The line between Ithilien and the No-Man’s Lands was as sharp as a sword’s edge with the rather straggly green of a living land and on the one side and on the other a desolation of naked grey earth and rock outcroppings twisted into grotesque forms by some evil force. A sort of horror hung over the waste land, sickening to the soul.
Pippin stood on the border, his toes in the dead sand, and looked steadily into the desolation trying to accustom himself. Frodo and Sam were in a worse place, for their sakes he would withstand this - somehow. Eventually he turned away to see Legolas nearby, squinting upward, and went to join him.
“Are they still there?”
“Yes.” the Elf answered, “circling.”
“Like vultures.” Pippin shuddered. “Why don’t they attack and get it over with?”
“Because that is not their mission.” said Beregond crossing the brief space between the tents of the King’s company and the edge of the No-Man‘s Land. He too looked up, though he had told Pippin that neither he nor the other Dunedain could see the Nazgul at such a height any more than could the rest of the Men or the Hobbits. “They have been sent to drain our strength and kill our spirits with dread.”
“Well it’s working.” said Pippin. “My heart’s right down in my toes - as old Sam would say.”
Beregond smiled faintly at that but quickly sobered. “I fear for the Men of the country levies. They have not your strength, Peregrin, nor your experience with such evils. And unlike we City Men they have not lived so long under shadow as to be somewhat inured.”
“I underestimated the valor of Men once at Helm’s Deep.” said Legolas. “I will not make that mistake again.”
But Beregond shook his head. “It is not a matter of valor but of fortitude which is rather a different matter. These are brave Men or they would not be here, but even those who can face the shock of battle without flinching may break under such an oppression of the spirit.”
“You seem to be bearing up well enough.” Legolas pointed out.
“As I said we City Men have dwelt under the Shadow for a very long time.” Beregond’s eyed darkened at the memory. “The hope of the King’s presence makes this dread seem light and easy to bear compared to the days before the Siege.”
Pippin shivered, remembering. “You‘re right,” he said, “this is not quite so bad as that was.” Then, behind Beregond, he saw Prince Imrahil and King Eomer heading purposefully for Aragorn’s tent. “Excuse me,” he said, “I may be needed.” and ran to catch up with Merry, following after Eomer as usual. “What’s up?”
“Trouble.” Merry whispered back. “Some of the Men are refusing to go on. Eomer’s furious and I’m scared of what Aragorn might do. He could have them all killed.”
“No!” Pippin gasped, horrified, “Strider wouldn’t do that -”
“He might have no choice, it’s the law Eomer says.”
They were stopped, rather apologetically, at the door to the King’s tent by his guards and one of the Rangers - Halladan who was Strider’s cousin - appeared out of nowhere to ask if their business were urgent. “I managed to persuade him to take some rest an hour or so ago. Is this not something you can deal with yourselves, my Lords?”
“I fear not.” Imrahil replied grimly. “It is a matter for the King’s Grace alone.”
Halladan accepted his word, not even asking what the trouble was, and admitted them to the tent. As they stood waiting he crossed to the big camp bed and leaned over the Man sleeping on it. “Dunadan.”
Aragorn came awake at once, without a start, and looked inquiringly up at his cousin who nodded towards the group by the door. The King’s eyes shifted to them and he sat up. “What is the matter?”
“Mutiny -” Eomer began bitterly but Imrahil stilled him with a hand upon his arm.
“Not quite so bad as that, my Lord, but some of the Men are refusing to go on, not in a spirit of defiance but out of pure dread and despair.”
Aragorn nodded, unsurprised. “I have been expecting this.” he said. He pulled on his boots and got up, putting on his surcoat ensigned with the Stars and Tree over his red tunic but covering it with the grey Lorien cloak instead of his kingly mantle. “Come. I will speak to them.”
Prince Imrahil was right; none of the great crowd of Men assembled in front of his sea blue tent looked the least bit mutinous - only sick and ashamed. And they looked even sicker and more ashamed when they recognized the King. There were fair haired Rohirrim among them, and short, swarthy Gondorians as well. Pippin recognized the latter by their devices as Men of Lossarnach, and he knew them to be no cowards having seen them fight upon the Pelannor Field.
“Eomer King and Prince Imrahil tell me you Men will not go on, is this so?” Aragorn asked them mildly, his voice pitched to carry to the edges of the crowd yet somehow not seeming loud at all.
They shifted on their feet and exchanged looks among themselves, unable to meet his eye. Finally one spoke for them all: “We cannot, my Lord, and sorry we are for it, but ...we cannot!” heads nodded fervently around him.
“I understand.” Aragorn said quietly. “You made a valiant offer in good faith, but one beyond your strength. I do not blame you for this - nor should you blame yourselves.
Go then, but keep what honor you may and do not run! And there is a task you may attempt and so be not shamed. Take your way southwest till you come to Cair Andros, and if that is still held by enemies, as I think it will be, retake it and hold it to the last in defense of Gondor and Rohan!”
A little color had come into the Men’s pale faces as Aragorn spoke, and a light of hope kindled their eyes. The spokesmen bowed. “My Lord, that we can and will do!” Then he and many of the others went away, eager to embark on their new mission, but some stayed, their eyes fixed upon Aragorn as if trying to draw strength from him.
He stood quiet under their stares until at last one spoke. “My Lord King, I would go on, if you will have me.”
“And me.” “Me also.” echoed the others.
Aragorn studied them, one by one. And they paled or colored under his eye but all managed somehow to meet it steadily as long as long as it was fixed upon them. At last the King smiled, that bright sunburst smile that so altered his usually grim face. “You will be most welcome.” he said. And the Men were dazzled, and very glad.
Pippin was a little dazzled himself, and a little uneasy. What kind of power did Aragorn have that he could lift Men’s spirits and change their minds with naught but a look and a few words? It was akin to the spell Faramir had, all unknowingly, cast over Pippin himself, and looking back he realized Boromir had had something of that same power too. But Aragorn hadn’t shown it until now, and Pippin didn’t quite like it. It made him seem less like their friend Strider and more like a distant and rather frightening stranger; the King of Gondor.
“We cannot afford to lose so many Men.” Prince Imrahil said worriedly as he and the two Kings walked away, trailed by their Hobbit esquires.
Aragorn shook his head. “Numbers do not matter, Prince, remember the true battle lies elsewhere. We are but a diversion.”
Eomer was still angry. “Faint hearts and cowards! I am ashamed to call them Riders of Rohan.”
“Eomer,” Aragorn said gently, “would you ask a boy new come to arms to match the deeds of a seasoned warrior?”
“No, of course not.” he conceded unwillingly. “But it is not the same.”
“Yes it is. These are not guardsmen nor experienced Riders but young husbandmen of Lossarnach and the Westfold. Mordor to them has been a name out of fireside tales - a legend that had no part in their simple life - and so they were all unprepared for its horror.”
Eomer sighed a little and let go of his wrath. “Perhaps you are right, Aragorn. No, I know that you are. Very well, providing they carry themselves well at Cair Andros I will lay no blame nor shame upon them.”
“They will. That is a deed within their measure.” said Aragorn.
Imrahil and Eomer left him at his tent but Aragorn didn’t go back to bed. Instead he settled himself on a bench placed to catch the last of the afternoon sunlight with Merry and Pippin on either side and his grey cloak wrapped around him against the evening breeze, hiding his kingly garb of crimson and black. He stretched out his long legs and lit his pipe. As he blew out a thin stream of smoke an unhappy tension inside Pippin unclenched itself and he laughed.
“Look! Strider the Ranger has come back.”
Aragorn glanced at him and smiled. “He has never been away, I am Strider and Dunadan too. I belong both to Gondor and the North.”
“Thank goodness for that.” said Merry. “Eomer was ready to hang those Men, and even Imrahil seemed to think it would be the right thing to do. We Northerners aren‘t so bloodthirsty.”
“Mutiny is a serious matter, Sir Meriadoc,” Aragorn answered, “and was accounted a crime worthy of death even in the North back in the days of my Fathers. But I will lead only those willing to follow into this battle, and I will not punish Men for being unable to face what no Man should have to bear. The wonder is not that some have broken, but that so many have held true with those horrors -” he gestured upward with his pipe stem, “-undermining their spirits.”
“I feel pretty awful myself, truth be told.” said Pippin. “But I’ll hang on somehow, for Frodo’s sake.”
“And I’ll hang on as long as you, Pip my lad,” said Merry, “and maybe a minute or so longer!”
“A full eight hundred have gone.” Prince Imrahil said grimly at the regular council of the Captains that night. “We have now less than six thousand to face the legions of Mordor.”
“Seven or six makes little difference.” Aragorn said calmly. “We have known from the beginning that we would be gravely outnumbered.”
“Yet we can afford to lose no more if we are to keep Sauron’s attention.” said Gandalf.
“We will lose no more.” said Aragorn, and Pippin wondered what made him so sure.
Suddenly Imrahil’s mood changed and he laughed. “Surely this is the greatest jest in all the history of Gondor: that we should ride with scarce as many as made up the vanguard of its army in the days of its power to assail the impenetrable gate of the Black Land. Will Sauron not smile at the sight and crush us with his little finger as he might a fly?”
“No, he will trap the fly and take the sting.” Gandalf answered grimly. “There are names among us that are worth more than a thousand mail clad knights apiece. No, Sauron will not smile.”
Pippin’s mouth was dry. If this was a jest he had no heart to laugh at it - nor did any of the Men around the council table.
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.