This was a good meadow. Pippin kept reminding himself of that as he rolled himself against the tree-roots, trying to find a comfortable position. It was a ward against the dark thoughts swirling about his mind.
His cousins didn't seem bothered by such thoughts (Sam, ever the guard-dog, seemed half on alert even as he dozed a few feet away), and Pippin wouldn't be the one to deprive them of their well-earned relief. And truly, there was no reason why he should be set so thoroughly on edge. The birdsong was not so different from what you might hear in the Buckland or even Tuckborough, soothingly familiar, and the grass felt crisp at his ankles. The water had gone lukewarm, but the apples Frodo had produced from their luggage had a sharp, crisp taste. All told, why shouldn't he rest a bit?
There were other hints playing at the edges of his senses, less pleasant and giving more heft to the unease he couldn't quite shake off. Like milk about to curdle, or the tanner's acrid-smelling chemicals. But there was no milk, no animal-hide set out in the sun: only the marks of an imagination given too much lead. He was being foolish, he knew, and was hardly a child. Time enough to set such things aside.
And hadn't Tom Bombadil told them they were safe in these lands? He was sure Frodo had said something to that effect.
No, Pippin admonished himself, as he pulled his coat more tightly around him. He cocked his hand behind his back, turning his elbow into a makeshift pillow, and tried once more for a comfortable position. The rock that had been poking at his shoulder ever so slightly now seemed to lay flat against it, and the roots seemed to arrange themselves more conveniently, nestling him rather than keeping him from stretching out as he wished. It wasn't so bad, really, he thought, as he willed himself to nap for a while at least.
When Pippin woke, he could barely keep himself from retching at the smell.
He knew that stench. He'd spent his youngest years on a farm outside Whitwell where accidents were common and doctors much less so. He'd seen the effects of letting an injury gone untreated: white skin pulled tight over inflamed flesh, the lanced wound and the pus that followed; or, worse yet, that stubbornly refused to come.
This smell was not quite that, though it was close. Less fetid, more... floral? There were sachets of dried flours around the room, somehow he knew, and she (there was a she?) was anointed in rose-scented perfumes. It had never covered the smells, only gave it the sickening blend of putrid and sweet he came to associate with her.
"Come, Peregrin Took," her warbly voice beckoned compelled him. "Come into the light. I want to look on you."
He had been six that first Midsummer, when his family had travelled down to Tuckborough. Was that the first time he'd met her? Was it? He didn't think so, though he couldn't quite be sure of it. Certainly it was the first such meeting he remembered. He was twenty-nine now, he reminded himself, near enough grown to be included in their present adventure, but oh he felt like that small child laid bare before his grandmother's piercing gaze. Even now her great wheeled chair towered over him, and when she reached out to lift his chin, she had to lean down to reach him, as far as her great girth would allow.
That was the source of the smell, he realized with a shock. Her girth, or rather the chafed skin, spotted with sores oozing under their dressing. There were ointments, Pippin knew, and surely if anyone in the Shire would have access to them it would be her. He remembered other visits, too, and finally the family's relocation to the Great Smials on a permanent basis. He knew she couldn't be so neglected, that the sores were surely a passing thing, or a perennial thing at most.
There must be an open window somewhere in the room. A chill breeze wrapped around him, making its way under his shirt until the cool damp air pulled at his skin like a winter's rain that drenched one's clothes. (There was no rain.) Or like wind off a swamp, equally impossible in those highlands, a cold chill that could not be easily shaken.
"You're naught more than skin and bone," she said, or was it the wind? She traced the veins along his arm with her dry thumb, dug it into the sparse flesh between the bones at his wrist. "Two days, maybe three, in the wild would finish you." She popped her lips in imitation of a snap. "Like that. Do you even know how to find water clean enough to drink? Did your sisters teach you that much, at least?"
"This isn't real," Pippin said, shaking his head as a kind of talisman against her words.
"They couldn't have," his grandmother said. This time the voice was older, impossibly old even for Lalia the Took, and of a low timbre he had never heard from hobbit-lips. "Look at you, barely more than a faunt."
"I'm near of age," he answered, taking pains to keep his tone level.
"You're a poor specimen of tween-hood, then. The poorest I've ever seen."
"I'm a Took," he answered back, his voice rising against his best effort. Descendant of the Took, and of Isengrim the Great, who won the battle of Greenfields."
"Yes, yes, but that was long ago. I was talking about you, and what have you done? Not a day out of the Shire, and you're the first swallowed up by that wretched tree."
"You have no way of knowing that," Pippin said, more quietly this time.
"That makes it no less true," she countered. "This is no hobbit walking-party you're engaged in, a hunt for mushrooms or a nap under the elm-tree. You're as likely to get your cousins killed as help them in any meaningful way."
That gave him the fulcrum-point he needed. True, there was a special elm tree, with a hollow where he often stored the contraband he didn't risk taking back to his room at the Great Smials, and with a crook in the branches that seemed custom-made to fit his body, and a certain bird who lulled him to sleep; but she wouldn't have known that. She could be strong and heavy-handed, and a fright to behold for even the bravest of six-year-olds, but if anything her failing was to let him pass unnoticed. They'd exchanged perhaps two dozen words that first visit, and even later they were more likely to trade pleasantries around the dinner table as play at this verbal jousting in this more intimate of settings. She was not cruel. Certainly she was not vicious.
"This is not real!" Pippin bellowed. Deciding shadow was his enemy, he pulled her chair away from the banked fire, into the circle of bright light cast by her bed-lamp.
But the wheel caught upon the hearthrug, and her chair turned over, the blanket she had shrouded herself in falling away so her sores were laid bare. There was a sickening crunch, and her head lolled back against her shoulder. Pippin remembered the stories about her chair turned over before the front door, her body long since gone cold when the maid had found her. He hadn't seen, of course, but he could easily imagine it looking much like this.
"No," Pippin moaned, repeating the single word over and over. He crouched down, shook her clammy hand, tried to haul her into a sitting position, but she was too heavy for him. The wind gusted around him, and this time he was sure the words came from it (for where else could they come?) It is true enough, it said. Look how clumsy you are. Such a clumsy fool.
Pippin was sure there was some answer he could make, if he could but think of it. But it was dreadfully cold, and his fingers were turned to ice as he searched for some pulse, some proof of life he could cling to, as his grandmother was laid out on the hearth-rug like a rag doll. Really, it was all quite impossible.
Pippin felt a fine linen against his breastbone, and smooth granite under his feet. Was this another dream? The air was cold, but only naturally so. Not like the wind before, or the fog –
He nearly sat up with a jolt at that, but feeling the sword's blade across his throat, he laid down again. There had been a fog, though, hadn't there? A fog, and a mad rush toward what Frodo had been sure was a road. They hadn't just fallen asleep in the meadow. It hadn't been a meadow at all, but a hollow on the old hill, with the great stone marker rising from the grass like a tooth in a great mouth given over to decay. Which meant there was likely some foreign evil at work here.
Strangely, that thought comforted him, and gave him some measure of strength. True, his grandmother was dead, but not at his hand, and those cruel words truly hadn't been hers. Equally true, he was young, but he was twenty-nine not six. Merry hadn't wanted him to come along at first, but it hadn't been mere sentiment that had convinced him in the end, some odd inability to say no to his favorite cousin. He knew how to lay snares, and find mushrooms safe to eat, and even how to steady a turned ankle in a splint so you could walk on it for a while. And yes, he carried the salts in his bag that made water safe to drink, though no less foul-tasting. He was not without resources.
He turned his head so he saw Merry beside him, and Sam further down and Frodo on a bed apart. Merry's color was deathly-pale but his chest still rose, a bit, and Pippin was sure if he reached out he'd find the pulse he'd searched for in vain in that horrible dream. He didn't reach out, not knowing what new terror he'd bring back on them all if he let their otherworldly host know he was awake.
It was no use, of course. The chill grew less familiar, the wind that really was quite impossible in this tomb of a room wrapped around him like a vice, and Pippin fought to keep his eyes closed. He was quite sure he couldn't keep his rising terror from showing plainly in them if he let them open. The wind fell upon him, like a clammy hand against the nape of his neck, and a sibilant voice whispered, Sssleeep, until Pippin knew no more
His cousin Lily had worked in the blacksmith's shop in Tuckborough. She'd had the same adventurous streak that marked so many of his family, but being deprived of the usual outlet of ill-fated trips to sea or trailing after wandering wizards, she'd turned that particular passion to her daily work. She was forever experimenting with better ways to seal her handiworks against rust, or fashion stronger steel so a hoe wouldn't break against rocks in the soil. Rumor had it she'd studied with the dwarves who sometimes passed through the Shire, had even traded with them for foreign chemicals to use in her work.
Pippin was reminded of her, somehow, by the foul stench that pressed so close overhead. Though perhaps it wasn't so strange. Her efforts were as likely to yield billowing clouds of noxious smoke as a stronger pick-ax, and she seemed to delight as much in what her less scientifically-driven relations might term failures as her successes. He couldn't remember the burnt flesh, though, or the greenish sputum he coughed up when he breathed too much of the fumes.
He knew what burned hobbit-flesh smelled like. Just as surely as he knew he was a hobbit of the Shire, that he had a cousin named Lily and had once lived in a town called Tuckborough, that he'd been taken by barrow-wights on the borders of Tom Bombadil's lands as he'd raced for the Great Road that would carry him even further from home. Remembered the terror of it, the fog that crept all around and blinded him to all else – but knew those things as a terror just beyond the bounds of his safe home. He'd been raised to dread them, but also knew that struggling against them was not wholly beyond his strength.
But the stench of burning flesh – how did he know that? Yet he did. Knew it as surely as he knew he was at Fornost, what Fornost was. That the horde amassing a quarter-mile off were of orc kind. He knew the weight of the bow at his back and the feel of the taut string under his fingers, that there was a man hidden in the foliage to the right, a friend and companion from these last weeks, named Malgeleb.
He knew the man's stories, too, just as he knew his cousins: of how he'd come to apprentice with the apothecary in Caras Celairnen before the king had called him into service, how he'd fallen quite thoroughly in love with the girl who sold herbs to their show, and how he had every intention of going back to her and winning her heart in return, as soon as he saw his way through this present danger. He was so full of certainty and bluster, so much more than Pippin could manage!
Pippin rolled his shoulder, gone stiff from being held still for so long, and hissed at the pain. Looking down, he saw his sleeve torn off and the strip of cloth tied tight around his forearm stained through with blood and mud, the skin red and tender along its edges.
He was a hobbit of the Shire, he reminded himself. Of a gentler, safer Shire even than his grandfathers'. The White Winter was but a fireside-tale to him, and the Great Wolves a way-word for the dangers that lurked across the Brandywine. He'd never known anything like this in his waking life, had only heard that name Fornost in the darkest of stories. This was not real.
Too vivid to be a dream, the bleakest corner of his mind whispered back, or perhaps it was the breeze that seemed ever to hiss into his ear. How dark an imagination do you have, Peregrin Took? The braying between these two realities was dizzying. Full of sound and fury; signifying nothing. Though it was no less true-seeming for all that.
Suddenly an orc was upon him, and almost without thinking Pippin swung his scythe down upon him. Where had it come from? It was just the one, and somehow it had caught Pippin quite by surprise. He knew, somehow, that orcs were great lumbering beasts not know for their ability to move quietly, certainly not through so thick an underbrush. Just as he knew a scythe was called by some other name when turned into a proper weapon, and that an archer like him would surely have noticed even a single orc from far away and brought him down before he could ever get so close.
But through luck or skill the scythe hit its mark, breaking through muscle, nerve and bone in a clean slice, sending the head flying until it fell with a dull thunk against a nearby tree. Looking down, he saw the black orc-blood pooling around his boot (since when did any hobbit wear boots?); he could almost feel it oozing through the welt and the sole until his socks were wet with it, and soon he was bent over, retching what food he'd kept in his stomach.
Thusss the battle was won, the breeze whispered at his ear, and the game of golf invented, all in a sssingle day.
The foliage to his right rustled, and Pippin dropped his scythe, scurrying for his bow and nocking an arrow expertly. This felt right, righter than the scythe; at least it was the kind of defense he could imagine a hobbit of the Shire offering. But before he could let the arrow fly he saw Malgeleb poking up from beneath the underbrush, waving a white bandage in his hand as a makeshift flag of surrender. "Peace!" he cried out, laughing warmly. "Peace, Pippin." Looking him over, seeing the old shoulder injury but nothing more recent or more worrying, he added, "Are you well?"
A knife was protruding proudly from Malgeleb's thigh, swaying up and down as he walked closer, and his trousers were soaked through, red and tacky. Pippin could se that much from sight alone.
"Ah, that," Malgeleb said, and there was that laugh again. He nodded down to the decapitated orc at Pippin's feet. "Your friend there found me before he found you. Thank you for that, by the way, though I must say you're a bit late."
"As are you, apparently," Pippin replied. The words felt bitter on his tongue, and he grappled for his scythe, using it as a makeshift crutch and willing himself not to fall over. When had he become the sort who could laugh at such things? " Malgeleb. Are you well?"
His friend shook his head, though his good spirit never quite left his eyes. "It was a lucky blow, for me and for him." His chuckle turned quickly to a hacking cough, and Pippin was struck by how drained of life his skin now appeared. Malgeleb wiped blackened phlegm from the corner of his mouth and rubbed it off on his bloodied trousers. "I like to think that's how it happened. That some orc caught me by chance in the artery and I bled out almost before I know what happened." He frowned. "I don't like to think I suffered much, though maybe I did. I remember how I caught him with my own knife in the gut, and how he laid beside me for quite some time, moaning pitifully, but I couldn't get up to ease him out of that misery. I must have lived a while, at least, if I heard all that."
"This isn't real," Pippin said; cried, more like. His scythe had given way and he found he was kneeling on the ground, though he couldn't remember falling, and Malgeleb was standing near by. "This cannot be real. I was never here."
Weren't you? the breeze whispered. It was here as well, then. Your family sent archers.
"A thousand years ago," he all but moaned. "We sent them, and they never came back. I don't even know if they found the army, or came anywhere near here."
But you wisssh they did, the breeze countered, and this time Pippin could almost hear the amused cackle behind its words. That would make you heroes, capable of great deeds. And just maybe you could do the same.
"He thought you'd be more keen to claim this dream as what really happened," Malgeleb said. "Your… breeze, isn't it? He took the form of a friendly songbird with me, at first."
"It seemed to whisper words in my ear. Not real. Are we in the Shire, then?"
"Near to it, I think," Malgeleb answered, and the breeze seemed to tease the hair along Pippin's neck, sending a chill all down his spine. "Mind you, I only know that name as letters on a map. But my bird's told me now and again of the unfortunate souls he's trapped in these tombs – bolder than I could ever hope to be, he'd said, journeying into the wild lands for the adventure of it all – and some he described as men with the stature of children who'd ride east across the Baranduin."
"We name it the Brandywine," Pippin said, still half dazed.
"You must know these lands better than I do. There's a strange man, Iarwain Ben-Adar we named him. Have you ever heard of him?" Pippin thought hard but could not place the name and shook his head regretfully. "Blue jacket, yellow boots, said to be immortal though not an elf," Malgeleb continued. "He guarded the great woods west of Amon Sûl in our old stories. Sometimes I think I see him, dancing at the edges of my vision. My bird must see him too, I think, because he trills gaily then, and sings how Iarwain isn't meant for the likes of us. I think he could end all this if he chose to, but he doesn't seem so inclined, just yet."
The hobbit remembered, then: being swallowed up by that Old Man Willow, the way his roots had nearly squeezed the breath out of him. Then there'd been the strange words, seeming nonsense but the roots had pulled back, and he'd been pulled out into the more open forest air. The tree-branches still grew thick overhead, blocking out most of the sun, and the humid warmth of the autumn afternoon had weighed on him like a winter blanket, but there'd at least been enough air to breathe. "We call him Tom Bombadil," Pippin said at last.
At the mention of that name, there was a great crack outside (or above-head? were they in?), and Pippin half-imagined he heard words carried on a different, warmer breeze. Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo! By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow, by fire, sun and moon, hearken now – The icy wind rushed by him, drowning out the words and rushing up to meet its speaker.
Quickly, Malgeleb knelt beside him and pulled him close. "You must remember – " he began, then shook his head, choosing his words more carefully. "You do, you do. But you must endure, you must remember to remember. You must break free."
"Break free?" Pippin asked, uncomprehending. "You wish for me to leave you?"
"No, not me – I am long devoured, save as this wisp of a memory he called up to torment you. You remember more of my life before Fornost than I do. Break free so you can carry me out of this sinkhole if you'll do it for no other reason. I never told you those things, you simply knew, much as you knew just now there was a beyond. But our host will rend that from you if you're not very careful, and the longer you stay under his power, the harder you will have to fight to hold on to that certainty. So break free, now, while you c – "
Malgeleb's voice gave way as his body was thrown some feet away, as if kicked; as his ribs groaned and cracked until his chest was bent nearly in half and he screamed no more. Then the wind was back, promising him that none who came under his dominion could remember they were battling against phantasms, not for long. Pippin stumbled to his feet, half running and half falling until at last he was by Malgeleb's side again. He pulled at his clothes, searching for a pulse and finding none; burying his face in his seeming-friend's arms. This was better, if not good. Here he could at least have the illusion of someone he thought he trusted.
That was familiar, wasn't it? The rough cloth; the absent pulse; the comfort in the arms of a corpse. The wind pressed all around him, and Pippin felt himself fighting to keep his eyes open, but the similarity made him more convinced than ever that he couldn't let himself be pulled under. He knew if he fell asleep now he would only wake up to a wholly new set of horrors. No. No! Digging his fingers into the bandage, probing at the torn flesh even now fighting against infection and using the pain to keep him anchored in this reality, he called out the rhyme he'd heard from beyond. Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!
The inky nothingness of night encroached around him, and he felt like one drowning under dark, still water. But just as his senses began to fail him, he heard a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in. It was real light, the plain light of day.
This, too, was a good meadow, Pippin decided. He laid stark naked on the grass, basking in the mid-morning sun. His cousins and Sam lay not far away in similar state: their old clothes had been lost to the barrow, and they'd all shirked off the cold white rags the wight had dressed them in. But really, was it so bad to lie like this for a while, on the fresh, green-smelling grass as the sun warmed their skin?
Tom would find their ponies and their luggage soon enough, he guessed, and then they'd be off again on the road to Bree. But for now? He was happy to lie on this grass in peace. It laid flat against his ankles, as it had yesterday after their picnic (was that only yesterday?). Now he also felt it under his thighs and along his back, and this grass laid flat whereas yesterday's had seemed to stand on edge and poke him in all the worst places. But it was similar enough.
Beside him, he heard Merry turning in the grass, pulling himself halfway into a sitting position before lying back down again. "Stay," Pippin said, reaching out until he found his cousin's shoulder and pinning him in place.
"'m'not tired," Merry mumbled. Then, more plainly: "I don't like lying so flat. It reminds me of – well." He didn't have to name it. Pippin felt much the same way, now that Merry had raised him from his lazy rapture; perhaps why he was so keen to think on their meal from the afternoon before. Now he couldn't set those darker images aside nearly so easily.
"Merry…" He trailed off and laid in silence so long that at last Merry turned on his side to face him. "Did you ever hear of a village called Caras Celairnen? Or see it on a map, perhaps?"
Merry shook his head. "Not that I can remember; though foreign words often run together for me."
"I met – encountered – someone in my – well, while I slept." His head seemed packed with cotton-wool, and he struggled to put the words in their proper order. Struggled too against his impulse to leave them buried, much as he wanted to bring those memories to the surface so he could lay them aright and find some peace. "He was from a place called Caras Celairnen," Pippin continued, "but he didn't actually tell me, I simply knew. And now I can't remember where I learned the name."
"It was a dream." Merry pursed his lips together. "Does it truly matter?"
By the stars, it seemed to! But Pippin couldn't see how to explain why without recounting the full tale, and as much as he wanted those memories out of the murky half-light, he found he couldn't quite make himself tell it all. Not just yet. He remembered, too, Merry's vivid description of the men from Carn Dûm when he'd first awoken, and he wondered if Merry wasn't also trying to hold his own horrors at bay.
"I … remembered it," Pippin said after a moment. "I thought I knew it in" – he gestured broadly to the gaping mouth of the barrow a way off – "but now I don't seem to. I'd like to know what of last night was real."
That earned him an encouraging smile, a bit wan but still undeniable, and Pippin felt Merry's hand atop his own, warmed by both the sun and living blood. It anchored him a bit. "We can ask in Bree," Merry said, "or in Rivendell. You remember Cousin Bilbo's tales; Lord Elrond must have the best maps west of the mountains."
"There's only one way to know for certain, I suppose." He returned Merry's smile. "Onward?"
A way off they heard the distant clop of horse-hooves, and saw Tom Bombadil's blue hat tossed high into the air, just visible over the crest of a nearby hill. "Onward," Merry agreed, and pulled them both to their feet.