38. Awake! Awake!
Merry was restless. They'd been cooped up indoors for nearly a week due to heavy snow and bitter temperatures, and he had not been able to spend the time he was used to riding. He pressed Estella's hand and rose from the table, nodding to Pippin, Diamond, and the other hobbits at their table.
'Did you want to dance, beloved?' Estella asked.
'I just need a breath of fresh air,' he answered, smiling down.
'I could come with you,' she said.
'No, it is a bitter night. I won't be long.'
'He just needs to tuck Jewel in for the night,' Pippin said. 'Poor lad cannot get to sleep without his bedtime story.'
'Give him a kiss for me,' Estella whispered saucily.
'I just might do that,' Merry grinned, 'except that I think he would prefer an apple.'
He picked up his cloak and fastened it at his throat. He was not wearing his mail, but the heavy cloak of Rohan green made a fine barrier against the wind sweeping down from the North.
'I'll be back before you miss me,' he promised, picking up an apple from the bowl on the table.
As he let himself out of the Hall, the frigid air stung his nostrils, but he relished the bright stars studding the night sky and the quiet of the courtyard. The stables would be quiet, too, save the sounds of ponies champing hay, the occasional stamp of a foot, a soft whicker. The workers would all be at the celebration, no need to make conversation with anyone.
The heavy stable doors were closed against the bitter night, but he thought he saw the flicker of a lantern against a window. He frowned. There should be no lanterns lit if no hobbits were in the barn. Someone would get a stiff lecture for his carelessness.
Another dance was starting, and Pippin offered a hand to Estella.
'No, I'm going to wait for Merry. He said he'd be back soon.'
'Soon is a relative term,' Pippin chuckled. 'If he got into a long, involved discussion with Jewel, and if the pony were winning...'
Estella's laugh was interrupted by the call of a silver horn which cut through the music and conversation, stunning everyone to silence.
Awake! Awake! Fear! Fire! Foes! Awake! Fire, Foes! Awake!
'The stables!' Pippin gasped, running for the door, followed by half the hobbits in the great room.
Saradoc turned to his wife. 'Empty the tables, we'll bring any injured from fighting the fire in here. You'd better get sheets and blankets, brandy, water, and all the honey that's to be found in the kitchen.' He started to turn away but she caught at his arm, face pale with fear for him. 'I am not going to do anything to strain my heart,' he said. 'But I must know what is happening.'
She nodded and released him, turning to organize the hobbits remaining in the great room.
Ponies were racing aimlessly around the courtyard in a panic. As Pippin reached the stable doors, he heard a sharp crack above the sound of the flames roaring in the hayloft and crackling at the uprights that held up the loft, and realized that Merry was using a whip to drive panicked ponies out of the corridor. He could see Merry far down the right-hand corridor, opening a stall door, pulling a resisting pony out of the stall, bringing the whip down upon its rump to head it towards the door. Dark shapes moved in the smoke, a ghostly form loomed in front of him and he found himself wondering idly how a dapple grey pony could show so much better through the smoke than the others, even as he stepped forward to grab Sock's halter rope to lead him away from the doorway.
Smoke billowed from the door just then, and he caught a lungful, doubling over, for it seemed in an instant that there was no more air to be found in the world. Someone grabbed at him to pull him back, then other hobbits ran past him into the stables to try to save as many ponies as could be. Seeing Merry had got most of the ponies out from the stalls off the right hand corridor, they ran to the left and began opening stall doors and trying to get the ponies out. Some of the beasts, panicked, fought their rescuers, not wanting to leave what they perceived as the safety of their stalls, others nearly ran down the hobbits in the corridor in their rush for the door.
Cardoc was organizing a bucket brigade to run from the well to the stables, for all the good it would do.
Several hobbits came out leading ponies. Some of the stable lads had the presence of mind to tie their shirts around the animals' eyes to lead them out, another had grabbed a whip from the wall and was following Merry's example. Merry's whip cracked again and a small group of ponies ran out, Jewel among them, one squealing as a burning brand fell across its rump near the doorway.
'Get out!' someone shouted. 'It's coming down!' Pippin pulled loose from the hands that held him, staggering towards the door as hobbits ran out, more than one aflame, to dive and roll into a snowbank in the yard. Other hobbits ran forward to throw blankets over them, to make sure all the flames were extinguished. Pippin caught a nightmare glimpse of Merry moving towards the door, looking up, instinctively throwing his arms up to shield his head, and falling back as a beam, then half the loft fell in sparks and flame. Terrible shrieks arose from the ponies yet within.
Pippin stared at the silver horn that lay just outside the stable door.
Another shriek as terrible sounded behind him. 'Merry!'
Estella Bolger was among the hobbits who had dashed into the yard.
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.