SO sorry about the incredibly long hiatus.

My excuse? Life.

But that's not fair to you fine folks, because it seems that everyone here has to deal with it as well (correct me if I'm wrong). So I profusely apologize.

On the off chance any of you have been DYING to read the next installment, please review if you liked it. If this is your first experience with my humble story, please review if you enjoyed it. Heck, review even if you hated it.

Please? :)




Chapter 4

Merry awoke to pain.

He lay still and tried not to make any sudden move. The fire had burned down to a few hot coals, and he noticed vaguely that the rain had stopped. With a great effort he craned his neck to see if Estella was awake.

She had turned away from him in the night, curling up into a ball in an effort to retain some warmth without pressing against Merry's injuries. From the stiff position he managed to fall asleep in, half resting against the wall of the cave (which relieved his groaning ribs even if it did nothing for his back or shoulders), he could see the even rise and fall of her small body that assured him she was still asleep.

Dimly he realized that he must be cold. His bloody shirt had been thrown into a dusty corner of the small cave, and only the make-shift bandages torn from Stella's petticoats held his throbbing left shoulder together. Small and brief shudders racked his body, but he didn't feel the cold that he knew was there. He just felt numb.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the thin picnic blanket they had used the afternoon before, laying on the other side of him. He snaked one hand out to pull it around himself. As he did he looked down, and was surprised to see the white fabric of the bandage laced across his chest turned brown and red. He could feel the dried blood making the material stick to his skin, and his stomach turned at the thought of changing it.

With a mighty effort he hauled the red and white checkered cloth to cover both himself and Estella, in the process pulling harshly on his shoulder. He only allowed a thin hiss to escape his lips before he clenched his jaws and refused to make a sound. Darkness was still lingering outside with the pink and orange hues of the sunrise, and he would not allow himself to deprive Stella of any well-deserved sleep. He ran a dirt-and-blood encrusted hand through the tangled knots of his blonde curls. That's when he realized that he could hear voices.

Pippin and Fatty had decided to split up in order to cover more ground. With one hand loosely pulling his aimless pony after him, Pippin cupped a hand around his mouth and screamed himself hoarse. "Merry! Merry! Meriadoc Brandybuck, where in hell are you?! Merry!"

Across the forest, less than a half of a mile away and within hearing distance of the Took's shouts, Fredegar Bolger let his own anxious cries ring through the air.

"Stella! Stella! Where are you, Estella? Don't you hear me?! Merry Brandybuck! Where are you?"

Merry inched himself higher up on the solid rock wall, straining his throbbing brain to make out what the shouts said. Es..stella? Merry? Was someone searching for them?

He gathered a breath to respond in kind, wincing as air was abruptly forced into his lungs, when suddenly a curly brown head thrust itself through the mouth of the cave.

Almost frantic with worry, Fatty was wearing his unexercised and (to be honest) a bit pudgy body to a red, sweaty mess. He dashed from tree to ditch, yelling and searching with an anxious passion. It wasn't until he saw the massive oak lying awkwardly on the path towards Estella's favorite spot on the river that he realized something was off.

Intuition told him that the dragging lines – smeared by the rain and covered by rotting leaves – could only be footprints. They meandered uncertainly into a small black cave against a drooping rock wall. Dread, equally mixed with raging anger, had burned hotter with each step he took.

Unfazed by the gloominess of the natural hole, Fred Bolger stepped boldly into the narrow opening. He took in the apparent situation in the space of a few seconds.

Obviously they had spent the night there. A small fire in the center of the floor burned low, smoldering gently. Estella lay straight back from the fire, slightly to Fatty's right. She was curled towards the wall, clutching the end of a checkered picnic blanket. The other end lay across the mostly bare chest of Meriadoc Brandybuck, his blue-grey eyes flickering open.

That proved just about enough for the concerned Bolger brother.

Something shattered in his sleep-deprived and anxious mind, and overwhelmed with a burning desire to exact retribution for what he believed transpired, Fatty dove forward. Without stopping to consider his actions he grabbed his good friend, one hand nestled deep in the Brandybuck's thick blonde hair and the other squeezing his right arm, and pulled him to his feet with surprising force. Merry's head snapped up at the same moment Fredegar Bolger propelled his fist into the side of his head.

A groan of agony forced its way out of Merry's ragged throat as he was spun against the hard rock wall of the cave, struggling as he tried to remain on his feet by grasping the rock face with one shaking hand. With the breath knocked out of his lungs, he tried to summon enough air to explain himself to the furious hobbit.

This loud commotion stirred Estella from her deep sleep. Bleary-eyed, she turned around to see her brother reach over to spin Merry back around, bringing back his thick fist for another strike. She had just enough time to scream "No!" before Merry was slammed against the wall again with the force of Fatty's arm.

She scrambled to her feet. Merry was weakly grasping for the support of the wall, mumbling something about a misunderstanding. His eyes flaming, Fatty grabbed the Master's son by the shoulder. Estella held out her hand uselessly, her voice raised to an unusually high register.

"Stop! He's wounded, Fred!"

Dimly, as though waking up from a vivid dream, Fatty recognized his sister's voice. He looked up to stare into her worried eyes, and the fire in his own began to die down. Then, all of a sudden, the reality of the situation struck him. Merry Brandybuck's shoulder was bright with blood, and his eyes were glazed over with pain.

He had just enough time to catch Merry before the young heir collapsed in a heap on the cave floor.

Merry had one hand wrapped tightly around his rib cage, and the other trembling as he struggled to hold himself upright by clutching his friend's shoulder. It was more than he had strength for, though, and as his knees gave out Fatty lowered him to the ground.

"What happened?" Fredegar demanded, slowly allowing his fury to give way to fear.

Estella was already on her knees, using the edge of the checkered tablecloth to dab at the fresh blood seeping out of the Brandybuck's shoulder. Fatty noticed, for the first time, the dark bruises crossing his friend's ribcage, and the jagged splinters protruding discreetly from underneath the grimy makeshift bandages. "Estella?" he prodded. Without pausing in her ministrations she looked up.

"He saved my life, Fred. The thunderstorm spooked my pony. Merry got me out of the way before a giant oak fell. He was trapped underneath." Her eyes lit up with a flash of anger. "I don't know what you thought happened last night, Fredegar, but let me tell you, without this troublemaker I would be dead now." Fatty could see that the extreme stress of the last few hours was wearing her to a breaking point. Her normally rosy cheeks were gaunt and pale, and the bags under her glassy eyes were dark with loss of sleep.

"First off, we need to get him home," Fatty grunted, taking charge of the situation for his sister's sake, if not Merry's. "Pippin's out in the woods, searching for you both, but if we don't run into him he'll have the sense to meet back at the house. I have a pony, we'll get Merry on it. It's just over three miles back. He should be fine. Then one of us will ride to get the healer."

Estella nodded, preoccupied. Fatty rose to his feet and backed out of the cave, walking towards the horse that had wandered a few feet away.

Merry's brow was beaded with sweat, and as Estella tried to get him to sit up, he winced and grabbed her hand. He mumbled something, trying to make her understand, but she couldn't make it out. It was clear from his flushed skin that he was beginning to run a fever.

"It's alright, Merry, we're taking you back home. It's okay. You'll be fine. Stand up, now, let's get you up on the pony. Take it slow."

In painful slow-motion, Estella helped the Master's son upright and led him outside, where somehow she and Fatty managed to get the muscular lad on the back of the still skittish animal. With a soft click of his tongue, Fatty urged the horse on, leading him by the abandoned reins.

Merry's head sagged as they began the three-mile trip back to the Bolger farm.


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I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.