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Unto the ending of the world: 15. Fish
April 15, 3019
Pippin sighed as he sat staring out over the water, letting his feet dangle from the edge of the quay. He was pleased he had been able to come out here today, even if he had been thinking a lot all morning, and not all of his thoughts were pleasant. He was lonely; he was the only hobbit within hundreds of miles, and he missed his friends. He could not bear to think of Frodo, so he let his thoughts turn to Merry in Rohan instead, and wondered, as he had done at least once a day for the last few weeks, what the other was doing at that moment. He hoped they could continue to send letters to each other, if messengers were going to travel between Edoras and Pelargir regularly. He had asked the Steward if he could, and Denethor had given his permission.
The Steward had been in a bad mood almost continually since they had arrived here, and Pippin was relieved that, although Denethor's esquire had not survived the fall of Minas Tirith, he had only rarely been called upon to serve his lord directly. The hobbit tried to imagine the Great Smials destroyed and Tuckborough invaded by Orcs. He could understand Denethor's bad temper, the Steward had after all just lost his city and his home. Even so, he was still glad that he was mostly left with the others of the Guard. The men of the Tower Guard were friendly enough, and some, like Beregond, and even the captain, Belzagar, were quickly becoming friends, but they were not hobbits, and he missed his own kind. It had been the captain who was responsible for this day's holiday; and the captain had also helped him to find a hobbit-sized fishing rod, borrowing it from one of his cousins who lived here in Pelargir.
After Pippin had told the men of the Guard that it took a good fisherman to make a decent catch even if there were plenty of fish about, and that he never went home with an empty net at home, the captain had challenged him to provide his watch's meal that evening. So far the hobbit had caught six good-sized fish, though of a kind he had not seen before, and thrown back at least a dozen smaller ones, not a bad catch for a morning's work, but not yet enough to feed ten men and a hobbit. He needed several more still, if only for the sight of the captain of the Tower Guard cleaning the catch and cooking their meal, for that had been the other's forfeit. Another reason not to lose this wager was that he did not look forward to cleaning his entire watch's boots for a week, even if they all found it unfair that, because he did not wear boots, he always escaped that particular duty. Also, those fish looked really tasty, and he was hungry.
He was suddenly alert again when he spotted a slight ripple in the water near the bait; barely daring to breathe, he waited for a twitch in the rod to confirm that he had caught another one. Yes! Carefully, he reeled in the fish until he could take it off the hook and put it in the bucket next to him with the others he had caught so far.
As he turned his head, he noticed that he was not as alone as he had thought. A group of cats had gathered to watch his every move. Given how thin they were and stayed well out of reach, they had to be strays; the farm cats at home would certainly have attempted to steal a fish from the bucket by now.
First, he tried to ignore them, but he just knew they were still watching him even when he had turned his back on them again. As he carefully brought in another fish, he decided he might as well share his catch; fish were obviously plentiful here, and he was certain enough that he would catch enough to feed the Guards to risk giving away one.
The cats were still sitting where they had before, but as Pippin threw his latest catch towards them, one darted forwards and began dragging the fish away as soon as it hit the quay. The other cats followed it, and soon Pippin was alone again.
One more fish, and then it would be time to take a break and tuck into the lunch he had brought with him. He carefully put another worm on the hook and cast the line out, quickly losing himself in thought again as he stared at the water and the bobbing bait.
Maybe he should be glad just to be alive after all that had happened. He shuddered to remember the escape from Minas Tirith. He had found the path almost worse than Moria, and wondered how Gandalf had managed it with Shadowfax. It had been almost impossible on foot; he could not imagine how the great horse could have done it. He wondered where Gandalf was now, and if he would ever see him again. And of course Minas Tirith reminded him of Strider. He put the fishing rod aside to wipe the tears from his eyes, and stared out over the river until he felt a bit less sad.
Pippin was shaken from his thoughts by the sound of footsteps approaching, and looked up just as young Bergil sat down next to him, letting his feet dangle as well. "How is it going?" the boy asked.
"I have about half of what I need," Pippin replied.
"Let me see," Bergil asked eagerly, then grinned as he saw the fish Pippin had caught. "Oh, those taste wonderful. We sometimes had them dried or smoked back home, but never fresh from the river. I think they prefer saltier water, like it is here. Do you think I can come eat with the company tonight?"
Pippin tried looking indignant. "What? And then I would have to catch yet another fish especially for you?"
The other looked at him hesitantly, obviously not sure whether he had been serious or not, until Pippin relented and smiled, adding, "Of course I would not mind, but you will still have to ask your father, and the captain. And your fish does not count for the wager, if I end up one short. Do not forget to tell your mother, or I fear you will be in trouble."
Bergil smiled, and asked, "Did you hear that Captain Faramir will be going across the river soon, and see what he can find out about the Enemy in Ithilien?"
"Yes, I did," Pippin replied, then added, suddenly serious, "But you should not be repeating such things, whether or not they are true. You never know who might be listening, and there could be spies about."
The boy first scoffed at the idea, but then turned thoughtful and looked at Pippin, "You are right. I am sorry. I should be more careful." After a short silence he smiled again and said, "I wonder who could be a spy? What about that fisherman over there? Or that old woman selling pasties? I do not believe she has sold any all morning. She hardly ever does."
Pippin sighed as he replied, "I do not think you should..."
"Oh, I know," Bergil replied laughing, "But it is fun to watch people, and I promise I will be more careful, too. Now I must go back home before Mother misses me."
Pippin followed Bergil with his eyes as the lad quickly ran along the quayside and back into the city. So this was what being a big brother was like, he thought and had to suppress a smile. He could almost hear the snorts of disbelief from each of his sisters at the very idea. That thought quickly turned his mood serious again, and he hoped the message he had sent home with Halbarad would get there soon. At least everybody would know that he was fine, and that they did not have to worry about him. Well, not too much, he corrected himself a bit ruefully.
He was happy that Bergil and most of the other boys who had helped the healers had made it out of the City. They would have found the path as difficult as he had, but he knew the healers would have helped them, just as the other Guards had helped him. He had met some of Bergil's friends back in Minas Tirith, but he did not know the three boys who had not made it.
Then he thought again of the news Bergil had brought. He had already known about it, since he had been there when Denethor had given those orders to Faramir. The Steward had spent a long time poring over maps with his son. The Captain would most likely be gone for some time trying to discover what the Enemy would do next.
Pippin suddenly noticed that the bait had been snatched from his hook, and he had been so distracted that he only realised now that he had missed a fish. He shook his head. This really would not do. He knew that there were more important things than losing a wager, but him sitting here thinking was not doing any good against Sauron either. Besides, even if the Enemy was about to attack, he would rather face that with the memory of a good meal than with the smell of boot polish on his hands.
With most of the afternoon still left, Pippin reckoned that he needed at least five more fish, or six if Bergil was to join the watch for their meal. He attached another worm to his hook, and after casting out his line, settled down again, watching the bait bobbing on the water.
When he had first seen how wide the river was here, he had thought that it was the Sea already, but his fellow Guards had quickly corrected him. Beregond had shown him a map, and explained that Pelargir had been on the coast when it was first built. Pippin had been amazed that the town was so old, older even than Minas Tirith, and was now curious about everything that must have happened here over the years.
After a while the hobbit looked to where the black-sailed Corsair ships were moored. He knew the sailmakers were hard at work to have new, white sails made or adapted. Umbar was another place he wanted to know more about. Maybe he would have a chance to hear some stories, if he could find anyone who had the time to tell them.
The afternoon was as successful as the morning had been, and after reeling in yet another large fish, Pippin was certain he had enough. Just as he was about to get up and take his catch back towards the Tower Guard's mess, he saw the Captain come down the ramp that led down to the quay from the street above. The hobbit tried to keep his satisfaction with his catch off his face, but he could not help grinning when he saw the Captain's surprised expression as Belzagar saw how well he had done.
Once they were back in their quarters, Pippin showed off his catch to the men of the watch. While the hobbit first sat down with the other off-duty Guards, the Captain headed for the kitchen with the fish. The men expressed their displeasure at having to polish their own boots for the next week and tried to convince the hobbit that he really should start wearing boots too. Protesting that hobbits did not need to wear shoes or boots, Pippin picked up two mugs of ale from the table, and quickly made his escape to follow the Captain to the kitchen.
When he walked in, Belzagar, wearing the cook's much too large apron over his livery, was already busy cleaning the fish, and a large skillet had been set to heat on the stove. Pippin noted with approval the fresh herbs at hand on the chopping block. It certainly looked as if the Captain did know what he was doing. The hobbit had wondered about that. It would have been too much if he had won the wager only to find out the Captain could not cook.
Pippin put one mug of ale down on the table and took a swig from the other as he sat down. The Captain looked up from his work to greet the hobbit, then returned his attention to the fish, occasionally stopping to stir the big pot of vegetables that hung over a fire. Then, as he finished cleaning the fish, he picked up his own mug, and with a nod of grateful appreciation drained it.
"Did you have a pleasant day, Master Hobbit?" the Captain asked.
"Yes," Pippin replied, "Thank you, Captain. And I am looking forward to the evening meal, too."
"Your people are very fond of food, I understand," the Captain said.
"Indeed, and plenty of it," Pippin confirmed.
"Can you cook?"
"Yes, but I do not do so often," he said, then added at Belzagar's inquiring look, "I have three sisters."
"Yes," Pippin said, and the Captain shook his head in mock-sympathy, as he stood up again and turned back to the fish. Not even on their journey here had he done much cooking, the hobbit thought, then hid a wince as he recalled that most of that had been taken care of by Sam.
"Where did you learn to cook, Captain?"
"Back home, before I became a Guard. I was the eldest of four, and our mother was a weaver, so we had to help around the house while she worked. Father was a sailor, and was hardly ever at home."
Pippin nodded, surprised that the Captain was suddenly so talkative. "Where are you from, sir? From Minas Tirith? And have you been a Guard all your life?" Belatedly he thought that Minas Tirith might be a painful subject, but the Captain replied without hesitation.
"No, I am from a village near Dol Amroth, but I first served as a Ranger in Ithilien, and then as a Guard of the Tower."
"Did you not want to be a sailor, like your father?"
"No," the Captain shook his head, "I like fish well enough, but the sea never agreed with me." He fell silent then as he checked the heat in the skillet, and started placing the first few fish in it.
As the fish started to sizzle, Pippin's stomach growled in anticipation. Startled by the low chuckle that came from the doorway, Pippin turned his head to see who was standing there, and found himself looking at Faramir, who was trying to hang on to a serious expression.
"Captain Belzagar," the Steward's son spoke, "I was looking for you. The men of the Third Company said I might find you here, but they failed to inform me of the rather elegant apron you added to your livery. I trust this is not permanent?"
"No, my lord," Belzagar replied, looking slightly embarrassed, but still keeping some of his attention on the fish. "I heard that you are going back into Ithilien soon?"
"Yes, and that is why I am here now. Tomorrow morning at the third hour, there is a meeting of all captains in the keep. Bring your lieutenant as well."
"Yes, my lord," Belzagar said, as Faramir turned to leave again. He remained quiet for some time after the Steward's son had left, looking pensive, then shrugged. "It could have been worse."
"Sir?" Pippin asked, confused.
"It could have been the Steward himself." The Captain picked up a fork to check if the fish were done, then nodded to himself and took the skillet off the fire. "Go tell the men their dinner is ready. They will know who has mess duty."
Dinner itself was a silent affair, as even young Bergil kept quiet, concentrating on the fish, which was indeed very good, Pippin thought. Perhaps he should have caught a few more. Afterwards, the Captain allowed a second mug of ale to be served to all, as their watch was off duty for the rest of the day. Bergil asked his father if he might have a half-mug, watered down, but Beregond told him it was time for him to go home. Pippin gathered that Gondorian customs were different from the Shire, and it would most likely be another year or two before the boy would be allowed to drink ale, or stay out long past sundown.
As the men attended to mending and cleaning their gear that evening, the conversation quickly turned to what lay ahead. All had heard that Faramir would return to Ithilien to spy on the Enemy's troops, and speculation was rife about what he would find there.
Another rumour, one that Beregond had heard, was that spies who had been sent back to Minas Tirith had brought back the news that the City was now held by the Mouth of Sauron.
"Who is he?" Pippin asked. "Is he another Ringwraith? I have never heard that name before."
The Captain replied before Beregond could speak, "No, he is not a Wraith, though I do not believe he is entirely a natural man either. If he is the same man, rather than a descendant or successor of the one named so in the histories, he is a Black Númenorean who already served the Dark One three thousand and more years ago. Yet it is said that he is a living man, and such can only be by dark sorceries. He is also rumoured to be high in the Dark One's favour."
Pippin shivered at the idea, but his curiosity drove him to ask, "Black Númenorean? What are they?"
Belzagar sighed. "You know of Númenor?"
"The island where the Dúnedain come from, that sank?" Pippin nodded. Strider had talked of the Dúnedain often enough that he knew who they were and where they had come from.
"Before the fall of Númenor, most of its people had turned to the worship of Morgoth, and the ones that settled in Umbar descend from them. They are called Black. Only here in Gondor and in the north, where Arnor was, did the Faithful, those descendants of Númenor who did not follow the Dark Lord, settle. Those are our ancestors," Belzagar quickly explained.
"Then the Faithful are the same as the Dúnedain?" Pippin asked. He believed he understood now.
"Simply put, yes," the Captain confirmed, as their conversation was interrupted by Beregond and Egnor, who wanted to know who the Captain thought would succeed Lord Boromir as Captain-General. Beregond thought Faramir, but Egnor and several others argued in favour of Imrahil.
The Captain refused to be drawn into the discussion, pointing out that no doubt the Steward had already made his choice, and was unlikely to consult with them.
Pippin realised that he had not even thought of Boromir since they had left Minas Tirith, and he had been the first of the Fellowship to die. Well, except for Gandalf, but it did not really count if you died and could just come back, Pippin thought somewhat irreverently, even if he had grieved when he thought Gandalf was dead. Maybe too much had happened since then, but Boromir had been his friend, and had died trying to save him and Merry from Saruman's Orcs, and Pippin now felt guilty that he had, if not forgotten about him, put him so much to the back of his mind.
"Pippin, are you all right?" he was now asked by Beregond, and the hobbit realised that he had been so lost in thought that he had not heard what the other had said before.
"Yes, I was just thinking about Boromir," he replied.
"Of course, you were there when he fell, were you not?" Beregond said, a sad look on his face now.
Pippin nodded, "Yes, he..." but before he could continue, the bells for the changing of the guard rang, and the Captain called for those who had early duty the next morning to go to their beds. Remembering that he would be attending the Steward the next day, and would have to be awake and on duty well before dawn, Pippin too went to bed, regretting a sad end to a good day.
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