1. Prologue - The Winter Sickness
It seemed to take me forever to wake up, and when I finally managed it, I wished more than anything that I hadn't. I felt -- well, I felt awful.
My throat hurt. My head hurt. My eyes burned. My very bones ached. But most frightening of all, my lungs were on fire.
Each breath seemed to be a bit harder to manage than the one before, and while I must have been breathing in some of the sweet air my body was screaming for, I could not taste it. I felt as if I was spending all the energy in my body just taking a simple breath, only to be punished by a searing pain each time I achieved my goal. I could not feel this bad, could I? So suddenly? I was only feeling a little ill when we had gone to bed. Perhaps the fire had spilled from the grate and set the room aflame? That would make me feel this awful, I was sure. Instead of being frightened by that possibility, I was shocked to find myself almost hopeful. It shamed me that I would think such a thing, but a foe that could be seen and shared seemed easier to face at that moment than an invisible attacker setting my body afire from within. I could hear my cousin snoring gently next to me, though, so I knew that there was no fire, and that I was indeed ill, apparently so ill that even my thinking was getting a bit muddled. I corrected that to more muddled than it already was, as I certainly had been using my head even less than usual these past several days. Reluctantly, I tried to make myself believe that my being sick was, in the long term at least, better than Frodo's beloved Bag End burning to a cinder, and I made myself take another painful breath.
Perhaps if I just lay very, very still it would be better in a bit. How bad could it really be? I did not answer myself, knowing from experience how bad it could be. But surely I was overreacting. Yesterday it had been such a slight cold, brought on by an ill-conceived journey in the rain and frigid weather. I had ridden through worse before and been fine. But the longer I wallowed in my misery, the more I came to understand that this was not just a cold, as we had thought. Much as I longed to, I could not deny it, or wish it away, or do things over so it hadn't happened. I had to face the reality of the situation, like it or not. I was sick. I was very sick, and I felt a sudden stabbing pain that was not physical, but was fear-borne.
That frightening thought brought my aching eyes open, if it did nothing else worthwhile, and I tried to stay calm and take stock. Thanks to the still-wretched weather, there was little enough light coming through the window to go by, but it seemed to be late morning. We had all been up late the night before, after all, so it was not surprising that we were sleeping late.
Next to me in the big feather bed, my cousin slumbered on. I listened carefully, but I could hear no noises from outside the room, so I thought Frodo and Sam also must be sleeping late. I was horribly thirsty, and knew there was water in the bedside pitcher, so I sat up to get myself a mug and promptly found myself doubled over, arms wrapped reflexively about my tortured ribs, as I coughed so violently I could not draw in the slightest bit of air.
My cousin bolted upright in bed and, despite having been fast asleep himself, was at my side in an instant, calamity already assessed and ready to offer whatever aid he could. I saw fear, worry and distress flit across his face, but then they were gone so quickly that I wondered if they had ever been there as compassion, tenderness and a more subtle worry took their place. Familiarity lending ease to his actions, he gently wrapped strong arms around my upper body to add his support. I leaned into him helplessly and let him hold me upright while I fought to gain any air I could, with no control at all over the coughing that shook my whole body.
"It will be all right," he reassured me. He sounded so calm and sure that I felt my panic lessen. "It will stop, sooner or later. Don't try to fight it; just let it run its course."
I knew he was right, and I tried to be brave, but as the fit continued I began to fear that it would not, in fact, end, at least not before I could not bear anymore. And what would happen then? Thankfully, before I let that thought take hold, he was proved correct (a known, if rare, occurrence) and the fit finally passed. He rubbed my back reassuringly, softly crooning nonsense words into my ear just to let me know that he was still there with me. His gentle words and touches brought me comfort as I hunched over, now savoring each breath even through the pain. When I felt a bit better, I looked up at my cousin, churning with regret, misery and fear.
"I'm so sorry," I gasped. "What an imbecile I am, running about in this weather, never stopping to think I might get sick. You'd think I would know to be more careful."
He kissed the top of my head. "We both know why you did it. And it's not like I'm any better," he said. "Ah, I'm sorry, too. You feel truly awful, don't you?"
I just nodded and leaned into the familiar comfort of his chest with a small whimper that made me feel about five years old. He kissed my head again and rubbed my back some more, and then eased me back onto the pillows into a partly upright position. Somehow he had rearranged them while he was soothing me without my even noticing. I was so much more comfortable like this, and it felt a mite easier to breathe. I was thankful that he was here, knowing just what he could do to ease my distress, however slightly. His gentle ministrations made me feel so loved, as well as lessening my physical discomfort, and I felt a bit calmer.
Careful not to jar me as he slipped out of bed, he padded around to the chest of drawers and got me the mug of water I had so wanted before I could even ask for it. My hands shook, so he steadied them for me, and I managed to get the water down, despite the fact that even the cool water hurt my throat.
My cousin placed the back of his hand on my forehead and frowned at me. "You're really hot," he said, and I nodded at him.
"Yes, but I'm cold, too, so cold, and I ache everywhere. And it hurts to breathe," I whispered, finding that easier on my throat.
His brow was furrowed and his lips pursed in concern as he pulled the blankets over me, tucking them in snugly under my chin. I looked at him, a question in my eyes. He knew what was wrong with me, I felt certain he did, but he was not going to share that information with me. Instead, he smiled encouragingly.
"I'll go get Frodo," he announced, heading toward the door. "You need a healer and I don't know what else, but more than just me." He turned to snatch his robe off the bedpost, grinning at me as he put it on. "Trying to use my head, cousin," he said teasingly, and got a weak grin from me as his reward.
I was glad he had thought of it, as I would never have thought to remind him. He hadn't been well the night before, either, and I didn't want both of us in this condition. "Be right back," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared out the door. I heard him cough slightly as he went down the hall, and felt ashamed that I was troubling him so when he wasn't feeling well himself.
If I was sick and miserable, it was no one's fault but my own, dashing all over the Shire without an ounce of common sense. And now my cousins would be the ones to suffer over my stupid mistake with me, one of them already feeling poorly, and poor Sam probably not much better, the way he had been sneezing last night. The image of Cousin Frodo, an avowed bachelor if there ever was one, trying to manage a burrow of sick tween-agers brought an unexpected giggle to my lips, but it all too clearly threatened to become a cough and I managed to stifle itquickly. A choked sob followed on its heels, but I squashed that as well. Both of my cousins, and Sam, too, would take as good of care of me as it was possible to do, and I wanted them here with me if I had to be so ill, but I suddenly wanted my mother so badly that I knew if I let myself think about it I would cry, a very bad thing to do right now. So I tried to think of other things. Like what might be wrong with me. Not the most pleasant topic, but one that must be faced.
My cousin's cheery demeanor as he'd gone to fetch Frodo hadn't fooled me one whit. I knew how terrible I felt. I was not just sick, I was very sick. I wasn't quite sure, but I thought maybe . . . maybe I was bad sick? We hadn't called it by its true name in years, although we were old enough to now. We used the less-serious name we had made up for ourselves, saying it with the same childish cadence we had always used: bad sick. Easier for a child to combat, or so we pretended, than it would be if we called the illness by its true name.
But I knew its true name. I knew what it was and what it could do, and I knew from personal experience that it was the most serious of foes. What if I had the Winter Sickness?
Surely it can't be, I argued to myself, but deep down I knew that it was. Though he hadn't meant for me to, I had seen it on my cousin's face before he left the room, and I think a part of me had known even before that. Oh, what had I done?
Now I could hear Frodo's voice in the corridor, directing my bedmate to get into his bed before he made himself worse, too. I dreaded Frodo coming in, the worry I would see on his face, knowing I was the cause. He must already be very tired after the past day or two, and now this. When would I ever learn to behave like a sensible, responsible hobbit?
My cousin was answering Frodo, and sounding as displeased with his banishment from my sickbed as I would have if the situation had been reversed. I grinned in commiseration, but I agreed with Frodo. As much as I wanted him to come back, I would never forgive myself if he became bad sick too, because of me. Was it catching? I couldn't remember, though I knew that I ought to know. It was becoming very hard to think at all. I did know with all my heart that the last thing I wanted was to make someone else, and someone I loved dearly at that, ill as well.
I knew how he felt, though. We had always been there for each other, right from the very start. The eight-year age difference had never mattered to either of us, and we had always known it never would. He and I had been best friends the very first time we ever met. Even thinking of him, and knowing that he was as near as the next room, made me feel less frightened of being so ill. I wouldn't leave him, and he wouldn't let me. With that thought warming my heart, I closed my eyes, tuning out the sound of Frodo fumbling around in the corridor, and tried to comfort myself with the well-known and oft-told family story, fondly known as "Merry's Tale of The Day He Met Pippin."
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.