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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 41. Baggage
In silence, they walked amid the tents, where healers' urgent voices and the moans and cries of men in pain still sounded. Soon enough, they came to a tent a little apart from the others. It was small, and there were guards in the livery of the king's household and of Aldburg stationed at the entryway, their swords drawn but planted before them, with their hands upon the cross-hilts. They did not move or acknowledge their guests in the least, but let them pass within the tent, where a pair of lamps cast a pale light upon the fifteen men laid side by side within.
Some were bare-faced and seemed almost to be sleeping; others were covered head to foot in cloaks, suggesting wounds so disfiguring as to grieve an onlooker. All bore their swords upon their breasts.
And there at the end of one row lay a small, still form, his hands clasped upon his breast above a sword hilt. Meriadoc Brandybuck looked much as he ever had; indeed, he looked as if he might wake at any moment. But he did not move, and when Aragorn knelt and carefully lifted the edge of the cloak, he was immediately relieved of one concern.
Bad angle, straight through the lungs, his healer's judgment informed him, and flinched inwardly as loss bit hard. There was no saving a man so wounded, not even were he treated immediately. He knew it, any healer who knew his trade was bound to judge likewise. There was, alas, but little comfort to be found in such knowledge. He let fall the cloak and laid his hand upon Merry's shoulder a moment, seeking to collect himself a bit. At least it would have been swift!
"How did he come here?" Legolas' low-voiced question held a world of rage and anguish in it, but before Aragorn could reply, Éothain spoke up.
"The Lady gave him into my care at Dunharrow the morning the Grey Company left," he answered.
"And you decided to bring him with you?" The rage deepened, and above him, Éothain hastened to reply:
"Nay, lord—the Lady gave him to me. 'Twas my task to find a place for him with us where the Marshal would not find him."
"Éowyn commanded this?"
"Yes, lord," Éothain replied, even more warily now, recognizing the tone of injured betrayal. "She said Master Brandybuck wished to go to Minas Tirith, and that she had promised to aid him, whether her brother and uncle would or no."
"I see," the Elf said flatly, and Aragorn stifled a sigh as he rose.
"Legolas," he said quietly, in an effort to forestall a futile dispute, "we've more pressing business than arguing 'oughts.'"
"And I thought you were done with business for the day," Legolas shot back.
"The day apparently decided otherwise. Captain," Aragorn asked, turning toward the man, "what can you tell us?"
"Little, I fear," Éothain said and grimaced. "The fell beast came down like a hawk on a hare and sent our horses into a panic. My lad was always quick on his feet—he got the bit in his teeth and bolted 'til an Orc thought to put a pike in his way. By the time I rejoined the host, Théoden King had already sent men to take Éomer up to the gates at least, 'til he could bring him to the Citadel." The captain's voice tightened. "They said then that of the Marshal's guard, none lived, save those who had been borne away by their horses."
"But if you knew this, then why had we heard nothing of Merry until now?" Legolas demanded then. Aragorn gave his friend a frown, but Éothain took no offense, seeming rather more weary and regretful than aught else.
"Had there been a body to tell of, you would have been told, lord prince," the captain replied heavily. "But there was none, 'til lately."
"What do you mean?" the Elf pressed, and Aragorn laid a warning hand upon his shoulder, only to have it shrugged off irritably as Legolas awaited an answer.
"'Tis as I said, lord," Éothain explained, "my charge was to see Master Brandybuck to Gondor, in despite of the Marshal—there were only five of us who knew he was with us. Three rode further back in the column once the attack began; they are all junior Riders, and were assigned to gather bodies to the fires when all was done. Then there was the lad Meriadoc rode with, Greta, and myself, and we rode with the Marshal's guard.
"I was told all were slain, and I thought your Master Brandybuck must have been discovered among them, and that you must have been given the news," Éothain replied steadily. "I never thought to ask how many had been found, for with Éomer dead, I had his command to settle, and especially when I heard from Greta's companions that their friend had come not back, there seemed to be no purpose in asking further.
"'Twas not 'til I went finally myself to pay my respects to the fallen of Éomer's guard, and found neither Greta nor Master Brandybuck among them, that I had reason to ask after them. 'Twas then I found that Greta lived still, but that no one had seen Master Brandybuck nor knew to miss him."
Éothain paused then, and his gaze went from Legolas to Aragorn, as he said, "For my part in this, my lords, I apologize, but I did not see that I could refuse the task assigned me. And I own I likely ought to have sent word to Théoden King or Lord Elfhelm to speak to you about the matter, but I thought that if one had lived, perhaps another might if we moved swiftly, and that questions and answers would take overmuch time.
"For I remembered how you appeared to us that day we met beneath the downs," he said, and gestured to the cloaks both Aragorn and Legolas still wore. "Meriadoc had such a mantle, I recalled, and by torchlight I thought it might take long to find him. So I took a few lads who stood hard by and we rode out to the place where the fell beast lay, where Éomer and all his men were found. There we searched for any sign of a hobbit's passage, though we would have missed him, save that one of the lads thought the Witch-king's hauberk lay a little strangely."
"He was beneath the Witch-king?" Aragorn said, a little incredulously.
"In a manner of speaking, lord. Of the Witch-king, there is naught but the armor and the robes and the crown left, but he lay flat beneath them. Must've been right behind him, though how anyone could come so close..." Éothain shook his head, staring down at Merry, and there was wonder upon that bluff, bland countenance for once. "Fifteen men about my lord Marshal—good men all, the best of us—and not one but him got a blow in on the Wraith-lord. He should lie with the Marshal for that!"
"He should lie in Dunharrow," Legolas muttered, and Aragorn closed his eyes a moment against the temptation to snap at his friend, who, after all, must ache for this death as much as he did himself.
After a moment, he opened his eyes once more, and spoke to Éothain again. "You have our thanks, Captain, for all that you have done for our friend." The captain accepted this with an inclination of his head. "Are there couriers at hand who can take a message to Harlond?"
"Aye, lord," Éothain replied.
"Send one thither, then, and tell him to ask for news of Halbarad and of Peregrin Took," he instructed, and ignored the piercing elven eyes that fixed upon him at these words. "If Peregrin is there and well enough for it, have the man bring him to our camp. As for Halbarad, I'll settle for word of his condition."
"As you wish, sire," the captain said, and turned and began to make his halting way out before Aragorn stopped him.
"Your pardon, Éothain, I am not thinking. You have lost your lord and gained a command and ought to take some rest. Legolas," Aragorn glanced over at the Elf, "since you seem unlikely to wish to rest in the near future, then if you would, get you to Harlond, or at least to the couriers. Please."
Legolas gave him a long look, then nodded abruptly. "We will speak of this later," he warned in Sindarin as he departed. That left Aragorn alone with Éomer's erstwhile second in command, and Éothain, gruff and dour captain that he was, nevertheless sighed and pushed a hand through tangled blond hair ere he said:
"In truth, sleep would be welcome about now. Thank you, sire."
"There is no need. Although, answer a question more for me, if you would," Aragorn said then, after a moment's reflection. And when Éothain quirked a brow, he continued, "You said that the Rider you had assigned to handle Merry—Greta, I think—lived still. Might he be able to say more of the battle?"
"I doubt it," Éothain replied, grimly. "I did ask after him, and the healers said they did not deem it likely he would wake, though his wounds themselves are not mortal. But some fell influence lingers, and he weakens, though they know not why."
"It grieves me to hear it, but perhaps he need not perish yet," Aragorn replied, and gripped the other man's shoulder, steering the captain out of the tent. And at Éothain's startled look, said, "I shall inquire and see whether there is aught I might do for him. Those who pass beneath a Ringwraith's shadow often suffer for it, but the Black Breath can be lifted."
"'T'would be good if it could be. The lad's a trial with that mouth of his and his curiosity, but he has a stout heart for all of it," Éothain declared, then stumbled a bit on some stone or dip in the field, hissing in pain as his injured leg buckled, so that Aragorn hastened to steady him. The captain shook his head sharply, then grunted, "Think I ought to see about that rest now, sire."
"No doubt. Go carefully. And I do thank you, for all your care of Merry," Aragorn said softly. Éothain bowed slightly in wordless reply, then limped away down the row of tents in search of his own bedroll. Aragorn stood a moment where he was, pressing a hand over eyes that burned, and not merely with exhaustion. But there was nothing to be done for Merry, whereas his companion might not be beyond hope. With a sigh, he lowered his hand, blinked a bit to clear the blur from his sight, and then made his way back towards the tents and well-lit circles where the healers worked.
Fortunately, he had no trouble finding the lad. "That young Rider Captain Éothain brought in not so long ago?" the journeyman healer replied to his question. "Aye, he is with the black watch, lord."
"Have you any hot water to spare? Even a cup would do," Aragorn asked.
"Aye, a moment, sire," the man replied, and raised a hand, signaling a pair of very young, black-haired boys in pages' livery, apparently on loan from the City to fetch and carry for the healers. One of them nodded and hurried off towards one of the fire pits.
"He ought to be back soon, and when he does, just you ask him to take you to the black watch, and he shall show you. There should be another lad there who can tell you which is Greta." So saying, the healer left him to return to his work. The boy did, indeed, come swiftly back, bearing carefully with him a wooden bowl that steamed.
"Here you are, sir," the boy said, and Aragorn gave him a nod as he accepted the bowl.
"Thank you, lad. The healer said you know where the black watch is. Can you take me there?"
"Aye, sir," he replied and began leading him towards the edge of the healers' encampment.
The men deemed incurable, yet whose condition was such that mercy was not required to speed their release from suffering, were kept on what was called the black watch. Usually one of the younger healers would be assigned to hold vigil there, to mark their passing and see that the bodies were sent to the fires, or to act should a man's condition change, so that either poppy or a knife were needed. Otherwise, the men on the black watch were cleaned as best as could be managed and allowed to rest undisturbed until their time came.
The presence of the boys from the City, however, freed the healers from the vigil, at least, if not from the unhappy duties of mercy. There were two boys sitting close together by a pair of lamps, huddled in their cloaks. As they approached, Aragorn's young guide hailed them, and the two looked up, then made haste to rise, tugging their tunics straight.
"Sir," one of them, the taller of the two, said quickly, then gazed up at him uncertainly.
"Do either of you know which of the men here was with Lord Éomer's company?" Aragorn asked. "He was brought in not long ago, by Captain Éothain. His name is Greta."
"Oh, aye, sir. Ingar, you wait, I'll show him," the taller boy said, and his companion nodded, seeming all too happy to leave the task to his friend. "This way, sir."
The lad led him straight through the rows of silent, still men, heading for the bedrolls near the back, some of which were unused. At length, he paused by one of them, and indicated its occupant.
"He is the one you want," the boy said, holding his lamp up so that light fell upon the wounded man's face. Young it was, and marred by a slash that had taken the fellow's eye, to judge by the bandaging. And even in this deathlike repose, he seemed troubled, uneasy, and when Aragorn knelt and laid the back of one hand upon his cheek, he felt the fever. Greta moaned and muttered something incoherent, twitching slightly.
"He's been like that since they brought him," the boy volunteered. "Every so often, he'll moan and cry out. We thought he must be better, or needing something the first time it happened, but the Rohirrim came and said it was babbling."
"Well, perhaps we shall get something more from him," Aragorn murmured, then glanced over at the boy and raised a brow. "How are you, lad? Can you stay here and keep that lantern over us both for a time?"
"Aye, I can. Ingar doesn't like this duty, but I was working for the healers in the surgery, up in the Houses in the Seventh Circle," the lad replied, and gave him a look grave beyond his years, as he explained: "The men here don't scream."
"What is your name, lad?"
"Bergil, son of Beregond of the guard, sir," he replied, and drew himself up a bit, and despite his grief and weariness, Aragorn could not but smile, recognizing the pride in the lad's voice.
"Bergil, son of Beregond?" he asked. The boy nodded, and Aragorn held out a hand, which the lad grasped readily enough. "Aragorn, son of Arathorn, a Ranger of the North," he replied, then pressed his hand a little harder. "Now listen a moment: there is a thing I must do, and it may seem... odd. But stay you here, do not let the light waver, and see that I am not disturbed for a time. Can you do that?"
"Aye, sir. Can you really heal him?"
"I believe so," Aragorn replied, releasing him then to attend to his latest patient. May I not be proved wrong! Gathering himself, banishing weariness from his mind, he reached and took the young man's face in his hands, drew a deep breath. And as he let it out, he let himself go as well...
"Greta?" Aragorn called after that wondering, terrified voice.
Éomer! My lord! Sword-fire in the night—a glitter of blade that seemed to cut for just a moment through the Darkness that had fallen.
"Greta!" He cast out again, for the lad was close, he could feel him—and then flinched and cried out himself as pure white agony burned across his face, like ice. The world seemed to shatter, breaking into dreams that fluttered like ravens, black wings closing in all about him, all about him... all about them!
For there in the heart of this darkness, he caught a glimpse of him—thin and weak, insubstantial as a shadow at noon. "Take my hand, lad! Greta, reach!" The other's form wavered, shrank from him. "Greta, take my hand, or you perish here." Still, the other held back, and in the swirl of sharp-winged nightmares, Aragorn could feel his own hold on the world beyond slackening. "I cannot linger, lad—take my hand. Now!"
Something in his plea must have moved the lad, for the other stretched out a tentative hand. Fingers like smoke brushed Aragorn's palm, and Aragorn grasped and pulled the other close, gasping a little at the pain and terror that leached off him. But far gone as he was, there was no resistance in the boy as Aragorn began their retreat—
—and the next thing he was aware of, beyond the blur of fevered, horrific dreams, was an insistent voice in his ear, and the wrench of another mind that seized upon him even as he had seized on Greta, and a glow that solidified into a pair of hands upon his shoulders...
"Aragorn!" Legolas said urgently, his grip tightening. "Valar, you are too weary for this! Aragorn—do you hear me?"
"I hear you," Aragorn replied, rather shortly as he shook himself out of the last vestiges of Greta's dreams, nerves tingling still, and the world went grey and blurry for a moment. He blinked, then again, and shivered slightly as a dull ache settled behind his eyes. But that would keep for a little while at least. Before him, Legolas let out a sigh and an oath as he let his hands fall.
At the same time, the light wavered a bit as Bergil shifted the lamp to his other hand. "He said he could help you, sir," the boy said, gesturing to Legolas. "I'm sorry if I did wrong. But is he better?" Bergil gazed wide-eyed down at Greta, who was lying quietly. Aragorn gave the boy a weary half-smile, and replied:
"Let us wake him and ask."
"Later, Legolas," he said, ere the other could finish, intent once more upon his aim. Earlier that evening, he had replenished his supply of athelas from the store kept by the Grey Company before going to work with the healers. Now he withdrew a few leaves from his scrip and reached for the bowl of water. The water had cooled somewhat, but was still warm enough to serve, and so he bruised the leaves and cast them into it. After a moment, a sharp, clean scent seeped outward, stealing through the air, like Imladris' pines on the edge of autumn.
"Smells like grandfather's rose garden," Bergil said, sounding delighted as he sniffed. Aragorn chuckled softly, then lifted Greta's head a bit and held the bowl beneath his face.
"Wake, Greta—come home to us!"
Nothing seemed to happen for a moment, but then the lad stirred slightly, and he breathed in deep of a sudden, like a diver come to surface. "Éomer-hlaford?" he murmured, voice unsteady and thick with confusion. The eye that had not a bandage over it opened slowly, and Greta blinked, then squinted a bit, raising a trembling hand. Aragorn set the bowl aside and grasped it, squeezing firmly. "Láttéowa?"
"That is a tale for later, lad. How do you feel?" he asked, falling easily into Rohirric once more.
"Head hurts," the other whispered and winced slightly. Then his brow furrowed. "Why can I not...?" His question trailed off as the other hand felt at the bandage over his eye, and he winced then, sucking in a sharp breath as the other eye began to tear.
"Hush now, lad, you will be well, and in a little while, you shall rest. Bergil," Aragorn said and nodded in the direction of the surgery tents, "go fetch a healer and a pair of lads with a stretcher—tell them they have one here by mistake, and that he is in pain."
"Yes, sir!" Bergil turned and began pelting down the row, then stopped abruptly, apparently struck by a thought. He returned quickly and set the lantern down beside them, then with a grin, resumed his headlong dash.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Legolas spoke again, though in his own tongue, mindful of Greta's presence. "You nearly lost him. And yourself," he said reprovingly.
"I know I did. And I thank you for your help at the end. But this was necessary," Aragorn replied.
"Necessary? Why? You might have waited 'til tomorrow at least!"
"Mayhap. But that might have been too late—he was nearly gone by the time I found him," he said.
"And you were on the brink of losing your anchor here when I found you!" Legolas retorted, green eyes flashing. "You should not have done it, weary as you are! Do you think Prince Imrahil or the other captains would take kindly to losing you chasing after a dream-lost lad?"
"He is safe enough now, and so am I. Legolas," he said firmly, quelling the other's protest with a look, "I know your argument—I do not dispute it. But the thing is done, and no harm has come of it. Let it be!"
"Hlaford?" Elf and Man both looked down at Greta, then, as the weak-voiced inquiry drew their attention from their quarrel. "Eomer hlaford, is hé hal? Libbe hé? And... Merry?"
Aragorn sighed softly. It appeared that Greta would not be put off from an answer, unhappy though it be. Curious, perhaps, but not tonight, he thought tiredly, recalling Éothain's words. Even so wounded, he's courage enough for concern. And so he reached and brushed a lock of hair back from the lad's brow, then let his hand slide down to cup Greta's cheek, soothing the lad a bit before he replied, gently, "Lord Éomer and Merry won great glory this day, but they must leave it to you to celebrate it for them."
"Oh." It was more a whimper than a word, and the lad's breath caught. "Oh." Tears leaked from the corners of his one good eye, and he sniffled. He looked away.
"Here, take this." Legolas' voice came low and unexpectedly soft, as the Elf dug about in his scrip and came up with a handkerchief that was amazingly still clean and neatly folded at that. He tucked it into the young Rider's hand, and watched as Greta shakily used it, murmuring a rather muffled 'thank you.'
All three of them fell silent then, until Bergil returned, with three men in his wake. At that point, both Legolas and Aragorn rose, Aragorn rather more slowly than was his wont, and they made way for the healers, who exclaimed over Greta before carefully moving him onto the stretcher.
"Whatever you did, lord, you have our thanks," the last of the healers said, as the other two bore Greta away. Then he, too, hurried back to his charges.
As soon as he had departed, Legolas snaked a hand about Aragorn's arm and said, firmly, "You need to rest, before this latest adventure finds you. Come!"
This time, Aragorn did not argue, nor did he resist, but rather simply obeyed, for in truth, the strain of the day—of several days—had already found him when he had left Denethor. With nothing more to occupy him, dizzying exhaustion took hold, and his own grief threatened. He did spare a nod and brief hand on Bergil's shoulder, wordless thanks for his help, but he barely heard the boy call after them: "Good night!"
Legolas was silent as they made their way back to the Rangers' camp and their tent, and despite the tension between them, Aragorn was grateful for the Elf's steadying hand. For as they walked, the ache he had been ignoring mounted in intensity, so that by the time they reached their destination, Aragorn was gritting his teeth against a splitting headache. Legolas, of course, noticed, and he shook his head as he shepherded his friend into the tent, then let the flap fall and knelt to fasten it against the night breezes.
Aragorn meanwhile unbuckled his sword-belt and set that carefully aside, then pulled his boots off and managed to retrieve his bedroll from the small pile of baggage in the corner. No sooner had he shaken out the blankets and spread them upon the ground than he crawled into their midst, pulled them over himself, and shut his eyes.
"Wake me an hour before dawn, Legolas," he muttered.
If Legolas answered, Aragorn did not hear it: weary as he was, he was already asleep.
As it happened, he did not need to wait for Legolas to call him. He was not certain what time it was, but it was surely several hours later when Aragorn came suddenly awake, as happened sometimes after a dream or when something disturbed him. But it was quiet in the tent; no sound of trouble reached him from without, and he could remember nothing of any dream.
"You should go back to sleep," said a low voice, nigh at hand. Hearing it, Aragorn relaxed and let slip the dagger he had reached for instinctively. Then he let his head loll to one side so he could see Legolas. The prince sat by the tent flap, his back to the canvas and his knees drawn up with his arms clasped loosely about them. "It is early still."
"What hour is it?"
"Not yet the hour before dawn," Legolas replied, a little pointedly.
Aragorn shut his eyes again experimentally, contemplating the idea of taking a little longer before rising. But after but a few moments, he sighed softly, and sat up, rubbing his face in his hands ere he folded them and cocked his head 'til he could see the Elf again at the edge of his vision. "You have not slept at all, have you?" he said, not that he needed to ask.
"I had other matters to think about."
"Why it is that reasonable Men would think it wise to allow two Halflings into a battle like this, when they were safe enough where they were."
Aragorn grunted at this. After last night, the complaint was hardly unexpected; nonetheless, the idea of having to face Denethor again after an argument with Legolas was not an appealing prospect. But better to have it done with, he thought, even as he threw the blankets off and grabbed his overtunic. He pulled that on, then reached for his sword-belt.
"Say on," he invited, as he buckled it, gave the cinch a tug, and then went for the boots.
"I have asked my question, I still await your answer," Legolas replied, evenly.
"It is not what I would have chosen for them, but it was not my choice to make."
"Yet you persist in making it nonetheless—at Dunharrow before Helm's Deep, at Edoras... after Moria."
"We have gone over this before, Legolas, 'twas you who begged off that exchange. And if you are so concerned about the hobbits' safety, you might have contested Elrond and Gandalf, who decided they ought to be have a place in this business of ours."
"I said not that they have no place in this struggle, but you know as well as I that this was no battle for their kind! There was no need for them to be here!" Legolas replied sharply.
"There was no need for them that we could foresee, I grant you that. I argued that point with Pippin at Dunharrow, you may be sure. But the need of armies is not the only kind of need in the world that must be respected," Aragorn answered.
"So you say. Yet you seek ever to thwart me and indulge them," Legolas retorted, and Aragorn sighed.
"I thought we had had done with this in Dunharrow!" He shook his head, then gestured vaguely, a wave to encompass the camp at large. "You are here, Legolas, you have surely slain enough to barrow Gimli in a hall made wholly of orcish skulls. It may profit us both for a time that you grieve him with the edge of a knife, but in the end, we are neither of us innocents—we know the end of the road you are upon," he replied, with quiet force. "Do not ask me to look gladly upon it!"
"We do know," Legolas agreed after a moment. "And if you look not gladly upon it, then the more reason to save whom you can—the hobbits had no business here!" Green eyes caught and held his a moment, ere the prince added, "You did not see Pippin last night."
For a moment, it escaped Aragorn how Pippin should have been upon the field last night, but then memory returned. The courier, of course, he thought, running a hand through his hair to buy a moment's consideration. Then: "How did he seem?"
"Shattered," Legolas replied grimly. "I took him to the healers' camp, to the tent. So far as I know, he has not left his cousin's side."
Aragorn made a soft noise, sympathy, regret, and frustration mingling in it. But there is no time for grief now, either! he thought. Not yet. And so he said, "Then you should go to him, and see that he is not alone. Give him my condolences, and I will speak with him later, when this council is over."
Legolas rose then, unfolding like a cat from its nap, and he drew his cloak about his shoulders. Then he cocked his fair head and asked, "What will you debate?"
"The next step in all of this—we need to decide the best course of action," Aragorn replied, though he gave the prince a puzzled look, for he should have thought that was clear enough.
Legolas returned it for a long moment, then glanced down at the grass. Finally: "I do not see that there is much to decide. Frodo walks in Mordor—so we hope, if we hope. His path must be clear if he is to have any chance of achieving his end. Minas Tirith stands still, but it has stood for many years and done nothing to draw our Enemy forth in all his strength. We do nothing to aid Frodo defending these walls, Aragorn." He glanced up as he spoke, and that fey, fearful smile touched his lips, twisted his mouth. "And aiding Frodo changes nothing in the end. It is as I have said since Rohan—all is decided. You and the others have but to follow, and follow you shall the path already set, however you go upon it. Good day."
With that, the Prince departed, leaving Aragorn to stare after him a moment. At length, though, he shook his head. "Go not to the Elves, indeed!" he muttered, and then went on to his morning ablutions.
It was nearly dawn—the first dawn Minas Tirith had seen in nearly a week. As the sun peeked over the Ephel Dúath, Pippin stood at the edge of the healers' camp, watching as men went to and fro on their rounds. It seemed very busy still, for all the battle had been done for hours and hours, and he hesitated, uncertain where to go or who to speak to, and he certainly did not wish to bother anyone who might be needed badly elsewhere.
At length, however, a pair of men appeared who seemed less hurried than the others. One of them noticed him standing there, and touched his older companion's arm, then pointed and said somewhat. The older man's gaze fell upon him, and then the man laid a hand on his younger colleague's shoulder and began striding purposefully towards Pippin.
"Are you one of the lads from the City?" he asked Pippin, in reasonably clear Westron.
"Me, sir? No, I came with St—Aragorn," Pippin replied, and at the other's slightly skeptical look, added: "I'm Peregrin Took—one of the holbytla."
At that, the man's face lit with recognition. "Forgive me, I had not seen you before, only heard the tales," he replied. "How may I help? Are you hurt?"
Pippin had lightly reassured Halbarad he had nothing more than scraped knees and shins when they had waited for the healer upon the field. Which he had, and which were quite sore, not to mention black and blue where there was still skin, and he had a bit of a lump on the back of his head from getting tripped over in the battle.
"'Tis naught serious," one of the healers at Harlond had told him, and Pippin had given Halbarad, who had insisted the man check him, a triumphant look.
And it wasn't serious. If ever he had felt inclined to complain of such ills, the news the messenger had brought last night had quelled it. And so in response to the healer's inquiry, he shook his head and replied, "No, I don't need a healer. I was looking for someone, but I don't know where to find him."
"I imagine you seek Greta, the lad who found his way into Lord Éomer's guard—the one who bore Master Brandybuck with him, as I hear it?" the man guessed, and Pippin nodded, biting his lip against the quaver, and he ducked his head, blinking hard. A warm hand engulfed his shoulder, and he looked up to see the healer give him a kindly smile, as he said:
"'Tis all right, lad. But I must ask: why do you wish to see him?"
"I just wanted to thank him for taking care of Merry on the way here, and to hear what happened. But I promise," Pippin said hastily, "I shan't badger him about it."
The healer considered this a moment, then nodded. "Very well. I shall take you to him. Come, Master Took."
"Thank you," Pippin replied, and began to follow him. The healer called something to his friend, who gave a nod and then made off on his own. "I'm sorry to be a bother..." Pippin began, but the other shook his head.
"Nay, it is no trouble. We are at the end of our shift, and I shall follow him soon. Besides, it would be good, I deem, for Greta to have someone to sit with him awhile."
"So... you do know him, sir?" Pippin asked, glancing up at the man.
"Aye, I was called to treat him last night—we thought he would die, but Lord Ælric—" Pippin frowned, momentarily thrown off by the name, 'til he recalled how the Rohirrim had called Aragorn "was able to help him, I know not how." The healer gave him a searching look then, and said: "I should warn you, Master Took, for I do not know how much experience you have of such things: men who are newly scarred and disfigured, as Greta is, often are very ill-tempered. Do not let him unsettle you too much. And if you can help it, do not stare."
"I shall try not to," Pippin promised.
The healer brought him then to a pallet where a young man lay sleeping, a clean bandage bound about his head and over his left eye, and new stitches all along the same cheek. "He ought to wake soon—the effects of the poppy we gave him should wear off. Should you need help, call for it," the man said. "Good morning, Master Took."
"Good morning. And thank you," Pippin replied, gazing after the man, who hurried to rejoin his companion, leaving Pippin in the midst of the makeshift ward. But after a moment, a soft moan drew his attention from the retreating healer to the Rider lying before him.
The sun was coming up, and pale golden rays cut through the ashy air. It made the young man seem very pale, his skin seeming nearly transparent, and his good eye shut the tighter as he winced and reached up with one hand, shielding his face from the light a bit. He whimpered.
"Should I fetch a healer for you?" Pippin asked, feeling his stomach clench sympathetically at that pained, frightened sound.
To his surprise, at the sound of his voice, the Rider went paler still, and with what seemed a great effort of will, he forced his eye open and gazed up at Pippin, squinting. "M-merry?" he asked, voice strained and incredulous.
"No, Pippin," he replied quickly. "Merry is—was—my cousin."
The lad's face fell, but he grunted softly, and murmured, "His cousin. Of course." Then he winced again and shut his eye, which was tearing up.
"Should I go find someone for you?" Pippin asked again, worriedly.
"No. I'm fine." Which was a patent lie, but Greta hurried on to ask: "Why have you come?"
"I just thought," Pippin replied, after a moment, "you might want some company." For of a certainty, I do!
Last night, when Pippin had arrived at Aragorn's tent, and been told the bad news by a frightfully grave Legolas, he almost had not believed it.
"But he can't be—that is, he has to be all right!" Pippin had protested. And he had waited for the prince to shake himself out of whatever strange dreams Elves dreamt and tell him it was a mistake, that he had said the wrong name or meant "hurt" instead of "dead." Something. Anything.
"I'm sorry, Pippin, did I say 'Merry'? I was dreaming before you came and it slipped out wrongly." They would have been welcome words, and Pippin might even have forgiven him if Legolas had said he had been playing some morbid prank on him. But none of that had happened.
"Come, I shall take you to him," Legolas had said, and been as good as his word. And he had even withdrawn quietly, without protest, when Pippin had asked him to leave. Pippin had sat in that tent for most of the night, there among the dead, and he had held Merry's hand and wept and pleaded and probably confessed to twenty years of unacknowledged guilt for various acts of hitherto unclaimed mischief. There had been darker things, too—fears and failures conceived along the long road from the Shire to Gondor, which he had not told anyone of, not even Merry, and which had come pouring out, as if to say it would make up, somehow, for having not been there. For having been somewhere else, with someone else, just in time for another, and far, far too late for Merry.
And when all of that had got no reply, Pippin had sat in silence, staring blankly down at his cousin in a kind of stupor, unable to weep, unable to speak, unable to bear the stillness of Merry's face, yet unable to leave. He had actually fallen asleep there, worn out from the day's deeds and griefs.
Later (he knew not how many hours later) he had awakened with a start, terrified, and found himself alone in the dark, with only the memory that before him lay the dead. He had gone cold to the tips of his toes, and every hair had stood on end, as all of a sudden, their spiritless company had struck him with horror, as if he were back riding the Paths of the Dead: in the dark, alone with them, spirits without bodies, bodies without souls. He had nearly thrown up.
He had scrambled to depart them, though he had recalled just in time the presence of the guards outside the tent. One of them must have come in and taken down the lantern while Pippin slept, thinking no others would come so late, and that perhaps Pippin might appreciate it. Later, it had occurred to him to wonder if Legolas had had an unnoticed word with them about leaving him be on his way out. Whatever the case, he did manage to stop himself before he fled out into the camp at large, and had departed at a determinedly dignified pace.
After that, he had gone back to the Gondorian camp, and wandered aimlessly for a time, not really thinking about anything. At length, he had drawn nigh to Aragorn's tent, wondering if he might join his friends and sleep warm for awhile, but the two muffled voices—Legolas' and Aragorn's, both speaking Sindarin—had put him off after but a short while spent listening. And so he had returned to the healer's encampment, remembering then that Legolas had spoken of a Rider who had carried Merry through to the last battle. A young Rider, who lay now wounded in the healers' care. And for whatever reason, it had got into his head then that if he desired better company than the dead, he need look no further.
Now, looking down at the Rider, who was gazing at him in pained incomprehension, he had cause to question that notion. "Why would you want to keep me company?" Greta asked, hoarsely.
"I... it's no good being alone right now, and the others are... busy, I think. I miss Merry, but I can't bear to be about him anymore. And I thought you might be wanting for someone other than healers," he said, and felt his cheeks heat. He sighed. "I'm sorry, I'm not making much sense!"
"I am sorry that I did not save your cousin, Master Took," came the whispered response, after a long moment of silence. Pippin blinked in surprise.
"Sorry?" he repeated, and got a faint nod, which was brought up a bit short by a wince.
"My horse threw us, and I felt him fall away. But I didn't look for him. I saw my lord Éomer and that... thing... and everything went right out of my head. I don't even know... I'm not even sure what I did anymore, but it didn't end very well," he said, his voice trailing off into a quiet, cut off whimper, teeth baring in a rictus of anguish. He sucked in a breath between his teeth, and forced the rest out: "But I was supposed to look out for Merry, and I didn't. And I didn't even save my lord, either!"
"Are you all right? You really don't look well," Pippin said, not willing to trust himself with a response to this speech yet, but certainly the other seemed rather green about the gills. The tearing of his one good eye was now definitely tears, and Greta raised a hand. But not to wipe at them—rather, he held it above his face, almost as if to hide himself.
"It's just the light," he managed, tightly. And: Of course, Pippin realized after a moment's thought; it hurts his eyes. Obligingly, he shifted so that his shadow fell across the Rider's face. "My thanks," Greta murmured, letting his arm fall once more, as he explained, shortly: "Never thought it would hurt this much!"
"Are you sure I shouldn't fetch you a healer to give you something for it?" Pippin asked, worriedly.
"No!" came the emphatic reply. Then Greta swallowed hard, and murmured, "If I sleep, I may dream of... him."
Him. Pippin, remembering the hasty journey from Weathertop, in constant fear of the Riders not far behind, shivered in kindred horror, and replied, sympathetically, "I know what you mean!"
They were silent for a little while, each preoccupied with his own thoughts. Pippin, watching his unfortunate companion, thought about his words, turning them over in his mind a bit. At length, he said quietly, "It's not your fault, you know, about Merry dying. Strider told us this wasn't our sort of battle, but we came anyway. We'd been lucky all along—catching on to Cousin Frodo's plan in time, missing those Ringwraiths all the way from Hobbiton to Rivendell, and getting off Caradhras in a snowstorm. And it never was us, before—Gandalf went first, and then Boromir... Gimli. I suppose... I suppose it was about time luck caught up with us," he concluded, and dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve as he sniffled a bit. He sighed.
"So you see, it wasn't your fault. You were lucky, that's all. Merry wasn't, and neither was Éomer. Lot of bad luck lately. But it's not you or me who's to blame for it. I'm not angry with you, certainly," he said, sincerely, and looked anxiously at the young Rider, hoping he understood.
And perhaps he did. Greta was silent for a little longer, then reached out a hand. Pippin took it, and the young man squeezed tightly. "Do you think," Greta asked, "that you could stay and talk to me? It would help keep my mind off things."
"Of course, if you like. What should I talk about?" Pippin asked, and got a slight shrug.
"Girls, horses, races—anything you like! Just something to listen to," he replied. Pippin frowned, considering his choices. And then he began to grin.
"Why don't I tell you about the best mushroom farm in all the Shire?"
"Mushrooms?" Even wounded and in pain, Greta sounded skeptical.
"Oh yes. If there's a treasure in the Shire, it's mushrooms. You have no idea 'til you've had them properly served, but once you have, you'll understand why so many went to such lengths to steal them. Which is where the dogs come into it, and, if I may say so myself, one of the more ingenious plots ever to fail to get past them," Pippin declared.
Forgive me, Frodo, he thought across the leagues to the worst young rascal in Buckland, for despite what must have been a fierce headache indeed, Greta looked intrigued. I'll make it up to you somehow for telling about this! "You see, the Marish is famous for its mushrooms, but especially the Maggots' farm..."
While the sun rose, and the camp came slowly to life, and lords convened upon the field, Pippin sat and spun tales of the Shire, and the derring-do of friends and cousins (and himself, of course) in pursuit of mischief. Greta was not the only one who listened, either—men laid close by sometimes would chuckle, if painfully, and once or twice even interjected a question. The healer who came by on his rounds even seemed pleased—pleased enough that a little while after his departure, a boy came up bearing porridge and some bread and cheese for Pippin.
"Master Æscher said you should eat something," the lad said. "And he says all of you had better listen so he can hear the rest when he comes back on rounds later," he added, addressing the wounded.
"Will do," Greta murmured, and managed a faint smile, while Pippin managed a 'thank you' around a mouthful of bread.
"Are you staying on for a bit, lad?" Pippin asked, and the youngster shook his head.
"No, I have to go. The healers want us to get a count now of everyone who is still here," he replied.
"I don't know. Something's going on, though," the boy volunteered, then darted away to his chore.
"I wonder what that's about," Pippin mused aloud.
"Likely nothing," said one of the men, who had a poultice on a wound to his leg, but who seemed more sick than aught else. "Had to count us sometime to know how many they can put on the watches."
"Anyone heard if Marshal Elfhelm's lads have come in yet?" another asked, and then repeated it in Rohirric. This got some muttered replies, and though Pippin did not understand any of it, he got the impression that no one knew anything about Elfhelm's company.
"Elfhelm split his éored up, sent some to guard the neck of the pass into Stonewain Valley," Greta explained quietly. "There were Orcs on our trail. A lot of Orcs."
"Oh," Pippin said, his mood suddenly quenched and subdued once more. More battles. More death. "It feels like this war should be over already!"
Greta managed a faint smile, though there was a hardness to his voice that belied his years as he replied, "It might have been over yesterday. Long may it last!"
Which was one way of looking at it, Pippin supposed, though he did not care for it at all. It can't last long—Frodo has to come to Mt. Doom sooner than that, he thought, and cast an anxious look over his shoulder towards the east. Because if Frodo did not, then, as Greta had intimated, things might end all too soon, even war...
"I see I need not have worried," said a new voice just then, and Pippin looked up to see Legolas standing just a little ways off, having, it seemed, appeared from thin air. The elven prince gave him a slight smile that did not quite lighten his eyes, as he explained, "Trust a hobbit to find a meal!"
"Legolas," Pippin replied, standing and wiping his hands on his pants, feeling, as ever, just slightly disheveled in the Elf's presence, never mind that even Legolas looked as though he could benefit from a washroom and a proper brush. "Were you looking for me?"
"Aye, I was. I thought you would be... elsewhere. And then I could find no one who had seen you, and feared you had become lost in the camp somewhere," he replied.
"I'm sorry," Pippin said contritely. "I did mean to go back to the tent, but..." He shrugged, not wanting to admit in front of others that he had, but had departed unannounced for being unwilling to interrupt what had seemed an argument.
"You should have found it filled with Gondor's council, had you tried," Legolas said, and gave a one-shouldered shrug. "'Tis well enough—I thought to look here before I set out for Harlond, where no doubt if I had inquired of Halbarad, he should have badgered his way out of bed to look for you."
"Is he all right?" Pippin asked, and received another shrug.
"I know no more than you told me last night," he replied. "I suppose that he is. But come—when I made my way back from searching the camp perimeter, I saw King Théoden and Lord Denethor walking towards the City. That means the council has concluded and our course is decided. And I know Aragorn wished to see you."
"Very well, I shall come in a moment. Let me say my good-byes," Pippin replied, and set aside his by now empty bowl of porridge. He crept close and laid a small hand upon Greta's arm, and the young man laid one of his own sword-callused ones atop it. "I'll come back later to see how you are, and maybe if you like, I can finish the last story."
"I would like that. Thank you, Pippin. For everything," he said, meaningfully, and Pippin felt his face heat once more.
"It's only fair. Thank you for taking care of my cousin," he replied, and smiled sadly. He rose then, and waved to the others, who bade him farewell. Turning then to Legolas, he said, "Let's go see what's to be done."
The elven prince nodded, and they departed together, Legolas gliding along at a short enough stride that Pippin could keep up easily. In silence, they made their way back, and Pippin darted anxious glances up at his taller companion, who seemed for once not to notice, wrapped up in his own thoughts.
At length, they came to their tent, and Legolas ducked within, despite the sound of voices. Pippin followed in time to see Aragorn look up from a conversation with one of his Rangers. Yes, no doubt about it, he thought, something was up between him and Legolas, given how they looked at each other. Not that they glared, but he could feel a certain tension between them. Then Aragorn looked away, continuing the discussion. It lasted but a little longer anyway, ere he dismissed the man with a brief hand upon the shoulder, and the Ranger nodded to Legolas and Pippin on his way out.
"So?" Legolas said, as soon as he was gone. Aragorn sighed.
"So," he replied, and glanced from him to Pippin and back again; "We leave for the Black Gate the day after tomorrow."
"Go not to the Elves, indeed!"—'Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes,' "Three is Company," FOTR, 83.
"[T]he worst young rascal in Buckland"—"A Short Cut to Mushrooms," FOTR, 91. Actually, Frodo is merely one of the worst young rascals in Buckland, but Pippin has poetic license.
Éomer-hlaford?: Lord Éomer?
Láttéowa? : Marshal? (Actually, "General," since there is no word for 'marshal' at the Old English Dictionary, nor in the index to Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer.)
Eomer-hlaford, is hé hal? Libbe hé? And... Merry?: Is Lord Éomer well? Does he live? And... Merry?
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