9. Bad Sick II
"I know, sweetheart," I answered, trailing the ever-present cool cloth across his features. "I'm sorry." His eyes mutely begged me for relief and comfort before wearily closing again.
I blindly obeyed relatives and healers and servants, staying by Pippin's bedside when they allowed, moving when Uncle Paladin or Aunt Eglantine wanted to claim the spot. My father would grasp me firmly by the elbow and steer me to the kitchen or a bedroom, and I would eat what Hazel put in front of me, or lay down briefly to nap. I was always up within a few hours, checking to see if I could resume my post. When I could not stay right by Pip's head, I slunk to the back of the room and leaned against the mantelpiece, trying both to stay out of the way and be readily available. When Hortensia ordered me out of the room, I paced the floorboards in front of Pippin's doorway until I was readmitted.
Hortensia was intent on producing every concoction known to the healers, or so it seemed. She forced them down Pippin's throat, and rubbed them onto his chest. She brewed them in basins and then had us hold him upright to stoop him over them and breathe in the steam. She steeped cloths in them and spread them on his chest, or wrapped them round his neck. She poured them into the cool baths we eased Pippin into to lower the fever, and once she even tossed a handful of something into the hearth.
She also called in a master healer, who made an herbal steam with a vile-looking oily black substance and then flipped Pippin face-down over his arm and pounded on his back until he coughed up startling amounts of phlegm, a process that left him too weak to speak or move and with tears trailing down his scarlet cheeks.
Through this all, Pippin seemed near oblivious to the ministrations of the healers and the nurses. His whole attention was turned inward toward the battle, or so it seemed to me, and he would only fleetingly give note to those around him. Whenever his bleary eyes did open, they would turn toward the figure in the chair, and he would breathe a name -- Father, Mamma, Merry -- and sometimes try to reach out his hand to us. Then, apparently reassured by our presence, he would drift back to that grey world between sleep and awareness where his struggle took place.
When I had my turn at the watch, at first I whispered all of his favorite stories to him, from the fairy tales of our early childhood to Bilbo's adventures to the lengthy, ancient rhymes of adventure that were his current interest. When I ran out of those, I began to relate our own stories. "Pippin, do you remember when Frodo and I taught you to swim for the first time?" "Pippin, do you remember our trip to the North Farthing, when we saw the wolf?" "Pippin, do you remember when we ate Great-Aunt Tansy's birthday cake before the party and then tried to make her a new one so we wouldn't get into trouble?"
"Pippin, did you know I had an omen when you were born?"
"Pippin, do you remember when you made me a promise, the day you had that dreadful row with Rumby and then held the new kitten? Do you remember what you promised me? Do you?"
He never answered outright, but if I stopped talking, he grew uneasy and restless, sometimes mumbling fretful incoherencies, so I kept up the steady murmur, hoping that it brought him comfort, and reminded him of those waiting for him to return.
Finally came the darkest day. Pippin's face took on an ashen hue, and around his lips I could see the faintest tint of blue. He lay completely still and limp, not once opening his eyes or so much as twitching a finger, not even when Hortensia or a nurse would move him about to minister to him. The deep rattling of his breathing had passed, and in its place was a wretched sucking, scraping noise, like dragging heavy wooden furniture across a bare floor. I refused to acknowledge the cold fear growing in my heart, and kept up my whispered thoughts and memories and endearments to let my Pip know that I was still at his side, waiting for him to come back to me.
Sometime after noon, Hortensia touched my shoulder. "Let his mother sit with him," she murmured, and I retreated to my little spot near the hearth. Aunt Eglantine stroked her son's hair and sang soft lullabies to him, her weary face somehow peaceful. But Hortensia lead Uncle Paladin from the room and I could hear their voices, too sharp for the solemnity of the situation, a word or two sometimes discernible, and more than I wanted to hear -- "nothing more," "must be," "give up hope," "accept."
I knew what they were saying, but I blocked it from my conscious mind. Pip would wake up soon, and be all better, because he must. I could not bear it to be otherwise. I listed to myself all of the ways I would keep Pippin amused and quiet while he recovered. I planned spring and summer excursions that would help him regain strength while not tiring him overmuch. I skipped ahead to his tween-aged years, and planned bigger trips for us, with Frodo too, perhaps all the way to Rivendell. In my mind, we found Bilbo, happy and full of tales of new and grand adventures. I stood Pippin his first half-pint, and teased him about his first endeavor with a lass. We celebrated my coming of age in great style, and, later, Pippin's in even greater style. We were the most dashing young hobbits in the Shire, sons of the Master and the Thain, and our elders looked upon us with pride and affection, while the lasses giggled as we walked by. We stood as witnesses for one another's weddings, and one day I held in my arms a disgruntled-looking lad-baby with a sharp little nose and rosebud mouth, and Pippin swelled up so in his pride that I thought his waistcoat buttons would pop off. We lounged back on a hill, pipes in our mouths, looking over Buckland to the River, and watched small hobbit bairns chase each other through the fields, squealing and shouting with the joy that is youth and good health.
While my mind wandered through things yet to come, the daylight faded. Uncle Paddin had returned to Pippin's room, and knelt on the floor with his head in Aunt Lala's lap. Hortensia, moving as silently and unobtrusively as a shadow, would periodically move to the bed and feel Pippin's pulse, or study his face, and then slip back to her own watch at the reading desk. It did not escape me that no one was forcing remedies upon Pippin anymore.
Nightfall came, and lamps were lit. My father came in briefly, and leaned down to ask if I would come have something to eat, but I shook my head silently, the first movement I had made in hours. Da put his hand atop my head, and then left without further attempts.
After many long hours at her post, with Pippin little changed for the passing of time, Aunt Lala seemed to crumple in upon herself, like a cake that has fallen in the oven, and Hortensia moved swiftly to call for her maid. Rose and Uncle Paddin stood on each side of my aunt and guided her out of the room, giving me the opportunity to claim the bedside post.
"Pippin," I whispered, and laid my head upon the linens and kissed his fingertips, as I had the night I first arrived. "Pip, sweetheart."
He did not respond, and the harsh sound of him pulling in air did not change. I lifted my head so I could look down at his face. "Please, please, sweetheart," I whispered, willing him to hear me. "I know you've tried so, so hard, and you're so tired, but please don't go . . ." I trailed off and fought back hot tears for a moment.
"There once was a small hobbit named Ferdinich Brownlock, but everyone just called him Nick," I began the tale Pippin had asked for over and over when he was very small. My voice was surprisingly calm, and I carefully told the story exactly right, hearing Pip's familiar giggles in my mind at all of the correct places, and I knew I was telling the story as much to comfort myself as Pippin. There was no sign of recognition or response, but I continued on through the grogoch Nick kept hidden in his room to the soiled linens and the uprooted lavender to the lost lamb that fell over the cliff.
"'Oh, Nick,' his mother said as she tucked him into bed, 'I just don't know what we are going to do with you.' But then she kissed him hard on the forehead and ruffled his hair and he knew that she loved him," I finished, then stood and leaned over my cousin to kiss his brow and ruffle his hair, as I always had when finishing the tale, so that Pippin would know I loved him. I hung over him for long minutes, eyes closed, feeling his presence with some unidentified sense, until I felt an arm about my shoulders that I knew was my father's.
"Come along, son, let Paladin sit with him for a bit," Da whispered, and I wondered how long the two of them had been standing there, listening. I let Da guide me away from the bed and crept back to my waiting spot. Uncle Paddin sank into the bedside chair, seeming old and tired. He picked up Pippin's hand, then sat still with lowered head.
It could have been hours or minutes when the change finally came, terrifying and swift. Abruptly, the sucking sound of Pippin breathing changed, and now it sounded like a creaking door thudding against the wall over and over -- desperate and unfulfilled. My heart lurched, but before I fully comprehended what was happening, Pip's whole tiny body shuddered and then stiffened, his fingers splaying out and his back arching. His grey face turned red, and as it did, I could see his lips no longer showed a faint tint of blue about their edges, but were blue.
Hortensia was out of her seat immediately, calling for her assistant and barking at Uncle Paddin, "Sit him up! Sit him up! Get him over your arm!" My uncle had stiffened at the change in Pippin's breathing, but it took the healer's shout to snap him into moving with lightning reflexes to dangle Pippin's limp form face-down across his forearm.
The previously quiet room was suddenly overflowing with hobbits as Hortensia's assistant rushed in, followed by Briony and a nurse, while at the entrance Mat hovered. I was desperate to do something, anything, but I knew the best thing I could do was stay out of the way. There was a great flurry of activity, but my eyes were fixed on the form in Uncle Paddin's arms, and my ears strained for the now-absent sound of Pippin's laborious breathing as my heart thudded painfully in my chest. Hortensia began to pound on Pippin's back so hard I could see his feet jerking, as she issued orders in a voice no one would dare question. I could not make out her words, for the room suddenly seemed far away and the noises small and distant. I panicked for a moment as it seemed as though I, myself, could not draw in breath, and I tugged at my collar. A cold sweat broke out on my face, and my stomach lurched. I could not bear it, to see my own beloved lad handled so, to witness what was coming.
Before I knew what I was about, I was out of the room and stumbling through the corridors. A roaring like the River in spring sounded in my ears, and when Pearl, weeping in the hallway, called my name, I barely discerned it and gave her no notice. I groped unseeing until I reached a sofa, and then collapsed upon it face-first, and curled in upon myself.
I did not weep, but lay until the strange blackness that had been upon me passed. I opened my eyes and realized I was in the old playroom, now really a study given over for the use of the Thain's children. My sight wandered over the familiar items, noting the state of the room -- Pervinca's cloak was tossed over a chair that was burdened down with books, a map of the Tookland was rolled open on the low table and held down with Pippin's old wooden toy animals, an empty tea cup and dessert plate perched on the hearth. I moved to sit up, and as I let go of the pillow I had somehow clutched to my chest, my fingers brushed something wedged in between the cushions, and I pulled it out. It was Pippin's favorite scarf.
I touched it reverently, and pressed it to my face. It smelled of gingerbread and dried leaves and apples. One end of it was dirty with old mud. There was a hole from where Pippin had caught it on a hook in the cloakroom in his haste to go outside and play. There were some faded red stains from when he had once used it to wipe his face off after I scolded him for walking around with jam on his face.
I sank weakly back into the sofa, and then I started to cry. I found a wellspring within me the size of the Brandywine, and I wept and wept and wept, falling forward again onto the sofa. I wept for the future I had glimpsed just that very day. I wept for my Pippin. I wept for Uncle Paddin and Aunt Lala. I wept for Pearl and Pimmie and Vinca. I wept for Briony. I wept for Frodo. I wept for the imagined children of my future who would not have a Cousin Pippin to get them out of scrapes with a wink and a nod and a promise to never tell their da. And finally I wept for myself, deep, harsh sobs that tore at my throat and my heart.
When I began to climb out of that deep hole, I became aware of my father's hand rubbing my back, and his deep voice uttering soothing, meaningless phrases. "There, there, son, 'tis a bitter thing, I know," he said quietly, and reached up to stroke my curls. It eased my sobs to gulping breaths, and then finally I lay quiet. After long minutes, I found my voice, but it sounded foreign to my ears -- quavering and high and raw.
"Is he dead, then?" I asked.
Da sighed. "He was not just before I came looking for you. Pearl saw you come this way. But Paladin says that Hortensia does not expect him to see morning."
I nodded, once, jerkily, and slowly sat up. My body ached down to my very bones, and now I felt empty and laid open. I rubbed at my scalding, scratchy eyes and then forced them open to look at Da. His face was somber and concerned, but not despairing. He tipped his head down to get a good look at me, then settled back in the sofa beside me, putting an arm around my shoulder. I sniffled and snuffled as I leaned back against him. Da began fumbling in pockets for a handkerchief, but came up empty-handed. "Ah, I gave it to Briony earlier," he said ruefully, and then raised one eyebrow inquiringly at me. I shook my head.
"Vinca," I whispered.
"Ah, well," Da answered, "here, then," and he wiped my face off with his shirtsleeve. "Don't tell your mum," he muttered, and I nearly laughed, but it caught in my throat and became a garbled cry.
"Oh, Merry," Da said tenderly, and pulled me to him. I went willingly. I wanted to be small enough again for him to pick me up in his arms as he would do when I would suffer the childhood hurts of broken toys and scraped knees, and pat me gently on the back as he said in a half-laughing voice, "Oh, my Merry, there now, it will be better soon."
But I was much too big for my father to pick me up, and this would never be better soon.
Da settled us back on the sofa again and I leaned heavily against his shoulder, more weary than I had ever been in my life. Despite my exhaustion, I did not feel sleep ready to take me. My eyes were dry now and wide open, and I was as acutely aware of my body and surroundings and the beloved scarf clutched in my hands now as I had been oblivious to everything when fleeing Pippin's room. I was too weary to even be ashamed of my cowardly flight.
I breathed in Da's familiar scent of pipeweed and hay and let it slow my thudding heart and warm my chilled limbs. We sat silently awake for nearly half of an hour before Da spoke, his voice rumbling in his chest beneath my ear.
"No one warns you beforehand, do they, Merry lad, of what love really feels like?" he said quietly.
I pulled in a shaky breath, for I had just had this very thought. "No, sir," I answered, and though my voice was tremulous, it was my own again.
Da kissed the top of my head and said no more. I knew he spoke from harsh experience. Before I was born, there had been two other Brandybuck children, two little lasses, who had died when scarlet fever broke out one year in the Hall, taking 14 hobbits before it was done, eight of them children. Lilias hadn't seen her third summer, and Linnet had not seen her first. I had known this all my life, but it was a vague, hazy knowledge, the way I knew of ancestors who had died long ago. It wasn't until I was a teen-ager that I had fully comprehended that these two lasses would have been my big sisters, and that my parents had lost two children.
Now I wondered how they had borne it. How could someone feel pain this sharp, this slicing and bone-deep, and go on laughing and loving and building and planning?
A niggling notion about why I had never seen Mum cry teased at the edges of my thoughts, but sleep was finally laying claim to me, and I fell into blessed oblivion before I could piece it together.
When I woke sunlight was sneaking in around the pulled drapes. I was stretched out on the sofa with a blanket over me, so I guessed Da must have put me down and covered me up. The room was empty and the door still slightly ajar, but only the faintest muffled sounds came to my ears. I shivered in the early morning cold, and pulled the blanket around my shoulders as I shuffled out. The beloved scarf was still clutched in my hand, and I stowed it in my jacket pocket where it would be safe, and where I could finger it at will.
Once in the hallway, I could see Uncle Paddin and Aunt Lala in my aunt's parlor. Hortensia was with them, placing a glass of what looked like brandy between Aunt Lala's lips. Uncle Paddin leaned over her chair, speaking in a low voice. Pearl was asleep on the sofa, arranged with a blanket over her just as I had been moments before. I idly wondered if Da had seen to her, too.
After staring numbly at the scene in the parlor for several moments, I continued down the hallway. Briony was on the bench outside Pippin's room, face buried in her apron, sobbing nearly inaudibly. The door to Pippin's room was slightly ajar. Bright sunlight gleamed through it and illuminated a patch on the hall floor. The storm outside had stopped as the storm inside had died away as well. I felt numb and empty and full of grief, yet knew I must go forward and enter and face this dreadful new day, and my forever-changed life, however much I dreaded it. But not just yet. The future could wait just a moment or two longer, 'til I could find enough strength to make my way to Pippin's side and say goodbye.
I stood very still for long moments, but no tears came. I had shed every one that was inside of me last night. Suddenly, my mind made the connections it was too weary to last night, and I knew that my mother never cried because losing those two bairns took every tear given to her, for all time. And then I knew just as clearly that the night before was the last time I would ever cry, for how could I know a greater grief than this?
Rather than striking me down, this thought prompted my feet to begin moving and before I knew it, I stood in the doorway to Pippin's room.
The rising sun was pouring in through the open drapes, bathing the room in rich, luminous colors. A figure stooped over Pippin's bed, but I blinked stupidly in the too-bright room, unable to see whom it was. The snuffling, heavy sound of Briony's tearful breathing came to my ears. The little figure in the bed was covered with quilts and was still, save the rhythmic up-and-down movement of the covers . . . movement of the covers?
I blinked owlishly and swayed a little on my feet. I rubbed my eyes with a fist, but the quilts continued to move up and down. I took a few hesitant steps into the room, and realized suddenly that it was not Briony's heavy breathing I heard, but Pippin's.
Pippin was breathing.
And then I wasn't. In fact, I think my heart stopped beating. Then Frodo, for it was he, looked up from over Pippin's bed and said quietly, "There you are. I was going to wake you in a bit, but your father said you were horribly tired, so I wanted to let you sleep awhile longer." He moved his fingertips gently across Pippin's brow. "Resting gentle now," he said tenderly, looking back down at the lad in the bed.
I must have made some sound that alerted him, for Frodo somehow caught me before I could fall, easing me into an armchair by the hearth. "All right, easy now, Merry lad," he murmured. "I've got you, just breathe deep." He half-embraced me, chin on my head to keep it down, one hand rubbing circles on my back while the other rested on my knee. "Steady now," he said quietly, and I dragged in great gulps of air.
I finally lifted my head, now more fearful than I had been in the hallway when I was certain Pippin was gone. "He's not dead?" I asked Frodo stupidly, but Frodo was kissing my hair and pulling me to him even as he said, "He's much better, Merry, much better. I thought someone in the hallway must have told you. He's been sleeping more comfortably for about two hours now, and really sleeping, not like before."
I swallowed hard and dug my fingers into Frodo so deep I must have left bruises. "I saw . . . I thought . . . Hortensia was giving Aunt Lala brandy in the parlor," I said stupidly. It was as though I was afraid to let myself believe what Frodo, and my sight of the lad in the bed, were telling me.
Frodo rocked me a little and let out a small chuckle. "It's been a hard night, my lad. I think you could use a dollop of brandy yourself. But he's much easier. The fever broke before dawn, but even then, they thought for a while . . . Well, he didn't improve for several hours. But now he sleeps, and his breathing is less labored."
"He's getting better." I knew I was making blindingly obvious statements, but I could not help myself, nor could I help looking up into Frodo's face for confirmation.
He nodded and smiled gently. "He's getting better," he said in a firm voice.
I was weak-kneed and bewildered and overjoyed and thunderstruck, so I did the only thing possible -- I burst into tears, but they were tears of relief and joy, and then I was even more overwhelmed by the fact that I was able to cry again, after all, so I just buried my face in Frodo's shirtfront until it was sopping wet. Fortunately, good old Frodo always has a handkerchief, so at least I didn't have to wipe my nose on him when I was finished.
"When did you get here?" I asked as I handed him the moist handkerchief back. He took it prissily between two fingers and looked at it distastefully before stretching to drop it on the chest of drawers.
"Just after you'd fallen asleep, apparently," he said. "The first messenger couldn't get through the snow to Hobbiton, so I never received word that he was this ill, or I would have come sooner. Your father thought to try to send for me yesterday." His voice trailed a little at the end, and I knew that Da sent for him so that he could be there for me, not for Pippin, once it was over.
This thought drove me to my feet, and I peered down at Pippin's face in fear and awe and love. But he was just a sleeping child today, like any sleeping child, with tousled curls and slack mouth and eyelashes like delicate half-wings on his pale cheeks. I reached out with a shaking, tentative hand, but his hair was the same baby-fine texture it always had been, and his smooth cheek was warm and alive and made my hand tingle.
"Pippin," I whispered. "Pip, sweetheart." He slept on, peaceful and unaware, but his face turned toward me almost imperceptibly and his mouth scrunched up a little for a moment. I heard Frodo behind me softly murmur, "Ve lisse lótse surië melda Anar," and recognized it as something from Bilbo had once said about Pip and I, an Elvish phrase about a flower seeking the sun. I knew that Frodo saw me as the sun and Pippin as the seeking flower, but after facing the prospect of a world without Pippin last night, I knew also that Frodo had it backwards.
Frodo moved to my side, hands in his pockets, head cocked to one side as we watched our cousin sleep. "Hortensia says he'll not be out of bed until summertime," he said quietly, and then added, "Well, at least Hortensia says he should not be out of bed until summertime."
I laughed, but it made me cry a little again, and Frodo hugged me. "Come on, now, he's all right," he said. "Here, sit down, and I'll go get you that dollop of brandy, and I'll find your father. Both will do you good, you big soaking heap." He patted my back, and then paused before leaving the room to touch Pippin's brow with his fingertips one more time, and I noticed that my eyes were not the only ones full of tears.
I sat down in the straight-backed chair, still in its place by Pippin's head. Never in my life had I gone with so little food or sleep, but I felt the need for neither right then. I picked up Pippin's hand and kissed it, before leaning forward to kiss his forehead.
I had everything I needed.
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.