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The Lost Child, Part Two - by Murron (elfling@gmx.de)

The Lady’s Offer

~ * ~

The lady’s voice was in his head, speaking softly of chances and may-bes. Her eyes searched him fiercely, stopping by no borders, delving deep and bringing up long-treasured dreams and hopes. Pictures formed into a vision that slowly became engraved into his mind. Merry knew it would stay with him always, if only in deepest slumber, gaining more detail every time he remembered . . .

The fire burned down slowly, its gentle heat filling the small room. Through heavy-lidded eyes Merry could see the warm glow of the fireplace, the reflection of swaying flames on the patterned quilt. Rosemary and thyme, fine stitches on the embroidery. Wind carried autumn leaves against the window, raindrops splattered soundly like a lullaby.

Carefully, Merry reached out a hand to pull the quilt a little further up. When his hand lowered, he heard the quiet creaking of the bedstead’s old wood. A twig scratched on the window’s pane, fleetingly.

While outside the rain continued to fall and the moon was but a wane shimmer behind nightly clouds, Merry lay perfectly still. Warm cosiness wrapped him in and yet sleep was the one thing farthest from his mind. A gush of wind howled past the window and long shadows wavered on the vaulted walls.

He did not dare to breathe too loud, lest he would wake her. One had to be very careful as one thoughtlessly moved limb might break the untainted peace that emanated from the small sleeper on Merry’s chest. His whole sight was filled with her picture and he felt like he could spend the rest of his life just watching her sleep.

She was a hobbit-child, tiny and barely a day old. Her name was like a new song in Merry’s mind and he had yet to find the courage to speak it out loud. With some effort he withstood the urge to stub the little belly. How very small she was; even her feet were tiny.

With a smile Merry watched the little face so near to his own and felt the baby’s breath on his collar-bone. A small heartbeat, so novel to the world, was beating against his chest and in it lay the greatest of all secrets. The mystery of existence at large was but a whisper away.

Serenity dwelt in the graceful dance of the dying fire, harmony murmured in the rhythmic thrumming of the rain. All around lingered the vague fragrant of rose-oil while kind warmth enveloped the pair like a second blanket.

With loving eyes Merry looked down at the sleeping infant, his fingers trailing the downy head and the upsweep of a tiny ear. What a miracle had come to him in such a frail shape. How complete he was, now that she was there.

. . . gwilthi . . .

The quill dipped smoothly into the inkpot, retrieving a thick drop of blackness. A practised ting against the glass shook away the superfluous ink and the feather was lowered gingerly over a piece of paper. Alas there was no silence for writing and Merry heard a distinct sound entering his study. Bare feet pattered over the freshly scrubbed floor and a smile crept onto Merry’s features. Idly he let the quill draw over the paper, not turning his head, but listening intently. The feet came closer, then hesitated, carefully, while someone held her breath.

Merry’s grin broadened and slowly he lowered the feather. In one swift move he jolted up and whirled around, confronting -- an empty room. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, but a hushed giggle carried to his ear and lured his glance to the cupboard next to the door. There he saw a wriggling shadow and a treacherous foot being quickly pulled into hiding.

See you’, Merry teased, then a whirlwind broke loose from behind the shelf. Chestnut curls fluttered as the little girl bolted across the floor and threw herself into Merry’s arms. His hands grabbed her by the waist and whirled her high in the air, making her squeal with delight. Her laughter rippled as clear as the little streams that treaded the woods in spring and nothing ever sounded so pure. Nothing ever filled his heart with so much joy.

Higher! she hooted. Higher!

His fingers left ink-black stains on her night-shirt, which had to be of concern later, as they both twisted into dizziness. She was a bird and Merry brought the sky into the dusted study. Wings grew with every peal of cheering laughter. Shabby books and stocktaking were easily forgotten and the ink dried on half-written papers.

. . . dairwen . . .

The path curved unerringly along the empty fields, winding against the bushes that grew thickly at its side. Every now and then it passed a gnarled tree or weather-beaten fence. Clouds, white and thin, stretched over the bleak autumn sky and the horizon was but a wane line in the distance. It was not far to the orchards, but Merry had taken a pony because she loved to ride. While he held the reins, she sat proudly on the pony’s back, snubbed nose peeping out over an incredibly large scarf. There was at least one skirt too many billowing around her knees and the tips of her ears were red from the chill. Her fingers, seldom able to rest still, played untiringly with Harry’s tousled mane. Every time she fondly tugged at the beast’s long ears and giggled, Harry would cast a dubious look at Merry as though asking how he deserved such a punishment. Then Merry would smile and pat the pony’s neck, knowing that Harry loved to go out with them despite his disgruntled horse-looks. He was a good soul. Grey streaks already threaded the yellow mane, but still the old pony demanded that he alone would carry the master and his young.

The first frost coated the earthy path and Merry felt the frozen grass blades rustle under his feet. The air was fresh and rich with the smell of ripe berries and rain-soaked leaves. He broke a twig of hawthorn and gave it to his daughter. Deft little fingers plucked the berries from the branch, sliding them into her apron’s pocket where she already stored a fine collection of chestnuts and rose-hips. Merry smiled. There never seemed an end to the space this particular apron availed. Frogs and cakes, loose buttons and stone marbles easily vanished in there. And ever so often a ribbon that lost the battle against unruly curls.

Sometimes her fingers shifted from Harry’s to her father’s ears, which, of course, would call for a great amount of tickling. And although the orchards were not altogether far, the path was long enough to sing some silly songs in which flower rhymed with sour and many a honourable great aunt got decried.

Ever so often he would look at her and think how bright her eyes were, and how her smile shone so adventurous. Sometimes he thought he saw himself in her face.

. . . luntha . . .

His hand rested for a while on the doorknob before at length he turned it and stepped in. He didn’t know why, but the shadows of the corridor had placed a faceless fear into his heart. Like he would look past the doorframe and find nothing at all. But the moment he crossed the threshold, the strange feeling vanished and he knew he was home. Someone had taken care of shutting the curtains and lighting a few candles on the shelf. Someone also had brought the usual jumble of chestnuts and other treasures into order, which Merry found quite amusing. Careful to make no noise of any sort, he closed the door behind him and stepped fully into the room. His glance fell on the great armchair by the fireplace and there was a sight to behold. Huddled in a blanket and almost swallowed by the huge furniture was his little girl. An open book lay in her lap, one small hand still resting on the slightly crumbled pages. Merry hoped she had taken some of the fairy tales out of the book and into her dreams. Maybe she had.

Quietly he walked over to the chair and lowered down on one knee. It was easy to take the book from her; years of practice had learned him how to move without being a cause for waking. When he finally held the battered primer in his hand, he recognised it to be his old fairy book. The one Bilbo had given him when he’d reached scarcely to the old hobbit’s knees. It held the first verses about elves Merry had come to learn and he’d passed it on to the girl on a birthday some years ago. With a smile Merry looked up into her face, where crumbs in the corner of her mouth told him she had plundered his secret sweets supplies once more. In the crook of her left arm she held a little stuffed animal, the black button-eyes shimmering in the semi-darkness. It was her favourite toy since the day she was born and it looked just like that. The fabric was frightfully thin, consisting of mere fibres in some places. One leg had been twice re-sewed to the plump body and the whole mane of wool had been renewed of late. Still no matter how often the aunts tried to take the ‘ugly thing’ away from her, somehow she always made it reappear. The Magic Pony, Merry and his conspiratorial girl used to call it, but only when no one else could hear, of course.

With special care Merry tugged the blanket safe around her and lifted her up in his arms. The pony slipped from her grip and Merry was careful not to trip over it on his way to the bed. Once there, he gently lowered his little load onto the sheets and righted both blanket and quilt. She sunk deep into the feathery mattress, sighing contentedly in her sleep and nuzzling her cheek into the pillow. Quickly, Merry tiptoed back and fetched the pony. The poor fellow seemed to glare at him just like old Harry would. Fondly patting the thing into a pony-like shape, Merry returned to the bed. There he placed the toy in his daughter’s arms and beheld with joy how she closed her tiny fingers around it. She seemed so very satisfied and at peace with the whole world.

His own. His child.

Sadness stole into Merry’s eyes as he watched over her slumber.

"Don’t you wish it could be more than a vision?" said a soft voice from behind his back. "Would you not want that it became more than a dream?"

Merry heard the words but did not want to turn, not yet. Instead his glance rested on the sleeping child and he watched her tug the stuffed pony a little closer. ‘My dear one,’ he thought and his fingers brushed away a stray lock from the smooth forehead. It seemed like no trouble would ever come to this innocent face. All that was meant for her was the sun over barley fields, the pleasure of warm milk on a winter’s eve and the delight of jumping into loamy puddles in her party clothes.

They said that parents gave the world to their children. But Merry knew better. This little girl was a gift given to him, and it fulfilled his life making his whole person worthwhile. The responsibilities of a Hall Master, the strains of an adult paled before the love of a child. Once-important things seemed pathetically foolish before her ever-questioning eyes.

For all the days to come Merry would be content with his small piece of the wide world, where he was at home and placed right. Here he would teach his daughter how to swim and every now and then steal a cake for her. She would reach out her hand for him and his palm would easily enclose her small fingers. Her bright curiosity would never tire of asking questions: why did the snow fall in winter and why was the grass green?

There would be haystacks to investigate and many stories at the fireside. Most evenings Merry would fall asleep with a soundly dozing bundle in his arm. In these moments, when sleep was near and serenity lingered in each breath, one piece of lore crystallised ever so clear. The core of life was no grand adventuring, no heroic task that would save the world. It was only the two of them, listening to the dripping rain. The perfection was in the simplicity of planting a seed and watching it grow.

And Merry so desperately wished it were true.

The hurt inside of him spread as he closed his eyes. Coldness swept over his ankles like travelling mist and he knew the light had died away. When he opened his eyes again, he stood in a deserted room. No fire crackled behind him, no curtains veiled the round window. Shadows stretched from the walls and furniture and the empty bed before him had no sheets. Merry felt how his countenance shattered; he could not help it. Slowly he turned, sad eyes taking in the gloomy chamber. The shelves held no books and the ash in the fireplace was ancient and long cold. Cobwebs hid under the mantlepiece.

There stood a lonely cradle in the middle of the room, a tarnished shimmer still clung to the white fabric. When Merry walked over to it, he felt the lifelessness of this place in every breadth and length of his body. The memory of bliss already began to loose colour. Soon there was but one last step to take.

He knew what awaited him and yet his heart twisted painfully when he glanced into the cradle.

It was empty.

Something inside of Merry crumbled with finality. He saw the dry leaves covering the frilly cushions and knew they were leaves of elven mallorn trees. The veils of illusion withdrew one after another and yet he was still caught in this decaying room. Then, under the hem of a blanket, nearly hidden, Merry discovered an animal-like shape. Shadows concealed his eyes as he reached out a hand and picked up the stuffed pony. His thumb brushed over the black button-eyes and touched an ear that was just a tiny bit too long for a pony.

"You know it doesn’t have to be this way."

The velvety voice made Merry flinch, but still he did not turn. Only this time the shimmering figure of the Lady Galadriel came quietly to his side. Her pearl-white aura touched the cradle as she folded her slender hands before her elegant form. "The choice is laid before you," she said quietly.

Merry pressed his lips together, keeping silent. A silver hand fleetingly stroked his curls and drove a soft breeze against his ear.

"You can turn back and have all this," the Lady enticed. "Live in peace and forget what has been."

Thereupon she looked straight at him and Merry could feel the iron force behind her indigo-blue gaze.

"Or you could follow the path into darkness," she spoke. Her hand stretched over the cradle, fingers fondling what now only she could see. "The future holds many fortunes, young hobbit." Her hand drew back and with it went the gentle elven light. "Choose the quest and the little hobbit-girl that may have been might never see the sun of this world."

Merry remembered how his girl had laughed, how she had twirled through the room like a freshly hatched butterfly. For one precious moment he could see her cheerful blue eyes again.

"Turn away," said the Lady Galadriel. "Meriadoc. Go home."

His fingers held the worn pony a little while longer, feeling the texture and fleeing warmth. Then he laid it quietly back into the cradle. One dead leaf was stirred by his movement and tumbled weakly against an empty pillow.

. . . beloved child . . . farewell . . .

"I will not turn back," whispered Meriadoc Brandybuck.

~ * ~


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