lot is just as careful of you. It's only that they're more in tune with your style—I should think you don't notice half of what they do for you without saying anything!"

Merry opened his mouth to retort, but checked himself abruptly as it appeared a thought came to him. "Save us!" he murmured, genuinely appalled. "You don't really think so?"

"I fear it, yes," said Pippin solemnly, wondering what could have happened at Brandy Hall that Merry would even entertain such a notion. "But don't despair! Surely you have noticed there are some advantages?" He smiled conspiratorially. "When was the last time you mucked out the stalls, hmm? Or spent all of a hot summer's day bringing in the hay, or cut down a tree that needed taking before it fell?"

A strange look passed Merry's face, but it was gone as quickly as it came, and Pippin again thought to wonder what was afoot and what it could mean, that fleeting impression of hollow and helpless regret. It occurred to him suddenly that it might have something to do with Merry's very cryptic letter, but he could not think what that could be, and before he could broach the subject, Merry said, glowering: "I suppose I see what you mean, Pippin, and it's quite true I do manage to escape certain chores when I've no mind for them, but, mark me: I won't stand for possets, and sticks are out of the question!"

"Poor Meriadoc!" Pippin chuckled quietly and set to the task of digging the little packets of provisions, neatly wrapped in wax-cloth, out of the pack and passing them along. When he had emptied the pack of all the foodstuffs, he found two wooden cups and two cool flasks lying snugly wrapped in tea towels at the bottom of the pack, and when he had unwrapped and set them out, the flat stone might have been a banquet table on a feast day.

Merry whistled approvingly. "Fair was right!" he said, surveying a dazzling spread of bread and cheese, stewed fruits and pickled vegetables, mushrooms and pigeon pies, and salad and meats and pudding and apple tarts and cake. He set out the polished wooden cups with one hand even as he filled the other. "Fair said you could lay a tea splendid enough for kings, and so you have, Pippin! Eat now, for pity's sake! You look as if you need it, lad. Shall I pour you some ale, or a bit of this cold tea? What do you fancy?"

Pippin was only just realizing how really hungry he must have been: he was actually beginning to feel light-headed. He set to with purpose, taking up a small, savoury pigeon pie and demolishing it in two ravenous bites, then stacking up a piece of rich brown bread and yellow cheese together with thick slices of roast beef and tomato. Chewing thoughtfully, he said: "Neither, thank you. I've an inclination for something else, I think. Here, Merry: you're closer, and I confess you're right—I've gone too long without eating and I can't budge for chewing now! Slide off, won't you, and go round the other side of the stone there—?"

Merry set his fare aside and with a wondering smile did as Pippin directed. "Now," Pippin continued, "Do you see how there's a little pocket under the ledge, where the hill slopes out from under? Aye, that's it. Now, if you will reach in carefully—no, there's nothing to bite you!—there, do you see?"

Merry, nearly invisible as he bent hard over attending to this task, raised his head abruptly above the edge of the stone. "Pippin! What's this, a secret cache? Save us, there must be eight or ten bottles of wine here! You keep a private reserve in the high meadow?"

Pippin smiled serenely. "I do," he said, "but you know what a thirsty trek it is coming up the hill! Times are when I think it's nice just to sit here and cool off with a cup. Pull one or two bottles, won't you? I think you'll like it, Merry—it's very fine—laid down nearly thirty years ago in Long Cleeve."

"Indeed?" Merry carefully extracted two bottles; pushing himself to his feet, he came back around the stone. There was a tiny crease between his brows. "How did it come here, Pippin?"

"Smuggled it up under my coat, of course!" Pippin said with a little laugh, but he did not entirely meet Merry's eye as he took the bottles from him and set them on the stone. He dug into his pocket for his little knife, trimming away the sealing wax and pulling out the leather stop beneath; pausing for a moment to breathe deeply of the bottle's bouquet, he poured the deep red wine into the cups. He passed one to Merry, who accepted it with a contemplative smile, and took up the other.

"To tell the truth," he said, raising his cup in a twinkling salute and draining it on the spot, "Josselin gave it over to me in his will. He'd been hoarding it for years—I never thought to have even one bottle, let alone the lot! It was a splendid gift." He sighed wistfully. "How I wish I could have seen him again before he died!"

"I had not seen him for many years." said Merry. "I mind it was not expected when he died last summer."

"No indeed," said Pippin sadly. "And him not even turned ninety, Merry! Di was so grieved that she was not well enough to make the trip north. They were very fond, even after living so many years apart, and Joss was a great help in settling Galen and Laury in the valley. Save us, what a dear fellow he was! Do you remember how he sang the tale of the Bullroarer? Make you gasp, he could! There was not a bard could best him, Merry, especially when he was in his cups! Such a roar he would make!"

Pippin smiled gently to remember this and, filled his cup a second time with wine and tossed it off as quickly as he had done the first. Save us, but it was lovely, he thought, holding steady while, somewhere deep within, he felt a real and physical shudder of relief. The wine had a deep, woody flavour, somewhat jammy with blackberries and blue plums and spiced with pipeweed. He could not help but sigh to feel it flowing through him; such a peace it laid upon him, and didn't he need it now!

"To Josselin, then!" Merry took up his cup and drank. "Faith, it's got quite a kick, hasn't it?" He looked hard at Pippin. "I hope you go easy on this, Peregrin; I can't think how you get down the hill in the evenings if you take this with your tea! But there! I remember now: the vintners and brewers in Long Cleeve have always laid down a stiff draught, haven't they? I mind old Leodegar curing me of an especially evil head once, before I learned to be more careful there."

"I remember that!" said Pippin, his eyes kindling gleefully above a slow spreading smile. "Poor Merry! That was the day Josselin tried to kill me!"

Merry blinked and laughed, a sweet, spontaneous response. "Save us, Pippin! How is it possible I had forgotten that? Poor fellow—what a shocking moment that was! You drew your sword against him!"

Pippin had emptied the rest of the bottle into his cup and taken a mouthful; he swallowed it down now around a gurgling laugh. "Bless the fellow, I did, didn't I? Oh, but Merry, you know I had to do it: he would have knocked me senseless, else!" He giggled softly. "I have not thought of that in years," he mused, "the day Joss and I came to swords' points…."

"Well," said Merry, eyeing him intermittently as he made short work of a handful of mushrooms, "in fairness to memory, Josselin wasn't carrying a sword, but that fairly wicked-looking Heirloom of his House. But you're quite right, Pippin, you very nearly met it head on!"

ong Cleeve had responded with discretion, if also a certain amount of concern, in the matter of Pippin and Diamond's radiant first meeting on the green.* While the astonished villagers' initial reaction had been tempered by their life-long experience of Diamond as a good lass—modest and biddable and surely gifted of the Fairy—they were not sure what to make of the somewhat disheveled-looking lad who had appeared out of nowhere to engage her affections in such a way. He might have been a good fellow—certainly he was admirably tall and nicely turned out, and some of the older lads who had met him earlier in the beer garden said, considering, that he was well-spoken and a sparkling bard (without a doubt, born a gentlehobbit in any case)—but others noted uneasily that he was also marked by signs of hard travel, flushed with far too much drink, and possessed of an odd air of desperation. His companion, it was whispered, looked after him very closely; but who knew what that was about? Perhaps the boy was mad (you heard of such things cropping up down Hobbiton-way now and again), or perhaps he and the other fellow (who had a teasing smile that belied an exceptionally observant look) were up to some sort of devilment….

Thus it was that when Pippin and Diamond drew apart at last and gazed upon each other with breathless astonishment, Merry—stunned beyond any experience he had ever had of Pippin's impulsivity—was not sure what to do. Certainly both he and Pippin had engaged in their share of youthful flirtations in ways as foolish and impulsive as all young hobbits, but they were of age now, and strangers here; he shuddered to think what might come of such a shocking breach of hospitality, particularly if the lass was what she appeared to be: the cherished child of some high-ranking official. To make matters worse, she and Pippin seemed blissfully oblivious to the effect of their reckless behaviour on anyone but themselves. Merry, however, had clearly discerned the undercurrent of censure that ran through some of the folk as they looked hesitantly at one another, and—more immediately—he had detected a low buzz of urgent argument in a group of village lads of late tweener age, several of whom had subsequently spun on their heels and flown up the road toward the center of the town. He looked after them, frowning. He had played a lot of pranks in his time and he knew intimately the limits of village forbearance.

"Pippin, we should go," he said low, but even as he spoke he saw that this would not serve, for it was clear that Pippin and his girl would not be parted, intoxicated as they were with one another and overborne by the immensity and immediacy of their feelings. Indeed, they drew together in alarm. "Please," he murmured. "We need to withdraw."

Thankfully, they were not wholly insensible to this idea. Pippin said suddenly, as if he had just waked, "Merry, what is it?" and when Merry had sketched his concerns, Diamond's dreamy eyes took on a look of keenly practical consideration. Taking each of them by the hand, she said, "Gather your things and follow me into the woods along the path just there. There is an inn at the end of the lane beyond, a quiet house where you can take a room and find a stable for your mounts. As to the lads, I expect they went to spread the tale, but my father will understand when I explain what has come about, and he will stay the elders."

Merry, hurriedly prodding Pippin as they drew the ponies along the path into the woods, was not sure what had come about, but he was glad of the inn, if none too sure of the elders. He hoped they might be stayed, though, for (he thought glumly) they would never make it out of the valley ahead of the Watch now. The beasts were heavily laden and had not been properly rested since making their way down into the little green valley; he and Pippin had thrown themselves rather precipitously into the festival throng in the streets of Long Cleeve before ever they gave a thought to a stable.

The inn proved a charming little cottage with a sign on the gate that said The Leafy Bower—which was certainly accurate, as it was located in a shimmering coppice of silver birch trees on a shelf overlooking The Water. There were wide front and back porches, a roomy stable beside the drive, and a long green meadow in the back, stretching away to where a stand of fir trees rose at the base of a lofty cliff wall, over which a misty ribbon fell from high above the valley down to meet The Water.

The innkeeper was an amiable old lady-hobbit called Bramble Flurry, a widow with twinkling green eyes that missed very little and a talent for accurately speculating on how she might be of service. She appeared to be an elderly relation of Diamond's and welcomed her with a kiss and an interested gleam in her eye. White-haired and ruffled and seemingly rendered much aflutter by Diamond's tall, handsome friend and his equally tall and rather masterful traveling companion, she saw the young gentlehobbits to a beautifully appointed room on the "Water side," suggested that the regular clientele of her common room was such that an evening spent there might win a stranger some valuable alliances, and produced a schedule of mealtimes and menus so dazzling that they accepted her hospitality on the spot. When they returned to the front parlour, they found Diamond seated at a little writing table, just setting the blotter to one side and folding up a bit of white paper. This she tucked with a smile into the pocket of Pippin's rather grimy waistcoat while making regretful farewells; she must go home now and speak to her father. Pippin saw her to the porch and kissed her yet again, and then stood watching dazedly as, with a flicker of purple silk ribbons and a wave of her little hand, she slipped away into the woods. Merry bowed impeccably over Mistress Bramble's aged hands and met the bemused expression in her eye with one of cheerful complicity in his own; thereafter he signed the register with a flourish, and with many fair words complimented the beauty and high tone of her establishment in relation to a good many others he had seen on his considerable travels. Then, pleased to have secured the old lady's good opinion, he called Pippin in and suggested they see about washing off the stain of travel and having a nice long nap to restore themselves.

They took dinner in the common room later and Mistress Bramble saw to it that they made the acquaintance of several persons of considerable consequence. Somehow these folk already had an idea that the young hobbits were "some sort of Tooks from out the south" and so the visitors did not elaborate, but only explained that they were come for the festival, which seemed to do nicely, especially when they stood for a round of brandy after dinner. And when Mistress Bramble rather giddily explained that Master Peregrin was a special friend of Diamond's, it was somehow taken to mean that the village beauty and the younger of the lads from the lower Farthings had an established relationship of some long standing, necessarily hampered before now by tender age and great distance. Mistress Bramble proved wonderfully inventive, if astonishingly indistinct on this subject, and Pippin navigated all of it with none too surprising skill, given the considerable success of his youthful career as a rogue and mischief-maker. And Merry watched with quiet satisfaction and a good deal of relief as their troubles dissolved in a steady stream of very expensive brandy and mounting good will.

Merry proposed to continue the evening in the common room, but Pippin begged to be excused. It had been a long day, and an impassioned one, and he wanted some time to think it through. Mistress Bramble saw him to the door, and gratefully he bowed and bestowed upon her hand (far steadier than his) a kiss.

He wandered to the back porch, where a lamp was burning and the air was scented with sweet grass and herbs, and settled on the rail above a fragrant bed of lavender, leaning his head against the post and closing his eyes to think, as he always did when he must be serious. He felt very odd—still and solemn, and startled by the intensity of his overwhelming feelings for Diamond, which had come to him all unlooked for—though he had known it for destiny the instant she had raised her eyes to his; he knew something of destiny, after all. He conjured her pretty face in his minds' eye: her creamy skin and beautiful dark hair, those remarkable periwinkle eyes, the little mouth that met his own as though she had known it forever—

BOOM! A thunderous crash exploded on the post above his head! He did not even think: instincts born of war hurled him off the rail and onto the porch as a cudgel whistled through the air within inches of his face and then smashed into the floor beside him, splintering the boards. He rolled over and onto his feet in one easy motion, cursing silently the decision he and Merry had made to stow their swords in their blanket rolls when they rode into Long Cleeve, so as not to attract too much attention.

"Plague take you!" he swore indignantly, stepping back to take a good look at his assailant, as well as to put a reasonable distance between them. "What do you mean by such a thing?"

His attacker was younger than he, a tweener perhaps (though it was hard to tell), and darkly handsome, with blue-black eyes that shone in the lamplight out of a deeply tanned and keenly chiseled face. His curly black hair was cut a bit shorter than Pippin's, in the way of North Farthing clanshobbits who in isolated places such as this still honoured the old ways of the Bullroarer and his long-ago warrior brethren. The lad was well dressed, in shirt and breeks of very fine fabrics and a handsome waistcoat of pale green silk, but he was flushed with resentment and his eyes blazed dangerously. In his hand was a stout club hewn of oak and wrapped about the grip with a dark band of leather—an object Pippin realized with alarm had most certainly been devised for use as a weapon of war. He had never seen such a club used anywhere in the Shire before; the lower Farthings had no weaponry at all, saving the bows and arrows they fashioned for hunting, and good, round stones. He wished he might have one now.

The young hobbit stared coldly, brandishing the club with a look of black hatred in his eyes. In a voice harsh with fury he said, "You stay away from Diamond. Don't come near her again."

Almost unconsciously, Pippin assumed a grimly defiant demeanor better known to certain folk in the Outlands than to any in the Shire. "And who are you to forbid me?" he asked softly.

The dark hobbit dismissed him with a shrug and an evil look, turned on his heel and descended the porch steps. Glancing insolently over his shoulder, he said, "You've had your warning. I shan't be so careful next time," and turned and went into the night.

From somewhere behind Pippin in the dark came an amused observation: "Well now, I call that a close call! Eh, young fellow?"

Pippin whirled to find an elderly retainer in a rumpled smock with a tangle of white hair and a bemused and wrinkled countenance coming into the light. It was apparent that he had been comfortably seated in the shadows round the corner during the business just past. "Did you see that?" Pippin gasped.

"Aye," said the old fellow, bending down to frown at the porch floor. " See this, too. The Mistress won't be half pleased."

"Ahh!" Pippin groaned, frowning himself to see the extent of the damage wrought by that singularly unusual club. "Are you the jack, then? I'll come round to help you fix it tomorrow."

"Nay, 'twas lad Josselin did it," said the old hobbit complacently, and seeing Pippin's shaken expression, he added in a manner of consolation: "Don't ye mind Josselin, young sir. He be a hot head, sometimes, but he's fine youngster withal."

"He—he might have killed me!" Pippin said, incredulous. "Seemingly," said the old fellow agreeably. "But I don't think his heart was in it, as ye be standing yet." And he laughed, a rusty old cackle that spoke to a viewpoint Pippin did not think he could share. He managed a weak laugh at his own expense and went to bed.

In the morning, he woke early and quietly washed and dressed, slipping his sword from its soft wrappings and belting it beneath his cloak. Merry was yet dead asleep after a successful evening in the common room from which he had returned singing in stentorian whispers, thoroughly potted with ale. He had slept in his clothes and most of his blankets were tumbled on the floor. Pippin shook his head with a fond smile and restored the blankets, tucking Merry up before he slipped out into the hallway where he found a first-breakfast tray set next the door on a little table. From this he liberated a plate, and from under the covers two current scones with butter and jam, a handful of bacon and a stewed apple with raisins; not much in the way of breakfast, but all he could manage in the restless mood that lay upon him. Stopping by the kitchen, he begged a mug of tea from the cook, who was having breakfast with the elderly jack ahead of the day's work. The old hobbit nodded recognition and grinned around the stem of his pipe. "Aye, there ye be, lad, standing yet!" he said encouragingly.

Pippin broke his fast on the back porch, where he sat contemplating the splintered flooring with some gravity, and then turned his attention to the note Diamond had slipped into his pocket upon leaving yesterday and which he had transferred to a considerably cleaner waistcoat today. "Meet me in the morning by the waterfall," she had written. "Oh! I miss you already! I shall come early!" He finished his tea clutching this missive, trembling with hope that the beautiful little creature would appear as promised; he had never seen or met such a girl in his life. Presently, a shaft of early morning light shot through the trees on the far side of The Water and dappled the meadow, and he got up and walked its length into the little wood where he stopped in sight of the mist-enfolded waterfall to lean against a tree and dream. There, wandering in a maze of unfamiliar emotion, he was taken by surprise when she appeared noiselessly at his side and slipped an arm about his waist.

"Oh!" he said delightedly, turning eagerly toward her, and then "Oh-h!" as she came into his arms and he could hold her close again. She was wrapped in a dark green cloak of soft wool and she pushed back the hood to lay her cheek against his heart, holding him as needfully as he did her. They stood thus together for long minutes, warm against each other, but trembling, too, like the prisms that shimmered in the mist where it caught the morning light. He buried his face in the dark wealth of her hair, faintly scented with violets and wrapped in a green ribbon to match her cloak. "I love you," he said, faintly astonished, but not in the least afraid to be so sure, and she sighed and snuggled closer. "Always, always I have loved you," she whispered, and then suddenly beside them a twig snapped sharply, and they were torn from each other's arms.

"I warned you!" came the outraged voice of Josselin, and then he was upon them, pulling Diamond away and flinging her down behind him in the leaves, and turning to Pippin with a snarl.

"Joss!" Diamond cried, scrambling to her feet. "Stay back!" he warned harshly, throwing up his free hand, and Pippin, seeing the club rising in the other, had just enough time to leap back before it whistled down and met the tree beside him with a shattering crash.

Diamond shrieked, and Pippin, having already decided he would not stand to be undone twice by this ferocious young ruffian (not to mention that his darling girl should be so badly used) gave himself up to battle. All right, then! he thought grimly, and the sword flashed out from beneath his cloak with such a ring of steel that, bright and terrible, it rent the misted calm of the meadow from end to end. Josselin gave a strangled cry, stepping back so hastily that he tripped and fell heavily onto his back among the leaves. "Save us!" he choked, staring in horror. "Di, he's a bloody madman! See how he treats your folk!"

Pippin snorted and lowered the blade, moving forward so coldly and inexorably that Josselin forgot his bluster and with a gasp of fright began to squirm backwards through the leaves. But the sword-point followed and soon caught up with him, and he lay still, if burning with defiance, as Pippin leaned down to wrench the club from his hand and fling it away.

"Now you will speak softly, sir," he said, staring down the length of the sword into Josselin's baleful eyes, "and tell me your trouble. This blade has been a troll's bane before this, and while I am sorry to draw it in my own country and against my own kind, I cannot let you bash my head in, and you have now tried three times! What have I done to you?"

"Who are you?" cried the lad in a bitter voice, glaring at the blade. "Where do you come from? What makes you think you can come a stranger to our village, and make free with Diamond without so much as a by-your-leave?"

"I–!" Pippin caught his breath and flushed darkly, glancing sharply at Diamond, who stood watching, pale with dismay. It was true: he had far overstepped a stranger's rights of welcome and this fellow certainly seemed to feel he had a grievance. A horrible thought occurred to him for the first time: perhaps he really had trespassed beyond all respectability! He said stiffly: "I must perhaps beg your pardon after all, sir. Have you a prior claim here? Is this lady promised you?"

"Josselin!" cried Diamond, considerably mortified. "See what you have done!"

The boy stared up at Pippin for a long moment, his handsome face still dark with anger. "No," he said at last in a biting tone. "But the lady is my sister, and I am within my rights to see you thrashed for making her a scandal in the square!"

"A scandal!" Diamond exclaimed, stamping her foot. "Did you think to ask me what I was about? I kissed him of my own free will, Joss, and I love him as my life! If we are to be a scandal, it will be through your foolishness!"

But Pippin had heard Josselin's reply with a surge of relief. "Your sister!" he cried, hastily withdrawing his sword and sheathing it as quickly as he could. "Oh! Please—!" He thrust out his hand, and after a moment's dark hesitation, Josselin grasped it warily and was pulled to his feet.

"I'm very sorry we have met so badly," said Pippin, breathless with contrition as he brushed some of the dirt and leaves from Josselin's shirt and waistcoat, "but you must admit, you scarce gave me time to explain myself! Please forgive me for drawing against you, and let us begin again." He offered his hand a second time, smiling in his friendly fashion, and Josselin, after exchanging an uncomfortable glance with Diamond, took it somewhat dazedly.

Pippin covered Josselin's hand warmly with his own. "My name is Peregrin Took," he said, "—Pippin to my friends—and if it you will allow it, I would call you friend—and brother, moreover!—for I love your sister, though we are only just met, and I will do anything your father asks of me to marry her."

"Well, I call that good news!" said a pleasant voice behind them, and all three turned to see an older hobbit step out of the trees, a fellow with a face much like Josselin's, though worn with years, with very dark eyes, and ruddy cheeks, and silver curls damp from the mist and the dew-drenched leaves of the wood. He wore a deep blue mantle fastened with the silver brooch and ribbon that proclaimed him a northern clan leader, and he looked on all of them with amusement and not a little relief.

"For a moment, I thought I had come too late!" he said affably, stooping to pick up the club Pippin had hurled away, laying now in his path. "Josselin, I think you've met your match, my lad! No, don't scowl at him! If you'd spent the evening by the hearth last night, instead of with your friends, you'd have heard your sister's story and known a bit about this fellow and how she's come to care for him. Save us, lad, it's as plain as your nose that he's besotted with her—aren't you, young fellow?"

Diamond slipped close to Pippin. "Here is my father," she said shyly, leading him forward and Pippin bowed deeply, flushing with dismay to think that Diamond's father had most certainly watched him draw steel—altogether unheard of in any part of the Shire—against his son. But the clan leader took his hand with a good will. "Yes, yes, I see, " he said to Diamond, observing Pippin keenly. "Very nice, my dear: very nice indeed!" He patted Pippin's hand. "Now, sir—Took, did you say? You'll be some sort of cousin, then. Do you love my girl?"

"Oh, sir!" Pippin whispered, suddenly quite overcome, and drawing Diamond to his heart even as his eyes filled with tears. "I do love her so very much!"

"Well, that's settled, then," said Diamond's father, shaking his hand warmly and bending to kiss Diamond's upturned cheek. "Best you get acquainted with this fellow, Joss, but I'll take The Ancestor's club back to its place on the chimney shelf, eh? Can't have you killing your sister's betrothed with the Bullroarer's club, lad—talk about scandal! We may be gifted in healing, but it doesn't follow we could raise him from the dead if somehow you'd managed to do away with him altogether! Let this be a lesson to you to mind your temper! You make amends, now, for I like the look of him, this Peregrin Took."

Josselin coloured and bent his head, scuffing the ground with his toes. "I'm sorry, sir. Honestly, I only meant to frighten him, for the sake of Diamond's honour." It was the first time Pippin had heard him speak without anger, and his voice, though discomfited, was clear and considerate and surprisingly youthful. He turned somewhat shamefacedly to Pippin. "I do beg your pardon, sir. I did not know you, and I heard a tale from my friends and did not stop to think. I was afraid for my sister."

"I shall think nothing of it ever again," Pippin promised generously, flushed with the stunning success of his artless suit. "You meant well for her, and how should you have known me or what I was about? I hardly knew myself before I looked on Diamond yesterday." He smiled tenderly at her. "Indeed, I am a new hobbit altogether now."

"Stay!" said Josselin, regarding him suddenly with riveted curiosity. "You said your sword was 'troll's bane'! Are you one of the Travellers, then—those fellows who went adventuring east beyond the Bounds to the King's War? We've heard a few tales of you here, but none too well-told, for my part, and none so many as I should have liked, either!"

Diamond looked astonished into Pippin's eyes and he said on a quiet note of anxiety, "You don't mind, do you?"

Josselin laughed. "Don't you dare mind, Di!" he said. "Only think of being wed to a hero out of tales!" And when Pippin protested this appellation, Diamond's father, who had been considering him with some attention since Josselin's discovery, shook his head. "Better not deny it, lad!" he said. "For I see now it's written in your face. I wondered at it before—you've an eloquent look for so young a fellow. I hope you'll tell me your story one day, though perhaps I shall weep to hear it." He smiled then and cocked his head toward Josselin. "As for my dangerous lad, well, I think now he is besotted! "

This was true; Josselin seemed to have found a great deal to admire in his erstwhile adversary. One thing in particular he felt he should articulate: "Save us, but you're tall!" he declared now, eyeing Pippin critically. "I confess you surprised me yester eve—I did not think a southerner could have so many inches. We have some height here, we North-tooks, as you can see—and proud of it—but nothing compared to you! I thought to make short work of you on height alone last night, but I think you must be almost as tall as the Bullroarer!"

"Taller," said Pippin firmly, on solid ground in this regard at least, looking down at Diamond with sparkling eyes. "I shall tell you all about it, if you like—"

"We'll tell him all about it," said Merry, stepping suddenly out from the cover of a low-hanging branch in the act of sheathing his own sword, the sound of which did not alarm the others this time, but seemed to make him flinch slightly. "Faith, Pippin! What a lot of excitement you've got to so early in the morning! Mistress Bramble's jack-of-all-works told me what happened last night. I came to stay your back, but I'm glad to see you've made a friend instead. I have to tell you, my head is killing me—they brew a powerful ale in this place!"

"Ah, poor lad!" laughed Diamond' s father. "Your first time in the valley, is it? You'll have need of my special brew, then." And he beckoned solemnly while Josselin goggled at the advent of a second Traveller, this one with an even more knowing look than the first. "Come along, young sir, and we'll get you dosed and try to straighten out the rest of this business. Diamond, you walk along with Peregrin and your brother there and make up your quarrel. I want some straight talk, so I shall walk with this fellow, who appears to me have a clear eye, if a poor head for ale. Mr. —?"

"Merry Brandybuck," said Merry promptly, rising to the occasion and offering a ready hand despite his aching head. "My pleasure, sir. I hope you aren't angry with Pippin. He's the best fellow, though I'm sure I've never seen him behave in such a shocking fashion as this before, and I've known him all my life! I think he must be in love, sir."

"Aye," said Diamond's father complacently. "And that's well, for so is she! Brandybuck, now…you'll be from Buckland, east of the Brandywine? I had some dealings there many years ago. I once met a young fellow—when I was a young fellow, you understand, and still of a mind to go wandering about the Shire, which I don't anymore, not being in trade—called Sara Brandybuck. Drank him under the table at a wedding. Could he be a relative?"

"Indeed he could, sir!" said Merry, laughing. "And no wonder you bested him, if you came up on such ales and spirits as I consumed last night! That would have been my father, Saradoc Brandybuck—Master of Buckland these days."

"Is that right?" said Diamond's father. "Well, well. You'll be the heir, then, I daresay. And what of young Peregrin there who says he's a Took and means to marry my girl? Bless me, but there's Tooks everywhere, Mr. Brandybuck. I own I am concerned. Who are his folk?"

"Pippin's father is The Took, sir, in point of fact, the Thain: my uncle Paladin, of Tuckborough in the Green Hills Country."

"Do you say so?" said the old hobbit delightedly. "Now, that is a surprise! I have not seen Paladin Took for at least forty years—well, since I met your father, come to think of it!—and I mind that he had a smial full of little lasses then! So yon Peregrin is a son of Thains, is he? And there is my own lass come of the clan of the Bullroarer—I think fortune has had a hand in this match, Mr. Brandybuck! Well, then, I am content; for if it must be that I am to part with my good child—and I knew I should have to, someday—I could certainly do no better than to bestow my Diamond upon the very crown of the Shire!"

hey sat comfortably together in the spring sunshine, eating and drinking as they recalled their long-ago adventure, Merry laughing softly from time to time and Pippin drinking off his wine with a pensive smile. "The crown of the Shire," he mused. "How kind Leodegar was to me! Another hobbit might have been happier to let Joss do his worst than to see me married to his daughter, after the reckless way I had begun with her."

"Nonsense!" said Merry, reprovingly. "You were a hero, Pippin, and anyway, he knew what you were to her as well as she did. I can't think why Joss didn't know—though I daresay you paid little or no heed to your sisters' affairs either."

Pippin's eyebrows rose impishly. "You forget a great deal, I think!" he laughed. "I spied on them every chance I got! Of course, Pearl was married away before ever I perfected my schemes, but surely you remember that Nell thrashed me soundly for reporting all the details of Anson Whitfoot's courtship of her to Mama, and Pink was so afraid of what I might say of her that she bought my silence with thruppence a week for a year, though she was such good little creature I'm sure I should never have spied her doing anything anyway!"

"Why, so I do remember now! That was the limit, Pippin! Didn't Uncle sentence you to a month in the hills with the cows—or was it sheep?— to consider the immensity of your crimes?"

"That he did!" Pippin nodded laughingly. "And it was sheep. And if they weren't enough of a trial—I find sheep very stupid, Merry—it rained the entire time, and when I finally staggered home it was to discover that every coin I had put away in my little box had been made forfeit to Pink, and all my sheep wages as well! She got three new frocks and a slew of silk ribbons out of it, and I got a cold and missed that splendid house party Frodo gave at Bag End that spring! I daresay Pink went in my place, though I can't remember now. It's a treacherous business having sisters, Merry, as I'm sure I've told you before."

"Well, I can't say that you have—in the last fifty years!" laughed Merry, entertaining a sweet memory of his gentle cousin Pervinca while breaking the seal on the second bottle of wine. He was in the act of removing the leather stop when suddenly his hands went slack on the bottle. "Wait a minute," he murmured slowly. "Wait a minute! Pippin—?!"

"Yes?" Pippin smiled ingenuously, proffering his cup.

Merry sucked in his breath, his eyes as round and blue as cornflowers. "I don't believe it!" he said incredulously. "Peregrin Took! You have been ladling out sauce by the barrel for me in this last little while, haven't you, with all this business of Josselin, and swords, and sisters, and—and sheep!"

Pippin tried unsuccessfully to arrange his face in lines of incomprehension. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about!" he said, waving his now empty cup and looking over his shoulder as if there was something terribly interesting to see there. "I haven't fudged a word, Merry—and it was you yourself helped me to remember how I came to be at odds with Josselin—not to mention it was you who brought up the sheep!"

"Oh, no you don't!" said Merry severely, favoring him with a look of exasperation and snatching his cup so as to splash a small amount of wine from the bottle into it, blandly ignoring the fact that Pippin was obviously hoping for a larger measure. "You know very well you were having me on!" He shook his silver head disgustedly. "I can't believe I didn't trip to it!" he said. "Save us, Pippin, perhaps I am getting old! Everyone keeps saying so, and certainly I can't think I would ever have let you get by with this, else."

Pippin thought suddenly that it was more fun to tease Merry about getting old than to have him actually become so. "Oh, no, Merry!" he said loyally, patting his shoulder by way of reassurance. "I'm sure it is only that necessity has made me rather more clever of late than I used to be."

"Ah-ha!" Merry said, looking at him fixedly. "Necessity! Now we come to it."

So they had. Pippin met Merry's expectant gaze with a pale smile of resignation, then dipped his head and fortified himself with a swallow of wine and a deep breath; his heart was beating rather faster now that they had 'come to it,' and the wine was proving no match for the pain of his regret, to say nothing of failing to soothe the trembles he had noticed off and on since waking this afternoon. He wished with all his heart that he need not deliver what he knew would be a shocking blow to his dearest friend; it had not escaped his notice that Merry's hands, clasped together on his knees, showed white around the knuckles.

"Oh, Merry!" he sighed, draining the cup. "Don't be cross with me! I am just so happy that you've come and I'm enjoying being together again for this little while—talking and laughing as we have done for all our lives. I know I've led you a dance, but you know I meant it for the best. You won't begrudge me a few larks, will you? They may be my last."

"Save us!" said Merry, frowning fiercely. "How you talk! I can't say I like it, though I'll thank you to come clean now, Peregrin, for I've had my fill of sauce!"

"All right, then," said Pippin with equanimity, though his heart shrank from the task even more now that the moment had come. "What's it to be? Shall I answer your merciless questions—or would you rather I hear you out first?"

Merry leaned forward in confusion. "What? Hear me out? What's this, now?"

"'Hear me out!'" Pippin repeated. "Surely you haven't forgotten why you came? You wrote in your letter 'hear me out'' and you can't think how I've been puzzling over it! Oh, Merry, do explain it now! I haven't known what to think and I've been a bit anxious over it—is it good news or bad?"

"What?" Merry's eyes flashed. "Good or bad? Pippin, for pity's sake—no more of this!"

Pippin blinked in surprise. "Oh, very well—I'll show you, then!" He reached for the letter in his pocket and quite unexpectedly received a shock: suddenly and acutely he was made aware that the afternoon's trembles had heralded far more trouble than he had ever suspected. Surging sharply, his fluttering heartbeat exploded in a wildly irregular cadence, and in the same instant he realized that a faint but familiar song was humming in his veins. His fingers froze on the letter and for a moment he held his breath: oh, save us, it could not be coming again?! He had suffered it twice today already —the early morning and late afternoon occurrences he was all but accustomed to now—and the second had rendered him all but unconscious for hours! It could not be coming again! He set his teeth and unfolded the letter with as much of a flourish as his trembling hands could manage.

"See here, Merry," he said, holding it up and trying to speak lightly even as a sudden hectic and ominous flush forced his face and forehead to break a fine sheen of perspiration. "'Day after tomorrow. Hear me out!'" He ran a hand through his hair, damp to the roots, and took a breath to steady himself. He laid on his quicksilver smile and plunged ahead.

"I made out the 'day after tomorrow' part all right," he said, "since you've arrived just when I expected you to—but there is not the least hint of what I am to hear, you understand. I've a feeling it's important, though, for you came all this way to tell me, instead of writing it out." He shook his head, as much to clear it as to buy some time. "I have to say I don't think it at all fair that you should have found the whole place hipped on me instead, Merry. I think you should be able to have your say now, and then when you have done, we'll talk about me."

But Merry had been looking with dismay at the letter, as if he might be sorry to have written it. Now he plucked it from Pippin's grasp and set it on his knees, gazing down at its two cryptic sentences in an uncharacteristically grim and shuttered silence. "Come!" said Pippin coaxingly, hoping to quell his rising tides with a galvanizing tale from afar, for he was sure it must be something like that. "Tell me your news!"

But Merry sat still and brooding over the message, and Pippin, arrested by his manner, began to wonder at him. "Merry?" he ventured, gently taking his arm.

Merry shook his head unhappily. "I came to take counsel with you, Pip," he said, turning to meet Pippin's wondering gaze. "But it won't do…not now, not when you're—!" His voice broke and he pulled away, heaving himself abruptly to his feet. "I can't, Pippin," he said softly. "I can't tell you about this. I came to tell you, but…." He turned away, but not before Pippin saw that his eyes were wide and dark and wet with tears.

"Merry!" He seized his stick and struggled up, so alarmed that he forgot that he himself was under siege and only holding off a looming battle by sheer force of will. His reckoning was swift: a churning wave of vertigo took him before he knew what was happening, driven by the dreadful pounding of his heart and its sweeping counterpoint of blood run mad with songs from out the earth. He pitched forward into a cacophony of darkness and a tiny gasp was all that marked the instant of his understanding. But in that instant, too, he felt Merry's arms come hard around him from behind and heard his soft cry—"Pippin! Ah, Pippin!"—and blindly he groped for the arms that bore him up, and finding them, held on for his life.

* If you missed Pippin and Diamond's first meeting, see the Prologue.