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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 35. Beneath the Shadows
And so the light went out in Gondor, save where fires burned on the hilltops, summoning aid none hoped to see. And in the twilight, there came a rider on a silver steed...
"The Isle is fallen."
Ingold of Minas Tirith drummed his fingers on the stone of the ramparts, and wished he were alone so that he could do something about the pain creeping up the back of his neck, threatening a headache. But the commander of the North Gate company could not afford the luxury of admitting that the mounting fear among the men affected him, so he folded his hands and counted to five before he replied:
"We do not know that, Melendir. And I will thank you to keep your voice down if you must say it."
His second in command sighed, but he did lower his voice as he moved to join Ingold. "The messenger the Captain sent should have come down the road by now if Cair Andros held still, sir. They must have fallen."
Which was the plain, poor truth of it, but Ingold was not about to say it where his men might hear it. Not yet. "We will deal with Cair Andros when the Lord Faramir sends word—when he comes through the East Gate, then we will speak of this. Until then, we hold our posts and dig the pikes in," he replied.
"Sir, if he comes through the East Gate—"
"—then that shall be wonder enough, yes, I am aware of this, Melendir. But have a care for the lads; I have seen many a pallor-dulled face that is due not only to short rations," Ingold said, and Melendir snorted.
"Oh I do, commander, never fear. That is why I am certain the grey in their cheeks owes much to the reek and the thrice-cursed ashes," the other said, deadpan. Ingold rolled his eyes slightly, but he smiled a little, and clapped the other on the shoulder, sending up white-dusty cloud.
"No doubt you are right," he replied, then reached to adjust his scarf, which he, like all the others of the North Gate company, had tied over mouth and nose to try to keep out the worst sting of the acrid air. It was but the latest insult to add to the injury of an impending siege, the ash. Valar, what I would not give for an hour of sunlight! Ingold thought longingly as he gazed up at the black-scorched sky. Two days now they had seen no sign of the sun, unless redly in the evenings, just ere night fell, nor much in the way of hope. The very day the clouds had arrived, the Captain had sent a messenger, and the news had spread all along the walls, and no doubt through every level of the City: Prepare: the Enemy comes!
It might, Ingold reflected, have meant more had there been any further preparation for his men to make, but the guards on the wall had their shifts, and Ingold had always kept a strict regimen of training for his men, who did their duty in month-long rotations, living in the barracks hard by the Rammas Echor. Their sword-work and archery could hardly improve, and they had been manning the catapults since the battle for Osgiliath last summer. Otherwise, guard duty on the wall was tedious work, and if more eyes might shorten the watches, in the end, it was a matter of patience and discipline, not to let the mind wander too far on duty. What more preparation could they make? They had all said their farewells to loved ones a month ago, knowing full well the day when the outland companies should arrive. It was as if word of doomsday had arrived too late, all too late—obscenely so.
For men wanted more to do—Ingold could feel it. There was a frantic undercurrent to the company demeanor of late, as if men were desperately seeking some means to make that announcement weighty, some way of forcing routine to acknowledge the solemnity of the moment. The trouble was that it was routine, and so they were forever running up against its unyielding nature, which demanded that they stand their watches as ever they had, that they eat at the appointed hour, sleep at the appointed time, practice archery and then sword-work, check the catapults, clean their gear, and do their laundry every Thursday. Where in all of that was there room for commemoration?
Which was not to say that absolutely nothing had changed: the Steward had sent men to reinforce the companies at the East Gate, whither Faramir ought to retreat, assuming he won back across the river. But the North Gate had not got anything more than word of that—and the news that they would have to make do on their own, that Cair Andros must be trusted to guard the northern flank, for the Steward could spare no more men from the City walls proper for the North Gate.
"In other words, the escapes of Cair Andros shall be our only reinforcements," Melendir had muttered, and Ingold could hardly contest that conclusion, unless it were to wonder whether they would get any help from that watery quarter at all. For Lord Faramir had also sent word to his father, who had passed it to the North Gate company, that they should look for the mounted messenger he had sent up to Cair Andros the same day he had sent his news to the City—the messenger by whose absence the men now calculated their common doom.
And as if that were not sobering enough, last night Mordor had apparently coughed up an ash cloud and sent it winging across the befouled air to hover now over Minas Tirith. Ingold had been awakened by the watch officer during the dead watch to come and see the latest assault on their dignity, and by dawn (such as it was), the ground had been covered with a thin blanket of ashes. Men stifled under the hot, poisoned rain that the brown clouds dropped, and had coughed and wheezed until Ingold had officially damned the uniform regulations and ordered his men to find something to keep the wretched stuff out of their faces.
That done, however, routine had reclaimed them, and they were back to waiting on a messenger whom no one believed would come. Ingold had long since privately consigned him to an early grave and wished him a mercifully speedy end, though he would never admit it, not even to Melendir.
Hence he was surprised when a sudden sharp call broke out, "Rider on the road!"
Melendir and he both spun around to see one of the sentries leaning forward into a crenel, staring intently into the murk. Then he pointed excitedly into the distance. "There! To northwest, up the road to Rohan!"
"Rohan?" Ingold murmured, as he hurried to the man's side, Melendir not a step behind.
"Where, Dirgant?" his second in command asked. "I see no one."
"He is very far, sir," Dirgant replied, and indeed, he was squinting. "'Twas a glimmer of light caught my eye once, and then again—otherwise, it is hard to see. But—look, see there!" He caught Ingold's arm and drew him nearer, pointing again. "Do you see it, commander?"
"I believe so. You have a hawk's eyes, lad," Ingold replied, as he strained his eyes after that flash of silver. "Can you see his colors? Is he indeed Rohan's?"
"A hawk's eyes are not an eagle's, sir," the man replied wryly. "We shall have to wait."
Which they did, Ingold with a mounting impatience he strove to suppress. The occasional flash of silver became a constant light, and then a bit larger, a bit more defined.
"He must be from Rohan, at that speed, but he will kill his horse getting here!" Melendir said after awhile.
"Indeed," Ingold said, headache forgotten as he laid a hand on the other's shoulder. "And I can think of but one thing that might spur a man so. You have command here, I shall be at the Gates."
"Aye, sir," Melendir replied crisply, then raised his voice to call past Ingold: "Look lively, lads! If he is one of ours, let's get him through the gate—archers, stand ready to cover him if need be! Stand by at the catapults!"
You could tell an officer, the joke went in Gondor's army, by his lungs, and scarf or no scarf to muffle words, Melendir was an officer. Thus by the time Ingold reached the ground, the men there had heard Melendir and those off duty were rushing to arm themselves, while those who had the watch had already gathered by the gates.
"Pikes stand ready, and someone fetch a healer's satchel—we may need it," he ordered, and men hurried to obey. That was all, and then it was time to wait again, if more breathlessly than of late. Is it time at last? Ingold wondered. Are they so close, our enemies? And if they were, where was the Captain...?
He was not sure how long they stood waiting, but sooner than he would have thought, the call came down: "Rider coming in!" The gates lurched as the watchers on the wall pulled the levers, and the ancient gates swung open with a creak and groan of metal—just enough for a rider to dart through in a flash of silver and green, pulling up short before the wide circle of pikemen barring his way.
"Dismount, sir! Dismount and speak your business!" Ingold ordered, standing forth from the others. The rider, who rode bitless and bareback, turned his mount—most definitely one of Rohan's herds, and no common steed, either, if Ingold were any judge—and bright green eyes framed by flaxen hair fixed on Ingold, who blinked and found his own gaze sliding off the other's face. Something in that look put a shiver down his back, like steel pressed up against his spine, or a lyre out of tune.
So it was that he missed the dismount—of a sudden, the rider simply was upon the ground, and walking his horse towards him. He paused about a horselength away, and made a slight bow, one hand over his breast. "Are you the captain of this company?" he asked.
"I am. Ingold is my name. And you, sir? Who are you and what is your business in Minas Tirith?" Ingold paused, eyes narrowing as he looked over the other. Green he wore, and brown too, but no white horse—indeed, his clothing seemed to belong to no company, though it was well made, if travel-stained. And although Ingold knew the Rohirrim had mounted archers among them, the bow and the quiver at the rider's hip did not seem of their making. "Who is your master?"
"My master is no mortal Man, captain," the rider replied. "Legolas I am called, and I come bearing a message for the Steward of Gondor from the Lady Galadriel of the elven realm of Lothlórien, and also from King Théoden, who bid me take a horse and word of his coming when he had heard what I had to say. A fortunate meeting, else perhaps I might not have arrived in time. I should take to the walls were I you, captain—the enemy is coming."
"This we knew, for word has come from the Captain that the Dark Lord advances—"
"I know nothing of your Captain, but I tell you I have seen them on my journey to you—the Enemy has crossed Anduin. You will know better than I what it means if your Captain has already sent word, but for myself, I must take my message to the Steward. May I pass now?" the messenger asked.
Ingold, who had been reshuffling lines and armies in his head, blinked, but then nodded sharply. "Yes, yes you must go at once, as soon as—"
"Sir!" One of the company sergeants interjected, and Ingold turned to see the man staring southeast along the Rammas, his face set in a stony expression. Ingold glanced left, following his gaze... and then he saw it.
"Signal fires," he murmured, as all along the wall, torches were raised, and began to move in a flickering code. "Lord Faramir has crossed the river—they are coming!" Whirling, he demanded, "Who are our runners this shift? Helavrin—mount up and take the Lady's messenger with you to the Steward. Go! And you sir," he said, turning back to the waiting rider, "follow him, he will see you through the Seven Gates more swiftly than you could on your own."
"Thank you," the Elf replied, and with that sprang lightly back onto his steed, who snorted violently, shaking his great head and sending off a shower of ashes. From the other side of the circle of pikemen, one of the younger lads was bringing a horse, and the chosen messenger gave the tack a cursory check, then mounted swiftly, nudging the gelding towards the Elf.
"Let us go," he said, as the company parted, revealing the long road back to the City's main gate. The other spared no words, unless they were to his steed, and in the blink of an eye, he was away, Helavrin cursing as he struggled to catch up.
Ingold looked after them for a long moment, then turned to his men, gazing round the ring at their anxious, solemn faces. "All right lads, it seems it has begun at last. To your posts and quickly—I want to give our next guests a proper greeting."
There was no cheer for that, but the overwhelming chorus of "Aye, sir!" was sign enough for Ingold. Drawing a deep breath, he passed command of the ground to one of the company commanders and returned to the ramparts, where Melendir gave him an unwonted somber look and said, "All stands ready above, sir."
"Good. Good," he repeated, glancing around to confirm that for himself. Then he looked southeast, whence the torchfire had spread, and finally, due south, where the tiny figures of two horsemen were swiftly retreating. Good speed to you, he thought, and then turning back to the darkened northern horizon, thought to his enemies: And to you also, that our wait may end at last!
The two messengers winging their way over the Pelennor fields at least had no need of such silent encouragement; the urgency of their news sufficed, even if Legolas, accustomed now to Shadowfax's tremendous pace, suffered from the sense that he was tethered to his companion's slower mount. Not that the young gelding did not make a valiant effort, but he could not hold even with the chief of the mearas save that Shadowfax allowed it.
Still, it was not long before the City Gates loomed before them, and as they drew near, his companion shouted out something that the winds tore from even Legolas' sharp ears. The guards at the gates, however, seemed to understand him well enough, and swiftly drew away, leaving them a clear path into the City—Boromir's city, Legolas thought, glancing up and around at the high stone towers and walls, even as his companion slowed. Legolas followed suit, and together they clattered through streets filled with companies of white and black-clad soldiers, though there were clots of color here and there: archers in rusty brown, or else in green with a black mountain blazoned on their tabards, and a set of knights bearing a silver swan upon their immaculate blue tunics.
"To pass from one circle of the City to the next needs a password," his companion was explaining, drawing Legolas' attention from the bustling men. "Ordinarily, we would leave our mounts at the gates of the Second Circle, but for one from the wall these days or with urgent news and the right passwords they will step aside, so stay close!" So saying, he urged his mount on more swiftly, and Shadowfax immediately quickened his pace.
Up into the City they went, and the crowds fell away, so that soon, they were flying through streets well nigh deserted, barely slowing as they reached the gates—just enough for Helavrin to cry out, "Aiwë alarca!" and for the guardsmen to move aside.
Thus they came at last to the Seventh Circle, and the Court of the Fountain before the White Tower, and Legolas beheld a dead tree, stooped, it seemed, under a blanket of ashes. The guards there bore the image of its former splendor upon their black livery, and though to the attentive eye, they breathed as all Men do, Legolas was not deceived. Everything here is dead, he realized, and suffered a sudden bout of panic, for the acrid air was heavy in his lungs, burned in his eyes and mouth, and upon this windless promontory, amid the lofty work of ancient stonewrights, he felt as if the world had constricted round his chest or landed squarely on his back. For just an instant, he saw again the coils of Darkness—writhing no longer, but simply there, present in a dead weight that swelled like a bloated corpse to fill all the open, airy ways of this high city...
"Sir?" Legolas blinked, and the streets were empty once more. Helavrin gazed at him uncomprehendingly, with just a touch of wariness in his concerned puzzlement. The Elf shivered, and wet his lips slightly just to see whether he could, before he replied:
"Nothing. Lead the way."
Helavrin nodded, though he gave him another long look ere he began to walk towards the Tower. Legolas trailed in his wake, breathing deeply despite the discomfort while he tried to compose himself. I must not allow it in, the Darkness, he told himself. I cannot endure another Rohan. Not again! Most especially not now! Nevertheless, despite the dangers, he let his Sight take in the City, that he might at least not be wholly overwhelmed and without warning when least he could afford it.
The guards before the doors of the Citadel questioned them briefly, but only to learn their names ere they passed them into the marble halls beyond. Even here, the burning scent followed them, clinging to their clothes as they made their way down a long hallway, where the grave faces of kings long dead gazed sightlessly down in ranks upon visitors. But they led to an empty throne—the kings had no contemporary to be their eyes in truth, unless it were the one who sat upon the plain black chair at the foot of the dais.
The Steward of Gondor was grave as any statue, proud, but without the shine of pride: that inner luster had faded long before. Thus Legolas looked now upon a grey man—grey of hair, grey of eyes, grey of spirit, his soul like a spider's web that refused the play of light and darkness alike, reducing all to an indistinct opacity. This is Boromir's father, Legolas thought with no little shock, remembering how brightly the son had glittered despite the shadow on his soul. Into his mind came winging then the elven word made for Men when Men were yet new to the world—year-sick, old. And despite having seen aged Men before, he thought he understood now, at last, what the Sindar had meant when they had named Men beneath the light of the new Sun.
Yet those grey eyes—a deep, dark grey, like charcoal—were not empty, as Théoden's had been, but keen; body and spirit might age, but the mind remained sharp as the Steward gazed at Helavrin. The guard stood forward then, bowed, and announced, "My lord, I am Helavrin of the North Gate guard, sent to warn that the signal fires have gone up upon the walls, and to bring to you one who claims to be messenger from the Lady Galadriel of Lothlórien and also from King Théoden of Rohan—the Elf, Legolas."
"Let him approach," the Steward commanded, and Helavrin turned and beckoned to Legolas, who obeyed. "Closer." A long, pale finger crooked, and Legolas advanced another pace. "Closer." And then another, 'til he stood just out of arm's reach of the Steward. Boromir's father stared at him, dared even his eyes, and Legolas felt a shiver go through him, as if with that glance the Steward had stripped the flesh from his bones to see the soul within. Almost elvish, that look, and he could not but think of Aragorn.
"So," Denethor said after a time, "the Eldar race deems it timely to speak on present matters, and even Théoden has put his trust in you. Speak then. What counsel from the Elves?"
"My lord Steward, the lady sends warning to you that the Enemy moves and will see Minas Tirith first, ere ever your allies do, and it seems that warning has been too well borne out," Legolas replied, and drew forth his borrowed messenger's case and surrendered it to a black-liveried guard who hurried forward to receive it. He opened it, inspected the paper carefully, and then brought it to his lord, holding it open that the Steward might read it.
If the forgery were recognized as such, Denethor gave no sign. He merely nodded and lifted his eyes to gaze once more at Legolas, folding his hands as he rested his elbows upon the arms of his chair. "It is said," said he, deliberately, "that the Lady of Lothlórien is one of the Wise—that she sits upon the White Council, which in these days, among Men, is remembered only among the loremasters and their archives. 'Tis said also that the master of Imladris is one of that body. Is this true?"
"Yes, my lord," Legolas replied, watching the other closely now.
"My son departed on an errand to Imladris many months ago. I wonder whether any news of him has passed from Imladris to the Lady Galadriel since then?"
Which question left Legolas in a difficult position and with little time to think on it. No wonder Aragorn was so cautious! he thought, as he began to answer, matching the Steward for slow deliberation to buy himself a few more moments to sort out his reply. "I cannot say what news passes between the Wise, my lord. I am only a messenger and do not seek to know the private counsels of the Lady and Master Elrond. I can say that news of your son, the lord Boromir, has passed through Lothlórien. We know that he set out for Gondor some three months ago, for Elrond sent word that we should assist him should he happen to pass by our land on his way home, but more than that I cannot say, for I do not know what else he might have told the Lady."
Denethor was silent a moment, seeming to consider this fiction, crafted from the bare bones of truth. At length, he nodded. "I see. You have my thanks—it is good to have some news." Then, moving away from that matter smooth as glass, "You have been to Rohan with this," he said, and tilted his head slightly at the message that the guard held still. "I gather that King Théoden has accepted the warning, if you are here also on his behalf. Will he come to our aid?"
"The king and his men should have set out yesterday, my lord," Legolas replied.
"Five days at least," Denethor murmured, and shook his head, and his face darkened. "Well, if it be so, we must endure. And your own people? I suppose that it is too much to hope for unlooked for aid?"
"I fear we have our own borders to look to, my lord steward," Legolas replied truthfully.
"I see. And is there aught else you would tell me of?" The question was delivered evenly, but for all that Legolas felt the edge to it.
"No, my lord, unless it be to offer my service, since it seems we are all caught now in the same net."
"Indeed. Very well, then. We shall find a use for you—'tis said the eyes of the Elves see far," the Steward replied, gazing shrewdly at Legolas from over the tips of steepled fingers. "And we have a great need for look-outs of late. Berelden!" The hitherto nameless guard stood forward once more, listening as his lord delivered his orders without ever looking at him. "See to our guest's lodging and take him to the armory afterwards. Then send Lord Húrin to me, for we have still some little time to consider our defenses ere Faramir arrives. As for you, Legolas, we shall consider which of the archery companies might need you most. Until I send word to you, you are free to go where you would, so long as you do not pass beyond the gates of the City."
"Yes, my lord," Legolas replied, bowing. "Thank you."
"Come with me, sir," Berelden murmured, reaching to touch his elbow lightly, and Legolas obeyed.
Behind him, he could hear the Steward ordering Helavrin to return to his post with orders for his commander. But despite that, as he left the hall, he could feel the Steward's eyes on him still, boring a hole in his back...
"Is there something the matter, sir?" Berelden asked of a sudden, and Legolas glanced aside to find the guard staring at him, and he realized he was pressing his left shoulder with his right hand, shrugging slightly.
"No, nothing," he replied quickly. "'Tis an old wound, and nearly healed. It but itches and is sore still at times."
"I could bring you to the Houses of Healing, if you wished," the man offered. "And if it troubles you, then you should go now," he advised, "while the healers have still time for more minor pains and before you start wearing your armor like your clothes."
"Yes, I suppose I should. Lead the way, then," Legolas sighed, mindful of his promise to Aragorn. I take such care as I can, my friend, and I have not been foresworn—I said I would rest if fortune were kind. A pity for both of us that she is not, he thought, and wondered where Aragorn was at the moment, whether he had fallen prey to the tricks of shades or whether he held to his path.
I suppose we shall all know soon enough. If fortune is kind...
Peregrin Took, for his part, had no thought for fortune's kindness or cruelty. He had no thought for it, for to a hobbit the tides of the world are the changes of season—time for plowing, time for sowing, harvest time, rainy seasons and the dormancy of winter, all played out upon good earth and friendly skies. Fortune was a minor trickster at best; she had no weight, was 'it', not 'she', and so as Pippin clung to the saddle he shivered not over fortune's malice but the events of the day and the feeling of frightful exposure.
For of all the Grey Company, he was the only one mounted now—all the Rangers walked alongside their horses, occasionally murmuring encouragement. There had been no other way forward with them; that had been clear when they had reached the Door, and even Roheryn had balked. After a moment's consideration and a dark look for that menacing threshold, Aragorn had called for all to dismount. Halbarad, however, had laid a hand on Pippin's shoulder and murmured, "Stay." Then he had swung down from the saddle, taken Teldith's reins in one hand, hooked the fingers of the other hand into the bridle near the bit, and coaxed his horse forward to stand abreast of Roheryn and Aragorn, who had been hunting about in his scrip for matches.
"This is an evil door," Halbarad had said quietly. "Death lies beyond it."
"It lies at the end of every road," Aragorn had replied, even as he had drawn an unlit torch from his saddlebags. "And if not for us then for others. We made our choice in Helm's Deep; to turn back is to fail."
"We may yet fail even if we go on—the horses will not bear this road and us at once. We will lose time," Halbarad had warned. "Perhaps too much."
"We shall see," had come the reply, and Aragorn struck a match, then held it to the torch, which flared swiftly to life. Then he had wrapped Roheryn's reins twice about his wrist and caught the bridle, just as his lieutenant had done. Turning, he had called back to the last man in the column: "One torch ahead, one behind." Then glancing back at Halbarad, had said, "Follow me. And Pippin?"
"Yes?" Pippin had asked, startled to be suddenly addressed. Aragorn raised a brow at him.
"Sit tight." At that, Pippin had only nodded, and watched as Aragorn led a white-eyed Roheryn into the darkness beyond the Door. Halbarad had followed almost immediately, and Pippin had closed his eyes as they had stepped over that threshold... into a world colder than he had imagined existed. Pippin had gasped, and shivered violently, even letting go of the saddlepeak to chafe his arms, though to no avail. For the cold did not lie on the skin only, it got inside a body. Right down into my gut, Pippin had thought, quaking. Caradhras was surely warmer! Which was perhaps not wrong, for it was no mere wintry chill that lay upon the Paths, but cold was the feeling of fear—indeed, its very shape and substance, and Pippin had felt his heart freeze with it. Swallowing hard, he had finally screwed open one eye and seen Aragorn's torch ahead of him, and beneath it, the shadowy silhouette of Ranger and beast.
"Quickly now," Aragorn's voice had come back, echoing a bit in the long, carven corridor. One by one, the Rangers passed through the Door and onto the Paths of the Dead.
Since then, they had been moving steadily, the Rangers settling into a loping, slow run, the horses trotting alongside their masters, and Pippin clinging for dear life to the saddlepeak. To either side, he could just make out the smooth hewn stone of the walls, pierced occasionally by shuttered doors leading to who knew what miserable end. Before all went Aragorn, a little apart from those in his wake. And behind...?
Pippin had only looked back once since passing the Door, seeking the torchlight that would mark the end of the column. And he had spotted it—a ruddy, flickering light that seemed dulled, as if it shone through a mist. But a horror had seized him then; it was as if the cold within had fingers, and had gripped his innards, like icicles piercing intestines, twisting in them, so that he had quickly spun back about, panting and trembling, nearly sick. Blackness threatened, and in his weakness, Pippin had been struck then with the fear that he might swoon and topple off of Teldith's back without anyone the wiser. Everyone walked with his head down, as if to assure himself that he still walked upon the earth or to spare himself the sight of the walls and the gloom ahead—who would notice if suddenly he were gone?
"Do not look back." The admonition had cut through the still air, piercing the darkness, and Pippin blinked. Halbarad had not looked at him, and his voice had been low and steady, but Pippin had heard the tightness to it. He is also afraid, he had realized, and obscurely felt relieved. "The Dead follow. Do not look back." Weakly, Pippin had nodded.
He had kept his eyes fixed straight ahead ever since, on the light borne aloft in Aragorn's hand, or else he stared down at his own hands, or at the back of Halbarad's neck as the hours unfurled. That last was a strange view to him, unused to being taller than his companions. Accustomed to being overlooked because out of Men's sight, he found it was not a very comfortable position, particularly knowing that the Dead were watching. They must see me above all others, he thought, hunching his shoulders reflexively, and tried not to think any further down that line of reasoning lest the terror of that one backwards glance take him again. Nevertheless: Don't look, don't look, I'm nothing to look at, please don't look at me! he implored, over and over, and let those words fill his mind like a prayer, for whether the Dead could hear the silent wishes of the living or not, at least it was something to think of, other than the cold dread.
On and on the Grey Company went, never slowing, and the echoes of their passage made Pippin wince from time to time. Noise was obscene in this place, and he could not but fear that the Dead were troubled by it, angered by it—that at any moment, they might sweep forward to reclaim the silence of their tombs. Stop thinking of that! Pippin berated himself, and tried to remember Tuckborough's smials. The old warren of ways was comfortably lived in, and even the older, unused tunnels that generations of Took children had been losing themselves in, returning in triumph with tales of terror and secret findings, shone in memory with a distinctly friendly light by comparison to this place, and he held onto the remembrances of those carefree times with a will...
"Hold! Halbarad." Aragorn's voice sounded suddenly, and Pippin whimpered a little. Halbarad, though, paid him no mind, but hurried forward, while the rest of the company slowed to a halt.
A little ways ahead, Aragorn stood staring into the distance. Mustering his courage, Pippin raised his eyes and followed his gaze to where something gleamed just beyond the circle of light shed by the torch. "What is it?" he whispered.
"I do not know," Aragorn replied. Then: "Halbarad, take Roheryn a moment. Pippin, come with me."
"Me?" Pippin managed, amazed.
"I need someone to hold the torch and Halbarad cannot manage you and two horses if anything should cause them to spook," Aragorn replied. Faced with such logic, Pippin could hardly dismount fast enough. He grasped the arm that Aragorn raised to him, and Aragorn grunted a bit as Pippin slid off Teldith and into his embrace. Swiftly, then, he lowered the hobbit to the ground, then drew his sword and handed Pippin the torch. "Stay close," he ordered, and Pippin nodded, as firmly as he could, though his knees were none too steady as he followed the Ranger forward.
It was, as it turned out, gold that shone in the darkness, reflecting their own light: gold laid on the armor of some long forgotten warrior. Pippin swallowed hard against a certain queasiness as Aragorn slowly sank down to crouch beside the bones, which even in repose told a rather morbid tale.
"He was trying to get out," Pippin murmured, staring at the fingers lodged in the gap in the stone wall that outlined a locked door. The shattered sword by his side told the rest. Glancing over at Aragorn, who had made no move to touch aught, but simply stared in silence, he asked, "Who was he, do you know?"
"The lesser son of wiser fathers, who will now never lie in the green mounds before Edoras. Unhappy man, to be lured by a shadow and a hope for glory," Aragorn murmured. Raising his eyes, he glanced left over his shoulder, back along their path, as he continued, a little more strongly: "But the barren troves of the accursed hold nothing for us." Rising then, he held Andúril aloft and the torchlight gleamed along the blade as he cried to the emptiness, "Keep your treasures and your secrets, but lend us speed. Or else leave all such and gain yourselves once more—I summon you to the Stone of Erech!"
As if in response, a wind blew suddenly fierce, and the torch guttered, nearly failing, much to Pippin's terror. But then the blast of cold air died just as swiftly as it had come, to be replaced by a leaden stillness, broken only by the sound of Andúril being resheathed and the sounds of nervous horses being calmed by their masters. A cold sweat broke out on the back of Pippin's neck, but he had no time to wonder at it, for Aragorn was moving, and Pippin hurried after him, eyes resolutely fixed upon the ground. I will not look up, I will not look up, I will not...
It was almost a relief when Aragorn lifted him to Teldith's back, and took the torch once more, for at least then Pippin could not see the darkness behind the Company and the torchlight gave him something safe to look at. As he settled himself in the saddle, Halbarad handed off Roheryn to Aragorn again, and within a matter of moments, they were once more trotting along, though perhaps a little more swiftly than before. For behind them, there sounded a rustling, as of a thousand dead leaves in a wind, and Pippin crouched in the saddle, making himself as small as he could before that frightful sound. Which put him, coincidentally, at Halbarad's ear, and so keeping his eyes carefully forward, he hissed:
"What's the Stone of Erech that's got them in this state?"
"The beginning of this tale," Halbarad replied, and glanced briefly aside at him. "You will see."
Which was apparently all the answer he would get, and having better things to do—such as holding to his precarious perch and keeping terror at bay—he did not press the other. Pippin was uncertain how long they walked after that, whether it was hours or days even, for all his senses seemed frozen, his mind numbed by the incessant rustling and whispers of the Dead. But at length, he became aware that the echoes were giving way to the sound of water falling, that the light before him came not only from Aragorn's torch—a gate lay before them! As they passed through it, the walls shot up into cliffs, but the sky opened overhead to show a deep, ink-black sky, salted with stars. At the sight of them, Pippin felt his heart leap, as with relief of having escaped the terror of the tunnel. The cold that had clenched his stomach seemed to ease a bit, enough so that Pippin, ever curious despite fear, was able to dare a backwards glance. Behind them, at the head of the chasm, lay the towering shadow of the mountains, and a pale mist—a mist which, as he stared, eyes watering with the effort not to shut, took on the shapes of banners and spears, and the wavering forms of men...
"Mount up!" Aragorn called then, and Pippin blinked. No sooner had he shut out the sight than he was already turning away, before he could even consider another look. As if I want another! Why did I do that? he wondered, as hastily he sat up straight, jerking his hands back when Halbarad reached for the saddlepeak. In a twinkling, the Man was settled behind Pippin, who quite without thinking, leaned back gratefully and exhaustedly into the warm, solid body at his back, glad to have someone between himself and the eyes of the Dead. An arm curled about his waist then, and Pippin glanced up in surprise to find the Ranger gazing down at him with a slight smile.
"Sleep if you can, Master Took," Halbarad told him. "I will see you do not fall off, and will wake you when the time comes."
"Thank you," Pippin sighed, and pulled his hood down over his eyes. He heard Aragorn speaking—telling them they would ride to reach Erech ere the night ended—but heeded him little. Exhausted from fear, but lulled by the sense that the worst was over, he drifted to sleep and dreamt of eagles crowned with stars soaring through the air as the wind rushed over him.
It was some time later that Pippin felt himself being shaken, heard his name being called softly. With a start, he opened his eyes to darkness. "Where are we?" he asked, sitting up straighter, and Halbarad replied:
"The Hill of Erech. Come." The Ranger dismounted, and Pippin felt hands clutch him, lift him from the saddle. Torches were being kindled once more, and their light showed up a strange thing: a globe, black and tall as any Man, half-buried in the ground at the crown of the hill.
"Is that—?" Pippin began, and Halbarad answered ere he could finish:
"The Stone of Erech. 'Twas here Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains, calling them to fulfil their oath to stand by Gondor in time of war."
"What happened?" Pippin asked, as Halbarad paused, struggling to retrieve something from amongst his gear.
"They broke faith," Aragorn said, appearing suddenly beside them both. Pippin glanced up, and saw his friend staring at the stone intently, his eyes dark despite the gleam of firelight reflected in them. "When the summons came, they refused it. And so Isildur in his wrath cursed them to a deathless dwindling. Their king would die, and none would replace him; their kingdom would fade, and none would rise again from their land; and they would be ever restless until they were summoned once more. Then only might they depart this world, when they had fulfilled the oath they had sworn.
"All the long years since Isildur's death, the curse has stood, and passed to each of his heirs, who might call upon the Dead. At first, they would not, and later, they could not, and the curse has been as a canker upon too many souls," Aragorn murmured. He paused, and when next he spoke, his voice hardened: "'Tis time to end it."
With that, he strode forward, and Halbarad came swiftly after him, bearing what seemed a staff, furled in some dark cloth. Pippin stood watching, aware of the Rangers standing tense and eager beside him, and of the awful cold behind them—the Dead breathing down their backs, it seemed, if ghosts had breath. Halbarad gave Aragorn a horn, and he blew upon it.
From all around there came what seemed echoes, or else memories of them, carried upon a ghost wind that sprang up suddenly, chill and fierce. Pippin caught the edges of his cloak and pulled them close about himself. But worse even than the cold was the sound of it—the rustling became a whistling scream of despair and fury that cut straight to the bone of man and beast. Quaking, half-frozen with fear and heedless of the Rangers struggling to restrain terrified mounts, Pippin went to his knees and desperately pressed his hands over his ears to try to shut out the noise. But he kept his eyes on Aragorn, who did not move, only stood and let the winds blow. And blow they did, howling about the hilltop, whipping at his cloak and clothes and hair as they swirled about the Grey Company.
At last, though, Aragorn cried out to the night: "Oathbreakers, why have ye come?"
A roiling gust of wind seemed to tear up the slope, and Aragorn swayed, and his head went back as that airy column rose straight up about him... only to die as suddenly as it had arisen. And in the stillness that followed, as if from far off, a voice cried back: "To fulfil our oath and have peace."
"Ye shall have peace," Aragorn replied, then, in a tone that put fresh shivers down Pippin's back, "when Minas Tirith is delivered. When that is done, then I shall hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall be released from bondage to depart this world. So say I, Elessar, Isildur's heir of Gondor!"
At that moment, Halbarad held aloft what Pippin had thought was a staff—it was a banner, but one dark, and Pippin could see no mark upon it in the night. A great sigh seemed to run round the hill, and afterwards, a deep silence settled. Halbarad lowered the banner, glanced at Aragorn, who laid a hand on his shoulder. It is enough, that touch said, and he seemed to sigh himself ere they both descended from the great stone to rejoin the Grey Company, who drew close in about the pair.
"We will stay here tonight," Aragorn announced. "Take what rest you can, all of you. I think," he said, a little wryly, and ran a hand through wind-tousled hair, "that we need not fear to be approached by any. Be ready to depart at dawn."
The Rangers obeyed, though no one sought to erect any tents. Men broke ranks, forming a loose pair of circles upon the hill. Horses were quickly hobbled and tethered, the torches staked into the damp earth of the hill, forming a ring of light against the night, and bedrolls were spread. One of the Rangers, who had tended to Teldith and Roheryn, unstrapped their saddlebags and seeing Pippin standing there, brought them over, along with Pippin's pack, and set them all down before him.
"Thank you," Pippin said, and got a courteous nod ere the man departed, hefting his own pack over one shoulder. The hobbit began pulling his blankets out, but then paused and glanced back over his shoulder to where Aragorn and Halbarad yet stood, now a little apart from the rest of the company. They were talking quietly with each other, and Pippin's eyes narrowed as he marked the way Halbarad's far hand, out of sight of most others, rested lightly on Aragorn's arm, as if in unobtrusive support as they conversed. The Ranger lieutenant let his gaze drift over the camp, and his eyes fell upon Pippin, who froze a moment, then ducked his head, embarrassed suddenly, though he did not know why. But after a moment or two staring at the ground, he shook himself, and made himself useful then by unrolling their bedrolls and arranging their blankets for them before he began laying his own out nearby.
He was but halfway finished with his task when Halbarad nodded to Aragorn and looked over to where Pippin labored once more. Shaking his head, he approached, knelt down, and began gathering up his blankets. "My thanks, Pippin," he said in a low voice that did not seem upset, at least, "but I must make my bed elsewhere. Keep an ear open tonight." For what, he did not say, but the conspiratorial gleam in his eye left Pippin with no doubts as to his meaning. And despite the dread that lingered oppressively about the hilltop, he had to suppress the impulse to smile, grateful, then, and flattered, too, for that unexpected trust.
"Of course," he said, belatedly, for the other was already moving. He watched as Halbarad passed by Aragorn with a murmured "Rest well" ere he made his way over to the other side of their hasty camp.
Aragorn, however, spared but a slight nod, as he stood looking out over the Company. A long moment he watched them, before he at last turned and came to where Pippin was just pulling out an extra blanket from his pack. Pippin felt the other's hand brush his shoulder in wordless thanks as Aragorn wearily lowered himself to the ground, did off his sword-belt, rolled himself in his blankets, and then lay still, apparently asleep immediately. But something told Pippin it was not so, and after a moment, when he had finished with his own bedding, he crept over and said quietly to the other's back:
"Are you all right, Strider?"
A muffled snort answered him. Then: "I am never going to be 'Aragorn' to you, am I?"
"'Strider' is how I think of you," Pippin confessed, but offered: "But I can stop if it bothers you. Does it?"
"No, from you it does not," Aragorn admitted, and turned over; stretching out on his back, he tucked an arm beneath his head. "I like it better than 'Elessar' by far at this moment," said he, softly, and grey eyes fixed intently on Pippin then. "Are you all right?"
"I miss Merry," Pippin sighed, as he sat down on his blankets, drawing his knees up to his chest as he clasped his arms about them. "It's freezing here, and I'll be glad to leave this place and gladder still when it's all over." He paused, and his eyes cut towards the Ranger, weighing the other's silence before he said, on a deliberately chipper note, "But I'm all right."
Aragorn shook his head. But he smiled a little, too, gladdened, it seemed, by this pert response. "Sleep, Pippin. Tomorrow we must regain lost hours." With that, he closed his eyes and spoke no more.
For his part, Pippin tried to obey that advice or order—he was not sure which it was. But though he pulled the blankets over his head and endeavored quite earnestly to sleep, the cold and the fear of the Dead lay heavy upon him, even if not so heavily as within the tunnel beneath the mountains, thwarting his efforts if not his exhaustion. After a chill, fitful hour, he rose and moved his blankets, curling up at Strider's side. Warmer then, but restless still, he lay with his eyes shut until, some time later, he felt Aragorn stir and then rise. Blearily, Pippin peered out from beneath his blankets, and found Aragorn buckling his sword-belt back on. "Is it time yet?" he whispered.
"Near enough. Wake the others," he told Pippin, who rose tiredly and obeyed. Not that many needed waking: it seemed few had slept, and that most of the men had spent the night waiting for the dawn call. Which, Pippin realized, seemed to have come early, for it was still dark with no sign of sunrise in the east nor even of the stars. It would be just our luck if there were a storm, he thought, and sighed. But storm or no, they would ride. In short order, the Grey Company stood ready to depart, and this time, Aragorn took Pippin up before him on Roheryn's back.
Halbarad joined them. "How far today?" the lieutenant asked, stroking Teldith's neck soothingly, as the horse minced a bit, nervously.
"We should reach Calembel upon Ciril by sunset. 'Tis some ninety miles."
"Ninety?" Pippin asked, gaping, and got a wry look from Halbarad, who simply raised his arm and, without looking back, called:
"Fall out!" Pippin's teeth rattled as his head snapped back, so swiftly did Roheryn respond to that order, and then they were charging down the hill with an apparent disregard for its steepness, making for the road that ran below it. Nevertheless, despite such speed, Pippin felt Roheryn surge forward as they reached the flats, and the thunder of hooves roared in his ears all that day. For they did not stop; at times they would slow, sometimes even to a walk, but never did they pause, for the day was dark. The sun never rose, and that night, when they camped in the deserted town of Calembel, the stars were shrouded. An ill omen, and the campfire showed Aragorn's face taut with worry that evening. The Grey Company rested some hours, then rose and returned to the road, and the Dead followed ever in their wake, lending speed from fear when tired men and horses might have faltered.
For Pippin's part, it was a blur of darkness, that journey, and perhaps had he not run with Orcs, he could not have endured it. But he held on, and whether he rode with Aragorn or Halbarad, he clung to the saddle 'til his hands were numb and the ache spread up to his shoulders, and he could no longer feel his seat it seemed. Once, Aragorn caught him when he started to slide in his exhaustion, and ever after, his riding companions kept an arm about him, though Pippin did not imagine either Aragorn or Halbarad were any less weary than he. And still the road stretched out before them, seeming endless.
Yet it was not so, and every stride brought them nearer their end. Thus it was that as Pippin crossed Ringló with the Grey Company, heading south for Pelargir, Faramir gained the Rammas Echor, and the Siege of Gondor began.
And he thought of the elven word made for Men—year-sick, old—Ardalambion, see "Common Adjectives".
"This is an evil door," he had said quietly. "Death lies beyond it."—Cf. "The Passing of the Grey Company", ROTK.
"Unhappy man, to be lured by a shadow and a hope for glory"—Cf. "The Houses of Healing, RoTK.
"Keep your treasures and your secrets, but lend us speed. Or else leave all such and gain yourselves once more—I summon you to the Stone of Erech!" —Cf. "The Passing of the Grey Company", ROTK. Actually for most of the discussion over Brego, see the book.
"Oathbreakers, why have ye come?"
A roiling gust of wind seemed to tear up the slope, and Aragorn swayed, and his head went back as that airy column rose straight up about him... only to die as suddenly as it had arisen. And in the stillness that followed, as if from far off, a voice cried back: "To fulfil our oath and have peace."—"The Passing of the Grey Company", ROTK. For the rest of Aragorn's speech, see the same chapter for comparison.
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