~*~The Drop of a Hat~*~ - Part III
"Whatever possessed you to buy Gandalf a hat?" Merry asked as I fed him his breakfast. What with his hurt arm, he couldn't hold the tray straight on his knees and feed himself at the same time, so I sat cross-legged on the bed beside him and fed him as though he were a little 'un. He'd hoped nobody would come in while that was going on, but a maid came to empty the chamber pot. She looked at us and grinned as she flurried out. The House of Healing was a splendid and lovely place, but if it was privacy you were wanting, it wasn't for you.
Since Merry looked anything but merry, I told him about trying to measure Gandalf's head, hoping to make him laugh, but all I managed to coax from him was a tightlipped smile. When I started telling about all the shades of white, I think his mind started wandering, so I cut it short and commented on the goodness of the rolls and butter, which only made him scowl. I was feeling oddly chipper that morning, and I think it was starting to get on his nerves.
My mood might have been owing to the pleasant fragrance lingering in the room, from those leaves, asselas--no, athelas, that Strider, I mean Aragorn had steeped a few days before. Merry said it smelled like heather in the sunshine full of bees, but to me it smelled just like pipeweed, and I wondered if you could smoke it.
"Pippin," he said after a long moment, "could you take me to see the Lady Éowyn? How is she?"
Ah, so that's what was worrying him. I'd overheard Gandalf talking about her, something about "the bitter watches of the night, when all her something, and the walls of her bower closed in about her, a something something," and so forth. Whatever all that meant, it didn't sound good, and I decided I'd better not tell Merry.
So I just said, "I think she's better now, and I'll take you, but let me clean you up a bit first. You look a mess. You'd probably scare the lights out of her."
"Yes, please do," he said. I think he liked her. In fact, I know he did. I puzzled about that. I'd not seen very much of her back in Edoras, and although I thought her a beauty to behold, I wasn't so sure as I liked her. She seemed pretty cool and distant to me, and just a trifle dangerous--I wouldn't have wanted to get in her way if she ever got her back up. Give me a nice, cheery, cozy girl like Mikala, who was the closest to a hobbit-lass as I'd ever meet around here, any ol' day.
Still, since the Lady Éowyn had single-handedly knocked the stuffings, so to speak, out of that horrible Witch-King, there was a strong chance I just might warm up to her sooner or later. I hoped she'd get well quick. She'd be handy to have around this City in case more orcs took a notion to attack. Surely Lord Flaming Eyeball wouldn't want to trifle with her. There wouldn't be an eye-patch big enough in all of Middle-earth for him once she got her hooks on him.
I set the tray aside, then combed Merry's hair, and brought him a wet rag from the washbasin so he could clean his hands and face. Then I wetted his hair so it wouldn't frizz and stick out all over the place like a bird nest struck by lightning, then smoothed it down.
"So how do I look now?" he asked when I finally had him ready.
"Less horrifying than before," I said squinting at him. For someone who was supposed to be suffering from "The Shadow", whatever that meant, he didn't look too bad really. Give him a week or so, and plenty of good grub, and he ought to be up and doing right enough.
"Thanks, Pip," he said with a little sigh.
"Shall I carry you?" I volunteered. "I'm strong enough now." I was a little banged up, but aside from a few nasty bruises, I was in pretty good shape. And to think, the day before, I'd been fretting about not having a real wound. "Everybody's been wounded except me," I'd complained, and Merry told me to count myself lucky. "Pip, trust me, you do NOT want a wound," he'd said. Poor old Merry.
I would see what he meant, by and by.
"It's my arm that's hurt, not my legs," he said. "Just let me lean on you a bit and I'll be all right."
I helped him to stand. But he wasn't so steady on his feet as he'd thought, and a moment later he had to sit down again.
After a couple more tries, I said, "Here, get on my back." I stooped down on the floor at his feet and motioned for him to straddle me.
"What?" he said. "I'm just a bit dizzy is all. If you'd just let me lean on you..."
"Come on!" I insisted. He'd piggy-backed me many a time when I was a little 'un. Now it was turn and turn about. Finally I managed to get him to lock his legs around my back and he got me round the neck with his good arm, and off we went. He was kind of hurting my right hip, which was bruised from a wicked fall I'd taken. I hadn't really noticed until he was on my back, but I didn't say anything about it.
We must have been a sight to see, there in the hallway, me all scrooched over and him riding me like a donkey big as you please. That's when we bumped smack into an elderly lady who was the head-nurse, or whatever it was they called her. Ioreth was her name. She went "ahem!" and gave us this "Just what do you two think you are doing?" look with her hands on her hips. I knew better than to sass this one. I was about to make a "Hee haw" noise, but decided that wouldn't be such a good idea. Somehow I didn't think she would be amused.
So, we just told her the truth, that we wanted to go check on the Lady Éowyn. I said I'd take good care of Merry. I wouldn't let him dance on the tables, nor flirt with any nurses, and if Her Ladyship should give him any guff, I'd protect him, being with the Tower Guard and all; did she want to see my sword? (Well, I wasn't really, not any more, but she didn't know that yet.) In the end, however, Miss Ioreth turned out to be less immune to hobbit charm than I had her pegged, and she finally laughed and said all right, and she'd even take us to the Lady Éowyn herself.
She was asleep, but I was startled to see Lord Éomer, her brother, sitting beside her bed, although I'd known he was about. Merry whispered to me that Lord Éomer was King of Rohan, now that his uncle was dead, and so I dropped to one knee before him, which was pretty awkward with Merry on my back. I liked Lord Éomer. Rather a forceful fellow he was, something like Boromir. He told us we need not kneel, and we expressed our condolences about his uncle and asked after his sister. He soberly said she was "better" but whether or not she'd recover completely, remained to be seen.
"Gandalf tells me you saved his life," he said to me, much to my surprise. It was true that I'd stuck an orc that was about to cleave Gandalf, but I'd pretty nearly forgotten about it, and it came as a shock that he should mention it to others. "As well as Faramir's. I completely take it back what I said about war being the province of men. Seems everyone has his, or her part to play in the grand scheme of things."
"Seems they do," I agreed, ducking my head modestly as Merry gawked at me too. "Mikala's mum saved the life of one of Lord Faramir's men too, by pouring boiling oil out of a window on top of an orc that was about to gut him. It was something to see."
"You saw it?" Lord Éomer raised both eyebrows with a little frown.
"Well...no," I admitted, figuring I probably couldn't put anything over on the King of Rohan. I'd just heard about it from Beregond the other day. I was worried about Mikala, knowing what had happened to her father and all. I hadn't seen her since before the Siege. "But it was surely something to see, I'll warrant you."
Merry snickered. Lord Éomer chuckled.
"Mikala," he said. "A friend of yours?"
"Yes," I said and Merry grinned. "She's the cook's daughter."
"Ah," Lord Éomer smiled, "the cook's daughter? Small wonder she's your friend then. Or...a bit more than a friend?" And he actually gave me a wink, although his eyes still looked sad and somber underneath it all.
I felt myself blush, and my chipperness dropped a couple of degrees.
"Well," said I, "maybe if she'd been a bit more my size, or I hers...but, as it is, I doubt it would work for either one of us. If you know what I mean."
I felt horribly homesick all of a sudden.
Merry perked up just as I perked down, saying, "Maybe I could find you some more Ent-draught," to make me smile, I suspect. Good old Merry. I did chuckle a bit. I could smell the athelas even stronger in this room. Guess it had taken more of it to bring Éowyn around.
The Lady appeared smaller than I remembered. It was as if she had shrunk. Her long golden hair lay in two braids on her coverlet, and they made her seem younger and less remote, more real somehow. Like they were ropes keeping her tethered to this earth. Merry touched one of them, just barely, with a fingertip. I can still remember the look on his face.
She didn't seem inclined to awaken yet, so we said we'd come back later, then went to look in on Lord Faramir...and who should we bump into in the corridor but the hat lady. Seems her son was among the wounded. She had a younger woman with her that I could see right away was her daughter, and the daughter had a couple of little 'uns, boy and girl. They had all just arrived in the City that morning. The little girl, who was pretty nearly my own height, pointed right at us and yelled, "Mummy, Granny, look at those boys' FEET! They have FUR!!" loud enough to be heard all over the House. Her mum shushed her right sharply and told her to mind her manners. Merry told her it came of eating too much sheep mutton. I'd have to remember that one. It was pretty good.
Introductions were bandied around. I asked about the son and the hat lady said he had lost his left leg up to the knee and it was still touch and go with him, and he was in a lot of pain. I shuddered to hear it. She'd closed up the hat shop for a while, she said. It wasn't damaged too seriously, but nobody was much interested in hats at the moment. She asked if we'd given Gandalf his hat yet. I said we'd planned to give it to him on my birthday, but the Siege had kind of gotten in the way, and my birthday had come and gone without notice. I guessed we'd give it to him just before the coronation of the new King. He could wear it then, since he'd do the coronating, without a doubt.
The little girl asked Merry if she could pet his feet and I don't know what he'd have told her if the hat lady hadn't said, no, dearie, they had to go see her uncle now, didn't she want to come?
Bergil and his dad were in the room with Lord Faramir, who was conscious but not looking so good. Bergil had told me the hat was safe, that during the Siege he'd taken it down into a cellar and hidden it, then locked the door. I told him that was mighty good of him. Just the thought of any of those filthy orcs parading around in Gandalf's hat was enough to make my blood boil, and I said so. Beregond chuckled at that. He looked like he could use a good chuckle, for sure. And a good nap.
I gently set Merry down as I came to stand beside the bed. Lord Faramir gave us a pale smile as I introduced my cousin. His face was sort of gaunt and grey looking, dark circles under his eyes. I guessed he knew about his father by now. Forgetting there was anyone else in the room, I laid my head on his shoulder, and he weakly stroked my hair a little. When I raised my head I saw that Bergil and his dad had gone out. I wished they'd stayed, because I wanted to ask about Mikala.
But right at that moment, she came in, as if I'd summoned her by thinking about her.
She was in black, which didn't do much more for her than the brown, but the clean white apron she wore over it softened the effect. Her pretty hair was braided, as usual, but the braids were pinned up behind her ears this time. She didn't have her basket with her, but she was carrying some flowers. I wished I'd thought to bring some, myself. Her eyes looked a bit red, and my heart turned over, and I went straight to her and we embraced for a long moment. I heard her sniffle a bit, and I gave her time to get over her sniffles before introducing her to Merry.
"I'm so pleased to meet you at last," she said with a hint of a smile. What a girl. "Pippin's told me so much about you."
"I just bet he has," Merry said wiggling his eyebrows at me.
"Some of it was good," I said with a wink.
"Right," he said. "Pip's told me all about you too," he said to Mikala.
"I left out the bad parts," I said. She giggled. I asked her if I could have some of her flowers to take to the Lady Éowyn. She had quite a sheaf of them, so I figured she could spare a few. She gave me quite a handful. Mostly they were daffy-down-dillies, very bright and sunny yellow.
And then she told me, "Oh oh, what do you think? The White Tree is in bloom! It has little buds breaking out all over it."
"I thought it was dead," I said.
"So did I," she said and looked quite radiant.
For some reason I thought of Frodo and Sam. It seemed a good omen.
Mikala went to Lord Faramir and gave him her flowers, then laid her cheek against his shoulder, as I'd done, and he kissed the top of her head. I thought I saw a bit of color creeping into his face, whether because of her or because of what she'd said about the Tree, I couldn't be sure. Maybe both.
Merry indicated to me that we should go out, and I was about to suggest the same, on the pretext of taking the flowers to Lady Éowyn. He didn't seem to need me to carry him anymore, he just leaned on me and hobbled along.
"Merry, I've an idea," I whispered when we were out of the room. "Let's give Gandalf his hat when the buds on the White Tree open."
"Sure, why not?" he grinned.
It was three days before the blossoms opened all the way. In the meantime there was yet another counsel going on.
I told Strider, I mean Aragorn, about the hat--I hadn't gotten around to doing it until then, he'd been so busy with the wounded and all, and Merry told me if I told too many people about the hat, Gandalf was sure to get wind of it. It was hard getting Aragorn out of earshot of Gandalf, I had to practically beg him to see me alone for a few minutes. He was got up really fine now, in the black surcoat with the silver tree embroidered on it, same as I'd had, and I hadn't realized before what a handsome man he really was, though older than I remembered. He looked every inch a king.
I also told him my idea about the ostridge tapestry for the throne room, hoping to get him to laugh, and I think he would have if he hadn't been so worn out and dragged down. As it was, he just chuckled, but then suddenly he touched my cheek and gave me this look I'll never forget. A look full of love and pride like I was his only son and had just done something truly wonderful. That was better than a laugh, any old day.
I'd gotten that look from Gandalf too, after the Siege. Seemed I could do no wrong in his eyes now. And from Lord Faramir, the day he bought my sword.
And from Frodo. Many times, although what I'd done to warrant it, I couldn't remember now. But he made you feel like you'd do anything to earn it.
Never had I gotten it from my father.
Then Str--Aragorn told me about the Counsel. They were planning to march on Mordor, as a diversion to Sauron, to get his attention away from Frodo and all. And I would go with them, representing the "Pheriannath" as they called us hobbits here. If I wanted to, that is. If I didn't, he would understand. In fact, he'd rather I didn't go, but he wouldn't forbid me.
He told me to sleep on it.
The blossoms would be all opened by next day, when I made my decision whether to go or not.
Lord Faramir called me and Bergil and Mikala into his room late that evening. Merry could come too, if he liked. Lord Faramir was sitting up a bit now, although I could see that it pained him some to do so. He wore a robe of a dark wine red, that looked good on him, and he had something wrapped up in black cloth on his lap.
His room was fixed up quite princely. There were a lot of flowers, and a couple of tapestries on the walls. And some expensive-looking vases and things, books, and a really beautiful rug on the floor, a rich coverlet for the bed. No one else in the House had rated such furnishings. I think some of the women had decorated for him. I really had to wonder how his father could have thought so badly of him, when the populace so obviously adored him.
"I am sorry to have missed your birthday," he said to me, "although I know you can understand why I did so. I also regret not having given you all that your sword was truly worth. I meant to have Beregond go and get it appraised, then give you the rest of the money, but so much was going on, it put it completely out of my mind."
"That's all right, sir," I said, taken aback. "You mean, it was worth more? But I don't care, really. And..." I broke off as I saw him pick up what he had in his lap and hold it out to me with both hands.
"I know it isn't the custom where you live to receive presents, that you give them instead," he said with a little twinkle in his eye. "But the customs are different here, and I would like to make you a little gift now."
I unwrapped the black cloth, and--you guessed it--there was my sword! All polished up and everything, and with a brand new sheath of black leather, studded with little white and red gems. Bergil gasped. I could hardly believe it was the same sword; I hadn't realized how beautiful it really was. And something so valuable in my keeping? I think I knew how Frodo felt with that mithril shirt of his now.
Then Lord Faramir proceeded to apologize to Mikala about the incident with the ambassador's son. He explained that it was not Lord Steward Denethor who had given the orders, but he himself. I nearly fell out of my chair.
"Of course I would never have done so if I had known what the boy was really like," he hastened to say. "Certainly he seemed nice and polite on the surface of him. Too much so, in fact, which should have clued me as to his true nature. And I certainly never would have thought that at his age, he would have been saying indecent things to you, my child. You should have come and told me immediately; I would never have stood for such a thing. But I can understand why you didn't."
"Oh, th-that's all right," she gasped, glancing down at her hands in her lap. "So much has happened since then, I'd pretty much forgotten all about it."
"Still I would like to make it up to you," he said with a rueful smile. "The Lady Arwen Evenstar is coming to wed the soon-to-be King of Gondor, and I am going to take you out of the kitchen, which I know you don't like much, and put you in her service. Do you think you would like that?"
Her mouth opened wide. I'd never seen a girl light up the way she did. I guess Bergil had told Lord Faramir about the incident. But he hadn't mentioned that the little rat had said indecent things to her on top of everything else! I gripped my sword hard. Oi--if I'd only been there!!
"Oh myyyyy," was all she could say for a long moment. Then she said softly, "I have heard that she is the most beautiful living being under the sun. I hardly feel worthy of such a tremendous honor."
"From what I hear," he said, "the Lady is also very kind, and Lord Aragorn has known her a long time. He would hardly be marrying her if she were otherwise. But if for any reason you are not happy in her service, come to me and I will find you a position that will suit you. And if any man or boy ever behaves in an objectionable manner toward you again, you come and tell me, yes? I will not tolerate any abuse of my servants while I am Steward here. It's my guess that the ambassador makes free with the women of his service, and his little monkey of a son is already following in his footsteps. Although, perhaps we shouldn't blame the boy so much as his father for setting the example."
"Oh, oh," Mikala exclaimed, looking radiantly first at me and then at Bergil, "I hope she likes me. What if she shouldn't?"
"I cannot imagine why she wouldn't," said Lord Faramir. "With your loving, generous, and cheerful nature, I should think you would suit the Queen exactly. I've also heard you have considerable skill with a pencil, and that she does fine embroidery. Perhaps she'll have you draw some designs for her needlework, what say?"
"I don't know how to thank you for this," she said tremulously and her eyes misted over.
"Perhaps I'm not the one you should thank," he said with a smile over her right shoulder--I was seated on her left. She turned her head to her right. "It was Bergil's idea."
I wish I could describe the look on Bergil's face then. It wasn't quite a bashful grin, or a smirk, or a suppressed laugh, or a pretense at not knowing what was going on, but a little of all those things.
It was adorable.
"In the meantime," Lord Faramir said, "how would you like to come work here in the House of Healing? Just doing little tasks, carrying things, running errands, small clean-up jobs, washing bandages, and such. I'm told you have an effect on some of the patients akin to that of sunshine and rain on flowers."
"I would love to," she exclaimed. "Oh, this just seems too good to be true. I can't believe this is happening to me!"
"And that," Lord Faramir said with a wink in my direction, "was Pippin's idea."
I think I had the same expression Bergil did then as she turned to look at me. It felt like it, anyway.
By the way, Bergil did get his ride on Shadowfax...just in case you were wondering.
It was cloudy next day when the hat-giving ceremony took place by the White Tree, now fully in bloom, but no one took much notice. A great many people were there. All of those such as could get up, even Lady Éowyn--she wasn't really up to it, but she insisted on coming, so her brother and Lord Faramir helped her along. Mikala and her mum and her little sister, who'd just gotten back the day before with her aunt and cousin, all of whom had been staying out on her grandparents' farm. Beregond and those of the Tower Guard as were able to get about, they were there. Legolas and Gimli. Ioreth and the hat lady and her daughter and grandchildren. The kitchen-maids, one of whom, I'd heard, had gotten her nose royally out of joint when she'd heard Mikala was going into the service of the Queen. She'd hoped for that honor herself, being the oldest and prettiest of the kitchen-wenches at eighteen, and she'd been going about saying some spiteful things about Mikala. I'd also heard she'd been the one who'd joked the hardest about my feet.
Lord Faramir should have assigned HER to the ambassador's boy.
There were many, many others. I don't know how the word got around so fast.
The City was still quite a wreck, but our eyes were all mainly directed at the Tree. There it stood, starry white, and the snowy blossoms gave off a soft fragrance like no other flower I knew of. Mikala wore a white dress, and a white flower or two in her hair. I thought she looked perfectly lovely. A pity she wouldn't get her blue dress now, since the dressmaker's shop had been demolished, but she wouldn't have been able to wear it for a long time anyway.
Gandalf appeared a trifle grumpy as he arrived in the company of Str--Aragorn. I could imagine him muttering about what kind of foolishness was going on out here, when any idiot could see it was going to rain? I grinned smugly to myself. I and Mikala and Merry and Bergil had the hat under a large white cloth before us. Some musicians were playing nearby.
"All right, perhaps now someone can tell me what's going on here?" Gandalf said as Aragorn led him to where we were standing. I couldn't hear what Aragorn answered to him. "I do hope this is good. Looks like we may get a shower today, and I can only hope this is over and done with before we all get soaked to the skin."
Then I nodded to the musicians, and they struck up again, and the crowd quietened as I began to sing:
Gandalf, bringer of counsel fair
Leader and guardian, wizard-friend
Teacher and savior, balrog slayer
Fallen master who rose again;
Always you taught us lessons dear
Never faltering in your path
Never flinching from terrors drear
Never daunted by Sauron's wrath.
Now as you stand clothed in wisdom white
Snowy-white, mithril-white, pure as the lily
If we would honor you with a gift so bright
We hope you'll not think us frightfully silly!
Yes, I knew it wasn't very good, but I hadn't had an awfully long time to work on it!
Maybe I could fix it later, if and when I came back from Mordor....
When I'd finished I made a little bow, and the crowd cheered, although not too loudly. Gandalf was just standing there still as stone. Then Bergil handed Merry the hat, still wrapped, and I took it as Mikala stepped forward to place some white flowers in Gandalf's hands. The crowd hushed and the musicians started playing softly once more as I stepped forward and slowly unveiled the hat.
For a moment I was horribly afraid he would think we were having a huge joke on him. He just stood there staring as I presented the hat with another, lower bow. Aragorn had to hold Mikala's flowers so Gandalf could take the hat with both hands, and it might have been my imagination but I was sure I could see his fingers shaking a little. I'd almost forgotten how splendid the hat was, myself. It was even bigger than the old one, and the feather just rode it like...like a cloud on a snowy mountain.
And his face was like the sun rising above a field of lilies as he lifted the hat and put it on his head, and when he turned around to face the crowd, their cheers rang out so loudly that no one noticed the thunderclap that the sky let out, as though it were jealous of all the goings-on in the White City that day.
We could have used him for a lighthouse.