22. After The Debate
Gandalf shook his head with a wry smile. “Not angry, just wondering how I could have been fool enough to let you in for all this.”
“It wasn’t your doing, we wanted to come.” Pippin said firmly.
“I know.” the wizard sighed. “And my heart told me it was right to let you and Merry join us, certainly events here in the south would have gone ill without the two of you.”
“Merry helped kill the Witch King of course, “ Pippin said dubiously, “but I can’t see what I’ve done - beyond making more trouble for everybody.”
“Hmmm.” Gandalf gave him a sharp sidelong glance, a flash of blue from under bushy white eyebrows. “Was it or was it not you, Peregrin Took, who tricked Treebeard into bearing you and Merry to the south marches of his forest and so discovering the devastation Saruman had wrought?”
Pippin blushed a little. “That was a dirty trick.” he admitted. “But he had to find out about it eventually, so why not when it would do us some good?”
“Quite.” the wizard agreed calmly. “And thanks to your trick Isengard was reduced and Saruman’s power destroyed.”
Pippin blinked. “So it was.”
“And then there was the matter of the Palantir.”
“But that was a terrible mistake,” Pippin protested, “awful things might have come of it, you told me so yourself.”
“So they might have.” said Gandalf. “But instead we were forewarned of Sauron’s attack on Minas Tirith, and he gained the mistaken idea that you are the Ringbearer which we can now use to our advantage.”
“I suppose that’s true too.” Pippin conceded in some surprise.
“And finally Faramir would now be dead, as well as his father, had you not been there to go for help.”
Pippin shuddered, as always, at the memory of Denethor’s pyre. Then forced a smile. “All right, I’m convinced. I have been of some use after all.”
“If mostly in spite of yourself.” the wizard agreed dryly.
Pippin laughed. “Good old Gandalf! No chance of me getting a swelled head with you around is there?”
Merry did not take the news at all well. “Have you gone mad, Pip?” he demanded. “And, Gandalf, what are you and Strider thinking of to let him do it?”
“Peregrin is not a child, Merry,” the wizard answered quietly, “and we will not treat him as one. He knows very well what he is doing - and why.”
“It’s for Frodo, Merry,” Pippin said pleadingly, “that was the whole reason for our coming along in the first place - to help Frodo.”
“So it was.” Merry took a deep breath, visibly struggled to calm himself. “I’m sorry, Pippin, it’s just I’ve been looking out for you since we were teens and it’s hard to break the habit.” then rather defiantly to Gandalf. “Well if Pip goes so do I!”
“That is for King Eomer to decide.” the wizard answered calmly. “You are his sworn man, remember?”
“Bother!” Merry frowned suspiciously at him. “But if Eomer agrees, you and Strider won‘t try to stop me will you?”
Gandalf shook his head.
“I’ll be glad to have you along, Merry,“ Pippin admitted rather shamefacedly. “fact is I’m scared silly. The Lady said I’d find my courage - but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Gandalf took his pipe out of his mouth. “My dear, Pippin, just what do you think courage is? You have shown yours many times, most lately by offering to play the part of the Ringbearer.“
“Even though the whole idea scares me half to death?” Pippin asked bewildered.
“Even so. Courage is doing what must be done is spite of your fears.” he raised his bushy eyebrows as high as they would go. “Do you think I am not afraid?”
Both Hobbits stared at him. “You, Gandalf?” Merry asked wonderingly.
Yes me!” said the wizard. “Even without the Ring Sauron is mightier than I. I fear to face him yet I will do so for Frodo’s sake, and for Aragorn’s.”
Pippin produced a strained semblance of his old cocky grin. “You mean I’m going to go right on feeling sick with terror courage or no?”
Gandalf smiled gently back. “I am afraid so.”
Pippin took a deep breath. “Well that’s a bit of a disappointment, I must say. I’ll just have to get used to it I suppose.
Merry’s next visitor, after Gandalf and Pippin had lunched with him and gone, was conveniently enough the new King of Rohan himself. Merry blurted out his request before the Man had a chance to say so much as hello: “Eomer - I mean my Lord - may I ride with the army to the Black Gates?”
“Certainly.” he replied promptly, “providing you are fit enough.”
“I’m sure I will be,” Merry said. Relieved and obscurely pleased by Eomer‘s matter of fact acceptance. “I feel almost my old self already.”
The Man sighed. “I would I could say the same of my sister.”
“They said she was getting better!” Merry cried.
“So she is. But she is still very weak and her spirits are low. I was hoping you would pay her a visit, Merry. I have told her you are safe and well but she had many evil dreams during her illness and cannot be at peace until she sees you with her own eyes.”
“I know the feeling.” Merry nodded. “Of course I’ll go. Right now if you like.” he threw back the coverlet and got out of bed.
“Thank you.” Eomer said, looking relieved, then added hastily. “Do not tell her you mean to march with the army. She is angry that she will not be allowed to do so.”
Merry finished pulling on his breeches and grinned. “That sounds like her. But she was much worse hurt than me, she can‘t possibly be fit to go.”
“She is not.” Eomer agreed. “On top of all else she has a broken shield arm. I would not let any Man ride out in such condition and told her so.”
“I won’t say a word.” Merry promised, tucking in his shirt. “Now, where is her room?”
Eowyn didn’t look well at all. She was lying, propped up with pillows, staring at but not out of the window near her bed. It took a moment or two for her to rouse herself enough to look around and see who’d entered her room. When she did and her face lit up.
“Merry!” She held out her good hand to him. He crossed the room to take it, and it was warm and strong again just as it should be. “I am so glad to see you.” she continued. “I was afraid you’d been crushed by the Mumakil.”
“I thought you had been too.” he answered. “Until I saw you and - and *him*.”
They both shuddered. Then Eowyn forced a smile; “You saved my life, Merry, thank you.”
“It wasn’t very heroic,” Merry said ruefully, “stabbing from behind like that.”
“Oh yes it was.” she contradicted firmly. “Just getting near enough that thing for a blow...” she shuddered again at the memory.
“Let’s not talk about it.” said Merry with a shiver.
“No,” she agreed, “nor think about it either. It‘s over. He is gone.”
Merry groped for something else to talk about. “Did you hear what happened after we were hurt? About Strider and the ghosts and all?”
She shook her head. “No, tell me.”
So he did. All about the Dead Men of Dunharrow, which she seemed to understand a great deal better than he did, and how Aragorn had been accepted as King at last.
Her face went oddly still when he mentioned old Strider, which Merry didn’t understand at all until she said. “My brother tells me King Elessar means to attack Mordor itself.”
Merry swallowed. “Yes, they told me that too. It’s not as mad as it sounds, Eowyn. Aragorn - the King that is - and Gandalf know what they’re doing. It’ll be all right, you’ll see.” She looked at him as if he’d lost his wits and he couldn’t blame her, but to his own surprise he found meant every word. “No, really, I have this feeling that somehow everything’s going to work out fine.” he shrugged helplessly. “I know I sound daft.”
She smiled sadly. “I wish I could share your hope, Merry. But I can’t. This is the End, if not for all, at least for me.”
“Please don’t say that, Eowyn.” he begged.
She put her good arm around him. “I’m sorry, Merry, I shouldn’t trouble you with my dark forebodings.”
“Maybe it’s just your illness.” he suggested hopefully. “I’m sure you’ll feel better once you’re a little stronger.”
“Maybe so.” she said, but he could tell she didn’t believe it.
After the council Aragorn led his companions back to their borrowed quarters where they found the remaining Northern Rangers assembled, patiently awaiting further orders, which Halladan promptly gave them.
He assigned pairs to scout northward and eastward to the River and beyond. Those who went north and as far as the River were to return in two days to march with the army, but those who passed over the River into Ithilien and the no-man’s lands were instead to await the army at set rendezvous.
“Elledhir, Adanedhel, Menelgil, Arthamir, Dagorlas and Glingol you will remain here with the Dunadan.” Halladan finished, with one eye fixed defiantly upon his foster brother.
Aragorn said nothing. It would be as well to have a few of his own Men with their special skills on hand, but he was not pleased by the mistrust which he knew had prompted the order. The Northern Dunedain’s view of their Southern kin as treacherous oathbreakers was understandable, given their history, but unjust to the current generation who had inherited the consequences of their forefathers’ sins, but committed none of their own - at least not against the North.
The scouts saluted him and left. Aragorn turned to Beregond, waiting silent and patient as any Ranger in his corner. “Come with me, kinsman, and bring the stone.” He saw apprehension on Arwen’s face as he led the way into a small inner room but she made no protest. He was grateful she had accepted his decision so gracefully, not even demanding to come with him as he had feared. But he should have expected no less. She was Elrond’s daughter, and like her father and brothers would do whatever must be done to defeat their Enemy - however hard.
The small room adjoined both bedroom and antechamber and had been furnished as a study. Beregond set the Palantir, closely wrapped in layers of dark silk, down on the center table. “My Lord,” he said quietly, “I would like to tell you how the stone came into my hands.”
Aragorn nodded consent. He was, he admitted ruefully to himself, in no hurry to face this confrontation. And Beregond’s expression made it clear he considered what he had to say a matter of no small import. Baranor, his father, had been a level headed Man of sound judgment and Aragorn adjudged the son to be the same. So he listened as Beregond told in brief, unvarnished words of Denethor’s madness, his attempt to destroy his son as well as himself by fire and how he, Beregond, had broken his oaths as a Fountain guard and shed a comrade’s blood to save Faramir.
“I spoke to the Lord Steward of the west wind and how it drove back the darkness but he took no hope from it. Instead he uncovered the Palantir, which he had there with him, and commanded me to look in it. I did so and saw the Corsair ships, your ships, my Lord, though we did not yet know it, sailing for the City. I believe it was that sight drove Denethor to his final madness.”
Aragorn did not doubt it. He closed his eyes in a spasm of grief - and guilt. “She said I would be his death.”
He opened his eyes. “The Lady Finduilas. When I served Ecthelion as Thorongil she told me I would bring Denethor to his death, though not by my own hand or even by my will.”
“He brought himself to death.” Beregond answered flatly. “He and no other chose every step of the path that led to his pyre.”
“That too is true.” Aragorn agreed, and sighed.
Then Beregond said rather more gently. “Denethor is as much to be pitied as condemned. He withstood much for many long years, but in the end his strength failed him.” he shook his head. “I only wish Peregrin had not seen his lord’s end. I fear it will haunt him.”
“No doubt it will.” Aragorn said. Then he smiled, thinking of his small friend: “But Pippin is stronger than even he knows. He will remember but he will not let the remembrance needlessly darken his heart.”
“I hope so.” said Beregond, and bowed his head. “I thought the King should know I stand before him as both oathbreaker and man slayer. I ask for his justice.”
“You shall have it.” Aragorn promised. He looked at the Palantir. “But now other duties call me.”
Beregond bowed and left. Aragorn took a deep breath and unwrapped the swaddled stone. It shone glassy black between his hands, then a red spark flickered to life in its heart, and grew....
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