Young Brandybuck-Part 5 - Estella

"Merry?"

Pippin's voice echoed in Merry's ears, but it didn't register. Merry stood at the entrance of the dish tent, his fists clenched at his sides. What lay ahead of him sickened and infuriated him, so much so that he hardly cared about his dampened clothes. Estella was dancing with Manolo.

Not willingly, Merry could tell that. Estella stood at least two feet away from Manolo, refusing to look at him. She had probably consented out of politeness. Manolo, on the other hand, was enjoying himself far too much. He stared at her face, smiling in satisfactory. Occasionally, he would try to touch her hair or her face, but Estella would shove away his hand. Merry didn't know where Fatty was or why he wasn't aiding his sister, for it seemed that Merry was the only one to notice Estella's predicament.

Merry could feel his face burn as he wondered how he could help. Gandalf didn't seem to be near, so he could probably put a stop to this without being missed from the dish tent. Pippin would support him, and so would Fatty. Frodo would be on his side, and a good deal of the junior hobbits there regarded him as jolly. Merry would not be out numbered.

Suddenly, Fatty had appeared.

Atta boy, Fredegar, Merry thought, smiling grimly, Tell him to leave and not pester us anymore.

Merry couldn't hear what went on, but he saw. Fatty tapped on Manolo's shoulder, causing him to turn. Fatty spoke to Manolo, but Manolo ignored him.

Be brutal with him, Fatty!

Fatty tapped on Manolo's shoulder once again. Manolo turned around, giving Fatty a bit of a shove and spouting off something about being nosy. With their voices raised, Merry could hear what was said.

"I've got every right to be nosy about matters that concern my sister!" Fatty shouted, shoving Manolo back, "I said it before and I'll say it again, 'Get your hands off my sister!'".

You tell him, Fatty!

"What's going on?" Pippin had joined Merry at the entrance, intrigued by the ruckus outside. The chattering of the hobbits had died down as most eyes turned on Fatty. But Manolo's next move stunned them all.

He dropped Estella's hand and whirled about, his closed fist connecting with Fatty's jaw. Estella shrieked as Fatty was thrown back into the mob of dancing hobbits. Everyone began taking sides immediatly, crowding around Fatty. Merry and Pippin dropped what they were doing and rushed to Fatty's aid.

"How dare you!" Estella was screaming, shoving Manolo, but he didn't seem to care.

"Calm down everyone, please!" Frodo held up his hands, running to the center of the conflict.

"QUIET!" Merry shouted, at the very top of his lungs. Everyone was silenced.

Merry held out a hand to Fatty, helping him stand. Estella rushed to Fatty's side, nursing his bleeding mouth.

"Manolo, why are you even here if you can't handle proper party manners?" Merry asked, standing in front of Fatty, Pippin, and Estella, in defense.

"I can handle anything I like," Manolo answered, "only--"

"Oh, don't bore us with your lame excuses!" Merry interrupted, "Even if you can handle manners, we can't handle you. I think it would be best if you left." Manolo gaped, indignant.

"Is this a demand?" Manolo asked.

"Yes, it is," Frodo said, joining the group, "Go home, Manolo Proudfoot."

Manolo looked around at the many hobbits glaring at him.

"I'm not finished with you yet, Brandybuck," he told Merry, backing away with his gang.

"Nor am I," Merry answered, watching Manolo turn and leave. Estella joined Merry at his side, leaning her head against his shoulder.

"I can't believe him, Stella!" Merry vented, "He's got gall, I'll tell you that much! I could spit in his eye, Stella, I really could!"

"Let's not talk about him right now, please," Estella whispered, burying her head in his shoulder. Merry looked around, realizing that every eye had turned to them since Manolo had left, as though they all were expecting some explanation. Merry cleared his throat, uneasily.

"He's...not exactly a friend of our's," Merry told them, "But we'll handle him later, so you can all go back to...whatever you were doing." But nobody moved. This was getting a little eerie.

"Go on, play something chipper," Frodo told the band, "Let's hear 'The Old Forest Reel'!"

The band struck up a lively tune, and the many hobbits began to dance again, although every conversation dealt with Manolo. Some decided that He Was A Despicable Character, while a select few decided that Fatty Was Overprotective. Those that knew He Was A Despicable Character quite often shot irritated glances of the Fatty Was Overprotective ruffians, while the neutral Merry Is Jolly stayed near Merry's gang, offering helping hands in however they could help, whether it was Curing Fatty Of His Overprotectiveness or Disposing Of The Despicable Character.

Estella shooed them all away, longing for a few solitary words with Merry. Merry's close cousin, Melilot Moss, and her betrothed, Tolman Bolger, stood nearby, conversing with Frodo. Pippin had brought out a clean damp rag for Fatty's mouth, while Fatty continued to rave about the Nerve Of Him.

Eventually, things began to settle down after a few moments. Melilot placed a hand on Merry's shoulder.

"Tolman is going to wash dishes for you and Pip, so you can have a bit of fun," she said, "I'm going to take Fatty up to Bag End to help out his mouth. You and Pip enjoy yourselves, but no more firecrackers, understand?" Merry nodded, smirking to himself.

"I'll wash dishes with Tolman," Frodo offered. Melilot shook her head, disagreeing.

"No, Frodo, this is your birthday," she said, "I'll help him when I get back. You go on and dance with Daisy."

Merry and Pippin chuckled, in spite of themselves. Frodo gave Melilot a dirty look, then composed himself with an air of dignity. He adjusted his collar and ran his fingers through his dark curls.

"Perhaps I will," he was saying, then looked at Merry with a devilish sparkle in his blue eyes, "You and Estella behave."

Now it was Fatty's turn to chuckle. He slapped Merry on the back and headed up the hill with Melilot. Merry grimaced to himself, wondering how in the world word got around so fast. Then he knew: Pippin. Suddenly, he had a vision of Pippin finding a toad under his pillow and never finding out who put it there.

Merry felt a hand on his arm and looked down at Estella. All she had to do was smile, and Merry was like butter on hot toast: gone in an instant. Estella slipped her hand into his.

"I suppose I'm free to dance now," he told her.

"Come on, then," she said, leading him into the dancing crowd.

Merry looked around: Pippin had found a hobbit-lass from Long Cleeve to dance with, Sam skipped merrily along with Rosie Cotton, and Frodo had found Daisy Gamgee.

Merry and Estella joined in "The Old Forest Reel", a fast-paced, circle dance that involved a great deal of switching partners. Merry, however, kept a good eye out for Estella. She was delightful to watch: always laughing, dark curls flying, and cheeks crimsoning. Merry had never really thought it until now, but she really was beautiful.

The dance made a change to a slower tune, more of a waltz, and Merry had found Estella in time for the transition. They say that once and awhile mortals are allowed moments of perfection. This was one of Merry's.

Estella slipped an arm around his neck, taking his hand in the other, as Merry slipped his free arm around her waist.

"Are you enjoying yourself?" Merry asked.

"Very much so," Estella replied, leaning her head against his shoulder. Merry smiled to himself.

"That's good," he mumbled, resting his head atop her curls.

The world around them seemed to fade as the two young hobbits continued their dance under the shimmering stars and the full-face of the moon.

******

Hours later, Merry trudged back to Bag End alone. He had already parted with Estella, but his thoughts were still on her. She had him tied around her finger, but he didn't care. He was happy, so it was all right. Didn't other hobbits long for her favor as well? Why wouldn't they? Everything about her was stunning, especially her eyes, that seemed to hold the light of the stars like precious gems--

"Brandybuck!"

"Oh, lor, Manolo! Go away!"

Merry was quite perterbed, having his thoughts interrupted. He turned around to face Manolo Proudfoot and his gang of no-goods.

"Can't you take a subtle hint, Manolo?" Merry asked, "Go on and bother somebody else who cares."

"I care," Manolo answered, "I care a lot."

"And it's all about you, isn't it?" Merry asked, folding his arms across his chest, "The whole world revovles around Manolo Proudfoot. You say 'Go' and we're all supposed to race. Let me inform you, though, Manolo, not all of us race to please the Proudfoots--"

"Proudfeet! Great Arda, say it right, you numbskull!" Manolo interrupted, irritably.

"I'll say it anyway that I like," Merry exclaimed, "I'll tell you what, Manolo, a chap can only take so much hatred and rivalry, and I'm about at the end of my rope. I've just had a lovely evening and very good food, and now, I would like to head up to Bag End for a decent night's sleep. Your precense is ruining that wish." Manolo narrowed down his eyes, and took a step closer to Merry.

"When I see a chap, I'll treat him decently," he growled, "All I see right now is an unfeeling beast who had me and my comrades thrown out of the best party the Shire will ever see. I don't treat beasts like that with decency."

"All I can say is that you deserved what you got," Merry answered, standing his ground, "After tonight, I don't intend to give you the pleasure of my apologies. Beat me, spit on me, do what you like, but when it all boils away, you're nothing but a contemptible coward who's not even worth cursing. May you rot at the hand of Melkor."

"You take that back, Meriadoc," Manolo demanded.

"You'll have to fish it out of me with a hot iron and a pole," Merry spat back. Manolo cocked his head and backed away, making Merry wonder if he had truly just won this argument or if this was just a feint.

"If that's the way you want it," Manolo was saying, "then that's what you'll get." He nodded to his three comrades, who had stayed out of the way and in the shadows until this moment. Merry wasn't quite sure what was happening.

The three comrades of Manolo were a Bolco, a Boffins, and a Chubb. That's all Merry ever learned of them. At any rate, they were his attackers this night. The Bolco stepped forward before Merry ever knew what was happening and punched him right in the mouth. Merry reeled back, his head spinning and his mouth aching, still wondering why they were doing this. The Chubb stepped up and kicked him right in the gut, and Merry keeled over, losing all wind in-take. The Boffins supplied all three of them with staves, and with Merry now on the ground in a heap, they began beating him with everything they had. Merry cried out in pain, wondering why no one heard him. He was at the bottom of Bagshot Row and the Gamgees least of all should have been able to hear his cries of help and agony. Blood spilled out from his mouth and his nose, and he could feel his left eye beginning to swell shut. He tried to defend himself, but there were too many of them. And all the while, Manolo stood off the the side, smiling grimly at his success.

At last, they ceased beating him. The Chubb grabbed him by the hair, making him stand and face Manolo. Manolo bent down to look Merry in the eye.

"Don't you see how wrong it is to double-cross me?" he asked.

"All I think is that it's dangerous to double-cross these fellows here," Merry said, "You did nothing." Manolo puffed up and struck Merry in the face.

"Apologize!" Manolo demanded.

"You can't make me!" Merry spat.

"Yes I can!" Manolo hit Merry again and again till Merry thought his face might break. Then at this moment, a beacon of hope flooded across the Gamgee's lawn as light streamed through their open door. Merry turned his head, helplessly, as Sam strode out of the door.

"Are you going to leave with or without me reporting this to the Shirriffs?!" he shouted, in ernest. The Chubb dropped Merry instantly as the gang backed off, leaving Merry in a heap at the bottom of the Hill.

Sam ran to Merry's side, helping him stand. Merry's head rolled back against Sam's shoulder.

"Why didn't you come?" Merry asked, "I yelled for you."

"I'm sorry, Mr Merry," Sam apologized, "Our walls are rather thick. Let me help you up to Bag End."

"They might have killed me, Sam," Merry said, "I hurt everywhere." He stumbled aimlessly, and Sam gripped his arm to steady him.

"One step at a time, Mr Merry, just like the day Mr Pippin was born," Sam was telling him, "Easy now, Sam's got you. What were you doing out so late?" Merry hesitated, wondering what he should say. If he said that he was walking Estella home, he'd never live it down, especially if Pippin got wind of it. He wasn't quite ready to tell them yet.

"I needed to get a drink," replied Merry. Sam paused, looking at him, incredulously.

"You needed to get a drink?" he repeated, "You could have gotten a drink at Bag End."

"I didn't want a drink at Bag End," Merry answered, stupidly. Sam only shrugged and helped Merry the rest of the way to Bag End.

******

Sam stayed awhile to help Merry with his many cuts and bruises. Merry awoke the next morning with a headache to end all headaches. He refused to get up or even eat. He laid in the guest room bed at Bag End, moaning until half past noon. Frodo went out to find Fatty and Estella to cheer him up at around eleven, but came back to find that Pippin got him to sit up and eat lunch and have a spot of tea.

Estella knelt by Merry's bedside, looking up at him with pleading eyes. Merry hadn't told anyone all that had gone on the past evening, and she was determined to get it out of him, even if it meant making him sob like a child.

She placed a hand over his bandaged one, asking:

"Merry, what happened to you?"

The last person in the world that Merry wanted to tell was Estella. Not that she would be angry, but it was because of her that he had been out so late, and only she knew that. She would take the blame, and then Merry would have to resort to comforting her and feeling guilty. Guilt was the last thing that he needed now.

"I tripped," he told her, "I was coming the Hill, and just completely lost my footing, and...I was out."

"Merry, I've already been told that you were attacked by Manolo," Estella said, "at least tell me the truth. What happened?"

Merry looked down at her hand in his, feeling worthless. He had gotten beaten up by a couple of cowardly fools, and he knew he'd never be able to completely thwart Manolo. He was always with his gang. But when Merry looked up at the concerned eyes of Estella, he melted and consented in venting everything that happened.

"...I should have been able to defeat them. I should have seen it coming. I feel so stupid, Stella. He had me right where he wanted me, and I was too dense to see through it."

"Merry, you were outnumbered ten to one--"

"Three to one, Stella. Let's not paint this too black."

Estella grinned at him. He was still her Merry, even with his ego shattered and his nose nearly broken. She stood, kissing him on the cheek.

"Anyway, either way, you were outnumbered. They're the stupid, cowardly ones, not you. You held your ground till the end and I'm proud of you." Merry looked up at her.

"Are you, really?" he asked. Estella nodded, and turned.

"I'll bring you some more tea," she said, obviously changing the subject. Merry nodded his consent, and sat back, humming to himself.

******

Weeks passed and the seasons changed from autumn to winter, and then to spring. Merry spent more time in Hobbiton, with Frodo and Pippin, often romping the woods. He visited Sam whenever he was in town, and saw Estella at least once a week. Occasionally he would run into Manolo in Hobbiton, but he was always with his gang. They would look at him and laugh, and walk the other way. Merry tried not to notice them, or to lose his temper, but both were difficult to manage.

In the springtime, nearing May, Estella's birthday approached, and all three of her "lads", which would be Merry, Fatty, and Pippin, planned on finding something special for her.

At this time, Pippin had gotten a dog, which he had dubbed "Sam" for the dog's coat of redish fur. The real Sam thought this was rather funny and took a liking to the canine immediatly. Everyone liked the dog, saving Merry. Merry regarded the dog as stupid and annoying, and began to dread visiting the Great Smials, for the canine Sam would always cause trouble while he was there. It first began with a missing shirt, that appeared in the garden three weeks later, buried and in shreds. Merry took this rather light-heartedly, until it began happening every time. "Sammy" always took something of his and ate it. Pippin was terribly attached to Sammy and never let Merry discipline the beast for any of its wrongs. As a result, Sammy was the most spoiled dog in all of the Shire. He could eat anything he liked, and nobody ever cared. When Estella's birthday approached, Merry decided to take extra care in seeing that Sammy stayed far away from whatever they got for her.

They planned on taking a day out in the meadows near the Old Forest and picking the largest bouquet of flowers for her. It was the perfect day for it; sunny and warm, but to make it absolutely perfect, the boys decided to take a lunch with them. They stopped up in Hobbiton to buy a loaf of bread, but Merry got slightly side-tracked when Manolo suddenly appeared, alone.

This was the chance he had been waiting for; a chance to take on Manolo without his gang near to absolutely pulverise him. He approached Manolo with the air of a conqueror.

"Proudfoot!" he called out, and Manolo turned, "I've come to settle a dispute." Manolo looked around, realizing he was alone this time.

"Now?" he asked, "Brandybuck, we're in the middle of Hobbiton!"

"Exactly, a chance for everyone to see who really is the strongest," Merry said, "Let's see how strong you are--man-to-man. Or are you too cowardly?" Manolo frowned, gritting his teeth.

"I'll take you now," he said, "Of course I will. Although I don't know why you want to do it in the open. You've already been humiliated in the dark."

"That was unfair and you know it," Merry told him, "Or do you? Do you even know how this game is supposed to be played?" Manolo gave Merry a familiar, grim smile.

"Of course I know how it's supposed to be played, Meriadoc," he said, "Are you asking for a demonstration?"

"I think we both are," Merry said, and Manolo took a swing at Merry's jaw. Merry caught his fist in mid-air and swung it round behind his back, causing Manolo to give a sharp cry of pain.

"You'll pay for that," Manolo told him, freeing himself and backing away. He came at Merry once again, this time his fist aiming for his stomach. Merry lept out of the way, allowing his foot to stand in the way of Manolo. Manolo went straight down onto his stomach. Merry grabbed him by the collar, making him stand, and punched him right in the nose. Manolo returned the punch with a blow to Merry's eye. Merry shoved him back, taking a solid stance, and tackeling him. He dove for Manolo's feet and soon the two were rolling across the dirt, returning each other for punch after punch. At last, Merry gave Manolo a solid, swift kick in the stomach, and Manolo curled up. Merry gave him a few more kicks, allowing him to roll away a little.

Merry's anger had subsided considerably as he watched Manolo huddle helplessly. He walked over to Manolo's side, and, to the astonishment of his opponent, offering him a hand. Manolo hesitated, then took it, and Merry helped him stand. Merry wiped off Manolo's jacket and handed him his hankerchief. Then Merry looked him straight in the eye.

"This is mercy, Manolo," he told him, "Remember this day when I could have taken your life in the streets, but chose another way. I'm sorry, and I hope that you choose a better road to take in life."

Manolo's cheeks were streaked with tears of pain and fear, but his face brightened, almost confused and happy at the same moment. But there was a change. He held out a bloody hand to Merry.

"I am sorry," he said. And the two rivals shook hands. Then suddenly there came a chant of "Brandybuck! Brandybuck!". They looked around and realized that the entire town had crowded around to watch, and every last one of them chanted Merry's name. Then two older hobbits appeared at Merry's side, slapping him on the back, which sent clouds of dust into the air.

"We were wondering when you'd show that lad a lesson," one said, "He's been a pain in the trousers ever since he was a young'un." Merry looked to Manolo and saw that he had turned away to leave. He looked back at the last moment, and smiled at Merry, a nice smile for once, a sign that he was a hobbit forever changed. Merry hoped it was true.

******

It took considerable time to wade through the crowd to find Fatty and Pippin, but at last they were ready to head out to the meadows. Merry thought a good deal about what had happened, hoping that it really did happen. The pain in his eye let him know quite often that it was true. Pippin raved about the great black eye that had formed on Merry's face, but Merry tried not to think about that. Pippin made him tell the story again and again about how he had gotten rid of Manolo while they picked flowers that day. Merry enjoyed every moment of it.

The next day dawned and Merry had stayed the night at the Great Smials. He had hid the flowers as well as he could, hoping to keep them hidden until he took Estella out that evening. However, when Merry opened his eyes, he looked around and saw the pathetic leftover shrubs of the bouquet of flowers, torn to shreds by the canine Sam.

Pippin was down the hall, trying to find a broom to sweep up the mess before Merry awoke. All he heard was a passionate wail from Merry's bedroom, and he knew it might be best to start packing right then and there.

Merry appeared in his nightshirt and collared Pippin on the spot.

"Are you aware of what your dog did?" Merry demanded of Pippin.

"Do you want to know if I know, because I do know, and I know that your going to be angry when you know that I know," Pippin said, quavering. Merry dropped Pippin, finding it hard to be angry at a frightened child. Pippin raced to Sammy's side, taking his collar and starting to leave.

"Where are you going?" Merry asked. Pippin turned.

"We're going into hiding so you don't kill my dog," he said, pathetically.

"I'm not going to kill your dog," Merry said, "He probably doesn't even remember that he did it. He's too stupid."

"He is not stupid!" Pippin defended, "He's a lot smarter than a lot of hobbits I know!"

"I do hope you're not speaking of me," Merry said, frowning.

"I'm not mentioning names," Pippin said, "If I do, we really will go into hiding."

"You are talking about me!" Merry exclaimed.

"If you don't know, I'm not telling," Pippin crossed his arms.

"Pippin, please remember that I'm stronger and smarter than you," Merry said. Pippin frowned.

"You are not!" he exclaimed.

"Prove it," Merry said, crossing his arms. Pippin smirked to himself.

"I refuse to match wits with a lesser man," he replied, but had to run, for Merry was right at his heels.

******

The evening was calm, but Merry felt far from calm. Estella walked beside him, the both of them coming back from dinner. Surely at any moment, Merry knew she would ask about her birthday present and then Merry would have to tell her that the dog ate it. She'd never believe that. It was the lamest ruse anyone could think up, yet it was all true! They were nearing Estella's door, and Merry felt he had to tell her, even if she didn't ask.

"Stella," he said, reaching for her hand, "Pip and Fatty and I had a birthday present for you."

"Had? I don't follow you," Estella said. Merry looked around, as though he were searching for words.

"Well, we went out to the meadows and picked the most beautiful bouqet of flowers for you," he said, "but Sammy got to it this morning, and we had no time to replace it. I really am sorry, Stella." Estella eyes sparkled as she demanded:

"Why did you let the dog get to it?!"

"I didn't! He did it all on his own! Please don't get angry."

"So you're blaming the dog for your lack of a birthday present? Honestly, Merry, I would have thought you of all people could have come up with a better excuse! I'm so ashamed..."

"Stella, I--" but he couldn't finish, for Estella took his head in her hands and kissed him right there on the doorstep. Shock and confusion first filled Merry till it dawned on him what had just happened. But by that time Estella had pulled away.

"I was only jesting," she told him, her eyes still sparkling.

"I rather guessed," Merry said, starting to laugh. Estella stepped back.

"Thank you, Merry," she said, "This was the best possible birthday, even without the flowers. Be sure Pippin gets Sammy good for that one." Merry grinned.

"I'll try," he said, "Good night, Stella."

"Good night, dear." She closed the door behind her.

Merry stood rooted to his spot for a few moments, shocked, but smiling. He stuck his hands in his pockets and turned to head home, whistling to himself. She was perfect. Absolutely perfect.

He had only gone a few yards when laughing and a dog whimper caught his ears.

"Peregrin Took, I'm going to kill you!!"

"You can't catch me, Meriadoc Brandybuck! You'll never catch me!!"

Merry chased after Pippin into the night, with Sammy leading the way.
******
Last post coming next! Look for "Young Brandybuck-Part 6 Coming of Age"!

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