5. Clouds Gather
8 years later
Minas Tirith was peaceful on that cold winter night. There was hardly a mouse stirring in the entire city, and one would only be able to see the occasional citizen rushing in the warmth of his home. Everything was frozen, from the snow on the ground to the water that was hanging from the rooftops in the form of crystal icicles.
That is, except for the breath that escaped the lips of the young soldier who stood on duty by the city's walls.
Beregond stomped his feet to wake them from the numbing cold and pulled his cloak closer around him, but still the biting chillness of the wind penetrated his armour, making his body shiver. He looked up at the star-embroidered sky and felt grateful that at least it didn't snow. He didn't like the cold at all, not ever since he almost died because of it. More importantly, he didn't wish to go through such an ordeal again. Yet, to his dismay, with this kind of weather tonight, that kind of a possibility didn't seem all that far-fetched.
"Goodnight, Beregond," cried a human figure as it passed hurriedly by the young guard.
"Goodnight, Indor," answered he, and then was left alone again. He waited for a little while, trying to listen carefully to any kind of sound; then he stomped his leg again, though this time in impatience. "Where could he be?" he murmured under his breath.
Just then, the sound of a new series of steps came at his direction, and Beregond hopefully turned to the figure that approached. Yet what the young soldier saw clearly was the stooping, rag-clothed beggar, asking in his mumbling, quiet tone for any kind of offering.
That pitiable sight of a man had been coming out at this time of night for the past several years, greeting every soldier that happened to be patrolling or standing guard in the streets then. And, accustomed to his presence, the soldiers had become acquainted with him and even exchanged a few friendly words with him from time to time. Because of this, no one who chanced to be around at that moment would feel wonder at how cordially Beregond greeted the beggar.
"Evenin' to ya as well, Master Beregond," replied he, a big smile cracking on his soot-covered face. "My, 'tis quite nippy tonight! Oi'd run 'ome to my misses, if oi were ya; Or to a cosy lil' pub where oi could treat a friend an ale or two!"
Beregond chuckled at the filthy form's subtle, yet very clear request.
"Trust me when I say this, I'd prefer to be anywhere but here at this moment; yet I'm afraid it's not up to me alone." he said politely. "I'm waiting for my relief."
The beggar's smile only widened at this.
"No worries, my fella! Oi'll just wait around the corner for ya," he said, winking. And with that, he disappeared into the blue veil of the night. Beregond was still looking at the direction the beggar had taken, when he heard hurried steps and panting behind him.
"It was high time you arrived, Meneldor," he said. He turned his head and faced his fellow comrade in mock annoyance, while the latter tried to catch his breath.
"My apologies," wheezed Meneldor. "Rían insisted I should eat well and get myself an extra cloak, otherwise I wasn't to go anywhere out of the house."
"It's nice being married, I see," noted Beregond with a small smirk.
"Yes, well, I haven't regretted it, if that's what you're suggesting," said Meneldor with a laugh. He nudged Beregond's ribs playfully. "How about you? Did you find something interesting for yourself? Or have you decided to remain free as a bird unlike the rest of us?"
Beregond chuckled. "I think I will let you wonder a little while longer on that," he answered teasingly.
"Does that mean that there is a chance for the ever elusive Baranor's son to be caught in the nets of love?" said Meneldor jokingly.
Beregond's answer was a swat on his friend's arm. "Like I would ever tell you if there were! Then the whole army would know about it!" He smiled as a small pause followed and his voice became more serious. "If I find anything, you'll be one of the first to know."
"I'll hold you to your word," said Meneldor with a broad grin. "So be careful what you promise."
Beregond laughed once again. "Well, it's time for me to go and leave you on your guard. Bye for now, Meneldor." He unsheathed his sword and saluted; Meneldor answered it with a salute of a sword of his own, and after this typical display of their weapons, they parted.
The beggar had indeed waited for Beregond, true to his word; so the guard arrived with company at "The Full Moon", one of the many inns that were situated only a few streets away. Beregond sat at one of the tables that were close to the wall so that he could rest his back against it, while his ragged companion started circulating among the few people that happened to be there. Beregond watched the beggar closely as the latter shared with them a drink or a funny story, or even any piece of interesting news from the city or the outside world in general. Yet that wasn't the only thing that kept catching his attention, for there was also the same presence that made Beregond return at the same inn again and again whenever his duty ended.
He had met Almiel six months ago in a hot summer evening. Being a servant girl working at the inn, she was at her usual chores when she glimpsed outside the window and saw him and his comrades on duty. She took pity on them as the heat made their armours like blazing furnaces, so she went downstairs with a bucket full of water and a few cups in order to hand to each his own share of the clear liquid. Beregond was grateful for her kindness; yet, when she went up to him and offered him his own cup, he couldn't help himself but also feel something different about her. He had come across beautiful women before and, as a matter of fact, she seemed even plain compared to some of them. The more he looked at her though, the more precious she seemed to his eyes. Everything else simply seized to exist. And whenever he saw her smile, he wished nothing else than to take her in his arms and never let her go; for indeed then she seemed like a gift from the Valar to save him from the very depths of Evil's darkness. Even now, after all this time, she still shone brightly in his mind's eye as he watched her graceful and slender form walking around the half-lit room.
At that moment though, Beregond saw something else that made him huff in dismay. In one of the darkest corners of the tavern there were three people that the guard instantly recognised as Easterlings.
In older times, these people would never be accepted inside the City's walls. After all, there was always enmity and contempt between the people of Gondor and of the East, for the latter were Sauron's loyal servants. Yet Sauron was destroyed a very long time ago, whereas the Easterlings didn't seem to recover from their own defeat and the Gondorians were able to prove their superiority in more than several skirmishes. Thus it was that in time a tolerance grew between the races, if only a grudging one and ready to dissolve into thin air at the first opportunity. Besides, the guards had made certain that these three stayed out of trouble by confiscating their weapons at the entrance gate, after telling them they could claim them back upon their departure – something Beregond actually was looking forward to.
But Beregond was destined to discover that trouble with the Easterling's wouldn't be avoided after all, for at that moment he saw the beggar approaching them and the Easterlings giving him quite the irritated looks. He looked around to see if anyone was witnessing this, only to realise that the last group of people in the tavern had already departed – and they were the innkeeper and his wife no less! The only ones in the pub were Almiel, left there to run things, himself, the beggar and the Easterlings.
Despite that, Beregond didn't lose heart. He leant forward instead, his senses and his body on the alert, for anything that might happen.
He didn't have to wait long.
"Beggin' yer pardon, my good sirs," said the beggar apologetically and friendly, "Per'aps ya could spare a coin for a poor 'ungry man like me?"
The Easterlings didn't speak for several moments; then one of them, the youngest of the three, stood up in front of the beggar's form.
"Why, of course," he said, mockingly; "but first, let me get you a drink." And suddenly he poured his mug all over the beggar's head. "Now clear off, you waste!" he declared, shoving him away. So great was his force that the beggar fell flat on the floor.
Beregond clenched his jaw when he saw such treatment. His hand reached instantly for his sword and he would have certainly attacked there and then if he didn't see the beggar make a slight, shaky movement with his hand.
Almiel, however, was willing enough to take matters into her own hands. She rushed to the beggar's side, glaring defiantly at the Easterlings.
"A simple 'No' would have been enough!" she cried angrily. "Let him be and get out, all of you!"
"No, if you don't mind, I think we'll just stay a little bit longer, won't we lads?" said the Easterling, hardly being daunted. The other two men laughed in agreement.
"I said out!" cried Almiel. She looked at Beregond pleadingly, but the guard still remained in place.
That was something that didn't escape the Easterling's attention. He jeered at Almiel.
"Or what? The shiny one there will save you? Looks to me like that coward is waiting to be saved by you!"
Beregond's eyes threw daggers at the insolent brute, but this hardly revealed the deep and terrible rage he felt within him. He glanced at Almiel; then at the beggar; and stepped forward.
"You may consider me a coward for not standing up to you. But I consider you a fool for believing picking on persons you know cannot fight you back makes you braver than me," he said.
The Easterling faced him, his eyes revealing nothing but contempt.
"Now we're talking tough, eh? Let's see how well you squeak, too!" he said, clenching his hands into fists.
"Bold words for a filthy Orc-son of Mordor," replied Beregond challengingly, preparing himself for the attack.
"Are you going to call me that?"
"I already have."
It was in this moment that the Easterling attacked; his fist never made contact though. Beregond was ready for it and evaded it with a quick move aside. Beregond's fist however fell straight on the Easterling's stomach, making his adversary fall on his knees, gasping for air.
At this, the other two Easterlings lunged at the guard, and though Almiel tried to stop one of them, she was thrown aside next to the beggar.
"Run for help!" cried he and immediately rushed at Beregond's help. He never noticed Almiel watching him puzzled, wondering at how the weak and quivering beggar she was trying to protect was suddenly full of life and powerful enough to knock an Easterling unconscious with a few swift blows; then remembering herself and running outside.
Meanwhile, Beregond had problems of his own. As he was fighting back the third Easterling, the one who started the fight rose and grabbed him from behind. Before Beregond could react, he felt his hands held back and a fist hit him squarely on his cheek. He tried to defend himself by kicking, but it was of no use. Fortunately for him, the beggar arrived on time and threw himself at Beregond's assailant before the latter managed another hit. Seeing his chance, Beregond immediately tossed his head back, thus hitting the Easterling on his chin. As soon as his opponent's grip loosened at the impact, the soldier tore himself free and, taking into both his hands the Easterling's arm, he flung him on the wall, rendering him senseless. Relieved and ready to fight some more, Beregond turned instantly to help the beggar.
It was unnecessary. The beggar was fine and standing over the last Easterling's unconscious form.
It was then that the patrol arrived, followed by Almiel. After seeing the mess in the inn and receiving a quick sketch of what happened by both Beregond and the beggar, the commander of the patrol ordered his men to take the Easterlings away: they were to be taken into the dungeons for the night and to be escorted outside the City first thing in the morning. With that done, he was ready to follow his men and see that justice was done properly.
Yet it was clear that something was bothering him. He stood by the doorstep for a few moments, his face chiselled into a frown; then finally took Beregond aside.
"You know something, soldier? I need you to explain something to me," he whispered at him in confidence.
"What, sir?" asked the guard apprehensively.
"You might have had help from the beggar, as you say. My question is, what sort of help could he offer at his state?" said the commander, pointing at the stooping and mumbling man.
"They were fairly drunk, sir. Anyone could have managed them," Beregond answered at once.
"Drunk and yet still able to do this?" asked the commander, his gaze locked on the guard's bruised and swollen cheek. "Is there something you're not telling me, soldier?"
Beregond returned the gaze without as much as flinching. "No, there isn't, sir."
A sigh was all that showed to Beregond the commander's resignation.
"Very well. That will be all then. Have a good night." And he went out.
As soon as the commander of the patrol left, Beregond turned to Almiel, who was trying to put everything back in order. She wasn't looking at him or the beggar and her expression was sad, the soldier could see that only too clearly. Beregond's heart sank as the probability that she was angry with him too occurred to him. He didn't care that he was actually fearing a woman's wrath when he could throw himself amongst the fiercest of the Orcs with not so much as a second thought. He didn't want her angry with him, he simply didn't. He knew that that would get him hurt far worse than any wounds the servants of the Enemy would inflict on him.
Yet he couldn't stand watching her like this and do nothing about it either. Approaching meekly, he placed his hands on the chair Almiel was about to pick up.
She looked up at him. She was certainly surprised. And Beregond caught himself staring in her eyes and losing himself in her brown depths. He kicked himself mentally in the hopes that he would finally find the courage to say something, anything.
He did open his mouth, something that was commendable of him under the circumstances. Before any words could come out of his lips though, he felt a lump forming in his throat and he quickly averted his eyes. He only picked up the chair and put it back in its place, not looking at her.
"We'll 'elp ya clean up," offered the beggar to Almiel, getting Beregond out of the embarrassing situation. His gaze momentarily drifted on Beregond's form, and a ghost of an encouraging smile appeared on his lips. "An' I'm sure my friend 'ere will be mer than 'appy to pay for any damages."
Beregond stared at the beggar for a moment, his own turn to be surprised. Then, understanding, he nodded at Almiel, confirming the beggar's words.
Almiel smiled as well, relieved. "Thank you both. Though the innkeeper wouldn't be angry with me for this, I care for him enough not to see him upset."
Suddenly she did something that Beregond hardly expected. She turned to him and touched his swollen cheek. "As for you," she said kindly, "you will have to let me take care of your face afterwards." She added with a slight tease: "Without argument, if you can help it."
It took them a while, but the place was finally in order. In thanks, Almiel prepared some cold meat for the beggar; and while he was eating, she placed a cloth damped in cold water on Beregond's abused cheek.
"Thank you," was all Beregond murmured. He still averted his eyes.
"Why aren't you looking at me?" she asked.
Beregond's heart missed a beat. Was it merely a mind's trick, or did Almiel really sound sad about this?
"I'm not sure," he finally said, deciding to be honest. "I suppose, I didn't think you would want me to after what happened. I mean, I didn't run immediately at your aid and…"
He fell silent. He was certain he was making himself a fool.
However, she only smiled and turned his head gently to face her.
"What matters is that you finally did. Better late than never, isn't that what the wise say? So don't worry, no real harm was done."
"Tell that to my face," joked the Gondorian. The spontaneous comment actually caused them both to laugh a bit; yet Almiel was quite earnest when she took off from her neck a cord onto which was attached a small amber stone.
"This might protect you from any other harm. I found it by the river's shore long ago and kept it with me since for good luck," she said. "And it has brought me luck - especially the past six months," she added, looking straight into his eyes.
Beregond took the pendant in his hand and looked back at her. Was she actually saying…?
He opened his mouth to speak, but he never had the chance to ask the question. At that instant her lips touched his own delicately.
His heart instantly felt like it jumped out of its place. He had hoped for a kiss ever since he met her, but he certainly never expected it after what happened. Such was his loss and confusion that he remained looking at her in surprise even after the kiss ended, hardly able to decide what to do next. And why was he suddenly feeling so hot in the face?
"You're blushing," she noted, smiling.
"N-no, I'm not," he stammered.
No, I'm not?! he thought exasperatingly. What was he, a child again, verbally sparring with Iorlas?! Surely he had far more graceful things to tell a woman!
Just then he noticed the beggar walking out of the door.
"… had better be going," he concluded. He cringed at how cold that must have sounded.
Almiel's smile slightly faded. It had sounded cold.
"As you wish. Goodnight."
"Goodnight," Beregond replied, and took a few reluctant steps away. At the next moment, he rushed back and sealed their lips together once more, this time with all the passion he felt for her finally waking out of its lethargy. Valar, he never thought something so simple as a kiss could make his heart feel so warm with bliss!
Yet he couldn't stay, no matter how much he wanted to. And so, after forcing himself to break that spell, he went outside to join the beggar.
He was watching him, Beregond could tell that quite clearly. He could feel the teasing smile aimed at him even now that he was avoiding the beggar's look.
"Stop looking at me like that!" he warned his ragged comrade as they were walking down a deserted alley.
"Like what?" asked he with a huge innocent grin.
Beregond stopped himself to consider things to finally answer, "Because."
"My, what a perfectly good reason!" said Faramir with a laugh; then nudged Beregond playfully. "At least I now know why for the last several months you always insisted that we should go to that inn from the hundreds that are spread out across the city."
"What can I say, my secret's been discovered. Have mercy, my lord," said Beregond with a mischievous smile and a big bow.
"Do not call me like that!" exclaimed Faramir, his turn to warn his friend.
"As you wish… my lord."
This time the answer came into a form of a snowball, which landed on the guard's head as he was bowing again.
"I did warn you," said Faramir laughing. He quickly sidestepped to avoid a snowball that was flying now toward him, but without success.
"Revenge is mine!" declared Beregond, smiling broadly.
"Not for long!" cried the Steward's son, and charged at his friend. And while their clear laughter reached up to the sky, they continued playing in the snow, just like when they were children. Finally, they dropped on the ground, still laughing and breathing heavily.
"We should rise soon," suggested Baranor's son after a few moments of silence, "before we will be missed."
"You are right. We lost too much time at the inn already, what with those foolish Easterlings and everything."
"Which brings us to something I meant to ask," said the guard, helping Faramir to his feet. "Why did you wait so long to signal to me that I could confront them?"
"I wanted to prove myself wrong about something."
"And that would be?"
Faramir kicked some snow while walking, troubled. "I have been hearing some disturbing rumours that only grow stronger at my every outing in this guise: whispers of a shadow rising in the east and covering everything in darkness. I fear the Great Evil that our ancestors dreaded so long ago is coming back and his servants know it; that is why they became so daring. I was just hoping that things were not that bad just as yet," He looked up at the sky and heaved a tired sigh. "The world is changing, Beregond. Mark my words, we will soon be caught in the middle of a storm so terrible that it will sweep everything, leaving no trace of the city as you and I know it."
Beregond could hardly believe that such ominous words came out of his friend's mouth. This would not do and he knew it.
"I wouldn't be that worried if I were you," he said. "You know how rumours are: always making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, Sauron was destroyed more than three thousand years ago! And if he is coming back, he can't possibly have the strength he had back then!"
"I wish I had your confidence, my friend," said Faramir. "But, believe me, something is certainly amiss; Gandalf is getting restless too. His journeys last far longer now and at the rare occasions that he comes within the city's walls, he spends all his time in the library. I am sure he knows about Sauron's return, and he is trying to find in the manuscripts answers in questions concerning the Dark Lord - who knows, maybe even a way to be stopped. Yet I am afraid in the end that the conflict will not be avoided."
"Perhaps. But I like to think that, since the Dark Lord was beaten in the past, he can be beaten again," argued Beregond. "So, when he strikes, we will do what we have to do: fight back and make sure that, if death is to claim us, it won't be in vain."
"Always thinking like a soldier!" exclaimed Faramir good-humouredly. "You are correct though: we will do that. Remember though, if half the stories Gandalf told us about Sauron are true, then mere fighting will not be enough. We will have to find a different path to win; we, or somebody else."
At that moment, they reached a point were the street split in two.
"Well, this is where we go on our ways. Shall we meet again, same time tomorrow?" asked the Steward's son.
"All right. Who knows, you might overhear some good news tomorrow," said the soldier encouragingly.
Faramir forced a small smile on his lips. "Maybe. Well, goodnight, Beregond… or, rather, good morning."
"Good morning to you too, Faramir!" chuckled Beregond.
And with that, they each hurried at his home, just when the first grey shades of morning appeared on the horizon.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.