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Falcon, The: The Adventures of Peregrin Took: 11. The Mountain of Er
Pippin spat out sand and looked around. The night was deep and still in the passing of the storm. He was half-buried in a freshly-built dune. Tempest stood by a pit from which she had freed herself. She was breathing deeply but otherwise was apparently unharmed, grooming her forelegs and flicking sand from her hindquarters with her tail. She saw him and snorted in disapproval.
“Well it seemed like the best available option at the time!” Pippin told her. He looked around for Leah, and was alarmed to see what looked like her head facedown against the sand.
“Leah!” he cried, trying to squirm free.
Leah stirred and lifted her head. Her face veil kept the sand from her mouth and nose. “Pippin,” she said, seeing him. “Are you well?”
“Yes,” said Pippin, relieved. “Just rather stuck.”
“As am I,” said Leah. She struggled briefly and got one arm free. “Miraz,” she called to Tempest.
Tempest neighed and came to her. Leah reached for one of the stirrups and clicked her tongue. Tempest pulled her free.
Pippin watched this with a frown. “She’s my horse,” he told Leah.
“Then why was she in a market in Umbar?” Leah asked, coming to free him.
“We were raided by pirates—oh, nevermind.” With Leah’s help Pippin pulled himself from the sand. “Ugh.” He took off his cloak and shook it out. The elven-cloak was whole; Leah’s veils and headscarf were slightly torn but still serviceable. Pippin’s tunic fared worse.
“I just got this,” he complained, slipping it over his head and beating the sand and dust off as best he could.
Leah chuckled, checking and fixing Tempest’s saddle and saddlebags. “Mery left us traveling food, and some skins of water; and fodder for Miraz. The food should last long enough if we’re sparing.”
“That never does sound encouraging,” sighed Pippin. “How long till we get to your tribe?”
“We will be meeting them at Geber al-Eria, the Mountain of Er. If we ride at some speed, using the hadim valleys, stopping as little as possible, we will arrive at the oasis of Bet Pallan beneath the Mountain in time for the Feast of Purification.” She winked at him. “Does that sound good to you, Pippin?”
A feast? “Absolutely,” said Pippin.
After a brief rest and a sip of water Leah took Tempest’s reins and, with Pippin at her back, took them all into the deep desert. The fearless slave girl Pippin had come to know revealed a truer side of herself in the wilderness: a tracker and rider of great skill. She found ways through the pathless sand to the dry valleys where the rare and violent rains carved out rocky beds through arid plateaus. She knew the signs of water under the soil, and how to get nourishment for Tempest from the oldest and driest-looking of thorn shrubs, which, along with the occasional date palm, were almost the only growing things they came across.
There was plenty of animal life, however, to his surprise. In the dry valleys Pippin saw large antelope with long, slanting spiral horns that Leah called addax. She made sure to follow them as often as she could, for they could sense edible vegetation as if by magic, keeping Tempest fed. Among the rocks Pippin also found small leaping mice with long hind legs like springs, and amused Leah by trying in vain to catch one, ending up covered in dust and feeling like a tweenage fool. But he saw how Leah laughed, and he was happy to entertain her.
There were birds as well, including bustards with striking black-and-white wings in flight, that on the ground one could have tripped over as a rock. Pippin occasionally saw eagles, and the sight of them warmed his heart, as they glided majestically upon the winds, coming down on a small animal they had spied with their gifted sight. Once, Pippin saw something smaller, and more pointed, high against the sun: a wanderer falcon.
Nights were surprisingly cold, and Pippin was glad for the blankets Mery had provided for them. Leah built small fires when they camped, usually among rocks if they could help it, in the lee of a dune if they were out among the ergs. The absence of cloud made for starry skies Pippin had not known in such thickness except on the clearest days at sea on the Mormegil. He found that he could see the Sickle of the Valar to the north and, at the same time, the diamond-shaped constellation he had first seen with Poclis in the south. He asked Leah if her people had a name for it.
“That is the Sign of Er,” she said, and reverenced it, bowing her head and covering her brow with both palms. Pippin, uncomfortable, didn’t pursue it, but at night, gazing at the four stars amidst all the countless others, he wondered about everything he still didn’t know.
Eagle owls hunted at night, and once, among seared hillscapes, Leah had espied a thin, lynx-like cat drowsing on a rock. “Stay close to me,” she said. “That cat is big enough to take a child.”
“I’m forty-one,” Pippin told her.
Startled, she stared at him. “What else have you yet to tell me?”
One night Pippin woke to hear a wondrous shimmering sound. They were camped on the edge of an erg by a flat gravel plain. Pippin was cold and woke to pull his cloak tighter around himself and inch closer to the fire, when he heard the sound like music. He looked around, but saw nothing but the distant dunes, shifting in the breeze.
He asked Leah about the sound the next morning.
“It was the dunes,” she answered. “Sometimes when they move, the grains rub against each other in such a manner as to make a kind of music. We call them the singing dunes. They are a sign of good fortune in certain circumstances.”
“Ours, for one.”
“Well that’s good news.”
The journey from the Valley into the desert was one of a hundred leagues and more, but Tempest was swift and almost tireless when she ran, and the miles passed quickly. Pippin found it unlike any other of his wanderings to date. He was heading for a friendly place, or so he trusted, as Leah was the daughter of the chief of these people, this Prophet; he was on Tempest, a meara of Rohan, to whom distance was a challenge and not a hindrance; and he was with Leah.
The latter did have one drawback, however. At night, Pippin was sometimes stricken by a restlessness, knowing she was sleeping nearby. Sometimes when it was particularly cold she huddled with him, doubling their blankets and holding him against her body. Pippin was at a loss at how not to embarrass himself at those times, which made him glad for the cold and gladder that his tunic was long and his breeches loose. Still, how could she not know, he thought; but Leah said nothing, and only laughed when he made her smile.
It was their twelfth night out in the desert when Pippin saw the unicorns.
He woke from a dream of Faramir and Denethor, which he disliked whenever it came. They were camped in a small oasis, where by the tracks it was clear travelers had passed by very recently. Leah had been excited, as if she guessed who these people had been. She had washed and changed her clothes into black and indigo garb, the colors of her people’s clothing, and encouraged Pippin to do the same. Pippin had faith in his cloak, but changed his tunic anyway. All of a sudden, he wasn’t quite so happy to be nearing friendly faces; that meant the day he would part from Leah was hastening near.
Now he sat up and looked up at the stars and counted those that fell while he gazed. One. Two. Three. Five. Five it was. He looked west, but Earendil was absent. The Moon had set early, young and thin, and only the stars were out. Leah was sound asleep. So was Tempest, who had the uncanny talent to fall utterly asleep on her belly with no trouble whenever she felt like it. Pippin remembered when he used to be like that.
A shimmer of light, a dance of movement on the edge of his vision, caught his attention, and he crouched, ready for anything.
There were living creatures frolicking in the starlight upon the cold dunes. Pippin squinted, trying to make them out, but it was they who suddenly galloped down the slope of the dune to the oasis pool to drink.
It was a pair of unicorns, a stallion and a mare, and Pippin’s eyes misted at the sight of them, even though he had never seen their kind. Some hearts are etched with a memory of unicorns; his was such a heart. Both were smaller than horses, like ponies, and graceful as gazelles, and their fetlocks were fringed with curling hair like hobbit-feet. Their thin, brush-tipped tails swirled like ribbons as they drank from the clear welling pool where the starlight was brightest on the water. Their horns seemed made of that starlight.
Pippin didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t breathe, watching the unicorns quench their thirst in the starlight. But for some reason the unicorns looked up, and looked at him, and Pippin knew they were judging him by the glitter in their pale, pale eyes. Then, with grace and satisfaction, the mare dipped her muzzle back into the pool, and her mate followed suit. And Pippin let out a breath he hadn’t know he had been holding.
Before another day passed, they came to a camp of travelers, dressed as Leah was dressed, in black head-coverings and veils and indigo robes. Leah was welcomed as a kinswoman, and Pippin as an honored guest as was their custom; and traveling together with the small caravan, they came to the massif in the midst of the desert, where grass grew in winter, upon the slopes of a solitary monolith.
“Geber bet-Eria,” Leah said in joy and reverence. “Look, Pippin. There is the Mountain of Er.”
Geber bet-Eria was a monolith, where in some long-gone past a hill of ancient stone some thousands of feet tall had partially collapsed, leaving a sheer cliff-face above a glissade of rocks and gravel now tamped down by the ages into something of a floor. The road to the campsite wound through a dry valley leading up to the ancient rockslide, where upwelling pools of bitter water created an oasis of palms and shrubs and even grasses.
The canyon floor, a mile wide at the widest, was half-filled with tents that seemed to blend into the rock and soil. Horses, thin-limbed and wide-hooved, roamed in a fenced enclosure by the oasis. The murmur of children reached Pippin’s ears, as did the barking of pointed black-and-gray dogs, and the tell-tale din of a few hundred people. Women, long veils trailing in the dust, were carrying immense baskets of wood and kindling toward the Mountain. Pippin passed them, seated behind Leah, seeing himself in the women’s dark eyes.
They neared a tent as large as any hall Pippin had seen outside Minas Tirith. There he had his first glimpse of the warriors of the Erites: tall, fierce-eyed men, with black turbans and indigo robes, wielding cruel spears like halberds and with curved swords at their side. They resembled the Haradrim of his memory, except for their colors—indigo, not scarlet—and that their swords were not scimitars but more like Elven blades. More than twenty of these stood outside the great pavilion, and their eyes noted the new arrivals with impassivity. Many had, on their shoulders or on thick leather braces, tamed hunting falcons.
“Medzhaim,” Leah told Pippin.
From the tent emerged a man dressed as a Medzha, with eyes like Leah’s, amber and deep. He paused at the threshold, beholding the travelers, and then pulled down his face covering, revealing a young face with a small, light beard and three small triangles tattooed in an arc on his left cheek. Visibly overjoyed, he shouted, “Leah!” and hurried to her.
Leah dismounted and ran into the young man’s arms. She parted her face veil momentarily to kiss him on both cheeks. He did the same. “I have missed you,” she said in Westron.
The young man frowned, saw Pippin, a diminutive grey shape all alone on the great black mare, and understood.
“You’re late,” he replied in the language of the West.
“I was delayed,” said Leah, leading the handsome young man hand-in-hand to Pippin and Tempest. Pippin’s stomach was churning.
“Pippin,” said Leah, “this is Obed ben Zedek of the Eraim bet-Eria, acolyte of the Prophet and the youngest captain of the Medzhaim in living memory. Obed, this is Peregrin Took, wanderer of the far north, heir of Suzat and knight of Gondor.”
“At your service,” Pippin muttered.
“May Er smile upon the hour of our meeting,” replied Obed. “How come you to my sister’s company?”
Pippin blinked. “S-sister?” he repeated unthinkingly.
Leah’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “Obed is my little brother,” she said. “Did you not know?”
Obed looked from his sister’s face to the that of the halfling, and summoned all his resolve not to embarrass their guest any further by laughing out loud. He could see clearly all that was between the two.
“I look forward to hearing your tale,” he said. “Come. Father is here and will be pleased to see you.”
Pippin expected to be taken directly before Leah and Obed’s father, but instead he was led to an antechamber in the pavilion where he could cleanse himself and even bathe his face and hands. “Don’t wash your feet,” Leah warned him.
That seemed strange, but Pippin, accustomed to washing his feet only before getting into nice clean bedclothes (and sometimes not even then, leading a scolding from his nurse and Paladin), didn’t argue.
He was in his underthings when Leah reappeared.
“Give me your breeches,” she said.
“You should knock!” Pippin exclaimed.
“I have seen everything you have to show,” Leah rejoined merrily. “And how should I knock in a tent?”
“I’m sure you have some quaint and exotic custom to the same effect.”
Leah smirked. “I brought you this,” she said, and tossed him a bundle. Pippin replied with his balled-up breeches. Leah shook them out and wrinkled her nose exaggeratedly. “You will find another pair in that bundle.”
“You sound like my sister.”
“All of them.”
Leah chuckled. She watched Pippin unfurl the clothes and examine them until he felt her gaze. He looked up at her, conscious again of his state of undress, a flush spreading beneath his sunbrowned cheeks.
“I am not your sister,” she reminded him, before leaving Pippin to his own devices.
Dressed and clean, he presented himself before Leah and Obed. “How do I look?”
He had on the new pair of breeches of creamy Sakharin linen, made by Iset hobbit-style, and the embroidered black Medzhain camiah Leah had given him, and the leather vest from Iset, and his elven-cloak. Around his waist was the black and silver belt of Gondor, and around his neck the lion’s tooth pendant of the Plains, beneath the clasp of the green, gleaming mallorn-brooch. He had combed his curls as best he could, gold where the sun had touched them, chestnut near the roots, and run his fingers through the curls on his feet. The bronze Sakharin dagger was strapped at his waist, worn pirate-fashion. Trollsbane, bright with use, was sheathed beneath his left.
Obed glanced at his sister. Leah was quite silent. “You embody your name, Wanderer,” he said with a bow.
Pippin looked down at himself. “I do?”
Leah nodded slowly. “You look very handsome, Pippin.”
A smile spread across Pippin’s face. “I’m glad you like it, Leah,” he told her.
They went from the small antechamber to the center of the pavilion. It was a wide space large enough for forty people to stand or sit comfortably, and almost that many were there with room to spare. The floor was covered with carpets. Men in black and indigo sat and reclined on cushions encircling a clear space before a low chair; women sat in a semicircle behind it. Sitting in that chair was a man of many years who rose as Obed, Leah, and Pippin emerged into the enclosure.
In after years Pippin never forgot his first meeting with Zedek, the Prophet of Er. He was not a particularly tall man; he was barely taller than his daughter, and much shorter than his son. He did not have the air of authority of Denethor, and at first glance was as unlike unto Aragorn as a laborer’s cup was to a silver grail. His clothes were less rich than those of the Erite chiefs gathered around him. But as Pippin approached he saw something in Zedek’s eyes he had seen before only in Gandalf: a hidden power, a majesty veiled, and wisdom that as he came closer Pippin thought lit the man from within, like a living flame. And if Gandalf’s power was of an eternal sort, Zedek’s was that of a merely mortal man who had not only glimpsed eternal things, but dined with them, and slept on them, and meditated long in their light.
Zedek spoke warmly in their tongue, and Leah and Obed knelt and bowed long and low, until Zedek spoke again. Then they rose, and stepped aside, and Pippin took a short breath and stepped forth. Leah spoke, and he heard his name—Ràzanur Tûk—and he bowed, not as they had, but the best and most formal he knew how, the way he would bow to Strider if Strider were the sort to let him.
“Peregrin Took, son of Paladin Thain of the Shire, Knight of Gondor and Guard of the Citadel,” he introduced himself formally. His voice died, and then a light entered his eyes like emerald flame, and he straightened and finished, “Companion of the Fellowship of the Ring.” And though he spoke in Westron, it seemed clear from their faces that they understood him, and knew something of the War of the Ring. "At your service and your family's."
Zedek addressed him.
“The peace and blessings of the Most High be upon thee and thy family, Peregrin son of Paladin, traveler from the north,” said the Prophet. His Westron was both simple and antique. “Er most merciful has led thee to this place, at this hour.” He gestured. “In his name, and in gratitude for thy aid to my eldest child, I welcome thee to my tent and my table.” He indicated the place at his right hand as everyone else rose and shifted.
Pippin looked uncertainly at Leah, who nodded. Feeling quite conspicuous, he went to the place prepared for him. Obed joined him. Leah sat in a circle behind the men, close to her father.
Zedek nodded solemnly. The chiefs and elders sat, as well as Leah and Obed. But Zedek had not. Confused, Pippin didn’t know what to do.
“Please, sit,” said Zedek.
A woman came bearing a laver of clear water. She laid it before Pippin and rose. Then, to Pippin’s shock, Zedek left his seat and coming before him knelt, unwound a cloth from his robes, dipped it into the water, and began to clean Pippin’s right foot.
Obed touched Pippin’s arm as Pippin started to protest, dismayed and awestruck. Pippin saw Leah also still him with a glance.
He swallowed again, and sat humbled and awed, as the Prophet washed the residue of wandering from Pippin’s big, weary feet.
It had been some time since Pippin had been able to eat so much. The Erites, at least on their feast days, were not pecuniary in their table. Pippin had his fill of spiced millet and savory lentils and onions with wild rice, stuffed quail, roast leg of lamb, and more. There were desserts of candied lemons, goat-milk custard flavored with wild honey and cardamom, even a rich porridge of rice mixed with young cheese, cinnamon, and sugar. The dates were glorious. He had second helpings of everything and third helpings of each dessert.
There was sweet, strong wine, and barley beer, and coffee, which reminded Pippin of Bag End (it was such a Baggins drink, coffee). There was also water. water of the springs of Bet Pallan, but a little honey and wine vinegar made it go down smoothly. When the men began to produce pipes, Pippin’s eyes grew huge, and he all but ransacked Obed’s jacket for what the man said was an extra one, much to Leah’s mirth. “What are we smoking? What are we smoking?” Pippin kept asking, all manners forgotten, hoping against hope it wasn’t anything poppy-related.
The men laughed as servants appeared carrying small jars. Pippin, at Obed’s nod, opened one, and sniffed.
“We discovered the plant many generations ago in the lee of the mountains by the ocean,” Obed explained. “It may have been brought by the tall men of the ships in the days of old.”
Pippin nodded. He didn’t quite care. He had not smoked a thing since some vile poppycake with Brogar the Easterling back on the Mormegil, months and months ago. At his first puff, he thought all his suffering and hardship to this point was indeed forgiven.
When the music began, Pippin had a full belly, a deep cup of beer, and a full pipe. He bobbed his head in time to the music, puffing, sipping beer, burping once and not being shushed. He looked over to the women, and Leah was watching him, her smile apparent through her sheer veil.
He smiled back.
Pippin, feeling ill, asked his leave from Zedek, a bit unsteadily, and went for a walk in the cool of the evening. In every tent it seemed some feast was underway. Music, singing, laughter of many voices, the squeals of children—all of it came to his ears and sank deep into his heart, and for a moment if he closed his eyes he imagined he was in the Shire, and that it was cool grass instead of cool sand between his toes.
He found his tent, pitched for him that evening, set aside by itself in the lee of a rock that would shade it even in sunlight. It was not a very big tent for a man, but to Pippin, used to sleeping on a bedroll beneath the stars in days fair or foul, it was a great luxury. He nodded at Tempest, tethered nearby, and went inside, investigating the lamp and the bedding and the carpets and everything else. He sighed, and then yawned.
“Oh, dear,” he said, and started to undress. He remembered he’d pocketed some dates for Tempest, and he went back out to feed her some.
Tempest was curried and watered and fed. She seemed content.
“Almost reminds you of home, doesn’t it, girl?” Pippin asked. “Yes, you must have had a wonderful time growing up in Merry’s stables. That’s one horse-mad hobbit, that one, and we’re both the better for it.” He looked up at the sky, and turned north, to the Sickle of the Valar. “I wonder what he’s doing right now.”
He wished he could use his “sight” to check on his cousin… but he didn’t know how.
He looked around the encampment again. It seemed so peaceful, and, for all its foreign, desert beauty, almost like home.
“Home,” he said aloud, trying out the taste of it. It didn’t taste the same. It hadn’t for some time; and what he went through on the river to Sakhara had only made it worse. It seemed to him that he was a hobbit in nothing but form anymore.
Suddenly despondent, he went into his tent and crawled into the bedding.
He was almost asleep when he felt someone enter his tent.
Trollsbane rose from the bedside and swept through the air. Its edge struck the flat of a knife. In the dimness Pippin saw a veiled face. Leah.
Pippin blinked. “What’s happened? What’s going on?”
But Leah didn’t answer immediately. She lowered her knife, and Trollsbane followed. She gazed at him, and then tucked her knife against her dress and reaching up began to undo her veil. She loosened it from behind her head and unwound it in swift, graceful movements, before letting the fabric fall.
Her hair, curls of vine-ripe black, loosed itself down her back and around her face. Pippin had never seen her hair and face both uncovered. She sat for a moment, letting him look into her. Then he rose and took her face into his hands and kissed her.
The Erites, or Eraim as they called themselves, traced their history back to the tribes of the Grey Mountains of the South, who long ago sheltered “men from the sea” fleeing the first changes to come over their island kingdom. When in turn the Mountains became havens for Black Númenóreans and later pirates, the Erites turned to the desert, taking with them their horses and their falcons and their faith in the one they called Er.
It was said that a falcon and a horse led them to the mountain they now called Geber bet-Eria, the Mountain of Er. There they found an old man with long white hair, in robes the indigo of the distant ocean, holding a staff of cedar. The old man had welcomed them and said, “Blessings of the One be upon you! You have the Fire. Now have water!” and he smote the ground with his staff, and the springs welled up. The travelers had been frightened, but the stranger had disappeared. Some say he went walking East. The springs were named Bet Pallan in his honor.
Since then, with the coming of the tenth new moon of each year for more than two thousand years as many tribes as could made the pilgrimage to the Mountain for their holy day, the Feast of Purification, where the Prophet would make sacrifice to the Fire of Er for the expiation of the sins of the people.
Pippin watched from a short distance as Zedek approached the great pile of wood and kindling that had been built in the hallow at the base of the sheer face of the Mountain. The Prophet wore a tablet upon his breast inscribed with writing. He wore a white mantle over his indigo robes. Obed, as acolyte, walked with him, carrying a lit torch. Zedek lifted his hands to the Mountain and the pyre, and with eyes closed spoke an invocation that to Pippin sounded both terrible and beautiful.
A bullock chosen for the occasion, with a hide as close to white as possible, was led forth to Zedek. Zedek took his sword from his side and with a clean stroke hewed the head off the animal, and then divided it into two. He spoke words of prayer as the blood seeped into the ground. Then the pieces of the animal were then placed upon the pyre. Obed knelt, offering the brand. Zedek took it and touched it to the wood. Drenched in pitch and oil, the wood caught immediately, and blazing consumed the sacrifice. It would be kept burning for six days and six nights as pilgrims came individually or as groups to the Mountain to pray to Er, as was the duty of all at least once in their life.
Pippin kept his distance, not being one of these people nor sharing their religion, and also because the sight of the pyre reminded him of Denethor. But the faces of the supplicants held no terror, only such things as sorrow, grief, anger, happiness, and most of all hope. Everyone, man and woman, girl and boy, uncovered their faces at that time, the only time in public in they uncovered both at once, as a sign of respect.
“Do you have nothing to confess?”
Pippin smiled and turned to speak to Leah face-to-face. “Nothing, and a multitude of things,” he replied. “But I’m an … infidel, is that the word?”
“That is the word,” Leah assented. “Does it mean you? I do not think so. But it is your choice. If you feel you should not confess what you did last night…”
Pippin cooled. “What?”
“You nearly cut my head off.”
“Oh!” Pippin realized. “Well, I’m sorry about that. Habit, you know. Anyway, you defended yourself. Besides,” and he blinked innocently, “did I not make it up to you?”
Smiling through her veil, she proceeded past him to join the lines coming to the Mountain.
“Leah,” Pippin called, making her turn back. “What do you have to confess?”
Leah shook her head, but it seemed she smiled.
Pippin saw Obed, duties done, pass his sister by with a nod and then join him at his vantage point.
“My sister tells me you are a great warrior, worthy of a man twice your size,” Obed said directly.
“I won’t call your sister a liar,” Pippin rejoined, “but I’m no more than adequate.”
“That is certainly not what she told me, and if you say my sister is a liar I fear I shall have to cut out your tongue.”
“You’re welcome to try.”
Obed laughed. “My sister, though a woman, is a skilled fighter. She thinks you are her equal.”
Pippin made a show of shrugging. “Well,” he scoffed, kicking at the sand, “if Leah says so…”
“Good,” said Obed. “I am also a good fighter. Perhaps we can fight and you can teach me the style of the north.”
“I’ll be happy to,” replied Pippin. Then he had a thought. “Um, Obed? How good are you?”
“I taught my sister.”
Leah came to Pippin’s tent again that evening. Pippin grinned from ear to ear as she appeared. They kissed passionately and went from there.
“You aren’t going to get into trouble for this, are you?” he asked afterward.
“I cannot ‘get into trouble’ for this,” she replied.
She searched his face, and then answered, “Pippin, you have been with many women, yes?”
Pippin blushed. “Well …”
“So you must have noticed that I was no maiden when I lay with you last night.”
Pippin had noticed. “Among my people, that isn’t all that rare,” he said. Then he nodded. “Oh. It is rare with yours.”
“I was wed to a Medzha captain when I became of age eight years ago, at thirteen,” she explained. “He divorced me when he discovered, after much effort, that I am barren. I cannot have children, Pippin.”
Pippin traced her cheek with his fingertip. “I’m sorry,” he breathed, thinking of Merry and Estella.
“A woman’s worth lies primarily in the number of children she can bear,” she went on softly. “I am fortunate to have status of my own through my father. I can devote myself to the arts of war and the ways of the desert.” She chuckled. “I think the men respect me more now than if I were a noble wife and mother!” She shifted to Pippin and huddled against him, closing her eyes. “You are so warm,” she said.
“I’m smaller than you. My blood runs hotter.”
Leah laughed silently. Then she was silent for a long time. Pippin thought she had gone to sleep, and he started to drowse as well.
“I do not regret much.”
Pippin’s eyes fluttered open. “What?”
“Being who I am,” Leah explained. “I do not regret it. I have made myself useful as a tracker and a warrior. I have my father’s love and my brother’s esteem. I have seen many things no woman would ever see. Er has been merciful.” She sighed. “But I do wish I had found a good, faithful husband, and had a child he would love. I see him dangling our son on his knee, and I find myself wishing… Oh, fear not!” she told him. “I am not plighting troth to you! I know you plan to leave for Umbar, and return to your home. And I and my people shall go to war against Seti. Such are the paths we have found.” She embraced him. “I have learned to treasure what I have, for whatever time I have them. For now, we have this, and now is as long a time as it needs to be.”
But as Leah slept, Pippin didn’t.
Pippin stole away from his tent, flinging his cloak upon his shoulders, walked through the encampment towards the light of the sacred fire. The line of pilgrims had dwindled to a trickle at the late hour, but it still continued, and would continue until all who had come to Beth Pallan and Geber bet-Eria had had the chance to purify themselves.
As he had done earlier in the day, Pippin climbed up a small rise where he could see the fire without violating the hallowed ground reserved for the Erites. From his perch he watched the penitents make their way up the defile to the hallow. One old woman dropped to her knees and went on that way towards the fire, weeping with an otherwise impassive face. Pippin felt very small, smaller than even a hobbit should feel, before such piety.
He heard someone approach, and looked over his shoulder. It was Zedek.
“What troubles you, my son?” the Prophet asked him.
“Nothing,” Pippin answered too quickly. Then: “Many things. I don’t know if I should tell you.”
Zedek went to him and stood with him. They gazed together upon the hallow of Er and the bright, breathtaking fire.
“So thou findest thyself here, before Er,” Zedek said after a while. “Hast thou come to seek purification?”
“Can I?” asked Pippin with a disbelieving laugh.
“Dost thou seek it?”
“I do not know what I seek.”
He felt the Prophet’s eyes upon him. He looked up, a bit defiant, a bit desperate.
“Er knows all thy thoughts and cares,” Zedek said.
That made Pippin laugh nervously. “So what’s all this for?” he asked, nodding at the pilgrims, the fire, the place where the bullock had been slain.
Zedek’s answer was plain. “It is for us,” he said, with a small smile and a piercing look. “A man findeth truth in the sands, for here the dark fire of the enemy is strongest, and so against that darkness shines the secret fire brightest. The sands can bear what the river cannot.”
Pippin stared at him, startled. He had been told that before. He remembered standing upon the embrasure of Minas Tirith, on a bright spring day, clad as a knight of Gondor, beholding his reforged sword, hearing those words and seeing Faramir assenting to them.
He closed his eyes, and remembered: You are a knight of the Citadel. Wherever you may wander, the White City shall know you, and welcome you home.
“I don’t know where to start,” he confessed, searching for guidance.
“Any beginning will do.”
Pippin should have known that. “Right,” he said. “Well … I’m here, when I should be home.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I … I was afraid.”
Pippin wasn’t sure who asked, but someone did. So he answered.
“I was afraid of failing.”
Who is everyone?
Papa. Mummy. The family. The town. The Shire.
Merry and Sam.
Strider and Faramir.
Diamond. No—I already failed her before I started.
Is that all?
“No,” whispered Pippin, feeling naked in the light, and nothing between his heart and the unforgettable fire. “But I don’t want to say.”
“… no… I shouldn’t…”
Whom have you failed?
“Gandalf!” Pippin said in anguish. “I’ve failed Gandalf! He saw some good in me but I’ve let it go. He thought he could make something of me, but he was wrong. He was wrong.” The tears began, but he paid them no heed. “Maybe if he’d stuck around it would have been different,” he accused. “If he’d stayed awhile to see if the little fool of a Took would grow into his place in the world. Sure, drop him into the river and see if he’ll swim! Send the boy to war and watch what happens! He’s strong, he’s smart, he’ll find his way, hobbits are hard to kill. Besides, who can gainsay such spirit? Let him go, Elrond, let him go, and pit and wood and war and pyre and the gates of hell he’ll see, and he’ll be a better Thain for it when he grows up.
“I wasn’t ready to grow up. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for anything.”
He sank to the ground and dragged the edge of his hand across his lips. “I saw … things, I did … things…” he murmured, his face to the ground, half-hidden by his hand. “I tried. I tried to go back. But Frodo was right, you see? He said there is no going back At least he got to leave. And Gandalf left too. They both left… Left us ordinary fellows to pick up the pieces as best we could!
“Oh, yes, that was nice! And why not? He deserved it. He deserved it if anyone did. He suffered the most and he couldn’t go home. I wish I were like him. But I’m not, am I? I’m Pip. Silly little Pip. The fool of a Took. Don’t worry about Pip, he’s young, he’s brave, he’ll fit right back in.”
He sank so low it was as if he were trying to dig himself a hole to live in there in the very desert rock. “I love these people, you now,” he confessed finally. “I would die for them twice over if they needed me to. But now I also hate them. I hate them for having found a home after everything was done, whether it be the Shire or a place across the Sea. I haven’t. Home, was not home, anymore, and I, I think, that no place, ever, will be.”
Then the halfling upon the ground wept as halflings do not weep, low before the imperishable flame. When he felt an old hand and a soft robe brush his face, he grasped it and clung to it, pretending he was a boy of twenty-eight again, and Gandalf was with him still.
So you have run, to the ends of the earth, hobbit of the Shire.
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