He jumped down from his pony and went up the steps. They stared at him in silence. ‘Good evening, Mrs. Cotton!’ he said. ‘Hullo, Rosie!’

‘Hullo, Sam!’ said Rosie. ‘Where’ve you been? They said you were dead, but I’ve been expecting you since the Spring. You haven’t hurried, have you?’

‘Perhaps not,’ said Sam abashed. ‘But I’m hurrying now….’

am wrote out a list of plants that grew wild around Tuckborough and should be included in Merry’s book, and Merry and Estella went out again the next day to look for them, Pippin and Freddy seeing them off at the gate in a cheerfully careless fashion. Merry had said nothing more to Freddy the day before, but to Pippin, as they walked together through the park in the evening, he admitted that Estella Bolger had caught him completely off-guard. He was undone: no girl had ever had this effect on him, he confided, and there could be no doubt that he was altogether out of his reckoning as far as she was concerned. Almost he longed for the tall grasses of the Riddermark where a simple spear and a bright sword spoke to his honour, and no ambush had ever rendered him so appallingly unsure of himself.

“I don’t know what I’m about, Pip,” he explained a little unsteadily, and Pippin, laughing fondly and thinking back to the desperate moment he first laid eyes on his beautiful Diamond, patted him on the back and said (not the least bit helpfully), “Give you joy, Merry! To be sure, there’s nothing sweeter in all the world!”

While Estella had carefully sorted and sketched the collection of meadow flowers they had gathered the day before, Sam had earnestly assured them that there were still a number of small treasures to be found hidden at the bases of trees and growing out of fallen logs in woody patches along the creek. And so Merry and Estella clambered through the undergrowth (very practical was Estella’s skirt, Merry decided now) and with each discovery he made careful notes about the little plant while beside him Estella sat making charming drawings of stem, leaf and flower on small squares of paper cut to the size they envisioned for the book.

They talked a little, lightly and carefully, feeling strangely shy of one another yet again, and so turning their combined attentions gratefully to the tasks at hand. They worked in companionable silence for a while, side-by-side as the sun rose high into the morning and the stream murmured in its banks nearby. Estella was slipping her penciled sketches into pockets in a special book she carried with her: a creation of her own into which were bound cleverly constructed pockets and envelopes of various sizes for the safekeeping of her pictures. When the pockets she was using were sufficiently full, she moved away to a brighter spot to set up her paints, and was touching with shimmering blues and greens a particularly pretty drawing of flax lily when Merry, crouching to examine a slip of trillium just beyond his reach, suddenly lost his balance and only just caught himself as he tumbled forward by jamming his hand down into a thriving clump of stinging nettles. The plant’s tiny, needle-pointed arsenal met his mistake immediately with a savage assault.

He jerked back, hissing fiercely and swearing under his breath, and Estella turned sharply to see what was amiss. For an instant, he saw a shadow of that curious defensive turn she had executed yesterday when he dropped down so suddenly behind her; but beyond that he perceived also a flicker of alarm in her face, and a flash of panic in her eyes, dark beneath the brim of Freddy’s hat. Once again, his memory shifted and stirred—I have seen this before!—and this time he pursued it doggedly, so much so that he was only dimly aware of the fire consuming his hand. Concentrating fiercely, he dragged the recollection into focus at last.

His mind flashed back over the years to the day after the Battle of Bywater when he and Pippin and Frodo had gone to Michel Delving to open the Lockholes. There they had found poor Mayor Will smothering in chalk, and the redoubtable Lobelia Sackville-Baggins crushed and repentant, and—in circumstances he still winced to recall—the half-dozen captive rebels from Brockenborings and their venerated leader, Fredegar Bolger. The captured rebels had been viciously force-marched for two days and nights down from the Brockenborings and across the Shire to the prison at Michel Delving some months before, and thereafter they had been treated with brutal negligence. Every one of them was weak with hunger and the effects of long captivity, but Freddy (for it took only a moment for them to realize they could never call him Fatty again) had also been kicked and beaten by the ruffian guards as a regular example to the others, and he was not only slim as a wraith but covered with cuts and bruises as well, and only barely conscious of what was happening. Pippin, with tears in his eyes and his teeth set hard in anger, had gathered Freddy into his arms like a child and carried him tenderly up the stairs, and Merry had followed with one of the other rebels, a farmer from Woody End who stumbled upwards on Merry’s arm and upon emerging into the yard fell to his knees, blinded by the sunlight and overcome with strong emotion. They had been ten weeks in the dark narrow cells, and while they had remained gallant to the end for Freddy’s sake, the farmer confessed privately to Merry that they had long ago lost hope—not only for themselves, but for the Shire as well.

The fifteen or twenty rebels remaining—those who had escaped arrest when Freddy and the others were taken—stood in a tight, watchful group in the yard waiting to take back their own. Merry had been surprised to see Tom Cotton at their head, and to note a few other familiar faces in the ranks. There were several boys among them, and one stood close to Tom, a lad of perhaps fifteen years judging from his size and slight build. He was fitted out in ragged clothes that had probably seen the whole of the Brockenbore campaign: a worn shirt and breeks that seemed too big for him, and a threadbare jacket that hung to his knees. His face was obscured beneath the brim of a soft, slouched hat and he kept his eyes on the ground; but his hunched posture spoke to grinding anxiety, and his knuckles were white over small clenched fists.

When Pippin carried Freddy out and laid him down in the soft grass, mindful of his hurts and bending close to exchange a few kind words with his old friend, the boy looked up and nearly crumpled in shock. With a sharp cry he broke ranks ahead of Tom’s attempt to pull him back and flew to his Captain’s side. Pippin rose and meeting Tom’s eyes, stepped back with a nod of respect for the claims of the Captain’s men. “Freddy!” the boy cried in harsh, despairing tones. “Freddy!”

Merry had helped the farmer to his feet and was leading him haltingly toward the Brockenbores when his shadow, longer now than most, fell across the kneeling boy, and the child whipped round in a low crouch, his pale face flooded with fear and defiance. The dark eyes met Merry’s, greatly daring at first, but widening suddenly in dismay.

Mindful of his Outland appearance, Merry lifted a pacifying hand, and the boy gasped and swung back to Freddy, a sob bursting from his throat. Several of the Brockenbores exchanged anguished glances and Tom came forward quickly, bending down to lay a work-roughened hand on the boy’s narrow shoulder. Freddy roused himself enough to speak.

“Don’t cry, Tell,” he whispered, groping anxiously for the boy’s hand as the sobs fell harder and faster. “Don’t cry! I’ll be all right, sure enough, and in any event it’s all over now. Don’t cry anymore, my dear.” He swooned then and Tom Cotton took him up and carried him down the lane and into the village. The boy hurried along beside them and the rest of the Brockenbores fell respectfully into step behind, the former prisoners giving a weak cheer for the Captain and leaning on their brothers-in-arms as they followed resolutely apace.

Merry remembered all this now as if it had happened only yesterday and he crouched frozen now beneath the trees, shocked and breathless as the truth swept over him and his hand began to burn and he realized what he had actually seen that day in Michel Delving. “Estella!” he whispered in the sudden chaos of his mind and senses, and all at once she was there beside him, snatching up his hand and urging him to his feet.

“Oh, Merry, your hand!” she exclaimed as he stumbled up. He looked impassively at the nasty red wheals rising on the back of his hand and then at the girl at his side. “It’s nothing,” he murmured, searching her face and matching it to his memory. “Estella, you—!”

“Nothing! Merry, what are you thinking?” she exclaimed and took his arm with quick decision. “We’ll go down to the stream; the water is cold and will wash away the stings.”

“But, wait! Estella—?”

“Now!” she commanded with mock severity, giving him a little push, and bemused, he let himself be led down to the race, thinking about the Brockenbores and the young soldier who had stood next to Tom Cotton, anxious and afraid and facing up to the worst part of war: the harm that could come to the people you loved. His heart turned over; too well he knew what that felt like.

The stream was twenty feet across and anywhere from two to three feet deep. An accumulation of variously sized stones had been strewn at random by ancient forces of nature across the streambed, setting down a path over the rushing water. In the center was a large flat stone that cleared the surface by about six inches. Estella seized his good hand. “Come on,” she said, pointing. “We’ll sit out there and you can put your hand in the water. The current is strong.”

It was cold, as well. As soon as they sat down, he obediently plunged his hand into the frigid current. The abrupt cessation of pain brought him up with a gasp. “Save us!” he said blankly. “It did hurt!”

“It must have,” she said, looking at him curiously. “Didn’t you feel it?”

He pulled his hand cautiously from the water; at once it began to itch and burn. “I do now,” he said ruefully, drowning it again and hoping the rush of water would serve to scrub away the tiny daggers that were stabbing at his skin. He was glad it wasn’t his writing hand. Even if the water cleaned and set it right, it might still be stiff for a day or so.

Estella drew her feet up out of the water to sit cross-legged facing him. Despite Freddy’s hat, more of her pretty curls were in evidence today, and a long plait hung over one shoulder, tied off with a bit a green ribbon. He could not help but smile to look at her, a genial grin he hoped would mask his real feelings, for he did not entirely understand them yet himself and he feared she might reject them altogether. She gazed steadily back, a tiny line between her slim brows, as solemn as she had ever been when they were children. “You must have been very far away, Merry Brandybuck,” she said quietly, “to take no notice of so much pain as that.”

His glance flicked away and he nodded thoughtfully, watching as the water purled round his wrist. Suddenly he wondered if he should tell her what he had so unexpectedly discovered. Certainly it wasn’t common knowledge, or Pippin would have mentioned it during the merciless interrogations he had endured at Merry’s hands over the last two evenings. He wondered if it was a secret best left alone. Intuition whispered otherwise, but he wished not to trouble her in any way; he sighed, unsure of whether to proceed or not.

Estella leaned forward then and touched his hand, and he turned back to look at her. There again was the grave child’s face, the gentle gaze, so oddly watchful, as if she was looking out for him instead of the other way round. He recalled the courage and defiance he had seen in this small face at Michel Delving when she knelt protectively over Freddy, the fierce spirit that had flashed out at him in the instant their eyes had met as strangers. And now he remembered suddenly the blank shock that had filled those eyes the moment after, and for the first time it occurred to him to wonder if perhaps he had been no stranger to her….

“I was remembering Michel Delving,” he said, making up his mind all at once, “on the day Freddy came out of the Lockholes. There was a boy….”

He saw her go still, and dropped his gaze quickly to his lap. If he did not press the matter, he thought, or deliberately catch her out, she could pass over it if she wished, and he would know they must let her secret lie by common consent. He heard her draw a long breath and after a moment’s pause, let it out again. “Merry?” she murmured.

He glanced up. A deep flush stained her cheeks and her eyes, though bright, were shadowed with painful uncertainty. He lifted his own eyes and met her doubtful gaze squarely on with a knowing smile and all the reassurance he could muster, and slowly her face softened and warmed. Despite her solemn manner, a tiny smile played over her lips. She shook her head. “How did you—?”

“It was the way you looked at me just then,” he confessed gently. “And the hat.” With smiling eyes, he reached out to flick the brim. “Twice I saw that look, yesterday and today, and twice I knew I had seen you look at me like that somewhere before.”

“Like…what?” she asked.

“Frightened … and protective, I think. Peering at me from under the brim of that hat. Suddenly it all just came together.” He waggled his hand in the current. “Perhaps the nettles helped…?”

She made what might have been a despairing gesture, but already he was leaning forward excitedly, a crooked grin of delight spreading across his face. “Estella,” he said eagerly, “were you part of that rebellion? Did you fight with Freddy and the Brockenbores disguised as a boy?”

She met his eyes and nodded, blushing furiously.

He sat back, marveling. “What a splendid girl you are!” he exclaimed, and laughed softly as she covered her face with her hands. “But, I don’t understand: how is it I haven’t heard of this till now?” How is it I don’t know you? Where have you been? Where have I been?

She lowered her hands, looking as if she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. “Oh, Merry, it’s always been a secret!” she said. “Freddy swore everyone who knew to silence everlasting!” Anxiously, she searched his face. “I—I hope you aren’t very shocked, now that you know?”

“Shocked?” His head filled suddenly with memories of the Pelennor, the horror of the Witch King rising from the wreck of battle and the grim young warrior of the Rohirrim who faced him unflinching in the morning sun—the slim, shining blade of courage that proved to be Éowyn when the helm of her secrecy was stripped away. He remembered how his own timid courage had blazed up at the sight of her—a girl whose valour and victory outstripped that of every man upon the field that day—and he looked at Estella and was dazzled to think that here, tucked quietly away in the Shire, was another such: diminutive, to be sure, but a shieldmaiden nonetheless.

“Shocked?” he repeated. “No indeed! I am only stunned with admiration! Tell me what you did! Was there a good deal of fighting?”

The Brockenbore Rebellion was a curious piece of Shire history, an unsanctioned insurgency that had nonetheless enjoyed a great deal of quiet support in the lands east of Hobbiton and west of the Bridge of Stonebows. What made it curious was the fact that when it was over, the rebels flitted back to their farms and villages and settled back into the activities of the day as if they had never been gone, and not one of them had ever been known to offer up any of the details of their time as outlaws in their own land. The Shire knew no more about it at the end than they had in the beginning, and though it was generally believed that the Rebellion had been a work of heroism, no heroes were proclaimed, and the full story had sifted back into the shadows and never really come to light.

Estella shook her head at Merry’s question. “There wasn’t a lot of fighting,” she said now, rather decorously. “The point was more to help folk who needed it and to sabotage the ruffians whenever possible—usually under cover of darkness or distraction. We fought outright when we had to, but that wasn’t often; what we liked to do was strike and disappear before anybody knew we were there.”

But there was a dancing gleam in her eye and he caught it before she lowered her lashes. “You did fight!” he exclaimed and was rewarded with a modest, if droll, little smile that struck him as deliciously antithetical to a soldier of the rebellion. “Aha! I knew it! Come, now, what was it? Knives? Hammers? Pitchforks?”

“How bloodthirsty you are!” She laughed softly. “All right, then: I’m a decent hand with a stone, and have a good eye with a bow—but I think my favorite has to be the bees.”


“The best rout we ever had,” she said, flushing a little even as her smile broadened, “was a gang of ruffians who meant to tear down the inn at Frogmorton. We crept over the night before and set a half dozen sleepy beehives round the place where they’d be sure to fall over them in the morning.” She giggled unexpectedly. “It was splendid!”

He laughed, first at the riotous vision this conjured, and then at the sheer joy of being allowed access to this surprising and delightful side of her otherwise rather demure and ladylike nature. “I wish I could have seen it!” he said fervently. “But, now: how did you come to be a part of it all? And why were you masquerading as a boy? It doesn’t seem something Fredegar would approve.”

“Oh, it wasn’t!” she said quickly. “He didn’t approve at all! But he had no choice, poor brother.” Her eyes clouded suddenly and he recalled the anguish that had wracked her face and body as she threw herself down at Freddy’s side on the grass outside the Lockholes, and how pained Freddy had been to see her so panicked and grief-stricken. Don’t cry, Tell. Don’t cry, my dear! It’s all over now….

“Poor Freddy!” he sighed, and shook his head wonderingly. “Who would have thought that Fatty Bolger would mount a rebellion all on his own like that? Oh, no!” he said hastily as she turned a suddenly wounded glance his way. “Don’t think I discount him, Estella! He did the Shire proud and no mistake, and it was plain as plain that day in Michel Delving that the Brockenbores loved him as no other and would have done anything for him. But my question was going to be: how was it he had no choice when it came to you?”

She smiled ruefully. “You know, Freddy always worried over letting you go— I mean you and Frodo and Pippin and Sam,” she clarified. “Often he thought perhaps he had done a terrible wrong in not trying harder to keep you back—the terror he felt of the Black Riders notwithstanding. Late that winter, after you’d been gone for months, he went to speak to your father, and the Master told him about a message that had come from the Elves, thinking to make him feel a little better. But he didn’t; he only felt guilty knowing then the kind of dangers you were facing on the Outside while he was safe at home.”

Her gaze locked his deeply now, addressed to understandings unknown to the Shire at large, but graven on his heart for years. He marveled at the strength of her perception.

“Meeting the Black Riders at Crickhollow taught Freddy something he’d rather not have known,” she said, “—that the Shire was not so safe as we supposed and that darkness existed in ways we had never thought to look for. Freddy never stopped looking over his shoulder after that, and when Lotho’s ruffians began to infiltrate the Shire, he was one of the first to see and understand what it must mean. And since he had had not gone away with you—whom he knew then to be fighting darkness elsewhere—he felt it was his duty to stand up for the Shire in your absence.”

“I never knew that for the reason,” Merry said, his heart contracting. “Dear good Freddy!”

She cocked her head and looked out over the water, her face absorbed in memory. “When he decided the time had come to stand up against the ruffians, he and I were alone in Budgeford. Papa had died very suddenly and Mama was shattered; she declared she needed a change after suffering such a shock, so she went to stay with Poppy Bolger for awhile until she felt strong enough to decide what to do next. Freddy tried to make me go with her, but I—I was afraid for him, Merry. He had been changed at Crickhollow. He didn’t tell anyone the whole of it, but I could see in his face what it had done to him. I had to stay.”

Merry thought of the drawing in his pocket, proof that she could see beyond the arduous attempts he made to present a carefree face to the world. Certainly he could see now in Freddy what she had undoubtedly perceived then: echoes of numbing dread and inestimable sorrow, the painful loss of that sweet, particular innocence that seemed imparted to folk by the very soil of the Shire itself.

“He needed me,” Estella said with surety. “The shadow of the Black Riders in his eyes when he came home from Crickhollow didn’t fade—such shock and emptiness such as I had never seen before! So I knew what drove him and haunted him, and I could not let him face it alone.”

Merry shifted uneasily at the mention of the Nazgûl and Estella met his eyes with dark perception. “You know, don’t you?” she said softly. “I wanted to protect him.”

“You couldn’t,” he whispered, taken aback. “Not from them!” And she looked at him for a long moment and nodded slowly, and he thought the expression in her eyes must reflect the one in his.

“So,” she said after a moment, resuming her story, “it was just the two of us, Freddy working the farm with some boys who came in to help, and me keeping house and hearth and trying to look out for him. It wasn’t easy. He was haunted by the obligations he had set himself. He opposed the ruffians at every turn, and often he slipped out at night to meet one or another fellow who wanted to stand up to them as he did. I knew that they were beginning to plan some sort of insurrection. Meanwhile, the Bolgers of Budgeford were marked down by the ruffians as uppish and defiant, and Men came round the lane regularly to threaten us in sly, frightening ways. There was one in particular who began to make a point of waylaying me and making…unpleasant advances.”

He straightened sharply, his face darkening. She shivered a little and shook her head, and then went on in her soft voice:

“Freddy was afraid for me—probably with good cause—and he knew he couldn’t protect me indefinitely, but there was no way out by that time; the roads were watched and travel everywhere was nearly impossible. Freddy’s men felt the time had come to withdraw to the north, but he was in a quandary: he knew he couldn’t leave me behind, for if he couldn’t protect me then, who would protect me later if the ruffians learned of his rebellion and thought to punish him through me? He was tortured by indecision and I’m afraid I didn’t help, as I refused outright to be parted from him in any case.”

Estella sighed. “Poor Freddy. He didn’t know what to do. You know him, Merry: you can imagine with all his very proper Bolger senses that he was aghast. A decent hobbit would not take his sister from the shelter of her home; nor allow her to consort with a lot of strange fellows as if she belonged with them, or let her take up fighting, or do anything to endanger her good name. I argued that these things were not important, that the rules did not apply because it was war.”

Merry smiled once again in admiration, but Estella was suddenly caught up in her memories. She bowed her head and closed her eyes, and when she looked up again, she was remorseful. “Poor Freddy was so overcome,” she said softly, “that he put his head in his hands and wept. You must understand, Merry, that by this time he was already sorely compromised; he had chosen a path no hobbit in the Shire had trod in close to three hundred years, and was making up rules as he went along—Freddy, who never broke a rule in his life! And even though he saw very clearly the Shire’s need for what he was doing, he could not imagine how it could be anything but a disaster for me regardless of how it turned out.”

Merry considered this in the light of rules he had never been afraid to break. “Why, save us, Estella!” he exclaimed. “He wasn’t half wrong! And weren’t you frightened of what was happening?”

“No more than he was,” she said thoughtfully. “I was too full of plans. Since Freddy was so concerned about my honour as a young lady, I proposed that he help me to disguise myself as a lad. Faith, but he was horrified! How he argued! He made every objection he could think of and I rejected every one of them, and in the end he saw it was the only way, and, oh Merry! he wept again, and begged my pardon if I should be ruined for life and said that of course I must come with him, where at least he could look out for me. So we cut off my hair and he fitted me out in some of his old clothes and gave me his hat—this one!—and bade me watch him and the others very carefully, so that I might learn something of how to speak and behave as a lad. Mind, when we went into the hills he kept me as close as he could and tried to keep me out of anything that he judged was too dangerous, but he couldn’t always be about and soon enough I found my own way, for I learned quickly and was lighter on my feet than some the others, who were mostly grown and bigger and heavier than me. I managed to see a good bit of action by the end.”

Merry was listening raptly and she stopped suddenly and looked at him wonderingly. “You’re not the least bit shocked, are you?”

He grinned, his blue eyes warm with respect. “Not me!” he said emphatically, shaking his head. “And given the circumstances, I can’t imagine why anyone would be. Did all the Brockenbores know the secret?”

“No,” she said. “Most of them were lads I’d never met before, from Bridgefields and Whitfurrows and from up the hills in Scary. A few came from south of the Yale, forced off their farms and dodging the ruffians as they could. Old Farmer Maggot down in the Marish sent them Freddy’s way. All those fellows knew me as Freddy’s cousin Tell and if they suspected anything else they never said a word. There were only a few who knew who I really was: Falco Boffin, Sancho Proudfoot, my cousin Ferdi and Mos Burrows down from Hobbiton—and Tom Cotton, who was Freddy’s second and proved to be my deliverance in the end. But Freddy swore them all to secrecy back then and so far as I know they have remained true to him.”

And to you, he thought, if ever they had the slightest idea. “I wondered how you came to be such good friends with Tom,” he said aloud, remembering suddenly the fond, easy conversation he had seen at the far end of the dinner table two nights before. “How was it he delivered you, Estella, and from what?”

Estella twisted her fingers in her lap. “The night Freddy was taken,” she said softly, “was the sum of all my nightmares. The instant it was upon us I knew it was the moment I had feared all along, the answer to why I could not leave him in the beginning and the reason I had followed him into the Rebellion. The memory of the evil he had brushed up against at Crickhollow was always with him, Merry; I know it sounds foolish, but I wanted to spare him the reality. He never gave a thought to himself; I don’t think he realized how much danger he was in.”

Merry took a breath and closed his eyes, nodding silently.

“It happened too fast, of course, but when I saw that Freddy was trapped and taken, I flew up from hiding, meaning to go to him, to be with him, whatever was coming. It was Tom Cotton who held me back, who hid me from the ruffians when they came swarming over the caves with clubs and brickbats looking for us all. Oh, Merry, I was not thinking clearly! If not for Tom I should have condemned Freddy to even worse tortures than they devised for him. What a horror it would have been for him if I had been captured and found out and driven to the Lockholes, too!”

Tears sparkled suddenly on her lashes. Here then were the memories that had smudged in the shadows of heartbreak Merry had seen in her eyes. Instinctively, he reached for her hand and she let him hold it tightly, and they sat in silence for a moment. “Well, I always liked Tom Cotton,” he said musingly, “and I like him even better now.”

She laughed a little and brushed at her eyes. “Freddy’s arrest took the heart out of us, of course, and the rebellion was effectively broken, but Freddy was gone and so Tom looked out for me. He found a safe place for me to stay as the weeks dragged on, while we had no news of Freddy, and the old wizard set up at Bag End, and the ruffians laid waste to every part of the Shire they could plunder. The rest of the Brockenbores went to ground, not sure of what to do—until the lucky day you called them, Merry, with your horn!” Her eyes brightened now. “Most of them fought with you in the Battle of Bywater, and when Tom heard that you meant to open the Lockholes the next day, he came straight to get me. And of course, the others knew me as Tell, so I had to come as a boy or be found out, and that’s how it was that you saw me there, and no doubt thought me someone else.”

He let his breath out in a long sigh. “Astonishing,” he murmured. He released her hand gently, his fingers lingering, reluctant to withdraw. “You knew me that day, didn’t you?” he said quietly.

“Oh!” Once again colour flooded her face. “I—I did, yes,” she admitted, shamefaced. “How did you know?”

“I’ve been remembering that shocked look in your eyes.”

The look in her eyes now was eloquent. “I’m so sorry, Merry,” she said simply. “I was undone. When I saw how Freddy had been beaten and starved so cruelly it was almost more than I could bear, and at that moment I would have killed anyone who so much as raised a hand toward him. When your shadow fell over me, I answered it with the blind instinct born of my experience in the rebellion. And, oh, Merry! You were so — changed! I was shocked! You were so tall, and so magnificent in your shining battle gear, and I was so ashamed suddenly, to be snarling like an animal and pretending to be a boy! I had not cared a bit for it among the Brockenbores, but seeing you brought me back to the reality of my situation with a thump! You must agree it was infamous: I was never more horrified in my life! But I do beg you will forgive me. It was a shocking day and one I did not want to think about for a good while after. I should have confessed it to you long before now, though.”

When? he wondered, frustrated yet again. When did I ever see you between then and now? It kept coming up: this inexplicable gap in his memory with regard to things he ought to have known or experienced in the years since the War. He had a sinking feeling Freddy had spoken the truth. Where do you wander off to, Merry? Come back!

He realized suddenly that she was waiting apprehensively for his response to her confession. He pulled himself together and met her anxiety with a keen blue glance. “Think no more of it,” he said quietly. “I quite understand the aftermath of war.”

“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, hugging her knees as her brow cleared in relief. “I expect you do. Do you still think of it sometimes?”

Most times,” he said softly, soberly. “War is not the normal pursuit of hobbits, Estella—we don’t soon forget experiences like that, or the feelings that come of them.”

She nodded silently and then she said, “You and Pippin were very good to Freddy while he was getting well; he has always been very grateful to you.”

“We were proud to…” He laughed suddenly. “Grateful, did you say? Well, I call it very ungrateful of him to have kept this smashing story to himself. Wait till I see him! I can’t believe he never said anything about it! His own sister a heroine of the dark times—!”

“No!” Her response was instantaneous. She leaned toward him, stopping his mouth with her fingers. “Oh, Merry!” she implored. “Please don’t say anything to Freddy about this!”

Save us, but he wanted to kiss those fingers! Instead, he caught her wrist in a trembling hand and folded it round her own, drawing it gently away from his lips. “No?” he said as steadily as he might. “Now, whyever not, Estella?”

She sighed. “Once Freddy came out of the Lockholes and knew that you and the others had come home and that the Shire was safe again, he remembered himself, and went back to his quiet ways. He was frightened of the notoriety that threatened all of us, and most especially me. He is still terrified that I might come to ruin because of what we did.”

“Ruin?” Merry frowned. Freddy’s sense of propriety had always been strict, as his father’s had been before him. “What do you mean—ruin?”

She coloured in real embarrassment and looked away across the water, and he thought suddenly he should not have asked. But she answered coolly enough, with a touch of defiance: “Freddy thinks that if it became common knowledge that I was up there in the hills all that time there would not be a hobbit in the Shire willing to take me, or a family that would not look askance at the Bolgers ever after.”

No hobbit willing…!?

“Fools!” he snorted, frowning. “And you’d be better off without them. I can’t think why Freddy would want to know such folk as that.”

She smiled at him rosily. “But Freddy is not so bold as you, Merry,” she said softly. “He doesn’t think of it that way.”

He laughed. “Well, I shall endeavor to enlighten him as soon as I have a chance. But surely that’s not why you’ve been keeping house for Freddy all these years?”

She cocked her head. “What do you mean?”

He said hesitantly. “Well, clearly Freddy needs someone to keep his house, as most bachelors do, but why is it you, Estella? Not that Freddy isn’t a splendid fellow, but surely you must have dreams of your own?”

Too late did he realize his violent trespass.

Estella went very still and white, while all around them the sound of the water rose, tumbling and murmuring, rushing away on its ceaseless current. His eyes were on Estella’s frozen face but he felt the tide sweeping past: Like time, he thought, inexplicably distracted in this dreadful moment, here and gone before you know it. Then Estella turned her head to watch the water as well, and a cold chill wrapped round his heart, for it seemed in that moment that all the light of her spirit was torn from her, and it was as though she herself had seized it in cold despair and flung it out upon the current.

“Estella?” he whispered, but she turned away, her hands over her face. Roughly he grasped and shook her arm. “Estella!” And then a sudden intake of breath called back the light: she turned her dark eyes to look on him and smiled, and in an instant was restored.

“Merry,” she murmured, patting his hand on her arm as if to comfort him, and then she spoke as if nothing had come between his question and her answer:

“Yes, of course I’ve had dreams of my own,” she said. “But,” —she looked at the rushing water again and said softly—“they haven’t happened.” And once again he saw on the delicate line of her mouth the shadow of heartbreak, some other that was more painful even than Freddy’s ordeal. Her eyes filled up with it as he watched.

His heart hurt so much for her that he could not speak. He tried to catch her eye but she watched the water now, and her profile was so ineffably tragic in its loveliness that he had to turn away or say too much. He bit his lip for having been so graceless and looked about for a distraction.

Pulling his injured hand from the water he held it up for her inspection. The sting seemed to have gone out of it. “You know, I think it’s better,” he said, wiggling his fingers experimentally as she turned at the sound of his voice. “What do you think?” She took it gently and bent over it, drawing a soft cloth from a pocket in her skirt. Carefully, she touched it to the back of his hand and wicked the water away.

“It does look better,” she said, and she was herself again. “And I’ve a preparation of dock in my pack back there that should make it quite comfortable if you feel like working a little longer.”

“I do,” he smiled, and he stood up and extended her his good hand. She took it readily and sprang lightly up beside him on the wide rock and then she smiled at him warmly, and he could feel her friendship and forgiveness. Then and there he wished he might fold her into his arms, but he knew he could not do so until he understood the heartbreak he had seen in her face and the dreams that had not happened, and so he only smiled back, keeping her hand in his.

“Come on, then,” he said, hoping he sounded calm and steady. “Let’s see how much work we can finish before luncheon.”

n the evening he went looking for Freddy, his heart—and the feelings bound up in it—too excruciating to endure any longer alone. While Estella had recovered her quiet resolve and gentle good humour almost straight away, and they had spent another pleasant few hours working before they returned to the Smials, he could not forget the moment when he had witnessed the light die in her eyes, and after brooding most of the afternoon, he determined he must learn what it meant. After a fruitless search, he acted on an ingenuous tip from his Uncle Paladin and ran Freddy to ground in one of the lower parlours, where he discovered him sitting alone before the fire with his feet up on the fender and a glass of wine at his elbow, smoking his pipe in a pensive fashion, with a small, thoughtful crease between his brows.

“At last!” Merry stepped in and closed the door, noting the frown and hoping he had not chosen a bad time for this conversation. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Freddy.”

“Hullo, Merry.” Freddy looked up at him composedly, the glimmer of a smile in his dark eyes. “I’m sorry you’ve had to search me out, but I usually try to slip away after supper. I need a bit of quiet at the end of the day—time for thinking and sorting things out.”

“Oh, dear,” said Merry. “Well, I do beg your pardon for intruding then, Freddy, but I was hoping you could help me sort something out. I —ah—I need to talk to you about Estella.”

“Estella?” Freddy’s eyebrows rose. “Sit down, then.” He gestured vaguely toward the other chairs gathered round the hearth and extracted a leather pouch, heavy with pipeweed, from the pocket of his exquisite tweed jacket; he held it out. “Leaf?”

“Yes, thanks.” Merry fished his pipe from a long pocket cunningly tricked into the lining of his coat. It was a particularly handsome pipe, set with a pearl mouthpiece and delicate bands of Elvish silver. He dipped into Freddy’s pouch and packed the pipe with several layers of leaf, hunkering down before the fire to set a straw to burning and applying it to the bowl. Patiently, he coaxed the fragrant smoke up through the stem. “That’s very nice,” he said appreciatively, tossing the straw into the fire and settling into a soft, overstuffed chair next to Freddy. “Different. What is it?”

“Blend of Longbottom and Old Toby.”

“Is it? I never thought of blending—that’s something new, isn’t it, since I’ve been away?” He sighed inwardly. Here was something else he had failed to see because his mind and heart were wandering elsewhere. “Was it your idea, Freddy?”

“Aye, comes of using my thinking time,” drawled Freddy, and Merry saw a sparkle of mischief in his eyes—eyes that he noticed for the first time were very like Estella’s. He would have liked to enjoy some camaraderie with Freddy, but felt a rather pointed scrutiny now in that dark, even gaze.

“See here, Freddy,” he said, uncomfortably. “I’m rather at sixes and sevens. I need to —”

“Talk about Estella. Yes, you already said so.” Freddy blew two rather elegant smoke rings and watched them spin into the air; then he turned back to Merry with his steady, inquisitive gaze. Merry noted a stately reserve in this gesture and paused for a moment to consider his old friend and the changes the years had wrought in him.

Fredegar Bolger had always been earnest and protective and loyal, but the Brockenbore Rebellion and its aftermath had made of him a very different fellow than he had begun. The most obvious difference was his size: not for nothing had he been nicknamed “Fatty” early in life, a small, round hobbit who had grown far larger and rounder with his coming of age. The brutality of the Lockholes had devastated him in that respect in his fortieth year; while his sturdy frame remained, there was not a great deal of padding on it anymore and no amount of provender, it seemed, was going fatten him up. Very slender he was still, and the strolling gait he had developed as a child to counterbalance his weight gave him now an aura of dignity and deliberation. At fifty he walked with a stick when the weather was cold or inordinately damp; it was said in private that some injury he had of his imprisonment plagued him on those days, but that was only supposition, as Freddy himself said nothing whatever about it.

Ten years before, though, while size alone would have made Fatty Bolger an easily imposing leader for the Brockenbores, it was not enough to explain why he had done what he did. The real mystery of his transformation into the only rebel leader the Shire had known since the days of the Bullroarer was the fact that he had always been of a somewhat retiring disposition. He was not at all daring and the only thing he had ever rebelled against was the idea of leaving the Shire with Frodo. Until he and Merry drove to Crickhollow with Frodo’s household belongings, he had never even been across the Brandywine Bridge, nor had he ever thought of doing so. It was a startling metamorphosis, and one from which he retreated in great part when the Rebellion was over, as if he were rather uncomfortable remaining at the center of such daring goings on when all was said and done.

Merry had not had much occasion to consider this deeply until his talk with Estella today, but now he knew what had served to arouse and embolden Freddy back then: he was the only hobbit in the Shire who had experienced enough of darkness to understand the threat when it arrived. The ruffians were not Black Riders (of whom Freddy had learned enough to be very afraid) but they embodied the kinds of thing that he knew must straggle in the grey wake of such horror: ignorance and greed and truculent hostility foremost among them. With Frodo and Merry and Pippin gone, and no one else the wiser about such things, Freddy had realized it could only fall to him to make a stand, and so he had, with as many hobbits as could be found who were angry enough to come with him. The tactful honour accorded him later had embarrassed him considerably, once his Bolger decorum was reestablished, but the aura of nobility it imparted had never left him. His manner was different now; while it was still not in his nature to run roughshod over folk, yet he spoke his mind now, in his quiet way, with authority, and his simple words carried weight when he chose to make them known.

Freddy was now regarding Merry thoughtfully. “This is something you can’t ask Estella yourself?” he asked.

“No, no!” Merry said, wincing at the memory. “I—I tried today and made a shocking mess of it.”

Freddy loosed a puff of smoke and murmured wordlessly. “Well, let’s hear it, then, if you please,” he said. “Have over, Meriadoc.”

“I don’t know how to say this,” Merry said somewhat anxiously, mindful of the effect his blundering had had earlier on Estella. “You’ll forgive me if I just get to the point? All right—then here it is and I beg you will remember I don’t mean to offend! Please, Freddy, why is it that Estella lives with you still?”

Freddy took his pipe from his mouth and shot him a look from beneath eloquent brows, as dark as Estella’s, but less fine. “She keeps the house, Merry,” he said in a slightly baffled tone that suggested this should be obvious. “Splendid cook, everything very tidy, and she sets out a lovely garden every spring.” Then his eye and his voice hardened in a rather odd manner. “I’ve been very grateful for her.”

Merry nodded, quailing a little beneath the sudden narrow look in Freddy’s eyes. He took a breath and remembered Estella’s face when she had so briefly and abruptly dropped her guard today: Yes, I have dreams. They haven’t happened.

“Yes, well, of course you are,” he said awkwardly. “But Freddy, you reminded me just the other night that we have all of us been of age for years—ten, I think you said. But in truth, most of us have been of age far longer than that.” He hesitated for a moment, then gave up and threw himself on Freddy’s mercy—or his sword if so be it he was going to offend him after all. “Why hasn’t Estella wed in all these years, Freddy?” he asked. “Surely she’s had offers?”

Freddy’s frown deepened. “Offers?” he repeated. “Of course she’s had offers! Lovely girl like that—of course she has!” He drew himself up in the same oddly baleful way as before. “I should say she’s had too many to count by this time, actually!”

“Yes?” For a confused moment Merry didn’t know whether he felt resentful or relieved. “Well, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Why isn’t she married, Freddy?”

Freddy looked at him for long moment and Merry half-expected him to demand an explanation for this appalling line of questioning. But his dark eyes reflected only a faint and fleeting expression of wonder as he set his pipe in the stand on the side table and took up his wine glass with a sigh. “The offers came to nothing, Merry,” he said quietly, looking through the pale yellow wine at the fire. “Turned them away—the lot of them.”

“Turned away?” Merry echoed in dismay. “You turned away Estella’s chances to wed? Freddy!”

I didn’t do it!” Freddy said, sharply defensive. “Think I’d stand in the way of her happiness? My own little sister that I’ve looked after all my life and only ever wanted to be safe and happy? No! She turned them down! Sent them all packing, a few of them more than once!”

Merry stared, dumfounded. “But I don’t understand,” he said. “I thought she—Why did she do that, Freddy? Do you know?”

Freddy set down his wine glass with an audible clink. “Yes, I do,” he said evenly, leaning back in his chair with a hard, watchful look, and Merry saw in him suddenly the hobbit who had led the Brockenbores in determined rebellion against the invasion of their homeland, the unwavering leader whose choices had been made with grim and patient resolution. The next moment, though, it was easy to see that when it came to Estella Freddy was, like himself, considerably out of his depth. He now proved this by saying with sudden, harsh anxiety: “Come! What’s this about, Merry? I’ve not seen Estella this evening, but I know she was out with you again today. Is there some trouble? Something between the two of you?”

Merry shook his head, bewildered. “No,” he said, “Nothing. Well, maybe—no, it’s a long story, Freddy, but nothing’s come of it! Still, here’s the thing: today I asked her a question about her life—forgive me, about her hopes!—and Freddy, the light just went out of her! It was as if her spirit died for a very little moment, and it was appalling and I can’t forget it. I never meant to hurt her! What did it mean, Freddy? I think it has something to do with the fact that she is not wed and yet has been of age to do so for years. She spoke of dreams that had not happened. I–I didn’t know what to do, what to say.”

Freddy sighed heavily and turned his gaze to the fire. “Well,” he said slowly, “it’s a strange thing, Merry—and it’s a secret—but I’ll tell you, because it seems to me you deserve an explanation, coming to me as you have. The truth is there’s only ever been one fellow for Estella—and despite all the others who have admired her and offered suit, he hasn’t spoken for her. She’s no interest in any other, though, and never has had.” Freddy frowned, then shook his head and continued darkly: “A hundred times I’ve tried to tell her she oughtn’t to put her life on hold for the bloody fool, but always she listens to her heart and not to me. She’s waiting for that fellow, Merry, and the truth is that if he never comes for her, then—”

Freddy’s voice died away as Merry made a sudden convulsive movement, quickly restrained but nonetheless indicative of a strong internal response. Freddy gazed at him thoughtfully. For his part, Merry had to close his eyes to shutter the stab of pain that quite literally threatened to break his heart. No! Someone—else?

“She—loves him?” he whispered hoarsely.

Freddy said softly, “She does that,” and Merry opened his eyes to see him standing now before the grate, regarding him somewhat unhappily. Merry had no strength to hide his feelings, but when he spoke it was not to them, but to the memory of Estella’s desolation. “Well, who is he, then?” he asked with quiet violence. “And what’s he waiting for? How dare he do this to her?”

Freddy shook his head. “I can’t say, Merry,” he said in an odd voice, as if patience warred with outrage in his breast.

“You can’t say who he is, or you can’t say what he’s waiting for?” Merry’s blue eyes flashed with anger.

Freddy raised his hands. “I can’t say either, cousin. Estella made me swear to stay out of it, for one; and for two, I can’t begin to fathom how it’s come to this. I don’t know what’s to be done. It’s years in the making, this tangle—I’ve lost count of how many!”

“Freddy! She’s—it’s been so long as that?!”

Freddy took up the poker and stabbed at the fire; a shower of sparks went up. “Aye—since she was a child,” he said, carelessly, but his voice had a bitter edge. “But it’s Estella’s business, Merry. I’ve promised not to interfere.”

“I haven’t,” said Merry grimly, forgetful of his pretenses.

“No?” said Freddy softly over his shoulder, still poking at the coals. “Well.”

He turned suddenly and Merry was surprised to see in his eyes the harsh glitter of anger. “Don’t think I haven’t wanted to do something!” he said in a low, passionate voice, thickly laced with fury. “I used to think, if it was up to me, I’d pitch him in the river for what he’s done, stupid prat, not paying attention, making her wait all these years, for all the Shire as if she’d been left behind on the shelf like broken goods—Estella, who’s worth a hundred of the rest of them on any given day! Don’t think I don’t want him to know the pain he’s caused—whether he sees it or not, and whether she blames him or not, which she doesn’t! But she won’t have it—oh, no! She deems he must have his own free will in the matter, and that’s the end of it, for she’ll not be wed of pity or scruples. If he asks, she’ll fly to him, and if he doesn’t, she’ll live out her days with me—and poor comfort that will be for her, sweet, innocent creature!”

“Save us!” Merry whispered, drawing back, his face pale as his chest tightened over a blistering knot of pain, and Freddy looked suddenly sorry, as if he regretted his outburst.

“Who is he?” Merry asked again, through the suffocating pain of his despair, but Freddy said only, “You’d best talk to her, Merry, if you’ve a mind to know any more. I—I wish I could help you, but it’s not to be.” He sank suddenly into his chair and rubbed his forehead. “I–I’m sorry, cousin. I shouldn’t have said—”

“No, it’s all right, Freddy.” Merry got up and made his way blindly to the door, overwhelmed by the raw and ragged hurt of the well opening deep within him, remembrance rising swiftly from the depths to darken any rosy hope. He fumbled a little with the latch, and Freddy said suddenly, contritely, behind him: “Merry?”

“It’s all right, Freddy.”

“No, it isn’t.” Freddy sounded desperate and ashamed. “I have not been fair, Merry. He doesn’t know. And you have to know as well as I that he’s an excellent fellow, else Estella wouldn’t care for him so much. I just wish he’d notice her and come round, is all! Because you’re right about the light you saw in her—it’s hope, and it’s been dying by inches for a long time now.”

erry passed a difficult night, sleeping only fitfully as bouts of pain and jealousy and anger rose and fell in torturous succession in his dreams: pain because he knew and must admit now that he loved Estella himself; jealousy because he knew he could never have her heart; and anger because the fellow who did have it was obviously —regardless of Freddy’s generous assessment—an addlepated fool. He remembered the aching hurt in Estella’s eyes when her light had dimmed away; he knew now that she had been thinking of her too-long awaited suitor and cursed the fellow roundly—whoever he was— for the undeserving wretch that he must undoubtedly prove to be.

He and Estella had agreed to meet in the morning after breakfast to finish their growing catalogue of plants native to Tuckborough and the Green Hills. It was the last day they would be able to meet, for the house party was breaking up now, and Estella and Freddy must get back to the farm in Budgeford, and Merry knew his father waited anxiously at the Hall.

They had planned to range further afield on this last day, following the stream south to a little conifer wood Pippin knew, where deep shade ferns grew, and wild strawberry and the small, wild pansies the Shirefolk called ‘heartsease’. He had looked forward to it, but now he did not know how he would contrive to bear it, for in learning the truth from Freddy he had suffered an appalling blow. His feelings were battered, his chest tight with anguish, and his private well of pain stood open in his eyes. Indeed, in the reflection of those eyes Freddy had looked almost stricken last night, his face pale with disquiet as he strove to explain what little he could. You’d best ask her, Merry…. But Merry thought perhaps he ought not speak of these things to Estella, though he was unsure whether it was her pain or his own that he wished most to avoid.

Though he tried to tell himself it was enough to know that she loved someone who could make her happy, it was shattering to think that he could never do so, and that the fool who had encroached upon her heart might never speak for her, and so leave her life in ruin. Back and forth in the long dark of night he weighed his options—go with her today, or go home to Buckland (where he must at any rate go soon) and in the end, as the sun breached the dark horizon in a steadily expanding bar of radiance, he decided that the only honourable thing to do was to swallow his distress and make his last day with her as pleasant as possible. He had promised Pippin he would not run from anything again; here was the first test of his resolve.

He dressed with care and stood before the glass studying his features critically, working out how best to smooth away the lines and shadows that he had reason to believe Estella could read only too well, fingering regretfully the proof he kept still in his pocket. He found it was not too hard to mask the most obvious: long ago in Gondor he had perfected a teasing smile that threw everyone but Pippin and Strider off the scent of his misery under the Black Breath. Surely Estella would never look so close now as Pippin was wont to do.

It proved harder than he thought to shutter the well, though, and when Merry slid into his seat at the breakfast table he saw Pippin catch his breath, recognizing at once what he saw in his cousin’s shadowed eyes. Pippin said nothing, but he was obviously dismayed, and he reached for Merry’s arm to ascertain the trouble and offer comfort in their private way. But Merry’s heart was yet too overborne to admit what he had lost or to seek consolation from Pippin. Small Faramir sat in Pippin’s lap this morning, and so Merry sought to counter Pippin’s too-accurate impression by greeting the little one with fanfare and cheerful abandon. Fair Took, round-eyed with interest, responded with enthusiasm and there ensued a welcome if unintelligible conversation. Glancing sideways in the midst of this, Merry saw in Pippin’s wryly-watchful face that he was not in the least taken in but nevertheless was willing to let the difficult moment pass without further comment. Sam, accompanied this morning by small Pippin Gamgee, and busy spooning applesauce into his youngest’s eager, bird-like little mouth, appeared to miss the exchange altogether, and Freddy was seemingly preoccupied with a book he had found in the library. The old Thain watched them all thoughtfully over the rim of his teacup and commented blandly on the delightful weather and the charming scent of roses wafting from the gardens.

When Merry excused himself to meet Estella at the gate, Pippin quickly kissed little Faramir, deposited him with his doting grandfather and came after. “What is it?” he hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of the table where, had he known it, Sam, Freddy and the Thain were watching them with interest. “Merry, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Pip,” he said easily, but Pippin rounded on him fiercely and so he said as carefully as he might, biting back the grief he knew Pippin must hear all too plainly: “Please, Pippin, don’t make me speak of it now. I promise, I’ll tell you tonight, but if you must know beforehand, then go to Freddy and he will explain.”

Pippin’s face went blank. “Freddy?” he said, bewildered. “But—!”

Merry shook his head helplessly. “Please, Pip,” he said miserably, and Pippin stepped back, his bright gaze sobering instantly. “All right, then,” he said softly, and let it go.

Alongside the path to the gate they came upon Diamond and Estella walking together and gathering chamomile flowers: Diamond into the folds of her skirt and Estella into a cloth bag, since she was yet again clad in her painting skirt and had neither folds nor apron. Estella was ten years older than Diamond, but the years were not easily discernible as they strolled together through the grass and the waving white and yellow blossoms. They were a pretty picture: as bright as Diamond’s beauty was, in all its sparkling contrasts, so Estella’s matched it in a softer way, warmed by the rose in her cheeks and her dark eyes and the nut-brown highlights the sun picked out in her hair. The two were talking quietly and there was none of the shrieking and giggling Merry was accustomed to observe among young women keeping time together, and none of the sidelong glances either.

Pippin went to Diamond, slipping his arm around her waist to draw her close beside him, and Merry, taking a breath to steady himself, bowed over Estella’s hand. The trim little fingers twined in his made his heart ache bitterly, but he kept his easy grin in place and Estella smiled up at him. At the gate she surrendered her drawing board; he caught Pippin watching closely as he took it and tucked it under his arm. Then Pippin opened the gate, and Diamond gave them each a kiss as they passed through. She hesitated for an instant as she looked up into Merry’s darkened eyes, then she drew back, and it seemed to him that there was in her luminous little face some knowledge of his sorrow and hopeful assurance that all would come right in the end. He sighed and kissed her cheek and nodded farewell to Pippin, who stood silently watching, leaning on the gate rail.

All the way up the path, chary at Estella’s side, Merry could feel Pippin’s worried gaze upon his back, but when they prepared to turn off the path toward the stream, he suddenly lost the impression of it and turned to look back. Pippin and Diamond stood yet at the gate, but they were wrapped in a gentle embrace, and Pippin’s head was bowed over Diamond’s and his face was buried in her glorious dark hair. Estella looked back as well, and afterward she looked at Merry thoughtfully, but she said nothing.

They walked along the stream for a short while in a troubled silence, and then Estella asked shyly if she might hear of his travels abroad, and gathering himself he told her something of Rivendell and the Elves, and then, warming to the topic, a little of Gondor and Rohan, describing in particular the White City and the Golden Hall. This took a good deal of time, but in the end he found he was feeling much better, and Estella was enthralled. “How I wish I might see them all!” she sighed, and he thought how very unlike Freddy she was, as Freddy had never longed to go further than the Brandywine Bridge, let alone beyond the Bounds, no matter what the errand.

“Really?” he asked. “Would you travel so far just to see those places? It’s a very long way—far beyond the Shire.” And she answered with shining eyes, “Oh, yes! I would go! How I should love to paint those places, Merry, and the people, and the high mountains all about!”

He smiled because this pleased him so, and then he wondered how such a bright, bold spirit as she was could want so much to be hand-fasted to a hobbit who obviously didn’t appreciate her ideas in the least and who must certainly be quite provincial and bound to the Shire in every way. He would never take her anywhere. Where was he, anyway, the arrogant fool? And how could he not know, as Freddy seemed to suggest, that Estella loved him more than life? He ground his teeth in contempt and stalked along beside her.

“Well,” he said grimly, “If ever you wish to go, I will happily offer myself as your guide.”

“I cannot think of a better one,” she said lightly, and they came then to the woodland and went in beneath the tall firs, following the banks of the stream into a rich, deep shade laced with thin beams of amber sunlight and heavy with viridian shadows. Beneath their feet the earth was dark and damp and scented with the memories of lush, green growing things, and the faint, occasional breeze was spiced with fir and resin.

Soon enough they found a fragrant nest of fern and unpacked their gear and got ready to work. Merry took out his notebook and writing materials and Estella filled her pockets with small, blank papers and gathered several pencils from her pack, along with a bulky leather pouch, well-waxed, with long leather strings at its neck.

“Diamond packed a luncheon for us,” she said, holding it up, “and bade me put in the brook to keep it cool and fresh. Help me find a good place?”

“That was good of her,” he said. “You and Diamond are friends, then? You seemed so at the gate.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “She is a darling. We have been friends since first she came from Long Cleeve to wed with Pippin. As dearly as she loved him, she was a little lonely at first, so far from her folk and her little village, and Rose Gamgee and I were pleased to befriend her, with Pippin’s sisters married away from the Smials. We write to her often, and come to visit whenever Sam and Freddy are bound this way, though now Diamond is altogether at home here, and Pippin’s folk—far and wide—are hers. She is much beloved. They say she has the Sight, you know. Most curious.”

“The Sight?” He didn’t like the sound of that; he had met the Sight before in Gondor.

“Certainly. She dreamed of Pippin before he ever came to her.”

He frowned; he knew that. “I thought all girls dreamed of fellows falling in love with them,” he said, thinking of the villain no doubt enshrined in Estella’s dreams and hoping he didn’t sound too sour.

“Of course they do, in a faceless sort of way before they set their hearts on one, but Diamond dreamed of Pippin himself before ever she laid eyes on him, Merry.”

“That is odd,” he said, seeing the distinction despite himself. He actually thought Pippin might have done the same; he had confided to Merry once that he knew Diamond would change his life the minute he saw her, though to be fair, he hadn’t understood what was happening and had thought to escape. “I suppose you could credit the Sight for that.”

“Well,” she said, “It’s certainly possible. The blood of the fairy-wife is strong among the North-tooks and they say great gifts have come of it.”

“Aye,” he said, remembering. “Diamond’s folk are Healers.” He quirked a smile. “Her father has the finest cure for too much ale I ever yet saw. And I believe he knew I needed it, too, the first time we ever met!”

Estella laughed, but Merry remembered the bright promise in Diamond’s face at the gate. She might have her private hopes, but he was of a mind to think the Sight did not enter in here. She and Pippin only wished them well, and Di’s luncheon gift was given only in hope. He wished he and Estella might have shared it in happier circumstances, for their friends’ sake as well as their own, but he knew it must be otherwise: this day would be bittersweet and would come at last to a lonely end. He did own to himself that in one respect he was grateful, though; he realized with a sinking stomach, as he followed Estella to the stream, that he had been so distraught when setting out this morning that he had failed to tuck even one apple away in his pockets. He was hungry, and Diamond’s lunch would be welcome when it came time to eat it, regardless of the circumstances.

They found a place among the shaded, mossy rocks where the water swirled and eddied back to form a little well, and tying the strings to a tree branch that hung over the bank, they lowered the pouch into the water. It settled on a submerged stone, the water churning gently round, and Estella was pleased. “It will be quite safe here,” she said with satisfaction, “and should cool nicely, too, in the shade. And it is early yet, so we can leave it awhile.”

Indeed, so shady was it beneath the firs that shortly after they had settled in to work, Estella tossed her hat away, saying it was too dark to see beneath the brim. Merry looked up to see the familiar cloud of soft, dark curls settling round her face and bit his lip in misery; he bent low over the ferns and made more notes than he would ever need and then he busied himself in discovering a spotted bogwort close by the stream and tracing an ultimately meaningless root system back and forth along the bank. Estella had her drawings done before he clambered back to her, and she laughed as he tried gamely to make sport of what he had been about. Then she gathered a handful of small drawings from her pocket and slipped them into one of the envelopes in her collection book, and soon enough they gathered up their materials and moved downstream in search of strawberries and the small wild pansies with their pretty flower faces. Heartsease: he smiled grimly to himself. He would need it before the day was out.

They had passed along several bends in the stream when they came unexpectedly upon what seemed a woodland hall, a deep corridor of evergreen and beech with a high arched vault brightened with shafts of silvery sunlight, and a floor of soft green grass. The day was warming, and they were flushed with walking along the rough banks of the winding stream, which here smoothed out and flowed quietly along the edge of the grass. They halted, astonished, on the threshold of this cool and restful place, and Merry felt Estella draw close to him and her small hand come to rest upon his sleeve. He forbore to return the touch with his own hand, turning instead to smile on her upturned face, which bore an expression of deepest wonder.

“Merry,” she asked in a low voice, “is this an Elvish place?”

He knew it was, but how she had guessed it he could not imagine. Most folk in the Shire knew that the Elves traveled occasionally even now through their lands, but hobbits had no interest in seeing foreign folk, and certainly never wasted time seeking proof of their passage. It rarely if never happened that any hobbit-folk—aside from the Travellers and the odd handful of rather more imaginative Tooks—noticed these places.

“I think it must have been, once upon a time,” he answered, looking round and feeling the hallowed sense of calm and sanctuary that lay upon the place. “But how did you know?”

“I feel something here,” she said, colouring a little. “As if I am in a foreign land, and this is a place of safety. I should like to paint it, but I’ve a feeling I‘m not allowed—that this is a spot that can only really exist in dreams or memories, and is not meant to be captured by my pencils and brushes and taken away to the world outside.”

Merry nodded, looking away, touched by the awe in her voice. “You are quite right about that,” he said. “But I think you will find it easy enough to make your little pictures here—it is the whole of it that can’t be described in an image.”

“Because it is not all about what I can see,” she said, nodding wisely as she looked around with shining eyes. “I understand. I’m glad we found it together, Merry. Do you think I could have seen it on my own?”

He rather thought she could have, with such a discerning heart; Estella could not see anything except for what it was. He sighed inwardly, wistful and sorry. Who was he, then—this fellow who had so completely taken possession of Estella’s so discerning heart? Was he as unusual as she was? And did he know that her heart was breaking, little by little, while she waited for him and he did not come?

They stood for a moment longer, breathing in the mysterious peace of the sanctuary, and then Estella said, a little anxiously, “Merry, can we stay here? Is that permitted?”

“Stay?” he said, knowing that she meant only for this little while, for this one task, though his heart yearned to leap to its own conclusion. “Of course we can stay,” he assured her. “It is quite impossible to trespass in these places; if you know them for what they are, why, then, by rights you are welcome.”

He looked around and smiled suddenly. “Aha!” he said, pointing. “I rather think we are meant to work here in any case. Look there!” And Estella turned to see, in a splash of errant golden light beside the dappled stream, a leafy patch of sweet, wild strawberries.

Her smile took his breath away. “Meant to!” she repeated softly, and he wondered why he, and not the man she loved, should be here to see the innocent, endearing delight in her eyes. He looked quickly away into the canopy to give himself a moment; he meant to keep his feelings to himself today, to spare Estella yet another unwanted admirer who must be spurned in the end.

Estella looked about as if searching for something and quickly found it: a sheltered spot, she explained, where she might paint her small pictures and where they might later fetch and spread Diamond’s luncheon. And so they laid a large sheet of cloth from her pack over the grass in a little green nook not too far from the stream and the little patch of strawberries and anchored the corners with their packs, and then Estella, laughing happily, tumbled four golden apples blushed with red out of her pack and onto the cloth. “I didn’t know if you’d brought your own again,” she smiled, as he looked up in surprise, “but I thought I should repay the favour.” She pitched him one, catching him off-guard, then chose another for herself and grinned at him around a big, crackling bite.

Faith, he could not help but love her! No matter how hard he tried to override his feelings, she had but to look at him to bring them forth again! It was easier to fight orcs than his feelings for Estella! Helpless to do anything else, he gave up and surrendered to the moment, to her utterly entrancing company, and to whatever destiny would make of what was left of him on the morrow.

“You are an excellent girl!” he declared, biting into his apple, and she laughed again and smiled at him over her shoulder, and took up her board and her pencils and went to sit next to the strawberries by the stream. He followed after, juggling two apples, a handful of pencils and his journal, and sat opposite, bending his head to his task but fully aware she was within arm’s reach, pleasantly scented with apples and chamomile and—whenever the breeze ruffled her curls—faint, sweet traces of linden-flower.

They worked quietly, the hushed murmur of the stream and the companionable chatter of the birds and the rustle of the leaves in the bright canopy enough to sustain a kind of gentle comfort in the silence between them. Still, more than once his attention wandered and he caught himself gazing at her smooth cheek, at the little dark curls that fluttered around her delicately fashioned ears, at the sweet, faraway smile of concentration that made her profile so very pretty, and then abruptly he would remember—I cannot have her!—and his grief was only tempered by the intensity of his resentment for the thankless wretch who had so ungratefully been gifted with her heart.

He bent resolutely over his work, his teeth clenched in determination, but soon his heart began to ache with the thought that he must lose her after today. He closed his eyes, and quietly loosed a long, trembling breath, struggling to master the desire to look on her again, but in the end he could not overset his longing and he stole a sidelong glance at her—only to find her looking back at him, speculation gleaming in her eyes. From the expression on her face and the tiny crease between her brows (rather like Freddy’s) he knew she had been very much aware of his furtive glances. He felt the colour rise in his face.

“Merry?” she said quietly, and his heart sank. Faith, she must be sick to death of telling lovesick puppies to go away!

“I—” He tried to smile, shrugged helplessly and fell silent. Nothing he could say could possibly explain his behaviour and shelter her from pain at the same time.

The crease between her level brows deepened. “Merry, what is the matter?”

“Nothing,” he said, bending to his work. “It’s nothing.” But even he heard the bitterness in his voice, and he felt Estella blench to hear it; and he heard Freddy say again, You’d best talk to her, Merry, if you’ve a mind to know any more…He let out his breath and it came away in a faint moan, a soft whisper of pain wrenched against his will from out his aching heart; mortified, he turned away, his hand over his eyes.

“Merry!” Estella thrust her work out of the way and came to his side. “What is it?” she asked, laying her hand on his shoulder; he flinched away and was ashamed, but he knew he was too beset to marshal the wreck and intensity of his feelings any longer. He saw her pull her hand back, hurt and dismayed, and with a sinking heart, he knew he would never be able let her go without hearing his dismissal from her own lips: he would have to ask, and she would have to answer. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, Estella.”

There was a long silence and when he looked up she was staring at him, her dark eyes filled with dread and misgiving. “Why?” she said softly.

“Estella,” he said, fumbling over the words. “Please believe I never meant to hurt you!”

Even as the words fell from his lips he felt her go still beside him, a dreadful, anguished stillness that filled the space between them with a hollow chill of emptiness. Twice she tried before she could speak, and when at last she did it seemed the veriest whisper of fear: “What do you mean?”

“I–I talked to Freddy last night,” he began haltingly, and broke off in dismay when he saw her beautiful eyes brighten and then blur with tears.

“But, Merry, you promised!”

“No—no!” He caught her hands. “Not about the Rebellion! I kept my promise, Estella. I swear to you I didn’t say a word!”

“Oh!” she said doubtfully, and considered him then with troubled eyes. “But what is this about, then?”

He bent his head. “I know I hurt you yesterday,” he said, his voice thick with shame. “I–I didn’t mean to, and I didn’t know why you were hurt, but—please believe me!—I felt very badly about it. I went to Freddy to see if he could help me understand what I had done.”

“Oh!” she said again faintly. Her hands seemed to tremble, even though they were yet folded in his.

“He told me somewhat of why you are not wed,” he went on, wincing as she caught her breath in sharp and painful embarrassment. “No, don’t blame Freddy, Estella! It’s my fault: I asked him! He told me what—well, who, I suppose—it is you’re waiting for.” He hesitated but she was silent, staring at him incredulously; his chin came up despite his misery. “I hope you may forgive me for what I said, Estella,” he said stiffly. “I didn’t know the circumstances. I would never have pressed you so if I had.”

“You didn’t—?” She checked herself suddenly, growing very pale. “Merry, what exactly did Freddy say to you?” she asked.

He took a breath: “He said that you have for years loved someone who has not yet come to speak for you. He said that you would have him to husband—this fellow you’re waiting for—or none at all, ever.”

“Save me!” she whispered, whitening. “Has he betrayed me, then?”

He shook his head, confused and a little panicked, feeling his restraint begin to give way beneath the weight of his despair. “I don’t know, Estella!” he said helplessly. “It’s for you to say!”

“No!” She scrambled up, tearing her hands away from his to brush angrily at her eyes as tears began to spill over onto her pale cheeks. “Not for me, not now!”

He did not understand this, but suddenly he felt himself absurd, sitting there at her feet, giving quarter to some callous, nameless fool who could make her cry like this, even in absentia. The hard, bitter knot of pain in his chest broke without warning on a swelling tide of jealousy and anger he could no longer hold back.

“No?” he cried, pushing his books and pencils off his lap and surging to his feet as well. “Who is to say, then, Estella? Him? He doesn’t deserve you! Who is he, anyway—the arrogant ass? For that matter, where is he? Why isn’t he here with you? And why do you want him, when he has not the wit to see what he is missing every day he spends without you—every day he does not throw himself at your feet and beg you to lay your hand in his? Why—?”

“Oh!” Estella gasped, stumbling back, her eyes widening, her hands flying to her mouth. “Oh, Merry! You don’t—!”

“Understand?” he interrupted furiously. “No, I don’t—and what’s more, I don’t approve, either! You are too fine to be led a dance like this, Estella—why do you do it?”

She raised her eyes to his then, and he was shocked to silence, for there was something in her gaze that struck deep into his heart. She looked at him for a long moment, her fingers wondering vaguely now at the tears on her cheeks, and colour and light flooded back into her face so that it shone with hope, and her eyes warmed and softened, and she smiled at him: a small, helpless, tender smile.

“I love him as my life,” she said simply.

He turned his back to her, sick with grief. Well, he had wished to hear her say it, hadn’t he? And he had known it would hurt—though he’d no idea how much. “And him?” he said roughly, despicably. “Does he love you?”

There was a pause and then he felt her hand, small and warm, take his arm. “Merry,” she said, softly.

“Don’t,” he whispered, setting his teeth against his feelings. “Please don’t.”

She drew her hand away. “Merry, we need to talk,” she said, and he heard a sudden strain in her voice, a faint whisper of desperation. He had wounded her; he turned back. “We are talking!”

She shook her head unhappily. “But we are not understanding each other,” she said. “Please, Merry, for old friendship’s sake, will you give me a chance to explain myself? We’re both tired and hungry: I’ll go and get Di’s pack and we can sit and talk quietly over luncheon. Please? I won’t be long.”

Luncheon! He didn’t care if he never ate again! Still, he made himself say with hopeless dignity, “I can go for it, Estella. Don’t trouble yourself.”

“No, please! I need a little time to think what I must say!”

“You don’t have to say anything to me,” he sighed, and he knew he looked as beaten as he felt.

Anxiously, she lifted a hand toward him, as if she would entreat him, but he caught it in mid-air and gently thrust it back, lest she undo him completely; he did not think he had much dignity left in reserve. “Oh, Merry!” she said, “Please wait for me?”

Faith, but she was so pretty, and so sincere, and he could not help but give in to her innocent appeal to reason, though he supposed it was the same one she offered to all her hapless admirers. He managed a pale, crooked surrender of a smile, even as his heart broke within him, and suddenly he wondered incongruously how many tea tables he would smile at her over in the coming years while silently wishing, along with Freddy, that he might pitch her n’er-do-well husband into the river when nobody was looking.

“All right,” he promised softly. “I’ll watch over things here.”

She turned and ran.

When she had gone, he stood beside the stream in the dappled shade, watching the water pass by in what seemed to him now a dull, relentless march of time, a passive flow, endless and empty of joy and bereft of surprises. He wondered if this would be his life from now on; well, he supposed the Hall would keep him busy and Pippin, at least, would understand his foul humours and unsociable ways.

At his feet lay the jumble of their forgotten books and papers and writing instruments. He stooped to gather them together, setting Estella’s collection book atop the pile. Hefting it, he wandered back through the silence of the Elvish grove to the little nook they had made for themselves and with a sigh, dropped the lot down on the grass next the cloth and threw himself down beside it. He could not think, but only lay a shocked prisoner of his senses, feeling without joy the warmth of the sunlight on the back of his head as it filtered down through the leafy pavilion, and scenting the sweet, new grass beneath his cheek, and hearing the murmur of the water as it passed without passion through this greenwood hall that had once sheltered immortals. He shivered; in Rivendell he had read tales of Elves with broken hearts, facing endless ages alone with so many memories….

He sat up, and his eye fell upon the stack of books and papers. It had tumbled over when he let it go and Estella’s book had fallen partly open on the grass; a handful of her pictures had slipped from the enclosures within. He took them up, along with the book and admired wistfully once again the lovely lines and colours; then he set the book on the cloth and began to determine how to put the pictures back where they belonged. There were a number of envelopes and it took him several minutes to ascertain the purpose of each, but soon he had the idea of it, and each time he opened a new envelope he sorted through the contents and caught his breath all over again at the beauty of her work. What a fine book this Herblore would be—though, he supposed now, it would be restricted to the environs of Tuckborough and end in Pippin’s library rather than in Michel Delving, for surely he and Estella could not continue this work in Budgeford or Hobbiton or Buckland now that so much cross-purpose lay between them.

When at last he had tucked everything properly away, he saw that there was yet another spill, a clutch of drawings dislodged from what appeared to be a cleverly concealed panel he had not noticed before on the back cover of the book. Only a few edges were thrust through the breach, but he could feel that there were a number of others beneath the cover, a bundle very likely, for the binding there felt bulky and uneven. He rubbed the paper between his thumb and forefinger; it was thicker and darker than the stuff Estella had been using for the flower paintings, and the bundle was too tightly contained for the few displaced pictures to be slipped back in without damage. They would have to be emptied out of their cache, he decided, before they could be eased back properly. He took out his knife and carefully inserted the thin blade into the opening in the soft leather binding, stretching it a bit so that he could he could extract the bundle without bending the pictures, and when he did so, ten or more drawings tipped out upon the grass, each roughly the size of his palm, and for the better part of a minute, he stared at them and almost forgot to breathe. What in all the Shire…?

They were all of him, every one of them: beautiful, detailed penciled portraits that he realized—as he turned them one by one face-up upon the cloth—marked every few years of his life from the time he had come into his tweens right up to just a few years before—for there in one was the adapted livery of Rohan he had worn at Pippin’s wedding. Dazedly taking stock, he thought Estella must have been barely seventeen the first time she made a memory of his face: he marked the smooth, cocksure defiance of his twenty year-old features in one that appeared to be the oldest of the lot, carefully preserved. He recognized as well the rakish self-indulgence of his coming-of-age, the shadowed well of heartbreak that marked his return from the War, and three carefully wrought portraits of concealed but growing desperation he knew must had been made in the decade since; and even before his head and heart could make sense of what he saw, his hands began to shake.

Carefully, he arranged the pictures in order, shocked and struggling to comprehend the meaning of what he realized now was a secret cache. The only thing he clearly understood was that while he had no memory of Estella beyond their childhoods’ end, she had been very much aware of him through all the years since, and quite close by. The delicate little paintings of leaf and flower she had done these past few days were exquisitely beautiful, but the fiercely honest drawings she had made of him over the years were small masterpieces, wrought of deep and layered insight and—it came to him suddenly, in a heart-stopping moment of clarity—of love! He fumbled in his pocket and withdrew the picture she had made at the party, the night their eyes had met across the room and he felt in his heart that he had come home at last. He laid it down beside the others and almost he could see now the aching caress of the hand that had made it. He doesn’t know, Merry…. His eyes were suddenly hot with tears.

“Save us!” he whispered, breathless and sick with shame. “Save us! What have I done?” And he thought of all the years Estella must have waited so quietly and hopefully for him to notice her while he wandered supremely unaware, seeking a wife from among a score or more of showy girls who couldn’t begun to understand him and could never hold a candle to her, in any case; while he traveled and pursued his studies and immersed himself in all manner of interesting projects he thought now she might have shared, saving she wasn’t asked; while all around her folk courted and married and made beautiful babies and she was left alone to hope in him, and he did not notice her, and went away and almost didn’t come home. Freddy’s bitter condemnation scored his heart: Don’t think I don’t want him to know the pain he’s caused—whether he sees it or not, and whether she blames him or not, which she doesn’t!

“You ought to have thrashed me, Freddy!” he moaned, burying his head in his hands while the enormity of his inattention gutted him in cold, sickening waves and the tears burned his eyelids. “Save us, was there ever such a fool as I?”


So shocked had he been in these last moments, he had not heard Estella’s tentative step on the grass behind him, nor sensed her anxious presence till she spoke. But she had returned, and the tremulous syllables of his name fell from her lips onto his heart like coals of fire. He scrambled up to face her, his heart thudding in his ears.

“Estella!” he said unsteadily.

She had been crying, too. Remnants of fresh tears smudged her pale face, and her dark eyes were drenched in anguish, yet the moment she looked at him he was her sole concern. “Merry!” she cried softly. “What has happened?” She swung the pack off her shoulder and leaned past him to set it on the grass near the cloth they had laid down together, and as she did so, she caught sight of the drawings he had sorted there.

“Oh!” She stood stock-still, the pack sliding forgotten to her feet, her hand on her mouth and her eyes fixed in frozen disbelief on the pictures. A livid flush rose to stain her cheekbones.

“The book fell,” he said helplessly. “They slipped out….”

“Oh, save us!” she whispered, agonized. “Oh, Merry!” She covered her face with her hands and turned away.

“Estella,” he pleaded. “Don’t cry! This is entirely my fault. I am every kind of fool!”

“You didn’t know!” she cried, despairing, and then he couldn’t bear it any longer. He caught her wrists, gently pulled her hands away from her face and recklessly kissed her fingertips as he slipped his hands around them.

“No, please, listen! All this day, when I wasn’t wishing with all my heart that you loved me, I was cursing that fellow I thought you did love. I blamed him for being arrogant and thankless and callous and undeserving of you—I hated him for the pain he had caused you, and for cutting me out! And all the time he was me, and oh! I am so rightly ashamed! I don’t know what’s the matter with me, Estella—if only I had looked up when I ought, all those years ago, and with eyes that could see, we should never have come to a moment like this!”

He turned her hands palm up in his and bent to kiss them. “Please forgive me, Estella! I love you so!”

She blinked and a pale tear rolled down her cheek as she looked up at him, her mouth trembling, the little curls fluttering round her forehead damp and wilting.

“You—you love me?” she said softly, but he saw that she did not smile.

“More than my life,” he vowed fervently, kissing her hands again. “I have been such an ass, and I am so sorry! Please, Estella!”

But she bent her head and wept bitterly, as if she had lost a treasure, and he stopped in confusion and dismay. And when she raised her head he saw that the light was gone from her as it had gone before and he uttered a cry of alarm, but she, taking a steadying breath, said then with steely and formal resolve, “You have no obligation to me, Merry. I will not hold you duty-bound.”

“Duty-bound!” he repeated in disbelief, and then Freddy’s angry explanation of Estella’s long, silent wait cut his confusion to the bare bone: She deems he must have his own free will in the matter and that’s the end of it. She will not be wed of pity….

“Estella!” he exclaimed. “Oh dearest, this is not duty speaking; this is me! I love you—and I have loved you from the moment I set eyes on you in Pippin’s drawing room three days past. I loved you even more when I found you painting fish in the first light of dawn and wearing Freddy’s hat, and I loved you beyond reason when I discovered your disguise in the Rebellion! Sweetheart, I loved you even when Freddy made me think I had no chance of ever winning you—a nearly fatal blow, and may it please him to know it, for I quite deserved it. I love you, Estella—with all the free will in the world! Please, won’t you let me?”

Estella stood very still for a long moment and then she looked up at him, her face radiant with wonder. Her mouth curled into a smile, and the tears in her dark eyes turned to stars. “Oh, my dear,” she breathed, in a voice that broke with helpless longing, and with a little cry she came into his arms at last. And he gathered her in, loosing a gasp of gladness and relief in the fragrant tangle of her curls, and marveling to see how perfectly she fit within the circle of his arms, nestled close against his heart. She stood on tiptoe and raised her arms then to clasp them round his neck and he lifted her a little to hold her closer. And burying her face in his shoulder she clung to him and he to her, until all the worry of the day was spent in their tears and whispered endearments, and all their fearful need was eased in the promise of their embrace, and their hearts beat as one and gently, at peace. At length he set her down and they drew apart, but only for a moment: she raised her face to meet his kiss and they lost themselves again for yet a little while, but when they had done at last and he held her close again against his heart, he sighed, laying his cheek on her lovely hair.

“I don’t deserve you. You know you can do better than me.”

“Not I.” She smiled up at him, warm in the shelter of his arms. “You are the only ambition I ever had,” she said softly.

“But—I’m eccentric and impulsive, and you better than anyone knows how my mind goes wandering; and I keep frogs and beetles in jars, Estella; and my father worries over me, and my mother despairs of me altogether, and sometimes I think even Pippin wonders what I’m about! I shall be a great trial to you, my own. Are you sure you will not find me wanting?”

For answer, she drew his head down, weaving her fingers into his curls, and kissed him yet again, a warm and lingering kiss, and when she let him go he could hardly breathe for happiness.

“I think perhaps I shall find my imagination was wanting,” she murmured with a smile, and he caught her up in his arms again, laughing with delight.

t length they turned to Diamond’s luncheon, at first with the general enthusiasm of hobbits famished after a long shift on short rations, and then with growing enchantment, for the leather pack yielded nothing so much as a lovers’ feast. They unwrapped from a nest of soft linen napkins savory meat pies and pickled mushrooms; sausage and boiled eggs and mustard; soft and hard cheeses and a loaf of bread swirled with cinnamon and raisins; nuts and summer fruits, and scones and raspberry preserves, all of them neatly and prettily portioned for two. There was a bottle of pale yellow wine and a fine goblet in which to share it, a spicy pudding with plum sauce, stewed apples, and cream, and in a tiny wooden box at the bottom of the pack a slice of honeycomb resting on a slip of parchment paper. There was also a soft leather bag holding a fork and a spoon and two finely polished wooden plates. And wrapped round it all they felt, uncanny but undeniable, Pippin and Diamond’s dearest love.

“Here again is Diamond’s birthright,” said Estella wonderingly, as she looked upon both gift and celebration. “She knew! It must be that she has the Sight, else she would never have dared to take such a chance when she might have wrung our hearts so piteously!”

“Aye,” said Merry thoughtfully, reflecting on Pippin at the gate. “But Pippin guessed my despair this morning and I think he was afraid.”

“I marked that,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Would that I had understood it earlier! But you need not ever despair of me, love; nor Pippin, either. I am constant, and ever will be.”

They gave the food to each other then with their own hands, as if it were their betrothal feast, and drank from the cup one after the other in private pledge of their troth, and when they had done, they wrapped the few remaining delights away for later and tucked the pack back into the cold water of the shaded stream. Then hand in hand they walked the length of the airy woodland hall and settled together on a knoll of soft grass at the base of a great tree, sitting close, quiet and content.

“What are you thinking, Merry?” she said, when the soft and drowsy silence next her gave way to a series of gentle sighs.

“I am remembering myself as a boy,” he said, “back in the days when Pippin and Freddy and I would play at family parties, and Freddy would insist that you tag along. He was a good brother, wasn’t he, always looking out for you? Of course, I was too spoiled to look out for anyone, and Pippin’s sisters were all older and as relieved to be rid of him for a day as he was to be rid of them. We were hard about beings boys then and I’m sure we were not very kind to you. Surely you weren’t in love with me then?”

“Indeed I was,” she said, laughing softly. “You were very dashing, to my eyes, and very fierce, and I thought it a thrilling adventure to be banished to the back of the cave at the pirate king’s command, or to be the orc slain by the Bullroarer. You were very inspiring and—if I remember aright—always in command!”

“Save us!” he murmured. “It’s worse than I remembered!” He laughed a little, holding her close and gently nuzzling her pretty ear, but then he said in a troubled voice, “I was always heedless and reckless, Estella. I don’t deserve to have my misconduct so quickly forgiven, particularly the offenses of the last ten years.”

She took up one of his hands and kissed it tenderly. “Dearest,” she said. “You cannot think, when I have watched and loved you all my life, that I do not know what ails you now. Diamond has confided to me somewhat of the dreams and strange fears and sorrows that sometimes come to Pippin in darkness, but even before she did so I guessed your distraction was much the same. You have been seeking peace all this time, and if you did not think to look for it in me, it is no fault of yours, for I see now that I ought to have been bolder.”

“Bolder!” he teased. “The shieldmaiden of the Rebellion?” But then he thought himself, and said wonderingly, “It’s true, though. You have been nowise bold with me, Estella, in comparison to other girls. How is it you didn’t let me know sooner?”

“I confess I was afraid,” she said gravely, as if she were a child again. “I thought you might not care for me, and I should look a fool before the others, and break Freddy’s heart and then my own.”

“Ah, no!” he moaned, pulling her close in an agony of regret, and she twisted in his arms that she might hide her face upon his breast. And so they remained for a long moment, sorry and shy, but after a time he stroked her curls and said earnestly, “We must take care of each other now, Estella, for surely it’s plain we neither one were meant to live without the other.”

“That is so,” she sighed and lifting her face, kissed him gratefully.

But he drifted yet again into the same fretful melancholy as before. “I have missed a great deal of life in the Shire since the War,” he said remorsefully. “And I have no excuse, saving I get too absorbed in what I’m doing: traveling or tramping in the woods or studying my books—save us, Estella, but most times I just forget to look up! I don’t know what to do about it, but I must do something now.”

“Merry,” she said seriously, sitting up and facing him with a solemn face and eyes. “You must not hold yourself to blame for that. You are absorbed because it is your calling; how else could you be a scholar and a writer and an ambassador to the Outlands if you were not absorbed in what you do? There is much to see and to learn of the world now, and it has ever seemed to me that you were meant to do it. I am so very proud of you, my love, and I want you to continue!”

“But how shall I redeem myself before the Shire if I leave my beautiful wife to go wandering and forget to come back?”

She laughed then. “Well, I should hope I may be such an agreeable wife that you will wish to come back, my love!” she teased, but when he blanched and caught her hands imploringly, she took pity on his concern. “Oh, Merry,” she said softly, “You just need someone to remind you when it’s time to come home again, that’s all. I shall go with you, when you mean to wander far, and that will solve the problem sure enough.”

“Would you do that?” he asked incredulously.

“I would indeed,” she promised firmly, and then she caught her breath in surprise. “Oh, look!” she cried, pointing to a sunny spot over his shoulder, and wondering, he turned and saw there a bed of wild pansies leaping up, purple, yellow and white on coltish green stems.

“Do you mark that?” said Estella, well pleased. “There is our last task—in despite of ourselves!”

“Heartsease,” he murmured lazily, turning back and smiling into her eyes as he drew her again into his arms. “Well and good for some, I’ll warrant, but I’ve already found mine.”

he sky above the barrows of the Brandybucks had grown dark as the Master of the Hall sat in his long reverie, and now he came to himself again beneath a raft of argent stars strewn across a great black expanse where before the mists of twilight had shimmered grey. He looked up, and had anyone been there to see, they might have been momentarily confused as to whether it was a boy’s bright face he lifted to the firmament or an ancient’s.

“Ah, sweetheart!” he murmured gratefully, gazing into the starlight. “That was a rare walk in memory, and here is the truth of it: I have not such a pain anymore when I think of you, but only a smile and such a stir of love, as if we were beginning yet again!” And he smiled and, kissing his fingertips, put his hand upon his heart, and then with a crooked smile touched them to the grass that grew thick and soft over the place where he had laid her to rest when it must be that all their time was done. “And never think that I will leave you behind when Pippin and I join this adventure, love, for you know I have carried you next my heart for all these many years, and will, wherever I may go, all the way to the end.”

A pale light came suddenly to his sight: a lantern turned in at the end of the path where he rested, and came now toward him. He peered through the shadows and a small, warm smile settled on his mouth as he marked that it was Berry walking there.

No one had been more surprised than he and Estella when it became clear that a third child was coming to them. They had believed their family complete, with two sturdy sons for whom they were more than grateful, and no sign of any more in the eight years that followed Bo. The Master had felt considerable fault for this, since Estella had been forced to wait so long for him, and when the newcomer proved to be a wonderfully pretty little girl with his own honey-brown curls and fierce blue eyes, he had wept for the unexpected blessings of fortune, and for Estella’s delight, and had found himself a captive to his little maid in every way that was. That Berry was her father’s child in looks and temper was all too plain to see—even yet!—but it was in quiet ways that she had always reminded him of her mother: in the depth of her compassion, and in the grace of the speech and gestures that accompanied it. For five years he had found himself looking away from these, because it hurt so much to see, but now, as Berry came toward him in the dark, he saw the gentle shadow of Estella in her walk, and heard it in her voice, and rejoiced in his heart that he could feel again the tenderness that he should feel, and none of the awful pain that had dimmed his response for far too long.

“Father?” Berry called anxiously. “Are you there?”

He uncovered the flame in the lantern he had brought along, so that she might see him in the dark. “I’m here, daughter,” he said, coming to his feet with a smothered groan, for he found himself rather stiff from sitting out so long. “What are you come for, child? You should not be out so late alone.”

“Oh, Tom is waiting just beyond in the lane,” she said, and he heard her voice ease with relief. “You may rest assured he will not suffer me to take a step in the dark without him!”

She came to him, and the light from the lanterns blazed out and spilled over the two of them. The crooked little smile she gave him was the very image of his own. She reached out to take his rough, worn hand in hers:

“Now,” she said softly, “as for why I’ve come—why, Father, don’t you know? I’ve come to remind you that it’s time to come home.”