"You cannot always be torn in two."

ippin! Pip! Wake up! Come round, now, lad, won’t you? Pippin? Pip?”

He woke struggling, with a start and a gasp and a panicked sense of lying crushed beneath a great weight of pain and darkness, knowing that he must fight with all his strength to break free into the light. But heaving blindly upwards, he found himself to be forcibly restrained, and he thrashed wildly in defiance of this until he realized that it was Merry holding him, one arm slung behind his head and shoulders, one hand resting on his chest.

“Easy! Go easy!” warned Merry, pushing him gently back into the cradle of his arm. Merry’s face was pale, though his eyes flashed hard and very blue beneath his dark brow, a sign that he was roused to action far beyond the well of his own distress. “Lie still, now, Pippin. Your heart has quieted, thank the stars, but save us, how it beat before!” A shadow of genuine anguish hollowed the sweet affection of his smile. “You took me by surprise, cousin; I only barely caught you when you swooned!”

Pippin fell back with a sigh, memory catching up his senses and laying bare the dreaded truth: “It’s getting worse!” he murmured, clear on this point if a little muddled yet on the good sense of voicing it aloud in present company, and indeed, Merry’s hold on him tightened protectively, as if he meant to shield him henceforth no matter what plague he might be called upon to face. Well, and hasn’t he always done? Pippin thought fondly. Hasn’t he always looked out for me and me for him whenever I could? A dry sob came shuddering up before he could stop it—escaped of his secret despair—and he inhaled deeply to disguise it: how he wished there was some way to prevent Merry’s coming to grief in this affair, to give him some comfort he might cling to when fate saw fit to part them sooner than they could wish! He fumbled for Merry’s hand where it lay above his heart, and slipped his fingers round it. “I’m sorry,” he said humbly. “That shouldn’t have happened; it caught me by surprise as well. How long was I—?” He hesitated; he found he really did not like to think of what had just happened.

“Unconscious?” Merry frowned. “Only for a very little while, Pippin.” He gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Believe me: any more and I should have been running and shouting for help! I thought you might sleep a good while afterwards —as I’m guessing you did before, in that little nest yonder—but you fought hard to come awake instead, for which I truly thank you. How do you feel? Are—are you going to be all right now?”

Pippin breathed in and out, taking stock. He felt himself considerably shaken, but sound enough still. “I’ll be all right in a minute,” he promised. “It usually passes quickly.” But he started up then and caught his breath sharply as the last of his straggling memories tumbled into place:

“Oh, but, Merry! What about you? What was it grieved you so before? Tell me!”

Merry shook his head. “Oh, no you don’t— hush now!” he said, leaning forward to temper Pippin’s anxious glance with a steady blue gaze. “Rest yourself for this little while; clearly we have much to say to one another—and so we shall, Pip—but everything in its own good time.” He slipped his hand out from under Pippin’s, patting it warmly before reaching down to bring up a bottle from beneath his cloak. “Here, take some of this: you’ll feel better. Drink it slowly, though, Peregrin! Don’t think I haven’t seen how greedy you have been today!”

“Oh!” Pippin paled and shuddered, averting his eyes. “I thank you, but no!” he said, gasping faintly. “I cannot drink any more wine, Merry!”

“O-ho! Do I detect you have a limit?” Merry’s lips twitched and he tugged playfully at one of Pippin’s fleecy curls. “No, it’s only water,” he said, “my own bottle, from out my pack. I filled it just this afternoon from a spring in your own Tookland. Take some, now, just a little. That’s better, isn’t it?”

It was. The terror and confusion of his waking was wearing off and his heart, which had been so violently overborne before, was indeed quiet now beneath Merry’s reassuring hand. The water was fresh and clear and tasted of sunlight, and he took it thankfully, letting it purl over his tongue before it ran coolly down the back of his throat. To his rather wilted relief, it took with it the sour, sickish taste unaccountably left in his mouth by the wine he had so relished earlier, the first time he had ever suffered such an aftereffect. He had been drinking hard of late, steeling himself to withstand these increasingly powerful assaults, but the draught had wholly failed him this time and he supposed that meant his situation must be coming desperate now. His heart fluttered a little at this fell thought, but even so he felt warm and strangely content with Merry close at hand, safer than he had in many weeks. He drank more water—noticing this time that it had also the taste of sweet grass and tumbled stone and the rich black earth of his little country, the substance of his life for all the years but the one that made such a difference now—and when he had done he lay back with a long sigh. For a moment he considered rather gravely the fact that his time was running out, but then he gathered the remnants of his shattered peace about him and looked up and smiled.

“Help me to sit up, Merry,” he said. “I owe you an explanation and I think I have weighed on your arm long enough.”

Merry said nothing but raised him carefully and stayed his back with restless attention until he was convinced that all was well. For his part, Pippin looked about in surprise: they were seated on the soft verge at the edge of the high meadow, some distance west of the stone and the stairs where they had laid out their tea and where he had so unexpectedly fallen ill. Merry must have carried here, he thought, and a tremor of regret ran through him. His plan to break the news gently had gone very much awry.

From here they could look down over the lower hills, north and west, and observe the neighbourhood: the long, eccentric outline of the Great Smials could be seen wandering below, its many rounds of window glass gleaming cool and darkly crystalline along its luxuriant, turf-covered flanks; and north beyond the outbuildings and the leafy wood, the neat fields, but newly sown these last weeks, stretched away toward the Great East Road, fringed with leafy hedgerows and faintly brushed with green.

Merry stayed his back with solicitous hands, and Pippin sensed in them, ruthlessly restrained, a great tide of apprehension waiting on his words. He shifted his position so that they faced one other, shrinking inwardly at the expression of anxious but steady forbearance that darkened Merry’s eyes.

“I am so very sorry to have frightened you, Merry,” he said. “I’d no idea that I was going to be ill again and give myself away in such a shocking fashion. That’s no excuse, of course, for certainly I’ve lived long enough to know that there is no keeping the truth from coming out at the end of the day, but it was never my intention to keep this from you altogether—only to wait until what seemed to be the right moment.” He cleared his throat quietly: “It’s—rather difficult, Merry.”

Merry’s face was taut, but otherwise impassive. “Don’t distress yourself on my account, Pip. You told me plainly, and early on, I should not like the answers I was seeking.”

Pippin sighed and raised a rueful smile. “I hope you will believe I meant well, my dear,” he said. “Truly, I only meant to spare you what you’re feeling now.”

Merry nodded briefly, but he said nothing, and the shadow darkened in his eyes; Pippin marked it and clasped his hand to comfort him, holding it tightly, at a loss for words suddenly when he needed so many. The sun was dipping into the west now, and the light around them was deepening, the silver-gold of mid-afternoon given over to a honeyed radiance that made the long stems of grass seem to glow from within. He sighed and closed his eyes to think what he should say, lifting his face to the warm sunlight as he was ever like to do, and suddenly it occurred to him that it must be coming late afternoon by now and there could not be a lot of sunlight left. He guessed, in fact, opening an eye and squinting westward, that it could be no more than an hour before sunset—or before Faramir and Galen, worn with worry and impatient for news, came up to see what was going forward.

He winced to think of that confrontation, aware of what it would cost them, so soon upon their mother’s passing, to learn that his own life was so irrefutably compromised and nothing to be done. Merry, quietly vigilant if perhaps not so impassive as he liked to think, marked his expression and said at once with sharp inflection, “Pip, you don’t mean to swoon again?”

Pippin found himself absurdly grateful for this innocently-wrought diversion, and he smiled broadly. “Why, bless you, no!” he said, giving Merry’s hand a friendly squeeze before he let it go. “I’m thinking!”

He winked as he said this; it was an old jest, one that he and Merry had shared for a good fifty years, ever since they had found themselves full-grown—husbands and fathers, Master and Thain, rising in the Councils of the High King and busy in performance of their many duties. Pippin was much changed from the reckless, inattentive youngster he had been before his adventures (“I’m thinking!” in the mouth of the young Peregrin Took had been hyperbole indeed!) and Merry, together with Freddy and Sam and several others of long acquaintance, had been moved to speak very kindly to how careful and judicious he was now that it had come his turn to look after his people and his portion. Pippin was well pleased with this affirmation, and quietly proud to have earned it; yet in his own mind, in his very private moments, he was never very far from the impulsive boy that had been, and he liked to give him a nod and a wink whenever he could. He had done so now for many years, and so it was that, in the habit of dismissing himself in favour of the lad, he remained in a great many ways quite unaware of how venerable he had long since become, how revered was his ancient figure, his shrewd, but compassionate eye, and the irrepressible good humour that attended his most thoughtful opinions—and this not only among the Tooks, but across the Shire, and quite apart from the fact of his high office. Peregrin I had no notion of his real consequence, even after fifty years, for the boy lived always close upon his heart and if this gave him cause for simple joy, it also kept him humble.

His little joke was not lost on Merry who also seemed grateful of a momentary respite from so much worrying concern. “Save us, don’t tell me it’s come to that!” he said in mock horror, and Pippin chuckled in response, but abstractedly, for his thoughts had moved on like quicksilver, and he was already setting his mind to the problem of explaining himself and trying to think how to begin. Silence fell between them, and after a long moment, Merry suggested quietly: “Pippin, whatever it is, it will be easier to bear if you give up your secrets.”

Pippin looked up, his brows lifting on the instant. “My secrets!” A wondering smile flickered across his aged face and settled in the warm green depths of his eyes; he shook his head, his white curls fluttering. “Meriadoc!” he admonished. “You can’t think I have any secrets from you?”

But Meriadoc flushed unhappily. “Can I not?” he said softly. “This day has been full of surprises.”

Pippin’s eyes clouded with remorse. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s true, I did all I could to hide this from you. But I was afraid for you! I wanted to make it easier for you—all of you—but I see now it can’t be done.” He sighed. “Shall I tell you all about it then? It is the truth, Merry, and I shall have to take you back a few years.”

Merry nodded, frowning, and Pippin took a deep breath. “The first time ever we came to Long Cleeve—when I met Diamond and came to points with Josselin—do you remember how we got there?”

“Do I—?” Merry’s eyes blazed in indignation. “Of course I remember!” he retorted, but he was promptly brought up short; gazing into the middle distance as he marshaled his memories, he was suddenly unsure. “Well, I remember somewhat,” he confessed. “But it was just a ramble, wasn’t it? I mind we were restless in those years after we came home from the War; I’ve an idea that we often traveled then just for the sake of wandering come-what-may. Certainly we’d no intention of going to Long Cleeve.”

Pippin nodded. “What else do you remember?”

“I remember that we rode crosswise from the Brandywine Bridge through the Eastfarthing and into the North, and that we wandered—something aimlessly, I think—along the hedgerows for some time, with no clear destination in mind—a ramble, as I said! And in the end the ponies brought us out of the fields smack at the foot of a signpost, and the sign said ‘Long Cleeve’ with an arrow pointing, and we had never been, so we went!”

His gaze strayed once again to the distance; after a moment his eyes narrowed, as if he glimpsed something among his memories that he could not lay hold to. Warily, he continued: “We rode down into the valley and came to Long Cleeve at festival, and then—“ he caught his breath—“Wait!” he said. “Wait! Save us, what in all the Shire? Pippin, we were drunk as lords!”

Pippin emitted a gurgle of laughter. “Aha!” he crowed, regarding Merry with an expression of glowing affection. “Now you have it—indeed we were ‘drunk as lords’, Merry! And aided by a fine brew, too—my favourite in life! How I wish you’d brought some up here today! You did bring it?” he finished anxiously.

Merry’s eyes widened. “Buckland beer!” he exclaimed, dismissing the question. “That’s how it was: we had it slung over the saddles in skins, and tapped it every mile! But whatever possessed us to do such a thing, Pippin—to play such a tweener’s trick, when we were hobbits grown, and King’s men besides? I cannot think what we were about!” He met Pippin’s bright glance with an expression of real bewilderment and no little indignation; Merry Brandybuck did not take kindly to the tricks of age and he liked his memories clear and close at hand. He snorted crossly but Pippin, still smiling, said lightly:

“You mustn’t take it to heart that you didn’t remember at first, Merry, for I own I had forgotten all about it, too, and only recalled it after weeks of thinking this trouble of mine was some phantom of my old age—No, don’t glower! It’s nothing to do with it!—But you know how things can nudge you along: one morning soon after this began, I had a really wretched spell that drove me out of the smial and up here to Diamond for comfort, and as I sat watching the sun come up and telling her all about it, it all came back to me. I knew what was happening then.”

There was a glittering breath of silence. “Pip—!” Merry said despairingly.

“It’s coming now, I promise! Just let me fill a gap or two in your memory and I think you will see it quite clearly. The trip to the Northfarthing was a fool’s errand; we went because I was ill, and had been for many months. But it seemed that journeying could always make me feel better—There! You’re remembering now! I knew you would!—which explains why we were wandering about with no particular direction, do you see?”

Merry nodded, speechless, his eyes beginning to narrow with alarm. Pippin hurried on:

“Now, as for why we went stumbling in there drunk as lords—I do like that, Merry!— well, I was trying to blunt the effects of the illness that was plaguing me, trying to keep steady under fire and stay my fears from looming large, you see? A foolish sort of remedy, but it worked then, for such a youngster as I was, to blot out what I didn’t understand. And you—oh, Merry, you were just trying to keep me company and make me feel better—a kindness I should never have forgotten, except for what came after!”

He reached to clasp Merry’s shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll remember,” he said solemnly, though his eyes were twinkling, “ that I hadn’t much of a head in those days—leastways not much compared to now—so I was stupendously drunk most of this time—!”

Pippin paused to acknowledge Merry’s sudden gasp of comprehension, his eyes reflecting the deep, rich, golden-green of the meadow round about, vivid in a face well-worn with years and softened by a spirit ever disposed to kindness. He had a sudden, quelling moment of doubt: was it even possible to be kind in such a moment as this? He set his teeth; it was time now.

“Merry,” he said, “what I want you to understand is that no amount of drink is going to save me this time around.”

Merry’s face had undergone several transformations during the course of these remarks, from the first flush of startled revelation to the abrupt shock that drained his face of colour as the point came home. His eyes burned indigo now above his ashen cheeks as he shook his silver head in disbelief; for the first time since Estella had gone, Pippin thought sadly, he looked very old.

“What are you saying?” Merry demanded. “That this plague that follows you now is the same as drove you then? It can’t be, Pippin! You were never so endangered then as now; never brought to your knees, nor rendered unconscious! Galen says there is a war lying close upon your heart, but save us—it cannot be the same as was tangled in your blood on your coming of age! That was never so cruel as this!”

“It is not meant to be cruel,” said Pippin softly, his eyes welling unexpectedly with tears as the weight of his solitary burden was lifted at last. “It is only a memory, a sigh of longing to know me again, set against the Shire’s fear for me. They have no way of knowing they are breaking me, Merry. The World seeks only to remember itself to me, and the Shire will have none of it—though for all these years it has had all of me!”

“It cannot be the same, after all this time!”

Pippin closed his eyes. “It is,” he said. “The songs that sing in my blood now, and the pulse that drives my heart: I know them, Merry. They are the same as ever they were before, and this time there is nothing to stem the tide.” He paused as his breath caught in his throat; the words trembled on his lips: “I am so sorry, my dear, but—I shall die of this!”

Merry’s breath broke out of him as though he had taken an arrow to the back. “No!” he managed in a strangled gasp, catching Pippin’s wrist with hard brown fingers, quaking as winter leaves. “No, no! It fell away before—!”

“Not this time,” whispered Pippin, shaking his head gently and blinking hard to keep any more tears from spilling over. “Not this time. I am so sorry!”

Merry cried fiercely: “Why? Why not this time?”

Pippin bit down on a sob. It seemed to him that even under the daily sieges that had battered him of late, his heart had never hurt so much as now. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and lifting Merry’s shaking hand, brushed it with a kiss.

“You know I would not hurt you for all the world, Merry,” he said in a voice that broke for grief, “but there is nothing that can turn this thing from me! I have thought it through and I know how it happened before: Diamond saved me, all unknowing—and no doubt protected me all the years that have been since, now I come to think of it—but she is gone, Merry, and cannot stay me any longer.”

His eyes grew moist again as he thought of Diamond, tucked away in the grass beneath her little coverlet of violets. He had loosed her so very reluctantly from the shelter of his arms, and she was now so very far beyond his present need! He brushed the tears away. “There is nothing can help me now, Merry,” he said simply.

But Merry’s eyes had kindled suddenly, blazing to attention, a deep cerulean blue in a face that brightened strangely, eagerly, hopeful as spring. “Diamond saved you? How? What did she do? You say she was unknowing, but, Pippin, if we were to follow her knowingly, then perhaps we might yet find a way to do the same!”

But Pippin shook his head with a wan smile. “It was in great part her love for me, and mine for her,” he said, thinking now of the day they had met, how the very air had quivered round them, the two of them so young and so suddenly, rapturously in love. Like lodestones they had come together, drawn by the radiance of their mirrored spirits, candid, wholehearted and bright with courage and beauty— transcendent even of their Tookish forebears, and driven, it seemed, by all the forces of nature. Those forces he had pondered now for many weeks.

“Love is a cure for many ills,” said Merry, frowning thoughtfully, “but not, I think, for this.”

“True, but there’s more. Think on this, Merry, for I have: you know how it was ever whispered that Diamond was like an echo of the fairy-wife—well, what if it were true, and in more ways than her face? What if her kinship to the fairy, together with her love for me, was what made the difference?”

“Kinship! You think Diamond worked some power over what ailed you?”

“Not deliberately, no. She had no magic, Merry. But communion with the earth she had in plenty, and skills with plants and healing even she could not explain. I always believed she bore a great measure of the fairy blood, for although she was a hobbit-born, and a Took, and as practical and at home in the Shire as any of us, there were some times when I saw in her something like Lúthien in the old Elvish tales: something shimmering, more than real—almost as if she had dreamt this little Shire life, and was, in some other place, fashioned of dearer things than we—” Here Pippin seemed to catch himself; he shrugged and coloured slightly. “It sounds of poetry, I know, like something of Bilbo’s, and perhaps it is foolish to think of her so—an old hobbit’s fancy, I suppose. But who knows what the fairy-wife really was, Merry, or how she came to be a hobbit, or what powers she left among her children that came down in time to Diamond?” He smiled wistfully. “She always seemed a fairy creature to me,” he mused.

Merry softened suddenly, as if his face reflected Pippin’s heart. “She seemed so to us, as well, Pippin; Estella saw often what you speak of and was terribly moved by it.”

A shy smile brightened Pippin’s face. “I thought as much!” he said, taking Diamond’s little portrait from his shirt pocket and holding it out to Merry. “See how she has lit Di’s face with dreams, and set stars there in the deeps of her eyes, as if she was looking on another world altogether—and yet she is my Diamond, too, dearest girl, and with all her love for all of us there for me to see!”

Merry took the painting and held it in his hand. “I have not seen this in a very long while,” he said, smiling faintly. “I always thought it was one of the best things Estella ever made. Funny—I was thinking not three days ago of how astonishing her pictures were—and there’s no proof better than this.” He gave the image a warm, lingering glance and handed it back.

“I wish that someone could have made such a picture of Estella for you, Merry,” said Pippin with regret, tucking his treasure back into his pocket. “Then you might have had Estella’s pretty face to look upon these five years you have been without her!”

Merry bent his head and ran a hand over his silver curls. “She is close upon my heart, Pippin,” he said softly. “Never fear for me.” And he sighed deeply.

here followed a hesitant silence, time enough for each of them to master the feelings so easily stirred by the memories of Diamond and Estella that clung about the little picture. Pippin, touched seemingly by his own wistful recollections and abashed at unwittingly rousing such living anguish in Merry’s riven heart, retreated a little into himself, and Merry, brooding over Pippin’s situation, sat watching and thinking furiously.

He and Pippin had been close as brothers all their lives—well, as close as brothers managing lands and families sixty miles apart could be, with the help of an efficient postal service and staff enough to keep things in order should either family take a notion to go visiting, which they had done, several times a year—and always they had shared freely the insights and apprehensions of their various experiences of life, with never a thought to keeping anything back. Still, they had ever been respectful of the privacies binding on their wedded states, and had been careful not to trespass in the places where lovers of many seasons must rightly care for one another. In consequence of this they had not spoken outwardly in many years of such dark dreams and numinous grief as plagued Pippin now, nor of anything that might have passed privately between Pippin and Diamond before.

To Diamond, Estella, and Rose Gamgee as well, had fallen the troubling task—for which no Shire maid had ever been prepared, nor any Shire lad ever been needful before or since—of easing the hidden hurts their loved ones bore of the evil that had plagued their adventure in the Wide World. The great War of the Ring had left the Travellers shaken in ways they did not understand and had never imagined could be, and when these were made manifest, it was with astonishing calm and singularity of heart that their good wives had moved to safeguard them: soothing and mending by random night the panicked, sweat-soaked aftermaths of harsh, black, foreign dreams; and by random day keeping watch for the shocking and disorienting moments when memory rose of ashes and the past came haunting, and they must draw their fair young husbands into their arms and hold them fast against a fog of nameless fear. With fierce devotion, they had woven miracles of consolation with their small hands and gentle voices, with sweet, smiling eyes and love as startling as it was unsurpassed, and in due time they had won the peace and secured the golden years that followed.

But now, Merry reflected, they were gone, folded tenderly along with Sam and Frodo into the lengthening tapestry of years, and he and Pippin were alone and alike bereft of that especially sweet forgetfulness and comfort that had come of cherished love and long domestic peace. He was restless now, and Pippin was ill, and they were needful of each other again in ways they had not been since they were come of age, or nearly so, when they had first gone adventuring beyond the Bounds. Time had come full circle, it seemed, and the World was calling once again; how he longed to answer!

His vigil that afternoon had been harrowing, Pippin lying stricken in his arms for long minutes with no sign of life upon him save the violent beating of his heart, akin somehow in Merry’s mind to the small, wild bird Rory had brought in from the marshes, overwhelmed by another unacceptable imbalance of nature. Now, as then—when he had cupped and stroked the frightened little creature in his hands—he acted on instinct: he drew Pippin’s body close in his arms, tucked him into the hollow of his shoulder, and laying his hand over the poor, driven heart, set to rocking and murmuring: Don’t be afraid. I’m here. Just hold on now and try to be easy. Careful, careful! No need to worry, for I shall not leave you, Pip, not ever: I’m right here and I mean to stay until you are well again. Be still now, heart; be still… Don’t leave me….

There had been no response for some little while, and he had wept, somewhat in rage, but mostly in dread of the odd, ethereal frailty that lay upon his dearest friend, a pale, quiet defenselessness that mocked Pippin’s vibrant spirit and made of him a grey stranger, colourless and shrouded in age. Merry set his teeth and bent his face to Pippin’s curls and rocked him in defiance, his hand laid steady and unmoving upon the battered chest. And at length Pippin stirred feebly, and his suffering heart was loosed beneath Merry’s anxious hand, settling by fluttering degrees at last into its own quiet rhythms. Then Pippin had caught his breath suddenly, as if come to some startling understanding somewhere in the deep places where he wandered in his mind, and his face had flushed into a living pallor; but still he slept and dreamed, though soon a look of fierce determination came over his sleeping features, and Merry’s heart was stirred to hope. Wake! he whispered through his teeth. Wake up! Come back! And Pippin had come struggling back, surging upward with a strange, muted cry, desperate, dogged, and finally safe—but for how long, who could tell?

The initial shock had worn off now: Merry’s own forceful intention to draw the truth from Pippin had been supplanted by the truth itself and the pressing need to consider what must now be done to help him, a need complicated by the fact that Galen had been right: for the first time in his life, Pippin had embraced despair. It was there in his eyes for Merry to see, as Faramir and Galen had done before him: a bleak shadow of hopelessness, and a hard gleam of resolve to accept whatever must be. Pippin had no thought of winning his way clear of his trouble, only of meeting his death with as much grace as possible and as little grief to his loved ones as he could design.

Merry considered this, pulling at the grass. It was so like Pippin, in a topsy-turvy sort of way, to try to wrap round with light the only despair he had ever known. From the day he had been pulled, a small smothered bundle, from beneath a monstrous troll at the Black Gate of Mordor, he had looked upon life with a certain amount of acquiescence: faith that the world knew best how and when all things should live and die, and acceptance that so long as the heavens poured light and goodness upon the earth all was as it should be. Pippin would bear no grudge against any fate that followed the natural order of things. You know Father, Galen had said, ‘life will be what it will be’ is his philosophy, and even when it is breaking, his heart is filled with light.

Still, Merry thought he had seen something else in Pippin’s eyes this day as they had danced and parried around the truth: a small but steady spark of regret that met and almost overbalanced the resolve that had preceded it. What was that? Merry wondered, and he sat frowning and tugging at the grass with restless fingers, trying to imagine how and for what purpose Pippin might nurture such a spark, and how he himself might make use of it, when suddenly, in an startling flash of insight, he saw how it must be: The songs of all the earth sing in his blood, he thought. Could it be, after all, that what he hears makes him in some part wishful for the World beyond the Bounds? That he would go there if he could? And he warmed, exultant, for he remembered something now that he had forgotten of Pippin’s illness long ago, and realized in the self-same moment that Pippin had passed over it altogether in his telling of the story.

“Pip,” he murmured, and the green eyes rose to meet his, bright with affection beneath their despairing shadow and a fluttering tangle of cottony curls. When had Pippin’s face become so still? he wondered abruptly, as if seeing him clearly for the first time, and what did it mean, that hushed calm that lay so sweetly on his features? Was this the peace that came of years, or the face of valiant despair?

“Pippin,” he said. “Are you so sure that none but Di could turn this tide? Think now: you have staked your life on this!”

If the spark of regret in Pippin’s eyes blew bright just then, like an ember hidden among coals, its impetuous glow was quenched in a flash. With a sigh he lay down and stretched himself out on the grass, his hands behind his head. “I wonder,” he said slowly, “if you remember how appallingly drunk I was when we went down to Long Cleeve that first time? I do. I couldn’t keep my saddle and you had to take me up before you so I wouldn’t fall off and break my neck!” He turned his head to look at Merry and grinned mischievously. “I think I spent most of the journey sliding sideways or dead asleep—a perilous, slippery bit of baggage for you, Merry. Do you remember that?”

Merry could not help but loose a whisper of laughter. Now that the surface of these long-sealed memories had been prodded, much was coming back to him, and the image that rose upon his mind now was as comical as it was scandalous. “Save us, Pippin! I must have been beyond reason myself to have ever attempted such a thing! What a pair of jesters we must have seemed when first we launched ourselves upon Long Cleeve—I wonder that we did not end up dunked in the river for a public nuisance!”

Pippin laughed, too, before turning up a thoughtful face. “And yet,” he said, “Fool though I was, I was not nearly drunk enough, Merry, for what I was seeking to escape; nor could I have ever

“You tried to run!” Merry teased. He had been following the narrative closely enough but sought now to lighten the telling of it, for Pippin seemed pale again all at once, and anxious, and laughter had always been his best medicine.

“Ahh—I did! I did!” Pippin agreed, flushing a little. “But I was in such a state, Merry! I was so pitifully drunk and filthy with travel, and Di was such a beautiful little creature, and so very fine! I had never before seen anyone like her, save perhaps the Lady Arwen….” He lapsed into silence, drifting in memory until he recalled the moment and checked himself abruptly:

“Faith, but that’s not the point—here’s what I mean to tell you, Merry: when Di came to me and took my hands, everything changed. Understand: one minute I was in misery, sick and dizzy, my ears ringing, my hands shaking, my heart hammering so that I could barely stand, and the next I was sound! It was as simple as that. Somehow Diamond knew to take hold of me—and when she did there was utter silence in my mind and body for a long, long breath, and such calm, as if I had waked on a summer’s morning after a long, bitter season of storms. It was as if I had never been ill at all, and indeed, I forgot I had been, for in the next breath my life was woven into the fabric of hers, and hers into mine and I never thought about it again.”

Pippin sat up and met Merry’s speculative gaze with shimmering green eyes, washed with gold in the light of the westering sun. “It had to be Diamond that did that, Merry. It had to be! I don’t think she had any conscious notion of what she had done, but I was well in a heartbeat, and sure it must be that she shielded me ever after, too—for I have had a little time to think on this as I sat up here each day, and I can’t think that these currents came and went and then stole back again after all these years. I think they have been clamouring for me all the while—but only now that Di is gone are they able to renew their claims on me.”

Merry drew an astonished breath as the import of this last came home to him. “Pip! Do you mean to say that Diamond laid claim to you that day, and that her claim was stronger than the others?”

Pippin nodded, looking rather pleased and proud. “I think she did, and whether she knew it or not, she banished the others for as long as she lived.”

“And so long as her heart beat true with yours, you did not hear the others?” Merry asked, blinking with amazement. So easy—so easy—it had been for Di to keep Pippin safe and well! He could not hope to do the same!

“Aye,” Pippin said, touching gently the place where Diamond’s picture rested above his heart. “I think that must have been the way of it.” His face grew solemn, then, and sad: “But now her claim is laid to rest, you see?”

Merry was nodding as a sudden thought fetched him up. “Bless you, my dear,” he said. “I do see now. And I can understand how love swept the two of you up, so that you might forget or never care how desperate you had been, but, Pippin, here is something I don’t understand: how could I forget so quickly? Think: how could you be suffering one minute and well the next and me never think to question why or how, or even to think of it again?”

Pippin scratched his head. “I don’t know,” he said honestly, “but there was a good deal of happiness and excitement afterwards, and a great many people to meet. And you had been a good deal in drink without knowing how strong it was! But in any case, Merry, stranger things have happened to us, haven’t they?” And he reached out a hand as if measuring between them whose head was higher as they sat together in the grass, and with an infectious grin sat up a little straighter, so that he might be the taller of the two.

Merry raised his eyebrows and grinned despite himself. “Here! Don’t you be getting above yourself, Peregrin!” he said wryly. “I see what you mean, Pip. Best not to delve too deeply into such affairs when we are already thoroughly compromised! Though there was something enchanting about Long Cleeve, wasn’t there? Did you never notice it? I always slept like a child there, never a dream to disturb my rest, nor a worry that stood up to a minute’s worth of that splendid mist rising up from the Water into the sunlight and wafting through the trees, and in the mornings at Mistress Bramble’s that splendid waterfall spangled with rainbows. It is no wonder the folk who live there rarely travel far, save at need. I always felt very peaceful there, and undisturbed—which was a miracle, considering all the months of bustle that attended your wedding!”

Pippin laughed softly. “I ever felt at peace there, too,” he murmured, and he seemed to hear then, as Merry did, how irretrievably he placed it in the past, as if he did not have a son and daughter yet living in the little valley, and grandchildren, and numerous of his wife’s relations, as if he knew for certain he would never see them anymore. He looked up then, and his face was grave.

“Merry,” he said low, “You do understand now how it must be, don’t you? You understand that there is no other way?”

Merry blew a contemplative breath and sat studying him for such a long, searching moment that Pippin shifted uncomfortably, and faltering under the somber blue gaze, looked down at his hands.

“No,” Merry said quietly, directing a look of desperate affection at Pippin’s pale, averted face. “You know I can’t ever understand, Pip. How could I when I know you’ve stepped aside the one path that could set you free? Have you truly forgotten there is another way?”

Pippin flinched, though his head remained bowed over his hands. “Oh, don’t, Merry, I beg you! I have not forgotten, but it cannot be.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Merry demanded, his brow darkening. “I know how you felt all those years ago, but surely you can see it would be different now, to set your foot to the road you rejected then.”

Pippin shook his head. “Merry, I cannot leave the Shire,” he whispered.

“I don’t understand you! You know as well as I that you would be safe beyond the Bounds! Do you remember that we went to Minas Tirith when you were ill before? You lay abed beneath the stars the first night out from Bree and wept for relief, Pippin! I remember that now, if you do not.”

Pippin raised his face. There was a painful struggle reflected in his eyes and on his small neat features, and it was a moment before he could take command of himself. “Please, Merry!” he pleaded softly. “You know I couldn’t stay away then, and I won’t go now!”

“Well I understood you then!” Merry said hotly. “Your life was just beginning. You had barely come of age, and barely settled in again after a year of war and hardship and desperate adventure—home and what we owed our fathers was all that mattered then, and rightly so! But think now: you have lived a long and splendid life in the Shire! Everything you thought to lose by leaving then, you have known: you have been husband, father, grandfather, the Took, the Thain, the King’s counselor—and the best friend I ever had! Don’t you see there is nothing to lose if you go this time, and everything to lose if you stay?”

But Pippin shook his head and looked away, and Merry’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Pip, what are you afraid of?” he asked and there was silence between them until Pippin turned back, his face pale with anguish.

“Where would I go, Merry?” he said softly, despairingly, giving ragged voice at last to the hopelessness that he had hugged secret and silent to himself from the day he realized what had befallen him. “What would I do, a hobbit alone in the world of Men? I am too old to go adventuring, and too needful of my own kind to live without them! I cannot leave the Shire now; even among such friends as might welcome me I think I should die of loneliness. In any case, how could I leave my own? How could I leave you?”

“Pip! Pip! Do you think you will not leave me—that you will not leave us all—if you choose to die here, and not in due course as you ought, but surrendered and captive to despair that was never meant to be? Can you think any of us would rather see you dead than know you safe and well beyond the Bounds? And dare you say ‘too old’!? I have by far the greater years, Pippin. Would you prefer to see me dead, were the tables turned?”

“No! No, but—!” Pippin bent a suffering face to the cradle of his hands. “Surely it’s for the best, Merry—”

“Pippin,” Merry said, choosing his words carefully. “We have ever been as brothers. You know I would do anything for you—within or without reason—but I will not let you die when it need not be! Do you mark me? I will not! It is too cruel—for you, for me, for all your young folk, whose hearts would break to think you chose such an ending—!”

“What?” Pippin looked up sharply, horror flooding over his face. “Save us, Merry!” he breathed. “What do you mean? But—no! Certainly I never chose such a thing!” A sudden shudder shook his frame; the hands he scrubbed through his hair trembled visibly. “What did you mean by that?” he whispered, appalled, and when Merry did not answer, he turned his bewilderment upon himself: “Save us! What can I have done?”

Merry sat still and watchful for a moment, his eyes on Pippin’s stricken face. It was now or never; pray the stars Pippin could see his way clear to deliverance! To be sure, it was not the moment he had planned as he drove the Stock Road, but it was nonetheless the moment, and far more critical than he could have imagined it then. Abruptly he thrust a hand into his jacket and withdrew the sealed and banded packet from the King of Rohan. He held it out; Pippin looked up at it in surprise, not altogether comprehending the object or its meaning in the context of their talk.

“What’s this?”

“A letter from Éomer in Rohan. It arrived only a few days ago.”

“Oh!” Pippin took it and rubbed the soft leather wrappings and cords with his thumb, eyeing the seals admiringly. “It’s very handsome, but—I don’t understand, Merry.”

“You will,” Merry said, patting his knee with a smile. He pushed to his feet, setting his jaw stubbornly against a flash of protest from one knee. “Set your trouble by for just this little while, Pippin, and read what the King of the Mark has to say. I think I shall have a smoke and a little walkabout while you read. I need to stretch my bones a little.”

Pippin was at once contrite. “Oh! I don’t wonder, poor old Merry, after what I’ve put you through this afternoon! I have made a tangle of everything—!”

“Never say so, Pip; this is no fault of yours. Just remember I would do anything for you.”

“So would I for you, Merry, if ever you needed anything,” Pippin returned, smiling affectionately. “But you seldom do.”

“Don’t I?” said Merry. “Well, we shall see!” And with a smile he turned and walked away across the meadow.

ippin watched him go, frowning at his back. He had known Merry all his life and recognized every shade of light and dark that wove the intricate tapestry of his nature—the cheerful temperament and starry mind, so inexorably drawn to light but all too vulnerable to shadow; the madly hopeful heart, slow to recognize its need for love but once entwined, rooted deeply, needfully and forever; the tough and durable body, restless and impatient, even now, it seemed, when it had known a hundred years upon the earth—but this he could not fathom. What had driven Merry here with this letter in his pocket and why had he handed it over now?

Pippin thought suddenly of the other letter, the all but empty page that Merry had sent him through the post, that oddly brief and buoyant appeal—Hear me out!—that had so piqued his own curiosity and so inexplicably brought tears to Merry’s eyes when he saw it again here on the hill. It must be that this letter from Rohan had something to do with that, though it seemed clear now that whatever Merry wanted him to hear, he must hear it from Éomer first!

He twisted to look over his shoulder at Merry, who had stopped on the rise of the meadow and was standing there squinting into the east, searching perhaps for the pale gleam that marked the path of the Brandywine, and there beyond, his home in Buckland. It was hard to see at this time of day, though; dawn was the best hour to spy out rivers, sparkling like silver threads in the early light. Merry’s feet were planted solidly, defiantly on the rise, and his back was self-consciously straight. A breath of smoke drifted over his shoulder, lifted like a veil on the passing breeze and vanished into the grass-scented air of the afternoon.

Pippin shrugged and turned back to the letter, and straight away his senses were startled by a sudden foreign fragrance, a wild blend that threw upon his mind a vivid picture of the Golden Hall of Meduseld rising on the hill above the plains of Rohan with its little jumble of huts and byres, smithies and stables gathered close beneath. Whenever he and Merry had visited Edoras (Merry often being carried off by the select company of Knights and Esquires that attended the King), he would walk down alone to visit those small structures, observing the husbandry of the simple folk who lived and worked there and those who came from round about to discharge their obligations to the Riders of the Mark, filling the barns and storerooms with such foodstuffs and provisions as the fortress must always need. A farmer’s son himself, he had enjoyed talking with the Men about the ways and means of farming in Rohan that differed from those of his own country. The open grasslands were not nearly so easy to set to crops as were the rich, black fields of the Shire, and there were no woodlands, nor any trees to speak of, that bore fruit or nut or laid down summer shade; farming in the Riddermark was harsh and demanding and folk worked hard for yields that must then be shared with their overlords. Pippin had found it all very interesting and had many years ago successfully adapted some of the ideas he heard with regard to stony soils to some of the rockier pockets in the Green Hills. Merry, of course, had been much more taken with the bright, fierce little ponies in the stables. There were a great many of those noble little beasts in the Shire now, come of the Mark and several generations of careful breeding in Buckland and Tuckborough.

He held the packet to his nose, closing his eyes as he inhaled deeply the exotic scents rising from the finely tanned leather. It had been many years, but he could still identify them as belonging very particularly to Rohan: wild grass and horses, hearth-smoke and tooled leather and thick horsehair blankets. There was something else, too, clinging about the edges: a tincture of some sort, spicy and sharp, like a liniment or a medicine. He wrinkled his nose, wondering at first if it was bound up in some way with the ink or the wine-red seals, but sniffing it out soon discovered it was the cords that carried the most of it: whoever had bound this packet had had something of it on his hands.

He found himself gently lulled by the scents of Rohan and his warm memories of that long-ago and far-away place, and being yet too disconcerted and confused to address the tangle of his own trouble in the light Merry had just brought to bear upon it, he was relieved to lay it all aside for this little while and dwell instead upon the letter, as Merry had suggested. He drew out the folded parchment and opened several sheets upon his knee, scrawled in the commanding hand he recognized as Éomer’s.

Holdwine (he read), the King of the Riddermark sends greetings to his errant Knight….

“I should say he was errant!” Pippin remarked conversationally to no one in particular, Merry being too far away to tease. “He has been thirty years away from his post, and I don’t believe he’s had that sword down from the chimney piece since he was eighty! I expect he could still use it, though, if he took a fancy to. He’s quite agile yet. And he always looks splendid in his robes.”

We are overrun with young here (wrote the king)…clamouring ceaselessly in the way of young things…

Pippin smiled; he remembered the clamouring youth of Edoras and the physical rough and tumble that was the everyday manner of life there. The youngsters of the royal court were a wild, reckless tribe, born of a turbulent aristocracy, but of those seemingly untamed children would come the marshals of the Riddermark and the captains of the Riders—Men with the same terrifying nobility exemplified by their king, and the same bravery past imagining—and Shieldmaidens who would stand just as fiercely as their men the line of defense for the land of the Horse-lords.

The winter I spent locked in Edoras, suffering much at the hands of Healers…

“Oh!” murmured Pippin, seized with grave foreboding. He and Éomer King were of an age; indeed, they had once laughed to discover that Pippin was the elder by the space of half a year, a fact that he himself had found hard to realize in those years, so used had he been to being the youngest in all the company he kept. They had both of them ninety-four years now, give or take those few months, but most Men did not live to match a hobbit’s hundred years, and at ninety-four a Man, be he a king or any other, could see his end coming, if he had not met it already. Éomer was in years long past his time.

I know the truth, Merry: I will not see another spring….I know you will grieve to hear of this, but …I have lived too long….and have made my peace with death…

“Oh, Merry!”

He understood now that hollow, haunted look he had seen this afternoon in Merry’s eyes, the painful disbelief with which he had met the news that awaited him here. Poor Merry, who had ever resented and defied at every opportunity the coming of age and illness and death, and the loss of the people that he loved! For fifty years, he had successfully managed to elude any critical confrontation with death, reassured by the passage of many years, and underscored by a circle of friends who had lived long and vigorously. Pippin and Estella had watched anxiously, knowing how fervently Merry wished that he might never be compelled to face any death ever again that would so shatter his heart as had the deaths of Theoden and Boromir and Saradoc, as had Frodo’s passing from the Grey Havens. And the years had soothed him, so that in the end he had been unrehearsed for what must come to pass in the relentless course of time: in Gondor, both Faramir of Ithilien and his captain, Beregond, had departed the World in the last seven years; and here at home, Freddy, Rose and Sam, Diamond, and Merry’s adored Estella had all of them gone. Of his friends who came of Rohan, Faramir’s widow, the Lady Eowyn, was known to be ailing in Minas Tirith, and now here was Éomer dying, to cap so many losses and continue the spread of the restless shadow of mortality over the World beyond the Bounds. Even in Rivendell had Merry suffered losses, for a number of his friends there had in recent years at last succumbed to ennui and taken ship into the West.

Oh, save us! Pippin thought. He came to me for comfort and what did I give him instead but a cause for worse and further grief! I should have seen it, if I had not been so taken up with my own wretched story. I failed him when he really needed me! I wish I could take it all back!

Bitterly he accused himself, and in mounting distress stole a fearful look over his shoulder, as if he half expected to see his dearest friend suffering already the effects of such an unconscionable betrayal. But Merry was yet standing quietly where he had been, a wisp of smoke at his shoulder and his back as straight as before, though his gaze was turned now to the south and the far horizon there, and his silver-maned profile was solemn.

He is thinking of Éomer, Pippin thought bleakly, whom he loves and will never see again in life; and of me, who should be standing at his side for all the years that are left to him instead of leaving him comfortless to face his end alone, the very last of us all and so needful of someone who understands how it was….

He groaned softly to think of this, for Merry’s pain had ever been his own. He knew of course that there could be no help for either of them, so advanced in years as they were, no way to circumvent the judgment of Nature or the whim of Destiny, both of which were used to order the way of all things without fear of contradiction. Nonetheless, he had to own that Merry’s startling talk of ‘choosing’ had greatly shocked and disquieted him—to say nothing of adding to his confusion—and together with Éomer’s disclosure, had flung upon the waning light of day the kind of unguarded words and passions that had been of long custom carefully tempered in the Shire. Hobbits were sternly shy of saying too much at such heart-stopping times as these, and while he and Merry had, by virtue of their wider experience, come to be a little freer with each other than they were with their neighbours, he was still astonished enough by Merry’s declaration to wonder where his old friend had come by such an appalling idea.

The answer made itself known straightaway, as soon as he turned dutifully back to the letter, mindful that he owed it to Merry to read the whole of it, even though he had already taken what he knew to be the lesson very much to heart:

… I envy Aragorn. It is the custom of the Dúnedain to depart this world at an hour of their own choosing, ahead of any long, diminishing death. Our Elessar will do this while yet Eldarion is full strong and ready to take his place. I wish I might do the same, but tradition will not allow it in Rohan, and in any case I have not the power to appoint my own hour.

Pippin drew a startled breath. “Oh!” he murmured, staring down at the words. He frowned at them, hearing again Merry’s reproach, obliquely aware that an odd sequence of ideas was linking up somewhere on the edges of his mind. Anxiously, he shut his eyes and drew his breath in over clenched teeth, and then with a sigh he retreated to the page:

Still, I am troubled (wrote the king). I have heard of men in the Far East who fall upon their swords when they deem they have lived too long, to save their sons the pangs of longing, and their families the grief of slow and arduous passing.

Think you that is wise, Merry? I cannot think it is meet to end by our own hands such life as we have dearly held through the peril of years—

“They fall upon their swords?” Pippin said to himself; he was horrified and astonished, but he was also considerably disturbed to realize that he stood in some sympathy with the reasoning behind this shocking ritual. “Well, he means the Easterlings, of course,” he thought, “and they are all but barbarians, even if they did sue for peace in the end! But I never meant to do any such thing as to fall upon my sword! Surely it is not the same thing at all to choose—”

To choose—

A sharp crease formed between Pippin’s silvered brows as light was suddenly brought to bear upon his confusion, and he saw for the first time how he had betrayed himself into believing the sweetly soothing logic of despair: it was better this way, it was easier for the children, he knew better than to fight it, he had no regrets—no regrets! Well, that was a lie, and he had known it for one the instant he set eyes on Merry today. He felt his heart contract into a hard ball of shame, and ground his teeth. “You are still a fool, Peregrin Took,” he muttered, “and likely a coward as well.”

“Never!” said Merry in as firm a voice as he had ever used, and Pippin looked up, startled, to find him at his side. He dropped his eyes, ashamed, and Merry looked at him curiously. “Have you finished reading that letter?”

“Not yet,” Pippin confessed, reaching to clasp his hand. “Oh, but, Merry! Can you forgive me? I am so ashamed: Éomer is dying, and I see now that I have been a fool, and I’m so sorry for everything!”

“What?!” said Merry, his eyes widening in surprise. “Pip, you must finish reading that letter now! There was a great deal on Éomer’s mind when he set his pen to paper; we cannot talk about it all until you come to the end.”

“Oh, you cannot mean it!” Pippin cried. “Is there more bad news?”

Merry looked at him keenly. “Well, I wager it is nothing so difficult as you have already suffered today, Peregrin. But here—let me help you up! You can pace about while you read the rest; I expect you are getting stiff there after sitting so long.”

Pippin, wondering at this ready reference to a subject that had been banned from their conversations for years, suffered himself to be drawn to his feet yet again, and could not forbear to smile when Merry produced his stick and gave it very civilly into his hand. “Why don’t you walk with me and read the rest of the letter aloud, Merry?” he said, thinking that in this way he might for the first time this day be of some comfort to his cousin, and when Merry cocked an uncertain eyebrow, he took his arm, exclaiming kindly, “Please! See, I shall walk by your side while you read.”

Merry took the pages of the letter, together with the outer packet, into his hands. “Where did you leave off?” he asked, and Pippin leaned over to point out the place on the page. Slowly they paced together along the edge of the meadow; Merry began in an easy voice to read the rest of Éomer’s concerns, and Pippin, walking and leaning only very slightly on his stick, shook off the burden of his stiffened limbs and cocked an ear to listen.

Merry, there are many Knights of Rohan who can ride and wield the long spears, but not so many who can attend with right word and common memory an old and peevish King. I am thinking now that perhaps all that nonsense of yours about your folk and mine being of passing acquaintance in the times of our Longfathers must be true after all—for I find myself longing these days for someone who can speak the language of my heart, and very often my thoughts turn to you.

“Well, that is kind in him!” Pippin said approvingly. “He makes you a generous farewell.” He smiled encouragingly, but Merry made no reply and went on:

I smile to remember now that you have passed your hundredth year—a good many more than I can claim! But when last I heard, the Master of Buckland did not believe in old age, nor intend to succumb to it on any account—

Pippin could not help but draw a laughing breath at this, thinking to throw out a little jest at Merry’s expense, but Merry, sensing interruption, threw up his hand in such a peremptory manner that he thought the better of it and subsided, abashed. “Shhh!” Merry said severely. “We’re coming to the heart of it now—listen up, Peregrin! No, I shall go back, for I think you were not attending properly.”

… But when last I heard, the Master of Buckland did not believe in old age, nor intend to succumb to it on any account, and on that declaration, friend, my current hopes ride hard. Attend me if you are able, Merry, for I would see your face again and recall together the days that made us friends!

Come to us in Rohan for this little while, you and Pippin, if he will. You shall want for nothing here, and neither then shall I.

There was a pause, and then Merry said quietly, “Then there comes his mark at the end: Éomer.”

But Pippin had heard what Merry had admonished him to listen for, and he had come to a stumbling halt ahead of Merry’s finishing; he stood now swaying sharply, clutching his stick, as if the earth had shifted and rent a great crevasse before his feet. Indeed, it seemed to him it had done, for Éomer’s summons had opened a door in the world he had never imagined could exist for him—or for Merry—again. The thought of it was terrifying, but thrilling, too, and so altogether unexpected that it rendered him speechless and faint; he was trying unsuccessfully to collect his staggered senses when he felt Merry’s hand slip solidly beneath his elbow. “Steady!” Merry said, and Pippin met his level gaze with wide eyes. A moment later, though, he drew a determined breath, and set his stick upright in the grass with purpose, and then he and Merry stood facing each other in trembling silence, wary, hushed and hesitant, while around them the afternoon light purled like golden wine, fresh and cool and sweet as honey.

Merry breached the silence as gently as he could, as if he feared that speech might shatter the fragile spell of light that bound them to this moment. “Pippin,” he said, “I—do you understand? I came for this—to bring this invitation, and to beg your counsel, and following that, your company upon the journey south.”

Pippin’s eyes widened further and a soft cry, incoherent as to fear or gladness, broke from his throat. “Merry!” he breathed. “You want this? You—you mean to go?”

“I do.” Merry nodded gravely. “If you will go with me.”

Spellbound or no, the light at this moment came into Pippin, rushing back like an old friend, forgiving his alliance with despair, and filling all the places within him that had been dark and empty for far too long. In an instant he was drunk with it, tearful, astonished and breathlessly released from the weight of his resolve. Every memory of his desolation was drowned now in a flood of hope that surged through him with the light, so that even his battered and abandoned heart knew him for himself again and rejoiced. He knew a moment of redemption and a blissful sigh of relief before he remembered that even with this great mending his heart remained under siege, and then his eyes filled with tears.

“Oh!” he said, turning a stricken countenance to Merry. “Oh, but—!”

“Don’t you dare!” cried Merry, quivering. “Don’t you dare choose to die when you can live!”

“No, no! I can’t now!” Pippin bent his head and a sudden flow of tears dripped down and sparkled on his cheeks and fell on the backs of his hands where they gripped his stick. “But don’t you see, Merry?” he whispered. “If I go, I can’t ever come back. You’ll have to leave me in the end.”

There was a breath of silence and then Merry said softly, “I don’t intend to leave you, Pip,” and he grasped the stick above Pippin’s hand and smiled reassuringly.

“We won’t be the first, and that’s something,” he said. “Frodo went, and Bilbo, and Sam, and they didn’t ever intend to come back. They went to the Havens unreservedly, and well, maybe we are meant to go into the World now in the same way—hasn’t it been calling to you all this time, after all, just as the Sea called to Sam all those years before he could answer? Perhaps we were all of us meant to finish elsewhere, Pip— on account of our going abroad to begin with and fighting in the War. You know we were none of us ever again quite like other folk. And didn’t Sam always say that you and I belonged ‘out there’ as much as we belonged at home, for as much as we had ever kept the friends we made and so often went to see them? Pip, there are pieces of our hearts scattered far and wide beyond the borders of the Shire, and with them friends we should be very glad to meet again. Let’s go and see it done!”

“You never intended to leave the Shire forever!”

“I’m quite sure I didn’t know what I intended when I left Brandy Hall! But I think now that in some way this was meant to be. Theo asked me how long I meant to be gone, and I told him I should have to talk to you, that we would decide together. And then, of course, once I came here and understood how it was with you, there was no question at all in my mind what we should do.” Merry laughed suddenly, as if he had just been happily surprised. “Do you know, I think Theo knew it all along!”

Pippin blinked. “You told Theo you meant to go to Edoras?”

“Oh, yes.” Merry nodded. “That is, I showed him Éomer’s letter, and he guessed the rest.” Merry flashed a fond, boyish smile. “He took it very well, though I own he was more than taken aback when I told him what else I had in mind—I mean to transfer all the lands and titles before I go, so that he shall be well and truly Master of Buckland, and no questions asked, when I am gone!”

“Merry Brandybuck!” Pippin stared. “You can’t be serious! Whatever possessed you to say such a thing?”

Merry waved the letter. “The King of Rohan!” he said, twinkling. “I was never more taken with an idea, Pip! And I know Theo will do splendidly! It’s time he had his go, just as Éomer says, and no point waiting around for me to die, especially when I haven’t any notion of doing so for a good while yet.”

He caught Pippin’s fascinated eye. “I’ve had my fill of being the Magnificent, though. I knew it already, before this letter arrived, though I had to sort through some things to realize it. I have been concerned for Theo, you know, in much the same way Éomer is fretting for his lad, and I began to see how this could set him free to be himself, and me as well! Of course, he made a very pretty protest on behalf of Propriety and Tradition and all of that, just as Freddy would have done—but just like Freddy, too, he knows how it is with me, and as I’ve promised to follow the rules and collect the proper paperwork while I’m here, he is resigned, and willing to oblige me.”

“The proper paperwork! Merry, there isn’t any such thing!”

“Oh yes, there is! I daresay you might not remember, but it was one of the first Rules Sam ever made when he became Mayor: ‘if any inhabitant of the Shire shall pass over Sea in the presence of a reliable witness….’* I helped him write it! I expect it hasn’t been put to use since it was made—for I’m certain Sam made sure everything was quite right and tight when he went away West, what with a baker’s dozen children to settle up with and Frodo Gardner a fellow who likes to see his i’s dotted and t’s crossed!—but it will do very nicely for us, and so I shall explain to Nick Cotton when I catch up with him, which I must do as it is his business—the Mayor’s business, written in the Rule—to oversee such an irregular transfer. Do you think we might send and invite Nick to tea day after tomorrow? He’s unreasonably worshipful, on account of our having gone to the War with Sam, so I expect he’ll skip right along to save us the least bit of fuss, and then—Pippin! Are you laughing?”

They had been pacing along the verge all this while, stopping sometimes and then going on, and now they had come to the stone, where the remnants of their afternoon tea lay yet scattered all about. Pippin sank down, careful to remove the mustard pot to one side. He was indeed laughing and it felt very warm and comfortable to be able to do so after having been so grave and thoughtful all the while he had been ill and all this day with Merry at his side. He put his head in his hands and ruffled up his hair and laughed heartily. Merry watched wonderingly for a moment, and then he sat down and began to laugh as well, for Pippin’s laugh was infectious and he had never been able to withstand it for long. They leaned on each other and laughed, and then they cried a very little, and then they laughed some more. At last Pippin caught his breath and sat up, wiping his eyes.

“Save us, Meriadoc!” he gasped. “I think you are going to find it much harder than you suppose to let The Magnificent go. How you do take charge and set things in order! Am I to get a word in edgewise before you force my signature, pack my bags, and carry me off to Edoras? And have you given any thought to how I am to manage such a shocking withdrawal from the Shire with my children ranged against me?”

Merry took a deep breath and draped an arm across his shoulders. “Actually, Peregrin,” he said seriously, though his face was bright with the joy they had just shared, “I have done, but you won’t need my strategy. You have the upper hand already: I think your young folk will agree that there is no great advantage to your staying on if it means you are to die. They will be very shocked to think they must lose you, of course—Theo wept all over my very best waistcoat!—but won’t it be a vast relief for them to know you can be safe beyond the Bounds?” He laughed again, softly. “Really, when I consider it, you are in a far better way than I, Pippin—only think! I have yet to face Bo and Berry with this and I haven’t nearly such a ready argument as you! Berry will have my eyes!”

“Ah, but if I know the Magnificent,” said Pippin, tapping his nose sagely, “and I do, you will have left it to Theo to deliver your news, knowing full well he will have everyone calmed and right with it before you come home to face them.”

“Didn’t I say he would make a splendid Master?” smiled Merry. “Though I daresay after he has managed the activity of the next few weeks he will find his daily office fairly flat for awhile!”

“The next few weeks!” Pippin said in consternation. “Is it to be so soon, Merry?”

“Aye, it was to be in any case, for Éomer’s sake, but there is even more reason to hurry now. The sooner we get you beyond the Bounds, Pippin, the sooner you will be safe.”

Pippin frowned and sighed and began absently to gather up the tea things that lay about him and to stow them in his pack. Merry helped to collect the things that were out of reach and folded up the linens, watching him obliquely.

“It won’t be so bad, Pip,” he offered. “The King’s Post is very efficient these days. We can write home every week, if we like, and you know they’ll all write back with news. And after—after Edoras—we’ll go on to Minas Tirith. It’s a busy sort of place, and we shall be quite welcome there. Did you know Aragorn has kept our old apartments set by all this time, in case we should take it in mind to visit him again? He told me so in my Hundredth Birthday Letter. And he promised to make sure the pantry was stocked with barrels of Longbottom Leaf and as much provender as we could ask for!”

Pippin’s pensive expression brightened with amusement. “I see Aragorn has not forgotten how to bribe a hobbit!” he said laughingly, coming to his feet and shouldering his pack. “But don’t fret about this any longer, Merry: I’ll go with you, and gladly! I have had my fill of despair. Death can take me whenever it chooses, but in the meantime, I think I should like to have another adventure!”

erry took the pack from Pippin and exchanged it for his own as they set off down the hill, the sun now gleaming amber as it dipped low on the horizon, and shadows beginning to creep slowly across the hills. They had paused at the bottom of the flagstone steps so that Pippin could take a moment at Diamond’s little mound, and Merry loosed it from his shoulders.

“It’s been a hard day for you,” he said gruffly, by way of explanation, as he lifted it away. “And mine is much the lighter. No, don’t protest, now; I shall get on fine.” He had the walking stick that Galen had prescribed in hand again, and thumped it defiantly along the path as they left the barrowfield and started down the hill. He did not lean much upon it, Pippin noticed, but he did not disdain it either. “Well, I daresay there’s something to be said for a steady pace on the downhill,” he said mildly, goaded by Pippin’s bright, bemused glance.

They made their way along the path, moving down the slope and in among the trees. There the topmost leafy branches caught the thick, honeyed afternoon light from high above, and drew it down in bright shafts of gold to warm the dappled trail beneath their feet. They walked abreast, laughing and chatting lightly and measuring their combined progress by the steady beat of the walking sticks striking the turf. The fear and distress of their earlier hours together had been firmly set by and they shared other news now in the easy way of their kind; Pippin heard with lively interest Merry’s account of Jamy Bucket (“What a splendid little fellow! His father’s situation is too bad, though, and it’s a shame that he hasn’t a brother or a cousin to keep him honest, as I did!”), and Merry was glad to note that despite his setbacks, Pippin had maintained with Faramir the same benevolent attention with regard to Tookland and the folk thereabout that he had always done (“They are a week behind in planting at Whitwell, but there have been three new babies born this month, and I am of the opinion that nature will forgive the hobbit who sets a wee lad or lass above a furrow for a day or two, Merry—I shan’t complain, in any event!”)

They made the final turn on the downward path, took the last dip, and came up out of the trees discussing with deep enjoyment Merry’s scheme to hasten Tom and Berry’s wedding, and their light, carefree voices and spirited laughter carried down the slope on the early evening air and so came to the ears of a little group of hobbits gathered in anxious conversation around the gate: Fair Took, together with his brother and two sisters and the wife of his heart. They turned as one at the sound of this untrammeled gaiety and in an instant their winsome faces, hitherto strained with apprehension, were shining with relief. “Father!” they called delightedly. “Uncle Merry! Here they are! Hurrah!”

“Ho!” said Merry, chuckling softly. “Here is the rescue party, I make no doubt! And save us! the ladies are no longer in the dark! Buck up now, Peregrin, or we shall borne away beneath the hill and never seen again, like the folk in Bilbo’s stories!”

Pippin’s children made a lovely picture as they stood together in the deepening golden light, their faces bright with affection and the marks of their heritage: Faramir and Amethyst, dark and starry as their mother; Galen and Laurelin like their father, warm as amber; and Sam’s bright Goldilocks at the center, like the white jewel Frodo had had of Arwen Evenstar, shining in Faramir’s arms. Pippin gazed on them with a feeling of overwhelming happiness. He had ever been a fond father, delighting in his offspring, but he thought now that he had never looked upon them with such a full and thankful heart.

“There stand the best of us, Merry!” he murmured. “I could not leave the House of Took in better hands—and to be able to give it over to them with my own is something I never thought to see!” He exchanged a blissful smile with his oldest friend, and then laughing aloud with pleasure, raised his arms and called exuberantly: “Hello, my dears!”

The younger folk bore down on them in a rush then, with tears and kisses and warm, gentle embraces. Merry found his arms filled suddenly with flurries of ruffled lawn and embroidered muslin and soft, beribboned curls in several lovely colours as the ladies welcomed him gratefully and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Fair and Galen also embraced him and clasped his hands as well, with eyes full of hope and silent trepidation, and questions that would have to be answered all too soon.

They did not linger in the out-of-doors, for supper was waiting, and the younger Tooks were anxious to see their elders tucked up safely at home. So they made their way toward the Smials, drawing Pippin and Merry along with them, and sorting themselves out as they went, as if by unspoken design. Pippin was taken up by Amethyst and Laurelin who, though different as night and day in any number of ways, were united in adoration of their papa, and were now watchfully determined to discover the state of his health. Merry thought perhaps to interfere there, but found himself unexpectedly arm in arm with Goldilocks instead, a development he decided was fortuitous in the extreme. He tucked her little hand beneath his arm and bent his snowy head with courtly attention, telling her what news he had of Robin at Woodhall and hinting obliquely that there might be news forthcoming from Brandy Hall with regard to Tom, who had been visiting there over the last fortnight.

“Oh!” cried Goldilocks, her blue eyes round with delight. “Is there to be a wedding at last, Uncle?”

“There will be if you and I have anything to say about it, my dear,” said Merry, twinkling in the manner of a hopeful conspirator, and Goldilocks gave a little hop for happiness and straightaway entered into all his plans.

Galen and Faramir lingered behind the others, looking after them and talking quietly.

“What do you make of it?” Faramir asked his brother.

“I think Father has found his peace again,” Galen said meditatively, “but I’m not sure how. He does not look as though he passed an altogether peaceful afternoon. I don’t like those smudges under his eyes.”

“No,” said Fair, considering. “Neither do I: I’ve seen them before. I expect he was taken ill up there, Galen, but at least this time someone was there to help. In any case, I think the two of them must have come to some sort of understanding, for Uncle Merry seems much restored, and Father is easier than I have seen him in months! I shouldn’t think there are any secrets left between them now, would you?”

“No,” Galen said thoughtfully. “And I don’t think they’ll keep those secrets from us much longer, either.” He frowned abstractedly. “There’s something else, though—I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well, I fancy we’ll know soon enough,” said Fair, his canny gaze flicking back and forth between the two old hobbits sauntering cheerfully up the lane ahead of them. “They look rather too pleased with themselves, don’t you think?”

Galen looked after them. “They do that!” he agreed thoughtfully, and his twilight eyes kindled suddenly with the wild faerie-light of the North-tooks. He laughed. “I wager this has something to do with the business that brought Uncle Merry here!” he said. “What did I tell you? I knew he was up to something!”

“Oi!” groaned Faramir, catching Galen’s arm. “I said it myself, didn’t I? ‘Out of the pan and into the fire!’ What do you suppose they’re about, then? We’re no match for them, Galen, if they set themselves against us, and that’s the truth. Faith, though, I don’t think I could stand against Father for any reason after this. I have been so sick with worry, and it felt so good to hear him laugh just now. Were he to be truly well again, I should count myself blessed withal!”

“Would you?” murmured Galen, watching the two old gentlehobbits turn at the kitchen door to wait for them. Laury stood alone beside them, Amethyst and Goldilocks having gone ahead to see to washing up the children for supper. His father’s hand lay affectionately on his uncle’s shoulder, and his old eyes smiled and sparkled a warm golden-green; his small, handsome face, so lately shadowed with age and illness, seemed now to be filled with light. Beside him, Laury’s connaturally luminous eyes sought Galen’s, wide with startled wonder.

“Blessed withal,” said Galen with decision. “I think we shall learn much that is marvelous tonight!”

* The Letters of JRR Tolkien, #214.