At his stir a soft hand stroked his forehead and Diamond's voice said, 'Good morning, my love.' He opened his eyes to focus on her face. He wished she would tell him how to sort the dream from the reality, but it took too much effort to breathe, much less speak.
'Do you think you could manage some tea?' another voice said, and he turned his eyes to see Lily Brandybuck on his other side. She poured some steaming water from the little teakettle at the bedroom hearth, stirred in honey, added some liquid from a flask, and held the cup to his lips. He recognized the taste, one of Ossilan's bitter concoctions.
Diamond laughed at the face he made. 'Drink, my love,' she urged. 'It's supposed to ease your breathing.'
He'd drink to that.
Diamond's hand continued to stroke his forehead. Seeing the questions in his eyes, she said reassuringly, 'Socks is safe. Old Nob says his lungs are better than yours, and he ought to get over the smoke he breathed without any lasting trouble...'
He closed his eyes in relief. The handfasting had been real. The watchers mistook his concern; he heard Lily chuckle, 'He sets more store by that pony of his...'
'Aye,' Diamond returned, 'Socks is the little brother he never had...'
He opened his eyes again, willing them to tell him more. Diamond read the look. 'Merry was badly burned, mostly on his arms, and he took in some smoke, but the healer said he has a good chance.'
Lily dipped a cloth in cool water, wrung it out, and gently wiped his face. It felt good, and he closed his eyes at the soothing touch. He heard Diamond speak again, but her words were far away and he could make no sense of them. He slid into sleep again.
Saradoc stood in the yard with his steward, surveying the steaming heap that had been a fine stables filled with some of the best pony-flesh in the Shire.
'We can recover most of the rock, use it to rebuild,' Cardoc was saying.
'Do we know yet how many ponies were lost?'
'No, the rubble is still too hot to be digging through.'
'Hard to imagine,' and he shivered as the icy wind cut through his heavy cloak. 'Any idea how it started?'
'No, and we may never know. A careless guest with a pipe? A lantern left to burn? All the stable workers were at the feast. If your son hadn't gone out to say good night to his pony we'd have lost all. Good thing he kept his horn tied to the saddle pad. That quick alarm saved at least half the ponies.'
'That brand that fell across his rump will leave a scar. Old Nob doesn't know yet if his wind's been spoilt by the smoke he breathed. Only time will tell.'
'Now all we have to do is to figure out where to keep the survivors, and what to feed them.'
'The healthiest ones have already been driven to Stock, Standelf, and Newbury. We've sent a few to Crickhollow, with some stable lads staying there to care for them. We've kept a couple here for running messages. The others are salted away wherever we can manage. There's even a couple in the chicken house.'
'Wonder what the chickens think of that...' Saradoc murmured. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic. He clapped the other on the shoulder. 'Well, carry on. I'm going to go see how my brother and his son are doing. If you want me later, I'll be with Meriadoc.'
Merimac was the worst off of the four rescuers. The other three, his son and cousins, had youth to their benefit, though all four were gravely ill. Saradoc took his brother's hand, and Merimac opened his eyes.
Saradoc squeezed the hand, and felt a feeble answering squeeze. 'Thank you.' he said. Merimac nodded, and closed his eyes again.
Saradoc looked up to the healer. 'He's holding his own,' Ossilan said.
The Master nodded and put down the hand again, to rise from the bedside. 'I'll be with Meriadoc, or in the study, if you need to find me.'
Unrelenting pain awoke Merry. He felt as if his arms were still afire. He tried to throw them up to ward off the burning boards, but someone caught at his hands and a gentle voice spoke soothingly.
'It's all right, beloved. Don't try to move.' He opened his eyes to see Estella smiling at him.
He was propped up in bed; breathing was difficult. So this is what Pippin had gone through... too many times.
Estella smiled. 'They've tied him to his bed; he says he's going to adopt it, they're getting to be such friends, and carry it about with him wherever he goes.'
'Heavy load for Socks.'
'That pony? According to Pippin he can do nearly anything!'
Laughing hurt too much, and Estella's face sobered again. Primrose Brandybuck entered the room with a tray. 'Ah, so he's awake, then!' she smiled. 'Just in time for some lovely broth.'
He wasn't sure he'd be able to get it down his smoke-roughened throat, but the broth was surprisingly soothing.
'Are you in much pain, love?' Estella asked him when they'd coaxed half the bowlful into him.
He closed his eyes. Pain was not enough of a word to describe it.
'Ossilan left this for you. It'll help you to sleep. We're going to have to change the dressings; it would be better if you weren't with us then...'
She held a glass of brandy to his lips and he sipped. Not soon enough, to his thinking, but soon, the powder dissolved in the brandy did its work and he felt the pain fade as the world dimmed and slipped away.
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.