They entered the waste the next day, going more slowly than had been their wont and with more and lengthier rest periods, nor did they send out scouts any longer as there was nowhere in all that flat desolation for an ambush to hide. The heralds continued to trumpet their challenge and every time they did so the whole host tensed in expectation of an answer, but none ever came.
Pippin was with Beregond again, which meant he was a horse length or so behind Aragorn and Gandalf and the rest of the Captains, riding among the King‘s Rangers.
“This is a terrible place.” young Beren, son of Hurin, who carried the King’s banner, said as he looked uneasily around.
“Horrible!” Pippin agreed heartily.
“The No-Man’s lands were never pleasant, but the oppression hanging over them has grown heavier as Sauron’s power waxes.” said Edennil, Beren’s Ranger uncle.
“You’ve been here before?” his nephew asked incredulously.
“The Rangers kept a watch on the Black Gate after Sauron’s return.” Edennil explained. “I took my turn along with many others until the Dunadan withdrew us not quite twenty years ago.”
Beren stared at him, shocked and disbelieving. “You stayed in this awful place?”
“As I said it was not quite so bad in those days - and the watches were short, a week or two no more.”
“No doubt one becomes somewhat inured to even such places as this with use, Sir Beren.” Beregond put in. “Just as we learned to bear life under the Shadow in Minas Tirith.”
The young Man seemed dubious. “That was different.”
“Only in degree.” one of the sons of Elrond, who were riding nearby, said suddenly then added to Beregond: “But the oppression of the Shadow over Minas Tirith, was far heavier than you know, Kinsman. Your blood makes you better able to bear such things than other Men - even of the Dunedain.”
Beregond shifted uneasily. Pippin had noticed before that references to his distant royal descent discomfited him as nothing else could - and no wonder: Beregond had spent his life thinking himself just an ordinary Man - that his umpteen times great grandfather being a King of Gondor meant nothing at all - and now all sorts of people, including his distant cousin the King, were telling him that it did matter, very much. Pippin didn’t blame him for being bothered. It couldn’t be very comfortable to suddenly find out you weren’t at all the person you’d always thought you were.
Beren was bothered by other things. “You set a watch right on the border of Gondor and yet did not make yourselves known to us?” he asked his uncle accusingly.
“The Dunadan and the Lord Steward agreed many years ago that an open alliance between our peoples would be far too dangerous for both.” Edennil answered calmly and arched his brows. “You saw what happened when Aragorn did at last reveal himself.”
“Gandalf said that Sauron would raze Minas Tirith to the ground before he’d let the King return.” Pippin put in.
“He tried.” Beregond said grimly. But Pippin could tell that he - and Beren too - was a little offended by the suggestion Minas Tirith couldn’t take care of itself.
Edennil saw it too and gave them both one of those sudden, rather breathtaking Ranger smiles that erased all the grim lines and made him look like another, much younger Man. “We had our own safety to think of too,” he reminded them, “we have no great walled cities in the North and are far more vulnerable than you.”
Pippin couldn’t help but agree with that. Brave as Hobbits were the Shire wouldn’t have stood a chance against an army like the one Sauron had sent against Minas Tirith, nor Bree either.
They made camp early, well before nightfall, on a slight rise of sandy ground and ringed it with great bonfires made from deadwood and scrub gathered along the march. But nobody slept. Aragorn sat in his tent talking with Gandalf and the Captains about what might happen tomorrow. Pippin found listening to all the dreadful things Sauron might do or try far too disturbing and decided to take a turn around the camp instead.
He looked into King Eomer’s tent to find Merry awake and sharpening the edge of his sword with a whetstone. He gave him a pale smile. “Hullo, Pip.”
“Hullo.” There didn’t seem to be much else to say. “Want to take a walk?” he asked after a long moment.
“Sure.” Merry put down his whetstone, scabbarded his sword and picked up his helmet.
The wind had died and the air was as still as if they were closed in a windowless room, and it was almost as dark - save for the flare of torches and watch fires - the crescent moon and stars overhead dimmed by the drifting glooms of Mordor.
Merry and Pippin weren’t the only ones wakeful and restless, the Men were all astir as well; wandering aimlessly about the camp or sitting morosely around their fires. Here and there a group of soldiers might attempt a game of dice but soon the players would lose interest and drift away. Or somebody would start a song or tale only to have his voice die away into silence. And through that silence came, faintly, the distant howl of wolves.
Merry and Pippin exchanged looks and headed for the edge of the camp. They found Gimli and Legolas, with arrow knocked, Beregond and a few Rangers standing several feet outside the ring of bonfires with the flames at their backs looking intently into the night.
“What is it?” Pippin half whispered to the Elf.
Legolas shook his head. “I do not know.”
“Look! look there!” Merry cried and pointed.
Pippin thought he caught a glimpse of something tall and man-shaped before it melted into the shadows and drifting clouds of sulfurous fumes that rose out of rents in the earth.
“What was that?” Merry demanded.
“If this were our own country I would say wights or wandering swamp walkers.” one of the Rangers said quietly.
“You mean like the wights who haunt the Barrow Downs?” Pippin asked fearfully, he remembered those all to well.
The Man smiled quickly down at him, reminding him reassuringly of Strider, “Whatever they are they seem to fear fire - as wights do.”
“Fire and numbers are a good defense against many things.” another Ranger agreed, but he folded his arms as if chilled.
Legolas lowered his bow. “I think we need not fear attack,” he said, “their purpose is the same as that of the Nazgul - to sap our strength and spirits.”
“And it is working.” Beregond said grimly, turning to survey the restless, nervously stirring camp behind them. “Something must be done. Peregrin, run and tell the King he is needed.”
Pippin couldn’t think what Beregond expected Strider to do but he ran anyway - all the way back to the King’s tent - only pausing to catch his breath before going inside.
“Excuse me.” Kings, Captains and wizard broke off their discussion to look at him in surprise. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but the Men are getting all worked up and Beregond thinks you should do something about it, Strider.”
“He is right.” Aragorn said, then turned to the others. “There is nothing more to be said, we can make no plans but only be ready to oppose whatever Sauron might choose to do. Let us then go out and give what courage we may to our Men.”
Pippin spent the rest of that endless night trotting at Aragorn’s heels and trying to figure out just how he did what he did. Pippin could feel the brooding atmosphere change and lighten in their wake yet as far as he could see all Aragorn was doing was listening as Men poured out their fears, then saying a few words about hope and courage in his soft voice before moving on. But Pippin, glancing over his shoulder, would see the Man or Men behind them looking all perked up, sometimes even smiling.
Eomer wasn’t quiet and soft spoken like Aragorn yet whatever it was he was saying to his Rohirrim in their own rich, rolling tongue had much the same effect. Men’s faces lightened for him too, and for Prince Imrahil and Gandalf and the others. Nobody went to sleep but the movement in the camp took on a bustling, businesslike, purposeful character as the Men polished armor and shields and sharpened sword and spear in preparation for the morrow, their faces showing determined and intent in the red-golden firelight.
Eventually Aragorn and Pippin ended up at the edge of the camp. The bonfires were beginning to die down a bit but Beregond and a Northern Ranger were still standing, motionless and almost invisible in their black and dark grey cloaks, outside of the ring looking out into the night.
“I’m glad you sent for me, Kinsman.” Aragorn said quietly to Beregond. “But I should have thought of it for myself.”
“You have many things on your mind, my Lord.” the guardsman answered diplomatically.
Aragorn smiled faintly. “True. But that is no excuse.” then he turned to the Ranger. “Well, Arthamir?”
“The night-walkers have withdrawn,” the Man answered, “and a new wind has come up, blowing from the North.”
“Maybe that’s why it’s gone so cold.” Pippin ventured. He looked up at Aragorn. “Is that good or bad?”
“I don’t know, Pippin, maybe neither.”
“It is a dawn wind,” said Arthamir, “though we will not see the light for another hour or two.”
“Yet dawn is ever the hope of Men.” Beregond said softly.
Aragorn nodded. “None knows what the new day shall bring him.” his smile gleamed like the sharp edge of a sword, fierce and, fell making Pippin’s blood surge and his heart beat faster with a strange excitement. “Sauron does not know his peril!”
They began to break up camp, though it was still dark as midnight, but by the time the last tent fell a glimmer of grey was showing at the fringes of Sauron’s shadow presaging the new day. Pippin found Merry looking up at the brightening sky. “Daylight at last,” he said with forced cheer. “I was beginning to think I’d never see it again.”
Merry nodded, eyes still fixed on the sky. “Not just day, but the last day.”
A shiver passed over Pippin from top to toe. That was so, this could be the last day of all for him and Merry, for the army, for the world of Men and Hobbits. Then he remembered Strider’s words; ‘Sauron does not know his peril’ and squared his shoulders. The enemy didn’t know about Frodo and the Ring - there was still hope. “The day that will see Sauron’s end.” he said.
Merry looked at him in surprise, then grinned. “Right you are, Pip!” he looked around, horses were being brought and the knights and Captains mounting up. “Come on, we’d better be getting back to our Kings.”
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.