Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash
39. The Turning of the Tide
That had been a strange and awful day. After their long ride, with only the briefest of pauses at Linhir to assist Lord Angbor and bid him follow after them, they had come at last to Pelargir, and that City they had found fallen to the Corsairs. But as at Linhir upon Gilrain, there were no men who would stand against the Dead, neither friend nor foe. In the wake of the Dead they had walked, and found Pelargir's people prostrated with fear as well as their captors. It had been a long night, and the strangest 'battle' any had ever seen or heard tell of, requiring time more than ought else: time, to gather and soothe Pelargir's people once the Dead had passed their homes, so that the Haradrim also left trembling in their wake could be guarded, 'til at last all were accounted for: those who had run, those who had slain themselves in their terror, and those who were wounded in their efforts to escape the Dead. Nor had it been so easy to walk behind the Dead, for though their fear was greater when they faced a man, still, Pippin had been shaky all the way down to the depths of the city where the Haradrim had at last been brought to bay.
Nevertheless, none had complained of it, for when had thirty-three men ever taken a city with so little effort? Certainly it had gained them needed help: Pelargir's lord, once freed from his cell, had knelt to Aragorn without hesitation when he had seen the Dead, and now he and his knights and levies sailed with them to Minas Tirith, manning not only the Corsair's ships, but those of Pelargir's fleet that had survived the assault. That had been three days ago, and Pippin had been grateful for the peaceful journey since then, for if Minas Tirith did not promise to be anywhere near so easily taken, at least none would go to that battle unrested.
Unless you count lack of sleep, Pippin thought, and sighed. For he had been restless the past two nights, unable to sleep for more than an hour or so at a time, and if it were not that Aragorn had set the 'dawn' call early, it would have been a third night of fitful slumber. He supposed that in fact it had been; it was just that being awake and ready so early meant it was a shorter night than usual.
Unfortunately, that simply brought his mind back to matters he had been trying not to think about, namely the reason for the early call. It was not simply the lingering fear of the Dead, who followed upon the river, that troubled him. By all accounts, they would reach Minas Tirith today, thanks to the new wind that had sprung up, and so men were arming themselves, getting something to eat, and generally going over their gear, ensuring it was all properly sharpened, fastened, and oiled. Aragorn and Lord Borald of Pelargir, who had joined Aragorn on the flagship, were in the captain's cabin, going over strategy, or Pippin might have sought him out. Now I miss Merry most! he thought, missing his cousin's comforting chatter. All the other men on board were quiet, and though they sat or stood together in small groups, they all of them had the look of men who had seen much of war, and who had long since mastered the fears and anxieties that plagued one new to the ranks.
He was wishing he had a few pebbles he might occupy himself with by dropping them over the side, or trying to skip them off a foam-crest to strike the hull, when the deck creaked and a hand touched his shoulder. Startled, Pippin looked up to find Halbarad standing there. "Oh," Pippin said. "Good morning."
"Good morrow," Halbarad returned, gravely polite. "May I join you?"
"Of course," the hobbit replied. Nodding his thanks, Halbarad carefully laid the standard—furled upon its spear still—upon the deck and eased himself down to sit with his back to the railing. Reaching into his scrip, he brought out his pipe and a small bag of pipeweed, and began tamping some of the leaf into the bowl. Raising a brow at Pippin, he asked:
"Would you care for some?"
"Please," Pippin replied, eager for a little distraction, but pleased moreover by the offer. Although Pippin had grown accustomed to Halbarad's presence since Dunharrow, since he rode ever with him or with Aragorn, he was nonetheless somewhat surprised. Rangers, he had discovered, were more dour as a group than alone, and not much for talk or comfort—not as hobbits understood such things, at least, although Pippin thought the Grey Company had warmed to him somewhat, and particularly Halbarad, who seemed to sense his concern for Aragorn and approve of it. Or else he knows Strider is worried about me, he thought, which often times seemed a far more likely reason for the Ranger-lieutenant's quiet interest in him.
There was silence for a time as pipeweed and matches were passed back and forth, and the first taste of smoke savored. But eventually, Pippin glanced aside at his companion, and thinking of Aragorn and their mutual concern, he felt anxiety merge with unhappy suspicions. Why has he come here this morning? he wondered. And after a moment, he asked hesitantly, "Is everything all right?"
"What do you mean?" Halbarad asked.
"I mean, I just thought you would want to be with Str—Aragorn and Lord Borald. You know," Pippin gestured vaguely, "helping plan things."
Halbarad grunted, but he did not seem offended, and indeed, his next words reassured Pippin. "We have spoken already, but I have no knowledge of Minas Tirith, nor any great experience in leading so many as this. Lord Borald shall serve Aragorn better than I in such matters. Besides, I have my own duties, just as we all do."
"I suppose so," Pippin replied, and stared at his toes.
"You suppose so?" Halbarad repeated, raising a brow.
"Well, of course we do. I'm just..." he paused, groping for words.
"Frightened?" Halbarad suggested, though not unkindly.
"I think I've been scared since September. Not to say that I'm not now, but it's more than that." Halbarad made a polite noise of encouragement, and Pippin frowned, plucking at a strand of curly hair that hung down in his face. "I don't know. I asked to be here—Aragorn didn't want to take me along, and I didn't truly need him to take me, I guess. I could've gone with Merry, but I wouldn't let it go without arguing. Now I am here, and I have this horrible feeling... as if I don't belong here, or as if I won't be able—" He broke off, flustered and frustrated, and gave Halbarad an anxious, pleading look. "Do you know what I mean?"
Halbarad seemed to consider his words a moment. Then: "No," he replied, and shrewd grey eyes fixed upon him. "Say what you fear, then I can say whether I know it."
Why was it so hard to say things lately? Pippin wondered. The words were there, but they stuck in his throat, and he could feel Halbarad's eyes upon him, pressing him silently, 'til it all came out in a rush: "I'm afraid I've bitten off more than I can chew." He swallowed hard. "I'm not a warrior, Halbarad, that's why I'm supposed to be guarding the healers. Everyone can see I don't belong here. But I've got to be; I promised I would, but I'm afraid I won't be any good at all." So he spoke, and ducked his head, jamming the pipestem between his teeth so he would have something to bite other than his tongue or lip.
To his surprise, Halbarad only chuckled softly, but without scorn or pity. "Well," he said, "that makes two of us."
"I beg your pardon?" Sheer surprise made Pippin look up again at his companion of chance the past few days, who had never given Pippin the impression of either fear or anything less than a masterful competence in the business of war. He gestured to the mail and sword Halbarad wore. "You've been doing this for years!"
"War is not the same in all places. I have ridden with elves against orcs, 'tis true, but never broken a siege, nor been a standard-bearer. The North's battlefields are not made for such things," Halbarad told him.
"Oh." He had never thought of that before, yet it made a great deal of sense. And it was comforting to think he was not alone in his fearful self-doubt. Still... "Aragorn must trust you despite that, if he wants you to be his standard-bearer. I feel as if my being with the healers is only because he couldn't keep me on the ship otherwise, but didn't want me in the way."
"You are no doubt right to think so," Halbarad replied, and Pippin blinked, surprised by this admission. The Ranger quirked a brow, and his lips curved in a wry smile. "You thought I would deny it?"
"Well, I-I..." Pippin stammered, but in the end, he simply nodded.
"I have been at war for many years, and though I have never sailed a ship, or broken a siege such as this, or carried a standard, I have been Aragorn's lieutenant for a long while. Were it my decision, I would do as Aragorn has done with you," Halbarad said, cocking his head to look Pippin full in the face. "Better you smart from the wound to your pride than die for the flattering of it, and perhaps drag others down with you."
At that, Pippin flushed, for put so, at least some of his suspicions about Halbarad's presence here—that he had come to have a covert eye on the one he most mistrusted to carry out his duties—seemed awfully... foolish, or selfish. If it were flattering my pride to put me anywhere on the field, Strider wouldn't have done it. That's good to know... I think. Lowering his eyes, he stared at the deck for a bit, squirming uncomfortably.
Finally, he snorted, and shook his head and said, "I don't know what's wrong with me, even. I never cared about such things before I left the Shire. Now I'm here, and everything is out of place, and I just... I want to do one thing right and well, but I don't see how I can. Maybe I should have stayed behind, or gone with Merry—at least we'd have been safely on board a horse!"
Halbarad snorted. "I should not envy your cousin his seat," he said, which response but drew other, darker fears in and set them to gnawing at each other.
"Do you really think we shall win this, Halbarad?" Pippin asked in a low, anxious voice, lifting his gaze to search the other's face. "Or do you think Strider is letting me in because he knows it won't matter? Is that why he's asking you to be a standard-bearer, and me to go with the healers instead of staying on the ship?"
The Ranger-lieutenant said nothing for a time, considering Pippin through the smoke that curled up from his pipe. But eventually, he sighed and said, "I cannot say. Aragorn seems to believe it is possible, with the help of the Dead and the men of the Ethir and Pelargir. But what he believes himself, that I do not know, for he is also my captain. And a good captain does not tell his men that he believes a battle may be futile."
"Then he does not seem," Pippin pressed, and paused a moment, searching for the proper word, "more grim than usual to you? More, ah, distant?"
"Given the circumstances, not particularly. Pippin," Halbarad said then, "whatever Aragorn may believe, he may be right or he may be wrong. We shall learn soon enough how the battle shall go. Think of what you must do, and do not look too far ahead: that is your duty, nothing else."
Pippin sighed. "I just want to know he's all right," he said softly. "I don't know your Captain Aragorn, you see; I just know Strider," he said, glancing up at Halbarad with a thoughtful frown. "But lately, I get the feeling Strider's been away more often than not." And remembering Aragorn's strange reply to his question that night by the Erech stone, he added, by way of worried conclusion, "And I don't know that he likes being Elessar very much, if that's who he is when he is a captain."
"I see," Halbarad replied after a moment. And he looked away, tipping his head back to stare up at the flags on the mainmast, letting his hands dangle limply between his knees. Pippin followed his gaze whither the flag of Umbar beneath the red eye of Mordor fluttered. A trick of appearances, to play the pirate and so have the advantage of surprise—so Pippin had heard. "Being a Ranger is a lonely life very often, and a hard one. But it is one all of us know, whereas this... " Halbarad gestured to the deck that was fast becoming crowded. "Even Thorongil has not known this time and place, nor any like it."
"Thorongil?" Pippin asked.
"Aragorn never told you about that? Ask him later. It makes an interesting tale," Halbarad advised, with a slight smile. Then more seriously: "If he does not care much for Elessar, then well that he can be Strider with you sometimes, if he likes that part better. Take care today, therefore, for he should come to like this new name even less, were you to come to harm."
"I shall try to," Pippin said, and got another not unkindly chuckle for his fervor.
"Just remember to keep to your feet, and that a warrior is vulnerable where his armor does not cover him: the face, under the arm, at the neckline or under the chin—"
"And above the knee and below the hem of a mail skirt or the edge of a breastplate," Pippin finished the lethal litany. Aragorn had said the same, and Boromir as well. And Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Elrond's sons back in Rivendell when we were waiting on news... He shivered. "I don't know what's worse: knowing there are so many ways through armor, or that someone bothered to find them all!"
At that, Halbarad's hand closed on his shoulder, squeezing firmly, and he looked up to see the other gazing down with entirely too much sympathy in his eyes. But he said nothing, save: "The time draws near. We should rejoin our companies."
So saying, he rose, emptied his pipe over the side, and then returned it to his scrip. Pippin followed suit, and Halbarad stooped swiftly, then hefted the standard and inspected it briefly to make sure it was still properly kept, ere he turned his eyes to the bow of the ship, where, dimly, towers could be seen awash in a red light.
"It has been a long road," he murmured, then turned to Pippin once more. Grave grey eyes regarded him intently. "Are you ready?" he asked quietly.
Am I? Pippin wondered, briefly. "There's no help for it if I'm not," he admitted. But then he nodded, determinedly. "Yes, I am ready."
"Are you well?"
Which was an even harder question to answer. "I think so. Frightened, but there's not much help for that either. Is there?" Pippin asked, gazing hopefully at the Ranger.
Halbarad shook his head. "Only the dead feel no fear."
"Right, then. I suppose that I am as well and ready as can be," Pippin sighed.
"Good. Then off with you, and I wish you good fortune, Master Took." With that, Halbarad gave him a nod, and started off toward the Rangers who were congregating now near the gangway.
Pippin turned, and began to move astern, towards the archers with whom the healers would go, but then, struck by a thought, he stopped and called after the departing Ranger: "Halbarad!" The other paused, turning back to him. "You'll be careful, too?"
At that, Halbarad smiled, and he made him a minute bow, ere he called back: "Never fear!" Satisfied, Pippin bowed in return, then crossed the deck to where the healers waited, checking satchels and adjusting the long daggers at their belts. One of them, an older man with a scarred face—Minharin, he had called himself when Pippin had been assigned to him—gave him a slight smile and a nod. Pippin nodded back and gripped the hilt of his sword anxiously.
Just as he took his place among them, the cabin doors opened, and Aragorn and Borald emerged. The Lord of Pelargir went straight to the prow, where his knights waited, but Pippin scarcely noticed him. For all that Pippin had discerned a definite change in Aragorn's demeanor since Dunharrow, many might not have remarked it, for to look at him, he seemed unchanged. He had after all kept to his usual habit: grey cloak, mail borrowed from the Rohirrim, and of course, Andúril, but other than the sword, he had remained, so far as the eye could tell, the nondescript Ranger of somber mien.
But this morn... Apparently the Dúnedain had brought more than just a horse and standard for him when they had come south from the Angle: bound to his brow was a jewel that glittered with a clear light, and the mail he wore was not of Rohan. Of older make it seemed, and black, like a dragon's scales. Andúril he wore as usual, but his cloak this morn was clasped with a green jewel in the shape of an eagle—Pippin remembered Galadriel had given him upon their departure from Lórien. And for all that Pippin had found it ever easy to look to him for guidance, this morning there could be no doubt who commanded. Heads turned, and men straightened unthinkingly as he passed.
Halbarad bowed as Aragorn approached, and then clasped forearms with his liegelord, and the two of them spoke together thus quietly, while Aragorn surveyed the deck and the men standing ready there. Halbarad must have said something that caught his attention, for he glanced quickly back at his lieutenant. Pippin fancied he saw a brow raise, ere Aragorn bowed his head. But to his surprise, when he looked back up, he seemed to be laughing, and he squeezed Halbarad's arms tightly ere he released him and began a final inspection of the companies. To each commander he listened while they gave their reports, then spoke briefly in return. A nod and a salute would be exchanged, then he would move on.
At length, he came to the archers, and to the junior knight of Pelargir who had been assigned to lead them. They conversed a little, ere Aragorn, who had let his gaze wander over the faces of the men, spied Pippin standing there among the healers with their red arm bands. It was just for a moment, and then he went back to attending what the other said for awhile more. But the discussion ended swiftly thereafter, and somewhat to Pippin's surprise, rather than return to the prow, and Lord Borald, Aragorn walked down the line and stopped before him.
"Pippin," he said, and when Pippin did not speak immediately, but only stared, a wry look came over him. "Join me a moment," he requested, and tilted his head slightly, indicating the main mast, which was yet clear of men. Once they had retreated thither and gained some space, Aragorn knelt so they could see each other without craning their necks, and said dryly, "I do not look much the Ranger in this, I fear."
"No, you don't," Pippin replied. But then he smiled a bit, and said, "But you do look like a prince—like Elessar, I imagine." A pause, then: "It becomes you, I think."
Aragorn smiled slightly. "Thank you," he said, and Pippin sensed it was not simply politeness that spoke. "I would ask," Aragorn continued then, and gratitude became gravity, pure and simple, "whether you truly desired to fight in this battle, but I doubt it would serve any good purpose, or that your answer has changed. So I ask instead: do you know your part in this?"
"I do." Pippin lifted his chin slightly and forced a smile that belied the queasy feeling building in the pit of his stomach. "I promise, Strider, I shall be as careful as I can, and keep the healers from harm."
"Then that shall have to suffice," Aragorn sighed, but held up a hand, staying him when Pippin opened his mouth to bid him farewell for the time being. "One other thing, Pippin," he said gravely. "In Gondor, it is traditionally understood that healers and their escorts do not leave wounded behind. If the battle goes ill, then that may mean helping them to slay some who might have been saved if only—"
"I know, Aragorn," Pippin interrupted, drawing himself up in an effort to seem reassuringly soldierly in so serious a matter. "I will do what is needed." Aragorn was eyeing him closely now, and Pippin lifted his chin bravely, trying to meet the other's eyes without wavering. He was in fact rather proud of himself, that he did not flinch when he finished: "And I won't need to do that, because you're going to get us into Minas Tirith, and we are going to win. Aren't we?" And when Aragorn did not reply, only regarded him gravely, he added in an undertone, "Just please say, 'yes,' Strider."
At that, Aragorn's expression softened—something about the eyes, as if they lost a certain opacity and let a little of feeling shine through to light his face. Laying his hands upon Pippin's shoulders then, Aragorn leaned forward and kissed his brow. "I shall see you in the City," he murmured.
And that was all. Without another word, he rose and left Pippin standing there, and it occurred to Pippin in an instant that he was glad he had not been allowed to say 'farewell' after all. As he rejoined the healers, Minharin, who had gathered his two younger colleagues and a pair of esquires on guard duty into a small group, asked:
"The sooner it's over, the better," Pippin muttered.
Minas Tirith was clearly visible now upon the banks before them: flame engulfed the first circle, and smoke obscured much of it, though the Citadel could still be seen, pale and desperate, above the reek. From where Pippin stood near the railing, he could see the docks and men gathered there. From the fields, they could hear a great noise: battle and destruction and orders shouted in strange tongues. In the face of it, and of the burning city, all aboard were silent with a sort of dread, though eager, anticipation. Of a sudden, Aragorn, who had taken up his place before the gangway, spoke, his voice carrying above the wind:
"Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinomë maruvan. But not I alone: the charge of Elendil is given to all who dwell in dark times. And so I say unto you, heirs of Elendil by birth or by blood shed: from the waters we have come, and here we shall abide, and make our stand upon these shores until death take us or this day is won! Here we stand, and fear no darkness, for day shall come again!"
As he spoke, he drew his sword, Andúril gleaming silver-white in the dimness, and Halbarad unfurled the flag at last. Pippin gasped, for upon what had seemed a black standard at Erech glowed the silver outline of a tree and crown, and there flashed seven jewels. Sword and standard reflected each other, and as men cried out, Aurë entuluva!, a great gust of wind filled their sails. Pippin shuddered, then, for he knew that breeze: the Dead had come. Mist-pale, they rushed past the ships and made for the docks, and the men there cried out in terror, fleeing the shades. Then, as the ships came at last to berth in Harlond, men flung down the gangplanks, and with a roar, they spilled onto the quays and hurled themselves into the fray. Some distance behind them came the archers, spread out in rows of two, and as they walked after the knights and men-at-arms, they shot over their heads into the ranks of the enemy that came onward.
Pippin and the healers walked with them, in the gaps between the broad columns, waiting for the time when their services should be needed. Ordinarily, they would have been busy almost immediately, but the Dead gave Aragorn's companies the advantage: the fear of them had sent the enemy fleeing back into the ranks of their fellows, so that wherever they passed, men parted in waves. Thus for the first little while, the only bodies they happened upon were those of enemy soldiers wounded in their efforts to flee or by the blades of their assailants, and the archers took care of any such wounded with brutal efficiency.
But it did not last forever. The shades had their orders: after Pelargir, Aragorn had taken care to choose their targets, and today, the Dead were not concerned with orcs or Men, beyond clearing the docks. For having seen how all men were affected by them, Aragorn feared to cause a panic among Gondor's defenders, or any other allies who might be upon the field, with disastrous results. Therefore, the Dead let them be but went straight for the mumâkil and the beasts that drew the engines and wains, the trolls, and of course, the Nazgûl, whom the King of the Dead himself strove with and destroyed. Such creatures as men find hard to face, the Dead hunted over the field, and they stopped up the broken gates so that few would dare to approach.
Once the terror had passed, therefore, Sauron's creatures remembered themselves, and they flung themselves back against their assailants, though there was much dismay and confusion now. For even as Aragorn's men had pressed forward, taking advantage of their enemies' disorderly retreat, so also had the Rohirrim, and now also the Swan knights issued forth, daring the gates and the ghosts to strike at their enemies. But still, the Dark Lord's forces were not prepared to surrender just yet, and where they did stop and stand, the fighting was fierce.
Thus Pippin found a use for his sword at last, for as the healers bent over their wounded, foes more lightly injured, or wounded not at all broke through the front lines to threaten both the archers and the healers. The first such was one of the Haradrim who, more crafty than his fellows, had lain as though dead until the archers were upon him, and who had then leapt up, scimitar in hand, to ravage their lines. Two men had fallen immediately, surprised and without defense; another reeled out of the line, dropping his bow to clutch at his stomach. But ere the Southron could swing again, he had cried out, and one leg had buckled. He had sunk to the ground, pressing a hand to his hamstrung leg, and Pippin, with a cry, had driven his sword home, and flinched when bright blood spattered hot upon him. Afterward, he had stood there panting a moment, staring down at the dead man, whose eyes stared back, seeming wide with surprise.
"Master Perian!" a voice had called, and Pippin had shaken himself and looked over his shoulder to see Minharin look up from examining the wounded archer's belly. "Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine..."
"Good, then eyes forward, lad! Look to those lines!"
And so he had obeyed. Since that first fight, there had been others, and Pippin tried not to think too hard about any of it, just followed along and slashed at what came near, struggling with the esquires to keep Minharin and his assistants clear of any dangerous distractions. Things seemed to be going well enough for a time, but suddenly there came a cry: "Trolls!"
Trolls? Pippin caught his breath, for trolls they were indeed: a whole mass of them. Whether they were immune to the fear of the Dead or else had been driven by them to this point, they came now, bellowing with rage. No cave trolls, these, either: taller, broader, and armored, these were Olog-hai, bearing whips and maces, and although the archers hastily loosed upon them, and the spearmen set themselves against them, still they came on... and with them, through the gaps they rent in the forward lines, orcs and Men of Harad or of other far countries came, making once more for the archers... and the healers. Then arrows became scarce against the trolls, as those directly in the path of the charge forsook bows after one or two more volleys and went to their swords or daggers to save themselves, and their fellows further from harm turned their arrows on the advancing press of foes.
"Gondor!" one of the esquires cried out, slashing at an Easterling, who ducked and brought his axe down so hard, he clove the lad's shield nigh in two. Ere the esquire could recover, he was on him again, and Pippin flinched as the lad went down, and one of Minharin's assistants with him. The old healer himself swore, and drew his dagger as he stood over his patient with his remaining esquire against the wave of foes that seemed to wash over them like the sea over the shore.
For his part, Pippin swiftly realized precisely why Aragorn had been so reluctant to take him along: he quickly lost all sense of where he was in the battle, and more than anything, he found himself simply trying to stay out of the way, not to be trampled underfoot, or to trip his own, and fearful, in all the confusion, of perhaps accidentally stabbing at one of his own fellows. He did fell a few orcs, and even one or two Men, but a knee slammed into his head, knocking him half-senseless to the ground, where someone else knocked the breath from him when he tripped over him.
Desperately, Pippin climbed back up, one hand pressing his aching skull, and wove among the forest of legs 'til he stumbled at last into an open space. Well, open save for the bodies there, which he scrambled back from, seeking some escape or a place where he could pause for a moment, but there were always more corpses. Grey and green: the colors leapt out at him more than the faces. Grey and green, and some with red bands about their arms: friendly colors. Minharin? Of a sudden, a body fell right before him. Pippin froze, staring at it, and then with horror looked up to find himself somehow nearly upon the front lines.... and in the shadow of a troll, no less.
Backpedaling furiously, Pippin glanced around seeking some safety. But behind him, men still struggled with the mob of orcs and Haradrim and Easterlings; and before him... Before him, down the line, even as he looked on, one of the trolls made a sudden snatch into the middle of a crowd of men, and the standard of Pelargir was plucked from their midst... right along with the standard-bearer, who screamed as the troll grasped his arms overhead and ripped him apart in a gory spectacle.
Merciful heavens! Pippin felt sick, felt faint, but some instinct warned him against it. Stand up, Pippin, you've got to stay standing up, or it is over! And for all he wanted this battle to end, he did not wish to end it with the dead.
Lifting his eyes once more, and gasping in great, aching lungfuls of air against the black spots that still threatened to grow and engulf his vision, he stared up at the clot of men before him. Amid the spears flew still the White Tree and stars and crown of Elendil, and a mass of grey cloaks. Rangers! Rangers indeed, and it seemed that they knew their business: several of them had a troll on the end of their spears, seeking out the weak points in its armor to plant their weapons and so pinion it, driving together to force the troll back.
But troll's hides are thick, and their rage great; in an unexpected turn of affairs, the troll dug its heels in and pushed back. Spears sank deeper into its flesh, but it freed one arm, gripped the hafts of several spears in its broad hand, and squeezed. They broke, and the other spearmen staggered as the troll twisted, ripping free... and then it charged right back in, wielding its mace. Pippin saw men go down in a spray of blood, as grey-cloaked figures loomed suddenly large before him, indeed all around him as the Rangers retreated, bearing their standard with them. But the troll was swifter than its cousins in Eriador. Darting forward, it beat two men aside, narrowly missing Pippin only because he was short enough to duck beneath the mace with little trouble, but on the backswing—
"Halbarad!" Pippin cried out in dismay, as the Ranger was swept off his feet and landed in a heap some little distance away. The troll, seeing this, roared its triumph, but Halbarad was not quite finished yet. Gasping with pain, he tried to rise, to push himself up on one elbow, but his face was ashen, save where blood flowed from a gash on his brow, and he collapsed back, pressing his right arm close to his body with his left. A shadow fell upon Pippin, and he looked up to see the troll stooping over them both, one grasping hand extended to grasp and rend his victim...
Above the knee, below the edge of the mail. It flashed through his mind in a heartbeat what he must do, and without thinking, he acted. With a wordless cry, he flung himself forward, ducking under the troll's vast girth, and small as he was, he had only to raise his sword and straighten up. The tip of the blade went in beneath the armor, right up to the hilt, and Pippin, shouting still incoherently, simply ran. The troll shrieked, and jerked back, nearly wresting Pippin's blade from his grasp, dragging him to his knees as he struggled to keep a grip on it.
There was much shouting then, and the sound of arrows striking flesh, ere men swarmed about him again: more men with spears to deal with the troll, though from the sound of it, there was little left to deal with. Pippin, however, remained where he was, shivering violently, panting, sickly aware of the hot blood and viscera that drenched him and dripped now onto the ground. But after a little while, he staggered to his feet, wiped at his face, and made his unsteady way over to where Halbarad still lay, curled now onto one side.
"Pippin?" he wheezed as the hobbit reached him.
"You're hurt," Pippin said, rather unnecessarily, and jerked his hand back when Halbarad winced at even a light touch to the shoulder. "I'm sorry! I don't know—"
"Captain!" Another figure joined them—one of the Rangers, sword drawn as he knelt, and Halbarad let go his injured arm long enough to gesture impatiently to the standard that lay nearby.
"Go! I am done here," he hissed through gritted teeth, and the other nodded.
"Aye, sir." To Pippin's surprise, the man gave him a nod of approval and a flicker of a smile, ere he sheathed his sword and moved to take up the flag and Halbarad's place in the line, to the sound of a joyous, vengeful chorus of "Aurë entuluva!" The hiss of massed arrows overhead told of the archers' lines reformed behind them, apparently having succeeded in defending themselves against the onslaught. Before them, ranks were reforming, doubling up, and Pippin, following the standard of Elendil, caught a brief glimpse of a familiar face standing by it—Aragorn, who as it happened, was staring right at them. Pippin started to raise a hand, to signal that all was well, but by then, he had already turned away. Pippin saw Andúril flash blood-red as Aragorn led the charge that surged forward once more.
Which left him still with one badly wounded Ranger, and the hobbit looked about desperately for red arm bands. A ways away, he spied a healer and an assistant, and he rose then, waving his arms overhead as he shouted: "Over here! Help me over here, please!"
The healer looked up from his current patient, then lifted his chin in acknowledgment, ere he bent over his work again with a sharp word for his helper. Pippin nodded, relieved, and crouched by Halbarad's side, then, murmuring, "It's all right. The healers will come in a moment."
"What about Aragorn?" Halbarad demanded, thrusting Pippin's concern aside, and pained grey eyes sought his. "Did you see—?"
"I did. He's fine, I think; at least, he was still fighting just a moment ago. I think he saw us," Pippin replied, and Halbarad uttered something prayerful and sighed. Brow knit with worry, the hobbit asked, "Can I do anything? Should I—?"
"No. 'Tis just a headache and a broken arm," Halbarad grunted, and then winced. "And maybe some ribs," he amended, hoarsely. "Yourself?"
"Me? Oh, I'm fine. Scraped knees, maybe," Pippin said, managing a smile for the other.
"Good." Halbarad closed his eyes, and Pippin listened worriedly as the other sucked in a ragged breath. Then: "Thank you for my life, Peregrin Took."
"Well, I didn't want you to miss the dagger," Pippin said after a moment, feeling his cheeks heat a little. Was that a laugh? he wondered, and was relieved when finally the healer arrived. Pippin stood then, moving a little ways away to stand with his sword drawn, watching the battle that raged on, in case any enemies should break through again, or rise up from the appalling carpet of corpses.
But none did, and after a short while, he heard his name called, and hurried back to find the healer helping an unsteady Halbarad to his feet. He had done something clever with the Ranger's cloak, pulling up a hem and pinning it so that Halbarad could rest his arm in the make-shift sling formed by the folds.
"Those who can walk, we are sending back to the ships," the healer told him as he approached. "He will need to get his ribs wrapped to help his breathing, and that arm will need better care than this, but he should be able to make the docks. It would be better, though, if he had help."
"I will go with him, then," Pippin confirmed, and the healer gave him a weary smile, clapped him on the shoulder, and then handed Halbarad off to the hobbit.
"Go slowly, and be mindful: the archers may not have got all the enemy wounded, or they may flank us yet," he warned. So saying, he moved on to find his next patient. The slither and hiss of steel drew Pippin's attention back to his charge, and he frowned up at the Ranger, who had his sword drawn in his left hand.
"Halbarad, you cannot truly think to rejoin the battle—" he began.
"Should we come upon aught," the Ranger explained tersely, and left it at that, unless it were to swing the sword once or twice, giving it a quick twirl, as if to assure himself of his grip before he lowered it to his side. "You should go with the healers—I can find my way back."
Pippin shook his head. "Minharin is dead, and I'm more use here. After all," he said, and shrugged, "I'm not really a soldier. I only came because I wanted to keep an eye on Strider, and help him if I could. I thought I would help best if I could follow him into a battle, like everyone else." He paused and looked up at his wounded companion. "Maybe I am some use there," he concluded, "but I think I can help best right now if I see you back to the ships." For you he needs safe and whole, Pippin thought, thinking back to their conversation on the ship; Because if he doesn't care for Elessar, he can't be Strider all the time, either.
Either Halbarad understood him, or else he was simply too weary and pained to argue any longer. With a tired nod, he acquiesced, and they began making their halting way south to the quays.
Thus it was that Pippin did not see the defeat of the mumâkil, or the driving of the enemy from the field. He did not see the retaking of the First Circle, or the final hunting of the Haradrim and Easterlings in the far holds of the farmsteads. He was not present when, at long last, the lords and captains of three realms met in the midst of Pelennor, and spoke in grave counsel upon the bloody greensward where the standards of Rohan and Elendil, of Pelargir and Westfold and Dol Amroth flew now unchallenged. Nor was he there with the assembled hosts to see the lifting of the veil of fear from the gates of the City when the Dead at long last departed, their oath fulfilled and service blessed. And he was not there to witness the Captains of the West, bearing with them biers upon which rested two young men, one fair and one dark, in sorrow ascending to the Citadel, where Imrahil knelt before the white-faced Steward of Gondor, and laid a great horn upon Faramir's breast, and said:
"Your sons have returned, lord, after great deeds."
A/N: I would like to thank those who helped guide me towards some articles on the duties of standard-bearers, Gwynnyd and Shadow975 in particular. I owe special thanks to one especially helpful soul who prefers to remain anonymous, but who was instrumental in helping me understand both the task of a standard-bearer and the tactics I have tried to incorporate into this chapter. Thank you, sir. All mistakes, inaccuracies, and wild exaggerations from these and all chapters are of course my own.
Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinomë maruvan.—"The Steward and the King," RotK, 274. "Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide."
Fear no darkness—"The Ride of the Rohirrim," RotK, 122.
Aurë entuluva!—"Of the Fifth Battle," Silmarillion, 238. "Day shall come again."
"Your sons have returned, lord, after great deeds."—Cf. "The Siege of Gondor," RotK, 103.
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