6. Gift of a Jewel
'Time to wake up, Mr Merry! Breakfast is ready!'
'Samwise?' he murmured, trying to pry one eye open. 'Sam? I thought... What are you...? He managed to focus, only to see Pippin's wide grin.
'I think he's delirious again, Frodo!' Pippin called in his own voice. 'Seems to think I am Sam!'
Frodo entered with a steaming cup. 'Here,' he said cheerily. 'Some of Sam's herbs. Very helpful in situations like this.' Merry wrinkled his nose at the smell but gulped the hot brew bravely, managing to scald his tongue in the process. It was a small price to pay to make the room stop spinning. Soon he felt his stomach settle itself; the light became bearable to his eyes and sound no longer hurt his head.
'What...?' he asked. Despite his improvement he still seemed to be having trouble putting sentences together.
'It's time to wake up, sleepyhead!' repeated Pippin, not using Sam's voice this time. 'We've too much to do to be sleeping the day away.'
'I have a bucket of cold water ready if you need it,' Frodo added. 'Breakfast is ready and we do not want it to go cold waiting for you!' At Merry's continued confusion his voice softened. 'It seems you lived up to your name yesterday,' he said with a chuckle. 'Those herbs ought to be helping soon.'
In truth they were. The fog was clearing away. Merry shook his head to rid himself of the last bit, and was relieved when it didn't hurt.
'What does Sam put in that tea, anyhow?' he demanded.
His cousins laughed and Frodo answered, 'He told me I wouldn't want to know so I never pressed the matter... now how about that bucket?'
'I'm up! I'm up!' Merry cried defensively. 'Spare me the cold water!'
'All right, Pippin, let's go see how little breakfast we can leave him.' Laughing, the two cousins exited.
Merry dressed at record speed. Despite their threats, Frodo and Pippin had left plenty of breakfast for him. The cousins feasted on eggs, ham, cheese, crusty bread from which the steam still rose, freshly churned butter, jam, sausages, fruit preserves, and all the other essentials that make up a proper hobbit breakfast.
Replete with good food, Merry sat back in his chair with a sigh, but Frodo prodded him. 'Nobody here but us to do the washing up, you know!' Merry started to groan his way to his feet, but found himself bouncing out of his chair. What was in that tea of Sam's, anyway? The three cousins made short work of the stacks of pots and plates, singing songs in rounds to make the task go faster.
When all was tidy ('There's a nice wedding present for Mistress Rose,' said irrepressible Pippin), Frodo proposed a walk to settle their meal. The three cousins took walking sticks from the stand by the door and stepped out into the spring morning.
The lilies of the valley crowding the grassy bank gave a sweet scent to the air. 'Which way shall we go?' Merry asked, and Frodo answered, 'Let us see where our feet will lead us.'
Pippin laughed, 'Another adventure!'
Merry smiled at his enthusiasm, and Frodo caught his eye. 'Everything is an adventure with you around, Pip,' he teased.
Refusing to be quenched, Pippin strode along with twinkle in his eye and a bounce in his step.
When they reached the bottom of the Hill he hesitated a moment, then said, 'It is such a lovely day, let us go on a bit!' The older cousins indulged him. They continued to stroll, enjoying the day.
'We could go farther on ponies,' Pippin said suddenly.
'Yes, Long Cleeve is not that far by pony-back,' Frodo agreed cheerfully. 'How goes the search for a new mount, Merry?'
Merry sighed. Pippin broke in, 'It doesn't, not at all! This one's too short, that one's too thin, and he doesn't like the look in the other one's eye...'
'Ah, well, plenty of ponies out there in the world. I'm sure yours is waiting somewhere,' Frodo said easily. Merry caught his knowing look and forced himself to shake off the encroaching melancholy. His older cousin gave an approving nod.
Pippin, of course, did not notice the silent exchange. 'As long as it doesn't die of old age waiting for him to claim it!' he laughed. They walked on in the sunshine.
Merry suddenly realized they were nearly to the Cotton farm. He stopped.
'What's the matter?' Frodo asked.
'Oughtn't we turn back? I shouldn't like to disturb the Cottons after that celebration.'
Frodo laughed. 'I am sure Samwise has shared his special tea with his in-laws,' he chuckled. 'Look! There is Farmer Cotton now!' and looking out to the field where Frodo pointed, Merry could see a three pony plow being guided by the Farmer himself. The latter raised a hand and called a greeting to the three cousins, then bent again to his plowing.
'I hear Mistress Cotton sets out a fine second breakfast...' Pippin chuckled.
Merry protested but Frodo placed a reassuring hand on his arm. 'It's all right, Mer, we're invited.'
'Oh... well then, if that's the case I shall make an effort to enjoy myself,' Merry conceded, then grinned. 'When did all this happen?'
'Nibs stopped by early,' Pippin smugly informed him, 'while you sleepyheads were still in bed.'
They made a good breakfast with much cheer and laughter on recalling the events of the day before. Halfway through the meal, Nibs excused himself and not long after Farmer Cotton joined them at table.
After breakfast they enjoyed a pipe by the front door, and Merry saw Nibs now guiding the plow ponies out in the field.
'Oh, aye,' interjected Farmer Cotton into the desultory conversation. 'I near forgot but what there is a present here for you, Mr Meriadoc.'
'A present?' Merry asked. 'Whose birthday is it?'
'With all the hobbits in the Shire, it must be someone's birthday today,' Frodo answered with a smile. 'Let's go and see,' he added to Farmer Cotton. Knocking out his pipe, the farmer led the way towards the barn. Merry suddenly noticed Pippin was not with them, but before he could ask they had rounded the barn and stopped.
Pippin stood holding a shining chestnut pony with a wobbly stripe down the face ending in a splash of white on the nose. The pony tossed his fine head and the breeze caught his flowing mane. The Cottons had washed and curried and brushed him to within an inch of his life, and as the Sun peeked her face from behind a small cloud, his coat burst into living flame.
'Oh...' the sound escaped Merry without his awareness. He felt Frodo's hand tighten on his arm.
'Nick found him over at t'pony market in Bywater,' Farmer Cotton said easily.
'Nick, wherever did you find that sorry bag o' bones?' Tom Cotton asked in exasperation. 'I thought you went to Bywater t'get a pony!'
The lad's eyes were steady. 'There was something about his eyes, Dad.' He defended the miserable wreck that stood beside him. 'He's got heart.'
'I'm surprised it's still beating,' his father said. 'Look at 'im. Ribs you could do your washing on, moth eaten winter coat only half shed, feet needing trimmed, knots in tail. He's so dirty you can't even see what color he might be. Whate'er you paid, it was twicet his worth.'
'But look at his eye, and the shape of his head,' his son argued. 'There's some breeding there.'
'Where'd he come from?' Farmer Cotton asked abruptly.
'The seller said he was one of those saved from the mines.'
'Ah,' the farmer answered, softening involuntarily. Another victim of the ruffians. They'd had more than one kind of Lockhole. Against his better judgment he reached out to stroke the dirt-encrusted face. There was something about the soft dark eye that turned to his, and about the head that could still lift proudly on its thin neck. 'Well, go get him cleaned up, give him a bath and brush out all the winter coat you can, give him a good warm mash and bed him down thick. He'd not got enough meat on his bones even for this mild spring we're having.'
Nick grinned. 'Yes, Sir!' he shouted. Farmer Cotton hid a smile as he turned away. His sons had inherited his soft spot for downtrodden beasts.
He was mending harness in the barn when young Tom came in search. 'Dad,' he said urgently. 'You've got to come see this!'
'What is it?' he asked unperturbably.
'That pony Nick bought at market. You've got to see 'im.'
The farmer sighed. There must have been more wrong with the beast than met the eye, and now he would have to be put down and they'd be out the money. Ah, well, the lad would learn a lesson.
Young Tom actually grabbed his sleeve and pulled him towards the door. 'Come on, Dad,' he said impatiently. Farmer Cotton felt the beginning stirrings of alarm. What if the pony'd brought something catching to the farm?
He allowed Tom to lead him rapidly out to the yard, and stopped still. Nick, Jolly and Nibs were all gathered around the pony, which looked bonier than ever now that it was washed and brushed. Its color was evident, now, a dull chestnut that when dry and healthy would shine like new copper, or flame.
Farmer Cotton stepped up and slowly traced the crooked white strip down the face, all the way to the splash of white that covered the nose. 'As like as...' he breathed.
'I was right!' Jolly shouted. 'I said it was Captain Meriadoc's pony! But how did he get into such a state?'
Farmer Cotton shook his head. 'Nay, lad,' he said heavily. 'Mr Merry's pony is dead and buried. Broke his leg down Long Cleeve way. And Mr Merry looks to be following him. Word come to Mayor Frodo that he's dying.'
At his sons' shocked exclamations, he slowly nodded. 'Aye. Marigold told Rose. Mr Frodo rode off in a hurry with Samwise this morning.'
'But if this isn't Captain Meriadoc's pony...' Nick began.
Jolly broke in. 'Is there such a thing as twins? In ponies, I mean?'
Farmer Cotton nodded thoughtfully. 'Aye. But it is very rare. And usually they do not survive, or the dam doesn't. But this pony is as like Bright Nose as any twin could be.' He sighed. 'Well, boys, feed him up, bed him down soft. We will take good care of him for that lad's sake.'
'Yes, Dad,' his sons answered.
Farmer Cotton added silently to himself, 'And mayhap... if the lad does not die... well, he'd be needing a pony. With all he's done for the Shire...' They could never pay him back for driving out the ruffians, but this would be a start.
'He's as like as can be...' Merry's voice trailed off. And he was! The pony could have been a twin to his Bright Nose.
Frodo gave him a little push. 'Go on!' As if in a dream Merry stepped forward, reaching out to stroke the velvet nose. He received a nudge, then Farmer Cotton put a carrot into his hand. Automatically he extended his palm to the pony which gently lipped the treat from his hand.
'What are you going to name him?'
'He's as bright as t'other one was.'
'Yes, he is bright...' Merry said absently. He smiled. 'His name is Jewel.' He turned to meet his older cousin's gaze. For the first time in a long time, Frodo's smile went all the way to his eyes.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.