A/N: written for Marigold’s Challenge #7 (pre-Quest; first phrase “____? Is everything all right?”)

“Esmie? Is everything all right?”

She had laid the letter upon the table, her face in her hands, fighting to hold back the tears that she knew would only frighten her little son who sat nearby, buttering his toast to the very corners. She heard the creak of her husband’s chair as he reached across the breakfast table, the faint rustle of paper as the message was read and folded closed again. Soft footfalls approached and his hand was on her shoulder, warm and solid. She pressed her cheek to it.

“How long, do you think…?” he asked softly.

“I don’t know, but I think I will pack right away. Things cannot go on this way… The children…”

His fingers tightened a little before moving to smooth gentle circles against the back of her neck. Such a comfort he was to her, her young husband, though it was years since either of them could truly be called young. Love and laughter had kept them so, even in the face of grief and impossible frustration, and she felt so very lucky in that instant, almost guiltily so… She looked up to watch her little boy munch happily on his breakfast, idly drawing in the small spill of milk upon the table, entirely unaware how fortunate he was to have the simple, uneventful life he had been blessed with, here in the heart of his family and the home that had sheltered his ancestors for so long. Thoughts winding back to her brother’s children, she swallowed back a sigh.

Motherhood was not always the happy gift it was intended to be, and for some rare few, it was a kind of curse that turned fair day to blackest midnight, and reduced the bright soul it held in its clutches to helplessness. His brother’s wife had fallen prey to it, time and again, and now, despite all their hopes, it was returning once more. Just like the last time, a letter had come as it did every week or two, full of the happy mundane chatter of life, save for a single phrase, which Esmeralda had come to dread.

“Eglantine is a little tired.”

Pale euphemism or willful blindness on her brother’s part, it simply meant that in a day, a week, possibly two, another missive, more urgent, would come, and she would fly across the River and the Green Hills on the fastest pony she could handle to take her nieces to ‘visit’ their Tuckborough cousins, until her old friend returned from the shadowed recesses that lay hold over her heart. It had caught them all by surprise after Pearl’s birth, but by the time Pervinca had arrived it was obvious that it would be the norm, this slow descending spiral of lassitude and unreasoning grief. It had never seemed to make a difference whether the newest child bounced merrily at her breast, or lay cold beneath the ground, born too soon. Why they continued to refuse the healers’ advice and aid was beyond everyone’s comprehension, and Paladin’s pride left no room for explanations. The children kept coming and the dark spell simply took her. There was naught to be done but wait and hope.

“I will go tomorrow,” she said, rising from her seat, cold tea and toast forgotten. “I have things to fetch in Bucklebury, dear. Will you excuse me to your mother this morning?”

“Certainly.” He kissed her cheek gently, gray eyes clouded with worry. “Come on, my Merry-lad, let’s go give old Delilah a curry and a canter.”

Esmeralda watched them go, her son giggling happily as he clung to his father’s broad back. She sighed, knowing her brother would not welcome her unexpected arrival, but if he was too stubborn to understand the need to tend things before they came to crisis, then she would have to make him see reason.


The baby was still crying.

Pearl had snuck her little sisters down the hall to the kitchen as soon as she had heard the door shut behind her father shortly after dawn. Tiptoeing past the silent master bedroom to the other end of the small smial, she had settled them on the bench in the courtyard with a bowl of sweetened milk and day-old bread, garnished with a fresh peach from the generous tree that overhung the gate. It would have been so much easier if she had been able to safely manage the small fire in the hearth, but she was all of fourteen and had been strictly admonished never to do so without an adult present. Pearl knew others might not be so careful in following the rules, but she had always found that ruin followed the foolhardy and she had no need of further disaster in her life.

When she had stolen back in to fetch clean clothes for Nell and Vinca, she had heard the baby’s hiccupping cry rise from the closed room, and now, half an hour later, the pitiful wails continued echoing in the still house. Cautiously opening the heavy door, she found what she had dreaded all this week and had tried so hard to ignore. Her mother was laying upon the wide bed, curled about a ragged pillow, eyes open and unfocused in the semi-dark. Picking up the screaming infant from the handsome crib, Pearl gently patted his little back but he had been upset too long to settle down right away. Quickly changing him into dry clothes, she brought the baby back to the bed.

“Mama? Mama, he’s hungry…”

The pale form upon the bed failed to respond, only the slow motion of her breathing stirring the shambled sheets. It had been this bad the last time, though there had been no warm babe to offset the strange spell that took her mother to this dark place. Pearl had hoped, had prayed and pleaded with every power her young imagination could contrive, that it would not happen this time. A dark wave of helpless fury rose in her throat, a hateful scream she bit back at the last instant, knowing it would do no good. It was happening again, and they would be split up, farmed out to cousins for weeks or months to suffer the whispers and the stares, until their mother returned and they were at last called back. All this month, her mother had slowly declined, sleeping away the largest part of the day, but she had managed somehow to suckle the newest of her brood until today. Pearl had worked herself ragged to conceal the situation from her father, still hoping to see a turn for the better this time. In the middle of harvest and short on help, he was gone from dawn until dusk, and it had been relatively easy to fool him. One excuse or another always served well enough to explain away her mother’s absence when he came home, and Pearl had Nell’s help this time. But now her baby brother cried his hunger against her thin shoulder and her mother would not move. There would be no keeping this from him.

Pearl sighed, giving her mother a last hopeful shake. She responded no more this time than she had before, and the young girl gave the wailing infant a gentle squeeze and carried him from the room. Perhaps if she found a way to feed the baby, they might buy themselves a little more time, maybe long enough for her mother’s state to improve.

This was, however, easier said than done, and by some strange twist of fate, as her frustrated tears joined her infant brother’s and the spilled milk from the cup he had kicked from her hand, her father strode into the sun-drenched kitchen.

“Oh, Pearl…”

His voice, far from angry, was heavy with sudden unhappy comprehension. She looked up and he knelt by her, wrapping his strong arms about them both.

“My sweet, brave Pearl, why didn’t you tell me it had gone this far?” he murmured, brushing the tears from her face.

“I just hoped…”

“I’m so sorry, love, I should have seen… I had hoped too…”

“Please, Da, don’t send us away,” she begged, new tears sliding down her face. “I’ll take care of everything, I promise, but please…”

“It’s for the best, my Pearl.”

“No, it’s not! Nell’s had nightmares every night this week, and Vinca’s just too small to understand… This is bad enough, but at least we’re together! Please…”

The sound of hoof beats and sudden laughter cut off his answer, and he rose, taking the whimpering babe from her arms. A moment later, the door swung open to reveal Esmeralda’s dusty figure, framed by her two little nieces.

“Esmie… What are you doing here?” her father said, and Pearl could hear relief and resentment mingle in his tone.

“You know very well why I am here, Paladin, and it looks like I’ve come just in time,” she replied curtly, swinging little Vinca up onto the kitchen bench beside her sister. “Hello, then, dear Pearl,” she said softly, patting her wet cheek and giving her a tight smile.

The young girl returned her smile as best she could, seeking hope in her aunt’s face. The small nod and squeeze on the shoulder told her that the answer to her prayers might well have ridden in today with the dark-haired hobbitess.


“His little tummy should survive this for a day or two,” Esmeralda said, propping her two-month old nephew against her shoulder to coax a burp after his improvised meal. Pearl was too grateful to see her little brother sated to wonder where her aunt had come by her knowledge of a remedy to their dilemma, albeit a temporary one. One short hour after Esmeralda’s arrival had seen a welcome change in the smial and even her father seemed relieved. He had not gone back to the fields, but sat at the kitchen table, absently peeling a small stack of potatoes.

“Here you go, Pearl,” Esmeralda said, handing the young girl the now placid baby. “Why don’t you take this lad into the sun and run your sisters in the back meadow for a while.”

Pearl almost refused, knowing it was their future that was about to be discussed, but she could feel the tension in the room rise again, could see the way her father’s shoulders drew back just so and her aunt’s smile tighten again to a thin line.

She would simply have to trust her elders and hope for the best.


A pregnant silence filled the tidy kitchen for long minutes as the sound of the girls’ singing dimmed with the distance. Esmeralda groped for the words to commence the awful conversation that was to come, but despite thinking of little else since the letter had arrived, she was still at a loss for words. She finally blurted out the question that had burned her since she’d walked into this room.

“How could you let this happen again?”

“I didn’t let anything happen, I didn’t know… Pearl…”

“Paladin Took, you’re a fool! How could a fourteen year old so deceive you unless you turned a blind eye? You know how it is for Tinne at times like these, why were you not watching?” Esmeralda demanded accusingly, one delicate fist smacking the table.

“How dare you come in here to berate me in such a fashion!” Paladin suddenly roared, rising to his feet to stand over her.

Esmeralda merely stared back at him, completely unimpressed by the flare of temper he had always used to shut out what he could not accept.

“I dare because no one else will, dear brother, and your children deserve better than this.”

Her voice was quiet but firm, and he could not long hold her eye. It was awful to see him crumble, shoulders bowed as he slumped down on the bench. Always they had been strong together, growing up in the silent smial with their widowed father. But these years of imperfect bliss, as babes bright or blighted followed each other amidst alternating misery and joy, had worn what small merriment was left to him. That he was helpless to stop the wreckage of his little family was hard enough to bear in solitude, but now, before her knowing gaze, there was no refuge in anger, and so, he broke.

“I don’t know what to do, Esmie…”

His voice rasped from constricted throat, words barely reaching her, and she moved to sit beside him. He leaned heavily on her shoulder and she could see the silver that already streaked his auburn curls.

“Trust me. Let me help you this time, to find a real solution.”

“And just what do you propose?”

“You need time to care for Tinne and a proper healer to advise you.”

“But the harvest…”

“Hang the harvest! Or would you rather bury your wife?”

It was cruel, and she flinched at the harshness of her own words, but she couldn’t let him fool himself any longer about the situation. His face paled beneath the gold of sun, and she watched the thought filter through reason to his heart. The stark terror that welled in his eyes gave her better answer than any words could and she drew him close, as much to comfort him as to escape the sight of the fear she had drawn forth.

“It will not come to that,” she murmured fiercely. “I promise.”


A few days later.

“I’m sorry, darling. I should have known to watch him more closely when he took my answer so quietly. I didn’t notice him until we were halfway to Hobbiton already.”

Esmeralda sighed and shook her head, a rueful smile softening her irritation. She looked down and beckoned to her lad who stood almost hidden behind her husband. He rocketed into her arms, nearly knocking her down.

“I’m sorry, mum, I just really missed you and I know I shouldn’t have but I really couldn’t wait and I thought maybe I could help and it’s been so long since I came here…” His little voice piped on into the soft cloth of her apron.

“It’s alright, Merry,” she said, leaning down to catch his eye, and she put a hand on his small shoulder. “But now that you are here, you will have to do your very best to be helpful and stay out of the way, alright? Things are very serious here, my lad. Your aunt isn’t well, and she needs quiet. Do you understand?”

He nodded, round face looking very sober and serious for his age, and she smiled a little to take the sting from her next words.

“It was very naughty of you to hide away in the coach to come here, and you must have given your poor grandmother quite a scare. You’ll need to apologize to her when you get back. And you are going back with your father and your cousins tomorrow. No complaints,” she admonished as his mouth opened to protest. “You are already in trouble and I expect you to be helpful and obedient from here on in.”

He nodded again, pouting ever so slightly, but trying hard not to show his disappointment.

“Now, why don’t you go on to the back meadow to find Nell and Vinca. I’ll call you all in to tea as soon as it is ready. And absolutely no swimming!” she called after him as he scampered over the hedge, not two feet from the open gate.

“I’ll go mind them in a minute, love,” her husband said, wrapping a strong arm about her shoulders. He looked down into her face, where the strain of the past few days must have been woefully obvious, because he frowned and slowly shook his head. “Esmeralda Took The Unconquerable, what’s got you low today?” he whispered, fingering one of the sweaty curls that had strayed down upon her cheek.

She couldn’t help but smile a little, revived somewhat by the words and the memories that underlay them, of the sunny days of their long courtship and the muddy misadventure that had earned her that less than lady-like nickname. She sighed and looked up at him, taking strength from his familiar face.

“It is as bad as I’ve ever seen it, Saradoc… I’m almost afraid to send the girls off.”

“Now, Esmie, let’s not get over-dramatic. Things will be just fine, don’t you worry. Has that brother of yours let you do what was necessary?”

“Yes, for a change. The family is taking care of the harvest so Paladin can spend more time with Tinne. The healer, Mistress Goodchild, came well recommended, and I can see why. She can sweet-talk and trounce equally well, and she is very knowledgeable. She’s also found us a wet-nurse for the lad… I still can’t believe young Pearl managed the situation alone for so long. But the poor girl is spent and terrified. None of them should have had to see their mother like this.”

“Well, it seems to me that all is well in hand. It will just take time, as it always has, and care, which you have no little store of.” He placed a gentle kiss on her forehead and another, less innocent, behind her ear. “If any love or will can move mountains, yours can.”

Her fingers tightened against his broad back, splayed on the light linen of his summer shirt. Moving mountains seemed light work against the task she had set herself. The blank darkness in her friend’s eyes had not yet been altered by action tender or harsh, and the profound silence of that chamber seemed to have settled there for eternity.


The nights were the longest. Little Peregrin was not the same sort of baby her Merry had been. Restless, voracious and disordered, he rarely slept more than two hours at a stretch, though he should have by now. Bright-eyed and charmingly alert by day, he was equally demanding by night, and there was no denying his cries, which Esmeralda imagined would have woken every soul in Brandy Hall if she had followed her original plan to take him there with his sisters. But for all his volume, he was a small babe, fine featured but thinner than she suspected was right, and she had decided to make one last attempt at bringing Eglantine out of her state enough to properly feed her son. Milk was milk, but it was a mother’s love that made a child grow round and happy. There was simply no substitute for it.

Pulling herself exhaustedly from her bed in the next chamber, she drew on a robe and slipped into the room, plucking the whimpering baby from the crib.

“Tinne… Tinne, wake up,” she said, her voice firm beneath the blurriness of sleep.

Paladin’s tousled head rose on the other side, outlined in the pale light of the unshuttered window, and she could hear him whisper softly to his wife. A breath of words Esmeralda could not hear came from her tense form, and he rolled from the bed to stump wordlessly from the room. Esmeralda came round to where she could face her friend and she saw the slight shimmer of tears track down across her face. Lying down upon the still warm sheets with the crying child between them, she reached to put a hand upon the other’s shoulder.

“Tinne,” she said softly. “Tinne, you have a job to do, and I know it’s hard and hateful and dark where you are now, but this is something only you can do for him.”

Eglantine caught her hand in hard fingers. “You don’t know… You can never know,” she murmured through clenched jaws, and the captive rage behind the words rivaled in its intensity the hollow despair in her eyes.

Steeling herself against her own horror, Esmeralda forced herself not to wrench her fingers from her grasp.

“That cannot matter right now! You may stay here in the dark for as long as you want, but he has done nothing to deserve this!” she hissed back.

“I’m so tired…” she sobbed, though Esmeralda could hear her fumbling with the ties of her nightgown.

She scooted the baby closer to her friend and heard him whimper more insistently, catching his mother’s scent. Supporting the infant’s back, Esmeralda laid her head upon the pillow and gently stroked Eglantine’s back, feeling the shake and shudder of her sobs slowly quiet as the soft sounds of the nursing baby filled the warm space between them. How many times had they lain like this as girls, whispering secrets and dreams late into the night? Where had the sweet companion of her youth gone, she who had been the witness of her every trial and tribulation, saucy grin hidden behind her demure façade. Could nothing call her back? Esmeralda could still see the tears continue to course down onto the bed and she leaned her forehead to her childhood friend’s, brushing back the curls that lay lank upon her cheek.

“It’ll be all right…” she whispered. “I promise you, it’s just a passing thing, and I won’t leave until the sun shines again, I swear.”


Two months later, as the leaves of autumn fell through the golden air of another dawn, Esmeralda held her eyes resolutely to the road that passed beneath the hooves of the matched ponies Saradoc urged eastward. Turning back on the seat she shared with him at the front of the coach would only have revealed what she knew lay behind, the seemingly tranquil smial and gardens, and her brother’s little family standing in the front court, awkwardly grateful and pathetically relieved that the nightmare was over. For now.

Her husband passed a hand round her back and she leaned into him, laying her head against his shoulder as they passed the turn that tucked the road into the hills and out of sight. And suddenly she could no longer hold back the exhausted fear and sorrow that she had kept at bay so long. She melted into angry tears against his broad chest and felt rather than saw the coach slow and halt on the low verge. His strong arms enfolded her without a word and the little world of darkness she had just escaped poured out of her in great sobbing gasps. As the storm passed, leaving her drained and shaky, he handed her the wide handkerchief from his pocket and she scrubbed at her face.

“I’m sorry…”

“No, no…” he shushed, stroking her hair. “It’s been a long spell, I’ll warrant, and no holiday. But Eglantine and the lad looked well enough to me. You’ve done it, my heart.”

“This time.” She fought back another surge of tears.

“There will not be a next time. You said you’d got their agreement…” he stopped mid-sentence as she shook her head.

“It will hold no more this time than it did the last, I’m afraid. I cannot move this mountain far enough to keep it from falling in the river…”

He gathered her tight against him, and she felt the unaccustomed thrum of anger in his normally easy nature, but it peaked and fell quickly, and the steady heart she had come to rely on beat loud in her ear. He pressed a kiss against her temple, determination behind the tenderness.

“Brandy Hall is always big enough for more. No matter how foolish their parents may be.”

One hand still keeping her close, he clucked the ponies into motion. Esmeralda gazed over the green hills that guarded her childhood home. Perhaps, someday, something more than sorrow and dire need would draw her back; perhaps the newest cousin to her little lad would be the last product of her brother’s folly; perhaps this year would bring change for the better.

‘Regardless,’ she thought silently, cradled in the compass of her husband’s calm strength, ‘Regardless of the cost, these children will have refuge and love. Even against madness and pride.’

A/N: big thanks to Ariel for the beta!

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