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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 43. Lie Down in the Darkness
Dawn came, and he opened his eyes to find naught left in the tent but the washbasin, ewer, and his own pack, which had miraculously materialized while he slept—no sign of Strider or Legolas. He rose swiftly and splashed water on his face, scrubbed the back of his neck and behind his ears, then fished his own comb and brush out and tidied himself as best he could. He wished fleetingly that there were time to do laundry, but he figured he would simply have to make do for a time. At least I have a later to do the washing in, he thought, and winced as he pulled his pack onto his back and made his way out.
"Master Took?" Pippin looked up at the Ranger—Berendur, I think?—who was apparently standing guard, or else waiting for him to emerge.
"Good mor—hullo," Pippin said, quickly changing his mind. If his slip meant aught to the other, he did not show it. "I hope you weren't waiting on me?"
"I was waiting for you, but 'tis no trouble. I have a message for you, from my lord," most-likely-Berendur replied, courteously.
"There seem to be a lot of those, lately," Pippin murmured, but then quickly added: "But please do go on."
"My lord said to tell you that you should go to King Théoden's tent, that he and the King of the Mark will expect you there for breakfast."
Breakfast. Pippin glanced east, where most of the tents had been struck, and men stood or sat now in large groups about little fires, talking amongst themselves, taking a last meal before departure, and he felt his appetite sour. But: "Thank you," he said, and made the young man a bow. "I'll go there then. And… you eat something, too," he urged.
"We're seen to, never fear," he replied.
"Of course," Pippin sighed, and yet did not depart. It was strange: he hardly knew the fellow—was not even sure of his right name—yet he was afraid to leave him. Afraid, for he should say farewell lest he be rude, and yet how on earth did one say farewell on such a morning? "I suppose I should be on my way. And you… Berendur, is it? Yes? Well, I… that is, it isn't raining, which is good, and, ah, I wish you… well."
"Safe journey to you, Master Took," Berendur replied, and made him a bow, still all Ranger courtesy. And he did Pippin a favor then and turned away to begin striking the tent, sparing him the need to respond. With a sigh, Pippin made for the Riders' camp.
Like the camp of the Gondorians and Rangers, it had been greatly reduced in the night—tents had been struck, bedrolls rolled, and horses were being groomed and readied to ride. But a few tents remained, including the king's, which was marked by the banner of the white horse. He greeted the guards who stood at the entry, and was admitted without question. Within, he found Théoden and Aragorn, both clad in their armor, standing over a table with a map upon it. Breakfast was at hand, at a smaller table, and appeared to be the infamous 'drink and bite standing' Pippin had come to be so familiar with since Bree. Or at least, the pair of them were certainly not sitting down to it, but talking quietly, pausing every so often to take a bite of something from the platter. But they looked up as Pippin entered.
"Good morning, Master Took," the King of Rohan greeted him.
"Hullo," Pippin replied simply. And: "Hullo, Strider."
"Pippin," Aragorn said, and gave him a nod, eyeing him closely. "I hope you got some rest last night?"
"Some. I woke up a lot," Pippin confessed.
"'Tis hard to sleep amid such bustle, and the night before a journey is always restless," Théoden said kindly, then gestured to the smaller table. "Please join us. There is porridge in the small pot, and bread and some of the winter apples."
"Thank you, sire," Pippin replied, clambering onto a stool, the easier to reach the offered breakfast. And despite the sourness of his stomach, he found that once he began eating, he was quite hungry. He swiftly devoured the porridge, then started in on a heel of bread, content to listen while Aragorn and Théoden discussed the road, and possible battle scenarios. And: How can they eat, thinking about all that? he wondered, feeling a pang of guilt then.
At length, Aragorn straightened. "Lord Denethor ought to be here soon, and there is a last matter I had hoped to attend to before then. I should not be long, but if he comes while I am away—"
"I dare say the Steward and I shall have some things to say to each other in that event," Théoden replied. "I have not yet spoken to him of my instructions to Éowyn, and he might wish to know them."
"Thank you," Aragorn replied, and then turned to Pippin. "Take what you will, Pippin, for the rest is easy to carry, but come with me."
Pippin hastily grabbed a couple of apples and stuffed one in either pocket. And he hopped down off of the stool, then turned to make Théoden a bow, determined that the courtesy of the Shirefolk should not suffer by comparison to that of Rangerly others. "Thank you, sire, for breakfast," he said. "And thank you again, for all your care of Merry. I am… I am sure his family would be very much grateful to you, and should not mind me thanking you on their behalf, too."
The old king sighed, but he smiled a little, if sadly. "'Twas only fitting and needs no thanks," he said, and then suddenly moved to stand before Pippin. He laid a fatherly hand upon the hobbit's head, and spoke a few words in his own tongue, ere that hand slipped to Pippin's shoulder. "Thus do we bless each other on the eve of war—go, and give my greeting to your cousin's family. See that they know my gratitude that their son stood by mine."
"I-I shall," Pippin stammered, and bowed quickly again.
"Come," Aragorn beckoned then. "Théoden, I shall be swift."
Théoden nodded, and Pippin followed the other out of the tent, hurrying a bit to keep up. "Where are we going, Strider?" he asked.
"To see a friend," Aragorn replied, as he turned them toward a number of wains beyond the camps and companies. Most of them had until lately belonged to the Enemy's forces, but men had scavenged them, got the worst of the grime or blood out, and turned them to their own use in the past two days. Harnessed now to horses who had carried knights and Riders into battle not long hence, they sat facing west or south amid a loose circle of Riders or men in the livery of various companies of Gondor.
But it was no mere shipment of arms or goods they carried. In them sat or lay wounded men: men of Rohan, going home, and men of Gondor, going south. Men who might one day fight again, if only time enough were granted them to heal, but who would benefit no one in a line this week, and possibly not even next month, or the month after. Walking wounded, riding wounded, the very young among the armies of both lands, the few remaining boys of Minas Tirith—and one hobbit to go with them.
"Will all the westward carts go to Edoras?" Pippin asked.
"Nay, not all," Aragorn replied. "Those at the head of the column make for the Westfold. Aldburg is last in line, after Edoras and Dunharrow. 'Tis for the Westfold wains that we make."
"Oh." Then Greta should be at the back, I guess, Pippin thought, glancing over his shoulder. Captain Éothain, too, I suppose, if he is going.
At length, Aragorn slowed to a halt, and Pippin followed suit. "Wait here a little while, if you would, Pippin," he requested. "I shall return shortly."
"Of course," Pippin murmured, and watched a moment as his friend pulled his hood up and made his way in amidst the wains. Only a moment, then, feeling somehow indecent, he turned away, gently kicking at the turf beneath his feet, dislodging a clod of dark earth. He worried at it with a toe, watched it crumble, hummed tunelessly to himself just to fill his ears and head with sound.
"Pippin!" Aragorn's voice sounded at length, cutting through his song. He turned back to the wains, spotting the other quickly, and began making his way over to join him.
Aragorn stood by a wain, and as Pippin drew nigh, he caught a glimpse of a grey cloak, and dark hair, and then: "Come to join us, have you?" asked a familiar voice.
"Halbarad!" Pippin slung his pack up into the cart, then clambered in after it. Propped against one side of the cart, Halbarad nodded minutely.
"Good morning, Pippin," the Ranger murmured, and shifted a little, uncomfortably. Pippin had been present when a healer had stitched the gash upon his brow closed. This morning, it seemed an odd, angry weal. Halbarad's right arm, bound and splinted, rested in a sling, and bandages showed where the laces of his shirt front were not pulled fast. There were shadows beneath his eyes, and his mouth seemed tight, his gaze a bit squinting. He looked tired and pained, and to Pippin's eyes quite unwell—pale, but also just a little sick.
"Are you all right?" he asked, without even thinking, and got a wry twitch of a smile for that.
"Better than yesterday, even," Halbarad replied, though the quip lacked energy. "'Twill take more than a troll to end me." He paused, then finished: "Never fear, we'll get you home, the four of us."
"Where are the others?" Pippin asked, then, for Halbarad was the only Ranger about, other than Aragorn.
"Sulras said something about feeling sick—went to walk it off with Narvendil. Calindir is holding the horses, I think," Halbarad said tiredly.
"Narvendil and Calindir took no hurt," Aragorn explained when Pippin frowned uncertainly. "They are also the youngest of our company, and shall have the unenviable task of restraining Halbarad and Sulras from foolishly ignoring the healers' orders. I count upon you to assist them in that chore."
"Oh, I'll take care of him. I've still got his dagger, after all—that should make me more fearsome than the troll, anyway," Pippin volunteered, and got a snort of laughter from Aragorn, and a slight smile from Halbarad.
"Good." Aragorn paused, looking from Pippin to Halbarad, as levity faded. "You have your courses, and you each have your task. I hope one day to hear of their success."
But I may not. That silent qualification slipped in unwanted, and Pippin swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat. And he felt a certain panic: For now it's come to it, I don't want to say good-bye! But he had to, this time he had to… and he still didn't know how! He watched, breathless and frightened, as Aragorn and Halbarad embraced, Halbarad cursing the sling, Aragorn with his fingers buried in Halbarad's hair as he pressed his cousin close. At length, Aragorn murmured an elvish something, and Halbarad nodded against his chest, then drew back.
"Aye," he rasped, then cleared his throat, wincing. "Aye, I shall."
"Then I need not fear," Aragorn replied, leaving Pippin to wonder what had been said. But he forgot such questions swiftly, for Aragorn turned to him then.
"I don't know how—" Pippin stammered, blurting it out before the other could speak.
"Who does?" came the immediate counter, as Aragorn held out his hand. Pippin reached and grasped it a moment, ere he, too, was drawn into an embrace. Drawn, or fell into it—like a stone coming home to earth, and he squeezed as hard as he could.
"Frodo and Sam are out there still," he said, stubbornly clinging to hope. "You'll see!"
At this, Aragorn chuckled, and held him then at arm's length, gazing down at him fondly. "An irrepressible hobbit," he declared. "You will do well, Pippin—you shall be fine."
"I know, I just… I'll take care of things at home. And I'll take care of this one," Pippin promised, and jerked a thumb at Halbarad, who groaned soft protest.
"That is good to know, for he has ever been a stubborn and cantankerous patient," Aragorn replied, with a ghost of a smile. Then, after a moment's hesitation: "Do me one favor more, since you have Halbarad already in your keeping: take care of Arwen. Take care of my wife."
And when Pippin gaped at him, Aragorn glanced at Halbarad, who sighed, and said: "I shall tell him."
"Thank you. Then I must go, for Lord Denethor awaits. Take care. Farewell."
With that, Aragorn departed, leaving a very forlorn hobbit and Ranger behind. For a time, they sat in silence, unable, it seemed, to bear speaking. Eventually, two more Rangers appeared: Sulras, leaning on Narvendil's shoulder, was carefully helped into the wain, for he seemed unsteady on his feet, though from what Pippin could see, it was his left arm that was hurt, not a leg. Sulras immediately joined the Rohirrim in their cart: he curled up under his cloak and almost immediately, it seemed, fell asleep. Narvendil, after a murmured word with Halbarad, departed, too—perhaps to fetch his horse from Calindir.
And so the silence went on, and it pressed upon them, 'til Pippin thought he must surely burst like an overripe berry. Thus when at last horns sounded, piercing the air and cutting through the low murmur of men's voices, it startled him, as did the clear voice that sounded over the steady beat of armies marching onward: Your king goes to war—sing, all ye people!
There was no knowing who said it, but it seemed not to matter. In response, a babbling roar of voices broke out: hoarse, frayed, cracked voices lifted for just this little while, heedless of any rhyme or order, in a tumult of tongues. Some sang in Rohirric, some in Westron, a few perhaps in Sindarin, telling of honor, or of rage, or of courage; Pippin found himself half-shouting Bilbo's old road song. All was chaos: melodies clashed, one rising for a time, others falling, some not even songs, but just shouting—an uneven swell of sound that rippled through the ranks. Yet it did not matter, for whatever was sung or said, it meant only one thing:
We are here, we are with you! It was love, and it was awful, and it left Pippin feeling beat all hollow when finally the last of the singers fell silent.
And: So for pride you wouldn't have flattered, Pippin told himself, harshly self-recriminating as he wiped at his eyes. See what it gets you!
But then he shook himself, and drew a deep breath, stilling that inward voice. No, there would be no flattering of his pride, nor dying for the flattery on far fields. Not for him, or any of them here. No time for that. Nor for second guesses, he thought and sighed as he sank down beside Halbarad. Halbarad said nothing, but he did lay an arm about Pippin's shoulders, and after a moment, very carefully, the hobbit let himself lean against the Man. For he was weary, and there was the Shire to think of, and all his promises to keep. Thus:
"Aye," he said softly; "And now we've got our work to do."
And now they had their work to do, as a Measure found itself in that music there below and bent, as Note attuned by note. Now they had their work to do—
Hobbit-halfling, treble-fragile-high descant, sinking towards—
—Ranger dischord, minor-constant-low, undercurrent disrupting other chords, turning them towards itself—
—Steward standing alone, solo made to bend to chorus, proud verse become common refrain—
Victory. Defeat. Life. Death.
Uncertainty and Silence.
The Song limped on, winding round its Silences, and trembled as it waited for new Measures—
A Note rose newly high, the Song raised itself up over itself, and Time bent, redoubled, the Music Chording back upon itself, and the Note plunged suddenly low, basso, down down down—Song rejoining song, rejoining singer, seeking time, seeking time, there must be time for Timing—
—and on the road to Mordor, Legolas the Elf shuddered in response.
From Minas Tirith's gates, the army of the West passed through the remains of the Causeway Forts, and continued along the road to Osgiliath, where Lord Denethor had sent those who could be spared to attempt repair of the stonework there. The bridge still stood, and defenses were being raised upon the eastern shore, and some scavenging upon the western. The host passed over the river and continued on some miles into Ithilien, following the old road east. They camped amid the trees, wary and watchful, and the Rangers in their company stood vigilant guard with knowing eyes.
The next day, they continued east, until they came at length to the Crossroads. There, in accordance with the design they had adopted during the lords' final debate, they left a guard to keep that way against any threat from Minas Morgul.
"Rangers shall do best in Ithilien," Denethor had argued; "But do you think to take stripling lads into the wastes before the Black Gate? Our hardiest men are loath to go there!"
"If aught comes from Minas Morgul, they may still be overwhelmed," Imrahil had pointed out. "The Enemy does not lack for lieutenants—one has fallen, but eight remain."
"The Nazgûl shall not trouble those left at the Cross Roads," Aragorn had said, with grim surety, then. "Not until our business is done. Let them keep that road, therefore."
And so at the Cross Roads, the captains stationed as many as they dared to leave behind: young men from Lossarnach or Ethir, or from the green plains of Rohan. These they left, with a company of Rangers who knew the land and had long hunted the Enemy's spies with bow and arrow and sword. Minas Morgul they did not challenge, for the tale that Denethor had told, of Faramir's encounter with the hobbits, had suggested it was prudence not to draw the eye of the Dark Tower to that place.
The army of the West, leaner now, stripped to those—an unhappy many!—made hardy by the struggle against Mordor, marched onward, turning north. All day they marched, and were aware of being shadowed. Though they did not show themselves, all felt the presence of the Nazgûl riding the airs above on their fell mounts. Aragorn sent scouts ahead in pairs, cautious and quick, and the Rangers of Ithilien made a net about their fellows, watching for trouble. Thus passed the second day of the march, and they camped again upon the road, in the shade of the Ephel Dúath.
For two days, they continued as straight as they could, and at sunrise, noon, and sunset, after conferring on the matter, the lords of the West let sound a challenge to Mordor, heralding the coming of King Elessar. There was never an answer, though the woods seemed to listen, and the mountains, too, seemed to bend a little closer, dragging the gloom that clouded their peaks with them. The sun was a watery disk in a grey sky, for all the wind was in the west.
At the end of the fourth day of their journey, they came at last to the end of Ithilien. The trees ran out into scraggly, leafless stumps that grew crooked on the desolate heath, then disappeared entirely. Here the hearts of all were tested, for though the captains and lords had done all they could to bring with them only such as they deemed able to walk open-eyed into this net, still, the horror of the desolation could not but be suffered.
Progress slowed then, for they walked now within the realm of the Shadow of the East, and the will of the Dark Lord beat against them. They toiled along the road, as men in a bog or through water, and the steams and fumes that rose from the earth played tricks on men's eyes. Friends and companions seemed to flicker in and out of existence, present one moment, obscured by thick white vapors the next, and all the army seemed so many lost shadows passing toward oblivion at noon. They camped that night under heavy guard, the sentries peering into the night, dreading what might come.
Yet the sun rose, dim and cool upon their faces, to shine upon an empty plain. The only sound was that of their own trumpets, sending out a challenge once more before they continued onward, leaving the road to take a more northerly approach, intent upon avoiding the treacherous hills into which the old road plunged as it turned east. All that day they marched, and the knights and Riders whispered to their horses, who snorted and rolled their eyes 'til the whites showed, fearful. Indeed, before the day's end, those horsed were forced to dismount and walk their steeds.
And still they met with nothing, and men began to long for something. Some sign, some rupture of the tense stillness, of the sense of being watched by a foe that might strike at any moment, but who chose to withhold the blow, drawing out the anxious misery of the victim. The sun climbed slowly down its path, and as it set, the army settled in for what ought to be its last camp…
Aragorn stood at a little distance from the fire near the center of their camp. They had deployed as best they could, keeping the horses and wains to the outside, and stationing a ring of guards behind fires that marked the edges of the camp. Archers stood peering into the darkness, anxiously fingering arrows. All about the camp, men huddled together, standing or sitting or rolled in their blankets, little trails of steam rising as they breathed. But no one slept. The oppressive silence grew but worse now that their only light came of the campfires. Aragorn watched the sparks rise into the night, strange and frantic fireflies that winked out too swiftly, never to return, and the snap and crackle of burning wood seemed loud indeed.
'Tis worse than any din, this silence, he thought, for it was not simply that no enemy sounded in the night. Nothing sounded. The land was dead, and the wind still: they were the only living creatures upon this plain, and the conviction ran wordlessly among the men: Soon enough, we shall be as this place, and cease to trouble it! Despair lay thick on the ground, and he knew that they could not go much further. They had not the heart for it. Another day and there might be no contest should the Enemy strike!
As he walked among the men, listening to quiet conversations or long, hard silences, he therefore guarded his own tongue. There was no comfort to speak of, and so he did not offer it; but he stayed with them a time, ate a little, spoke less and listened to the sudden chatter and babble of some, bore with the too telling silence of others, out of long practice. Nor was he alone: he passed Imrahil at one point, the Prince speaking quietly with a little knot of soldiers; another time, he caught Théoden's eye, as the King of the Mark sat listening with his men to some tale recited by one of the Riders, who stood at the center of the ring of his fellows, his arms opened out to a sky and power that seemed far away tonight.
"What does he say?" a voice asked suddenly, from nigh at hand, and Aragorn barely managed to stay his hand as he turned on the speaker. Legolas, however, did not seem to notice, remaining motionless, his eyes fixed upon the story-teller.
And Aragorn, who in truth had not truly been listening closely, absorbed in his own thoughts, shook himself slightly, then glanced back at the Rider. After a few moments, he replied: "'Tis the tale of Fram's journey to slay the wyrm, Scatha, in his lair."
"A dark tale for a dark time?"
Legolas made a soft noise in the back of his throat, then breathed out in a long sigh, his breath a white stream in the cold air.
"If it be good, they shall not come to the end," he murmured, and Aragorn stilled the impulse to demand a reason for this prophecy. For in the end, he knew the answer. Unbearable as the silence was, somehow words were worse, but there was worse and then there was unspeakable. And among the living dead, what more unspeakable than hope? And when hope dies, then all else fails as well.
For there comes a moment, different for each man, when the demand of war overburdens him, and the enervated spirit finds nothing to propel it forward, to make the arm lift or the flesh cringe, even from blows. The horror cuts too deep, and to hold to what might have moved him once, to what seemed even yesterday or an hour ago to be the center of his world, the very light of life, is an impossible effort, and can but torment him to no purpose. In that moment, death becomes his only spur—to die, or to kill so as not to think anymore. So as not to feel anymore the pain of losing, always losing, of having what is sweet in life in sight, yet out of reach. Better by far to let such go than to resist and hold them in the face of the pitiless rule of war that lays whole worlds low.
And Legolas ought to know it, Aragorn thought, feeling an unexpected surge of bitter envy that caught him by surprise. Perhaps the Elf sensed that in him, for Legolas turned slowly to him, shrewd green eyes fixing now on him, and after a brief struggle, Aragorn looked away.
"They say," Legolas said then, switching to Sindarin, "that Orcs were made from Elves. You know this?"
"I have heard it, yes," Aragorn replied.
"There are others who say that even as Aulë made Dwarves in imitation of Ilúvatar's making, Morgoth made Orcs, but in mockery of it, and that this is the true kinship of Orcs and Elves," Legolas continued.
"I have heard that, too."
"I thought you would have." Legolas paused, and then said softly, "I do not wish to learn the truth, Aragorn."
In response, the Heir of Isildur sighed, but after a moment, he nodded. "Then you shall not," he said simply. But he could not refrain from adding: "But Men know, too, that the outward is one thing, the inward another; it needs not the face of an Orc to be one. The Nazgûl whom the Enemy has changed would not be as they are, but that the inward is dead already. We know this; we are the image of our own monstrosity—no need for Orcs without; we know them in our own faces."
There was a lengthy silence, ere finally Legolas replied, "I will not quarrel with you tonight."
"That is good, for I would not answer you tonight either."
"Strange. I thought you just did," Legolas murmured.
"We are not quarreling tonight, I thought."
Another silence, then: "And what of yourself, Aragorn? Is there anything—?"
"No," Aragorn answered, quick and sure, but he added lest short answer rouse swift ire: "I would see this thing through—whatever comes of it."
"You are certain?" Legolas pressed.
"For tonight," he admitted after a moment, and Legolas gave a soft snort.
"I see," the Elf replied, amused despite himself, it seemed. And once again, that heavy green gaze came to rest upon his face, but there was this time less sharpness to it. Indeed, there was an odd softness to the other's eyes now, such as had been lacking since Edoras, so that Aragorn felt compelled to ask:
"What is it?"
"Since you have forfeited a request, perhaps I may ask one thing more, in your place," the other replied. And when Aragorn made a slight gesture to go ahead, he said, "Forgive me the past weeks. For Pippin's sake, if not for mine. He has been worried about us, you see."
Aragorn blinked, nonplussed, a moment. Then: "For Pippin…?"
"Apparently, we are not so very good at hiding matters from him," the Prince of Mirkwood sighed. "Hobbits!"
Hobbits, indeed! Aragorn glanced west, in mind traversing all the long way from Gondor to Eriador, and to the green hills and vales of the Shire. "He should be nearing Rohan now, if they kept a steady pace," he murmured absently. Then he shook himself a bit, and looked long and searchingly at Legolas. At last: "We may already have lost everything, in which case there is no point of looking beyond tomorrow for any measure of it. But it would be nothing worth, all our struggle tomorrow, to go to it divided."
So he said, and smiled a little. And as he and Legolas clasped arms, he said in his turn, "I am sorry for my part as well. We all fail in our dealings with this Darkness, I fear."
"And yet we are here," Legolas replied, and looked southeast now, to where the Gates lay, some few leagues hence.
"Aye, and the end of the road is nigh." Aragorn followed the other's gaze a moment, then shut his eyes and pressed thumb and forefinger over his eyelids. "I am going to sleep for a few hours," he announced, when he lowered his hand. "Will you rest or watch the night?"
"There is no rest for me. 'Tis too near, and my dreams…" Legolas trailed off. "Go and sleep," he said. "I shall wake you ere dawn."
"Good night, Legolas."
"Rest well, my friend," the Elf replied.
And for a wonder, he did. Perhaps it was habit, or perhaps he had simply had enough of this day and the silence and the entire journey. Whatever the case, Aragorn slept soundly, and he did not dream.
The night wore slowly away 'til dawn, when the sky lightened a little, though the air was hazy as ever. Now the army began the final leg of its march, over a land of grey, tumbled stone, and as they went, Legolas would look up every now and again.
"The Nazgûl watch us," he told Aragorn and Théoden. "I can see three of them above."
"Three only?" Aragorn asked, sharply, puzzled.
"Aye. The others may be higher, but I do not think so," the Elf said. "I think there are only three."
"What does it mean?" Théoden asked.
"I do not know," Aragorn replied. "But let us not stop to wonder. If we are to have an answer, no doubt we shall receive it when we reach the Gate."
So they continued, until the great gate with its doors and towers rose at last into view. And not the gate alone: all through their journey, they had wondered at the Enemy's scarcity; now they knew where they had been.
For the Black Gate stood open, and all before its doors, in a press twenty deep and more, and stretched all before the length of the gate-wall the armies of Mordor were gathered. Orcs innumerable, and in two long, broad columns, Haradrim and Easterlings, and Variags from Khand, and twisted creatures without names showed now against the hilltops. Outward they stretched from the Black Gate, as if to gather the army of the West in a lethal embrace, and yet more waited beyond the doors, rank upon rank, as far as they could see.
There would be no leaving this net. And they had not come to leave it in any case. Therefore, Aragorn and Théoden urged their men to the tops of two great slag hills that stood within the arced line of their foes, and there the banners of Gondor and Rohan were raised. And even as they did this, there came riding a small party from the Gate. The riders stopped just out of range of bow-shot, and one minced his horse a few paces closer and held up his empty hand, in token of parley.
"I would have speech with him that calls himself 'King Elessar!'" he cried, and men shuddered at the sound of his voice.
"Trap," Legolas said immediately.
"One more can do us little worse hurt, I deem," Aragorn replied. "Nevertheless, keep a close watch."
"Never fear," Legolas answered.
Aragorn went then, with a small guard of men to the foot of the hill, and warily advanced upon the Messenger.
The Messenger sat his horse in silence beneath the black banner of Mordor, motionless, until Aragorn was perhaps a horse-length distant. Then he raised his hand once more, this time commanding a halt. And he said:
"So. Which of you leads this rabble?"
"Who asks?" Aragorn demanded quietly, as he stepped Roheryn one pace forward. The Messenger's fell eyes fastened upon him, and he felt the touch of the other's mind upon his. But for all the malice of the ruined Man before him, he could not match Galadriel's gaze for weight, and so Aragorn remained unmoved. The Messenger hissed and withdrew abruptly, but he spoke swiftly thereafter.
"I am the Mouth of Sauron. As for you… a brief reign over an uncouth and desperate people shall we remember, Elfstone!" the other mocked.
"Brief it may be. Nevertheless, it shall have been—your master cannot undo that, nor the battles to come that he shall gnaw upon in mind, nursing the wound that he cannot command loyalty, nor even cow all by fear," Aragorn replied. "And he shall be ever uncertain in his victory, if in the end he has it."
Then the Messenger laughed. "Bold words, little king! But we shall dispense with them. My master, Sauron the Great, has a token for you, in which he deems all is said that must be said between you." And here, the Messenger held out his hand, and one of his party kneed his mount forward to hand him a black bag, in which some weight lay. The Messenger held it up, then lobbed it across the distance to Aragorn, who caught it. "Open it."
He could feel the eyes of his escort on him, and knew that they did not like this, not knowing what lay within. But Aragorn looked once more into the eyes of the Mouth of Sauron, and seeing there less threat than cruel eagerness, undid the tie and looked within. At first he saw nothing, but he realized that whatever this token was, it was swathed in cloth black as the bag itself, and a sudden chill took him as the shape and size registered.
A Elbereth, no!
But the thing had to be played out, and so he drew off the veils, 'til at length Samwise Gamgee gazed back at him with lifeless brown eyes.
A cry went up upon the hill, and of a sudden, the Mouth of Sauron reeled in the saddle, clutching at a grey-fletched elven arrow that lodged in his breast. Amid the cries of rage and terror that went up from the Messenger's party, and the sudden press of Rangers about him, as his escort moved swiftly to put their bodies between him and aught that might be returned for that shot, Aragorn found time to dart a quick look up to where Legolas stood, another arrow nocked already. But matters were moving too quickly—the Messenger and his escort were retreating, and the hosts of Mordor moved now, pouring down from the hills and surging forward from the Gate.
"Back to the hill!" Aragorn snapped, and returning his grisly token to its bag, he urged Roheryn about, the lot of them flying back to their place in the line.
And when he reached the hilltop where Legolas stood now, gazing down over the plain filling with their foes, he snapped at him: "I said watch!"
"'Tis done," Legolas said simply, echoing his own excuse not long ago. "And it cannot be undone."
At that, Aragorn let out a breath, closing his eyes a moment against the gaping horror of the day's revelation. Or revelations. Perhaps. He frowned then, and after a little while, opened his eyes and glanced down to where the first of their enemies fell to Rangers—of Ithilien, of the North, and the few archers of Théoden's company, and one Prince of Mirkwood.
"'Twas not Frodo," he said then.
"They might have sent Frodo. But they sent Sam instead," he elaborated. "'Tis over-late to muse on signs, perhaps, but…"
Legolas was silent, but eventually, he shook his head. "Perhaps. But it may mean many things. And the day is no less going down for us. Remember your promise, Aragorn!"
Aragorn gripped the other's shoulder, then drew Andúril, and settled in to watch the battle unfold.
And the Men of the West did better, perhaps, than any might have thought, as outnumbered as they were. The defenders knew that they fought now for honor, and to make the Enemy pay as dearly as they could for their lives. The word had gone around the camp that morning:
This is our last gamble—make it count!
And they did. Wave upon wave of Orcs and Easterlings, Haradrim and Variags, broke upon the bases of the hills, and as lines wavered, bent, buckled, the defenders backed as slowly as they could up the hills, and the ground in their wake was stained and littered with bodies.
But as outnumbered as indeed they were, even the doughtiest swordsmen of several Ages could not have held against the onslaught. By mid-morning, the enemy was lodged half-way down the slope; by noon, they had pushed forward another twenty yards. And by early afternoon, Aragorn had left his place beneath the standard to join the circle of defenders, Legolas at his side.
They still had the high ground, without which they should not have lasted so long, but the slag hills were treacherous. No natural hill, these, but the waste of Sauron's works, unsteady and with many a shifting rock to throw a man. Friend and foe alike suffered on the slopes, and Aragorn had a few close calls—indeed, one time a slip when the rocks underfoot shifted had likely saved his life when a sword thrust came in unexpectedly from the left, passing straight through his own position not moments before. Everyone was coated in dust, and the dust soon became a red-black grit as the ground grew damp with blood.
The mind emptied of everything. There was nothing but the chaotic clamor of battle, the numbing repetition of steel beating on steel, and the little aches and pains evaporated from consciousness like water from a hot pan. Aragorn marked the moment when he saw the banner of the Silver Swan sway, then fall, and then again, when the White Horse went down to the sound of loud and jeering cheers from the other hilltop. Their turn must come soon, but the shrinking ring of defenders still held forth, and indeed, managed by some unknown strength, to push back in that moment. Mayhap desperation drove them, but for a moment, just for a little while, their enemies fell back, surprised, as the knot of Gondorrim and Rangers and one Elf surged suddenly against them.
But it could not last. Not even an Elf's rage could stand against the might of Mordor, and Aragorn caught sight out of the corner of his eye of something swift and bright darting inward, and instinct moved him.
"Legolas!" he cried, and shoved the Elf back and aside—
—and gasped as pain sharp as the blade itself shot up his side, and scraped between ribs, once, twice, and he let Andúril fall to press his hand against the wound, collapsing to his knees. There was a rush of sound, as of a strong wind, in his ears, and the sounds of battle faded before it.
Somewhere, someone was shouting his name, but he could barely hear it over the rush of something that might have been wind or rain or a hundred years of tides upon the shore. And there was something in that sound, a murmuring, a whispering—a voice, and he strained to hear it. There was a name—
Even in the blackest night, we cannot sorrow forever.
Else we do not live.
"Else we do not live," he gasped, and then laughed suddenly. "Arrandir!"
He blinked, and found Legolas's blood-stained, stricken face hovering over him. And he wanted to tell him then—that he was all right, that it was all right, but he was laughing too hard, and it hurt too much, but that seemed not to matter. After so long mirthless, it was like rain after a drought, as the pain began to recede a little in the face of sudden exhaustion—Valar, he was weary!
Arwen. He thought of her and her long vigil, and smiled. My turn, love! he thought drowsily.
And with that, and a vaguely coppery sigh, he closed his eyes, and let thought flee whither it would.
Lots of semi-repetitive description of landscape from "The Black Gate Opens" – I hope you weren't too terribly bored by it. And with this chapter, we officially end AU!Book V. Next posting will move us to Mordor and Frodo's journey! — Dwim
Your king goes to war—sing, all ye people!: "And before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying:
Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.
Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.
And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.
Sing all ye people!
—"The Steward and the King," RoTK, 269.
"[F]or those whose soul is bent beneath the yoke of war, the connection between death and the future is not the same as for other men. For others, death is a limit imposed on the future. For soldiers, it is the future itself, the future their vocation allots. That men should have death for their future is unnatural…. The soul undergoes duress every day. Each morning it amputates itself of all aspiration, for thought cannot travel in time without encountering death… one has abolished in oneself the thought that to see the light of day is sweet…." Simone Weil, "The 'Iliad' or the Poem of Force." Simone Weil's The 'Iliad' or the Poem of Force. Trans. James P. Holoka. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2003. 58-60.
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