1. The Smell of Mint
Foreword: This was inspired by reading about the citizens of Gettysburg wandering about after the battle wearing handkerchiefs soaked in peppermint oil or vanilla extract to hide the smell of rotting bodies. That image kept tugging at me, and this vignette is the result.
“Watch it, Marigold, you’re letting that leg drag and the weight’s too much for me!”
“Sorry, Jolly,” Marigold Gamgee says, her voice muffled by the handkerchief tied about her face and mouth. Even from where I sit on my pony, I can smell the peppermint oil that soaks the cloth, masking the odor of dead bodies, both men and hobbits. I still struggle to absorb the fact we killed so many men today. I certainly have no fear of killing now; after all, I was reckless enough to attack the Witch-king, and have won my spurs several times over. But I did not really expect the others who followed me to take to fighting so eagerly. I think sadly of how much the Shire must have suffered under the heels of the ruffians, to make hobbits willing to kill without flinching.
Now we are gathering up the men’s bodies, some seventy in all, and putting them on carts to wheel over to the big gravel pit nearby. It is as good a place as any to bury them, and since Frodo, Sam, and Pippin have left the cleaning up to me, I get to choose where we lay them. I watch the lads and lasses, helped by a few sturdy gaffers, lifting the large and heavy corpses, and brood over the ruin these rascals have wrecked on our land. How long will it take to mend everything, I wonder? I look over at the far corner of the field where our fallen folk have been laid out with far more care, their bodies draped with blankets as we await the arrival of their families. We at least can still offer them a proper funeral.
The clip-clop of another pony’s hooves draws close. I turn my head, and discover my cousin Pimpernel beside me. Pimmie helped Uncle Paladin tackle the ruffians to the south of Tuckborough this morning, and then she escorted wagons full of medicines here that her sister Pervinca had prepared for us. Pippin in the meantime decided to ride back to Great Smials to stock up on weapons, in case other Men appeared to fight, and left both his sisters with me to help organize matters. She too has a mint-scented cloth tied over her lower face, for mint prevents infection as well as hiding unsavory smells. I am surprised to see how well breeches suit her.
“You look to be in a brown study, Merry. Surely you are happy now that it’s all over?”
“Yes, Pimmie, I am happy about that, but I didn’t expect to deal out this much death when I came home.”
She surveys the scene, her expression hardening. “I daresay, but they certainly got their just deserts and then some. I thank all the powers in Middle-earth you four returned when you did, for I don’t know what might have happened if you hadn’t come back.”
“Considering how Uncle Paladin and the rest of you kept the ruffians out of the Tookland, I think you probably could have managed without us when all was said and done.”
“Not likely, coz, since the other parts of the Shire gave in too quickly.” Her green eyes narrow in anger and her voice grows acid. “And forgive me for saying it, but your Uncle Merimac’s conduct was despicable, undermining your parents and persuading the family not to make a stand the way Uncle Sarry and Aunt Esmie wanted to. He’s little better than dear departed Lotho in my view.”
The anger flares up in me as I recall what Mother told me when I came home, how Merimac did his best to get the Buckland for himself by claiming I was dead, and how he talked all the other Brandybucks into preventing Mother and Father from fighting back openly. But my rage fades rapidly, and I shake my head as I reply. “No point in ripping open old wounds, Pimmie girl. We’ve won, remember?” I smile slyly. “Besides, Mother got back at everyone pretty handily. She assures me that Fatty and his bunch were the best supplied rebels anywhere, thanks to the Brandy Hall larders. Merimac will be very disappointed at the lack of wine this winter.”
Pimmie crows in delight. “Good for Aunt Esmie!” Her face clouds over. “Do you think Fatty is all right? We were all so worried when he was captured.”
“I don’t know,” I say honestly. “But Frodo rides to the Lockholes tomorrow, and then we will know.” I pause, my chest tightening. “I’m just glad Estella escaped and made it back to Brandy Hall.”
A cart rumbles by, plied with men’s bodies. I draw my breath in sharply when I see who sprawls on top of the pile. I call out to young Tom Cotton and his brother Nick. “Wait a minute, there!” I dismount and cross over to the cart. “I want to have a closer look at this man.”
“Course, Merry, whatever you need,” says Tom calmly. He and Nick stop and lower one end to the ground. “Will you be awhile?”
“Not long, but give me a moment.” They leave me as I stare down into the pasty white face, marked by disease and hatred, the filthy gown stained with mud and blood, the greasy black hair spread out from his head. Grima Wormtongue. Pimmie walks to my side and pulls a cloth from her sleeve, handing it to me. I clap it over my nose and my nostrils fill with the sweet-sharp scent of pennyroyal, making my stomach churn. Pimmie looks at him with undisguised curiosity.
“You know this man, Merry?”
“Not well, but yes, I know of him,” I murmur, balling my hands into fists.
“Who is he?” she asks, puzzled.
“An enemy and a traitor to his people, and a foul minion of the wizard Saruman.” I spit the words out, for they scald my mouth as I utter them. Pimmie leans towards him and touches the shaft of one of the broken arrows protruding from the corpse.
“Is one of these yours, by chance?”
“I’m not certain, but I hope so,” I tell her. I sway a little as Eowyn’s voice surges into my memory, her beautiful fair features twisted with pain and suffering. “I warn you, this will not be a pleasant or edifying tale, for which I am sorry; but it is mine own.” I had disliked the brief glimpses of Wormtongue’s face I caught at Isengard when he rode up to the tower, and later flung the palantir at Gandalf. But I learned to hate him when Eowyn told me what he had inflicted on her. “No, Merry, Grima was bold, but not that bold . . . he did not get his desire.” I find myself wondering afresh if Eowyn had told me the whole truth. We have no secrets, she and I, but I sensed that spring night that my rage took her aback and frightened her in some unexpected way. Could she have hidden the truth about being physically forced by her uncle’s servant? Then I picture Eowyn’s skill with a sword, and dismiss my suspicion. If Wormtongue had tried anything, she would have skewered him like a piece of meat.
But even if Grima did not attack her in that way, I know he violated her mind, made her cold and withdrawn and afraid of all men. My blood boils as I think of doing such a thing to a woman that you claim to love and admire. What a lie it was, if the Wormtongue thought his nasty campaign to win Eowyn’s hand was a real courtship! A savage joy fills me at the thought I have achieved revenge at last on the slimy villain who hurt my beloved sword-sister. And I also take new joy in knowing I helped heal her heart, nursing the dormant love and desire in it to full flower. Many have sung my praises for my battlefield deeds, but great as my pride is in them, I am even more proud of bringing Eowyn and Faramir together. “No thanks to this worm,” I say out loud, without thinking.
“What’s that you say, Merry?” asks a startled Pimmie.
“Nothing,” I answer, weary and tired. Nick comes up and looks at Wormtongue’s body, his eyes wide with horror.
“Tom says this be the man who killed Lotho and ate him. Is it true, Merry?” Pimmie recoils, making a horrified noise.
I recall Saruman’s mocking accusation, and wonder if even Grima, low as he was, really had turned cannibal. Does it matter? I ask myself. I know his certain crimes, after all. I shake my head slowly.
“I’m not sure what happened, Nick, but I would put no faith in Saruman’s lying tongue. But I can promise you that he was a criminal of the blackest sort who deserved to die several times over. He wronged my dearest friend, my sword-sister, and if I had seen my opportunity, I would have cut his throat without guilt.” My hand strays to my knife as I speak. Pimmie puts her hand over mine in alarm.
“You’re not going to do it now, are you? He’s dead already. There’s no reason to stoop to his level.” She gazes at him in revulsion.
For one half-mad moment I imagine myself slashing at his vile face, making it as ugly as his soul, and cutting off an ear or finger to send to Eowyn as a prize. But Pimmie is right; I am still a civilized hobbit, and indulging that sort of behavior would fill me with the same evil that poisoned Grima. I tuck the handkerchief into my sleeve and pull the knife out. “No, Pimmie, but I want proof of his death to send to Eowyn.” I clip off one of the black locks with a swift motion and slip the hair into my belt pouch. “There, that’s done.” I stare at Grima once more, branding the sight into my brain, determined never to forget what he did, savoring the taste of vengeance for a fleeting second. I take a cleansing breath as I put the cloth over my nose again, for the stench grows stronger in the dewy twilight. “Now take him away! Cast his body into the deepest part of the pit, where it belongs!” I swallow the bile in my mouth, the anger still burning in me.
Nick nods wordlessly as Tom rejoins us. They grab the cart’s handles and start pushing it to the gravel pit. Pimmie cocks her head and looks at me.
“You truly hate this man, even in death. I never thought to see so much loathing in you, Merry.” She pauses. “Shall you tell me of your friend? She must be very dear to you, to provoke this.”
“I will, but not now—later.”
“Very well.” She gestures at the Cottons. “Would you like me to make sure all is done correctly?”
“Please—that’s very kind of you, Pimmie. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. You’ve done enough for today, I do believe.”
She sets off after the cart, her walk slow and deliberate. I take another breath, and know that no matter how many years I see, I will remember this day and this moment whenever I catch the faintest whiff, the slightest smell, of mint.
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.