18. Going Forth
"Now that much business has been seen to," King Théoden said, "perhaps we may now move on to our morning meal and eventually to the minor business of preparing for war?" He sat once more at his throne, which shone dully in the morning's light streaming in from the high windows. Gimli wished to get to the business of war as well and hoped it would provide distraction from his misery.
"My lord," a guard announced as he entered the hall. "We have visitors."
"Visitors?" Lord Théoden said testily.
"Aye, my lord," the guard said hesitantly. "A small group awaits speech with the king." Gimli was irked by the additional delay. The king might decide to send the rest of them to the meal, while he and Gandalf discussed the approach of Mordor. Gimli would then hear nothing of battle plans.
Lord Théoden cast an accusatory look at the wizard beside him. "Are you quite sure, Gandalf, that you have woken me from Saruman's spell, or have you put me under a spell of your own? Hobbits, dwarves, and Elves reside under my roof, as well as the fabled heir of Isildur. What legend shall walk forth next?"
Gandalf raised an eyebrow. "Be wary with your words, lord. All legends need not be pleasant ones."
The guard returned to the hall, prepared to announce the visitors. Lord Théoden glanced again at Gandalf, who held up a hand. "I harbor no other legends, my lord."
Théoden turned to the guard. "Do our most recent visitors have names?"
"They call themselves the sons of Elrond, my lord, and they ride with Rangers from the North under one named Halbarad."
Gimli was startled when beside him Aragorn let out a roaring laugh. "Halbarad!" Clearly the Rangers were well known to each other. But Gimli could only wonder what would bring the sons of Elrond to Rohan. Could fortune be returning to them? Or did they come bearing ill news?
The king gave Gandalf a pointed look. "Send them in."
Aragorn was already at the door and grasped Halbarad fiercely in his arms as he entered. "I cannot express the joy the sight of you brings me!" He hugged the man again, and Gimli could see the man was somewhat surprised at the eagerness of Aragorn's welcome.
Aragorn did the same with the two who followed, whom Aragorn referred to as Elrohir and Elladan. Gimli had met Elrond's sons once while in Rivendell. They looked so like elves, as their father did, that Gimli did not quite believe Aragorn's explanation that they were only half elven. By the emotion Aragorn showed upon seeing the three, Gimli reasoned they must be dear friends to him.
The warmth among them twisted Gimli's gut, and only served to remind him of the cold departure of Legolas. He could not remove his thoughts far from the elf, who had turned from him after he had begged for forgiveness. Despite what he had done, he had come to know Legolas as a merciful creature, and he had not truly expected rejection. He had been foolish in that. He had betrayed his friend greatly; he had seen the betrayal in the elf's eyes. He should have expected no more.
"I would know what brings you here, though you are not unwanted." Aragorn's voice broke into Gimli's thoughts.
"Brother, did we not teach you better manners?" one of the elves said to Aragorn, and Gimli wondered how an elf would come to consider a man as family. "Should we not first greet the Lord of Rohan before having speech with you?"
Aragorn had the good grace to look sheepish. "Come, come," he said, and led the way to Lord Théoden. The three bowed before him and introduced themselves.
"We have traveled in haste on the summons of our chief," said Halbarad, glancing at Aragorn, who in turn looked confused. "Signs pointed to Rohan when we sought him out, and I am gratified to find him here. The sons of Elrond carry a message for him as well."
Lord Théoden looked to Aragorn, but Aragorn clearly had no explanation. "I never summoned you," he said hesitantly, "though your aid would have been a boon in recent days. I - I could not have summoned you," Aragorn added quietly, and Gimli saw him steal a look at Pippin, who stood with his cousin and Gimli to the side of the newcomers.
The Dúnadan Halbarad frowned, but whatever thoughts went with the expression passed. "We are here now, thirty that I could muster, ready to give our aid."
"Thirty?" Aragorn looked to the king. "As I said, you are not unwanted." He looked then to the sons of Elrond. "We will speak of our need for you soon, but first I would hear this message you carry for me."
The two looked exactly the same, so Gimli knew not who spoke. "My father has sent us to give this message: Bid Aragorn remember the words of the seer, and the Paths of the Dead."
"The Paths of the Dead!" cried King Théoden. "None speaks of them save in utter need. And none passes through them and sees the light of day again. In truth, no living man may pass through the Gate of Dunharrow. Your recent days have been trying, I am certain, Aragorn. But the Paths of the Dead are for no man."
Aragorn looked silently from his messengers to the king and back, clearly contemplating the tidings. "Perhaps it is for me to cross the Gate, for thus were the words of the seer."
"I know not any who sees past the Gate of Dunharrow. What were the words of this one with such sight?"
Aragorn turned to the king now. "Thus spoke Malbeth the Seer, in the days of Arvedui, last king at Fornost:
Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers:
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead."
All were silent as they pondered the words.
"Kings, heirs, and broken oaths," Lord Théoden said slowly. "These oaths were made to the Kings of old, your ancestors, yes?"
"You speak of waking the Men of Dunharrow, the Sleepless Dead, do you not?"
Théoden sat back, silent as he considered all this implied. "Dark is the doom of the heir of Isildur," declared Lord Théoden. Aragorn bowed and was silent.
Gimli ached for Aragorn, for he knew that his ordeal was not over. But he grew impatient with how Aragorn seemed to follow the smoke whichever way it blew. Did he not realize where there was smoke, there was fire? What Gimli could make out of the recited staves declared that the oathbreakers - were they these Sleepless Dead? - would be awoken to fulfill an oath. What were clear were the references to Aragorn, for who else could be the heir from the North? But what purpose did this serve?
Halbarad spoke, his voice full of warning. "Aragorn, the Shadow spreads. Time grows short."
"Aye, it does. Sauron has sent soldiers into Rohan, and soon he turns to Gondor, if he has not already. Saruman aimed not only to deceive Théoden, but Sauron as well. His fury will be great. Mayhap it is the hour of which the seer spoke, and I must awaken this army and demand it fulfill its oath. Long enough have they waited to find their peace." Aragorn's words answered one question for Gimli. These Dead he would awaken were an army. Aragorn turned to Théoden. "Though I would regret not fighting beside the Rohirrim, I must consider the words of Elrond and the seer."
Théoden looked intently at him. "If it is your path, Lord Aragorn, I will regret your absence as well." Then he looked once more at the newcomers. "It seems the discussion that awaits us grows ever longer and heavier. Yet I would not have our visitors question our hospitality. I would be remiss if I did not invite you to join us at our morning meal."
"I thank you, lord. Your hospitality is much appreciated and shall not be forgotten," one of the elves answered, and the three bowed their heads in thanks.
"Yes, we should not delay the meal much longer," Aragorn said, a smile playing on his lips. "The hobbits no doubt grow hungry."
A guard led Aragorn, the sons of Elrond, and Halbarad from the Hall, Gimli and the hobbits trailing, while Gandalf remained to speak with the king.
Gimli forced himself to wait until they had left the hall before speaking his mind with Aragorn, but Halbarad spoke first. "There are grave matters to attend to, Aragorn. Should we not see to them before indulging in a meal?" He glanced at the hobbits behind them. "Ah, yes, the hobbits - there will be no forgoing of meals with hobbits in tow," he said with a grin.
Aragorn smiled wanly. "Food has been scarce of late for all. Such dearth would have proved a great hardship for a people so accustomed to frequent repasts. I doubt they have yet had their fill."
Halbarad frowned at Aragorn as he took in the meaning behind his words. Gimli saw new questions forming on the man's mouth, which he doubted Aragorn yet cared to answer. The dwarf had just the distraction. "Aragorn, I must say, I cannot claim to know the meaning behind all the words of the seer, but it was said that need would drive you on this task - I speak of you, for the seer spoke of an heir from the North. If there is another, I have not heard the tale. The question that is plain to me is: what need have you for the Dead? Unless they can hold a sword and wield it, what help can they be to you?"
Aragorn gave a small smile as they followed the guard through the halls of Meduseld. "Gimli, I know not the aid they will provide, but Elrond has sent this message. His foresight reaches far. Perhaps in the doing, I shall see the reason and the aid. I trust him, and so mayhap I shall follow his counsel."
Gimli was frustrated by the man's impracticality. He was reluctant to raise the question of his health, but it was the only weapon left in his arsenal. "Are - are you certain you are well enough to strike this path? After the last fortnight-"
Aragorn's smile grew rueful. "I best be well enough, Gimli, for time waits not for us."
"Well enough?" one of the twins said, from the other side of Aragorn, as they entered a small hall set for dining. "What has befallen you? Does it explain your haggard appearance?"
Aragorn looked at him with an expression Gimli could not fathom. "Our recent days have been... trying," he said evenly, then took a deep breath, as if deciding how much to say. "We have ...battled Orcs, and ...contended with Saruman-"
"Great struggles, to be sure, but nothing you have not before accomplished. You have dealt death to many an Orc, brother. You have faced any number of powerful foes and dispensed your judgment."
"What he means to say," the other elf finished for his brother, "is that you do not yet explain why you appear as meat that has been pounded by a troll." The elf, or half-elf, had the nerve to smirk, and Gimli looked at Aragorn to see if he would allow such insolence.
But Aragorn was silent. Gimli soon saw that he was fiercely attempting to reign in his impatience, or anger, or both, as his eyes widened and his mouth tightened. Slowly, as if the words were drawn from him, he said quietly, "We were captured by Orcs-"
"You were captured by Orcs?" the first twin asked, incredulous, as Gimli seated himself between the hobbits across the table, and kept a close eye on the Big Folk.
The twins looked at one another, and Gimli did not miss the concern behind the disapproval. One of them sought to hide his unease behind false levity, but the grin faded from his face as he asked, "Was not the burden of the Ringbearer's safety enough for you? Did you seek more excitement on the road?"
The other twin's countenance grew dark, his brows deeply furrowed. He stood taught and still before his chair. Quietly, he asked, "Have all the lessons we took such pains to impart while on patrol fled your mind? Such as not teasing the Orcs before you kill them?"
Aragorn narrowed his eyes at the sons of Elrond. In a scorn-laden voice, he gave each word its emphasis, "They shot an arrow into my leg," and gestured to the wound. "We were marched across Rohan to Isengard. From there, Saruman brought Pippin and myself to Edoras."
"You simply went with Saruman-" Halbarad joined in the questioning, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
"This is the shortened version of a long tale!" Aragorn said through clenched teeth.
"We were forced here under threat of death!" Pippin said suddenly, rising to his knees on his chair next to Gimli. Indignation plain in the scowl on his face, he had clearly taken offense to the implications made of Aragorn's weakness. "Strider did his best in the hands of Saruman. Any other man would not have survived!"
Halbarad looked at Pippin with an expression Gimli could not decipher, then returned his gaze to Aragorn. "I see there are long tales to be told by all."
Aragorn nodded slowly, averting his eyes from the other Ranger.
"There are indeed," said Gandalf as he entered the room with King Théoden. The wizard took a seat next to the head of the table, where the king sat. "I yet await the full telling of Merry and Gimli's climb out of Orthanc."
"Climb out of Orthanc?" Halbarad said, eyebrows rising as he looked again at the three already seated. He clearly knew not to whom Gandalf referred, but his eyes showed the high esteem he held for the claimers of this deed. Gimli carefully held his expression neutral; he would give no answers yet.
"What of Legolas? And Boromir? And the other two hobbits?" one of the twins asked.
Aragorn's indecision was clear as he looked at Gimli, then the hobbits, and then Gandalf. How could he tell briefly all that had passed? "As hobbits say, this tale is best told over a meal. Too much has come to pass to give a brief accounting."
"Will you not tell us if they live?" he asked, losing his humorous demeanor.
Aragorn sighed. "For now let me say that Legolas is here in Edoras. He returned to the Infirmary shortly before you met with the king. Boromir," he continued before they could ask more questions, "was slain on the banks of the Anduin, where the Orcs first attacked us," he said quietly.
After a moment of silence for the man, the other twin asked quietly, fear tingeing his voice, "and the other hobbits, Frodo, and his servant Sam?"
"It appears they went on to Mordor. They slipped away in the melee of the attack."
The three sighed in relief, obviously aware of Frodo's importance. "You clearly have much more to tell us, young brother. And the table is set, so we now have the meal and drink hobbits demand while telling tales." He turned to Pippin and smiled, but the hobbit remained wary.
"But I understand Gimli's concern better now," the other son of Elrond said. "I hope you are well enough for the dangers ahead."
"Do not fear, Elladan," Aragorn insisted.
Merry looked at Gimli with new concern, as Aragorn continued to assert his well being, and said quietly, "Perhaps you should visit the infirmary, Gimli. You were captive right beside Legolas, after all. Even Strider has had his wounds tended."
"I am not in need of the infirmary, Merry," Gimli said tiredly, having warded off the hobbit's concerns while they sat below in the jail. He was aware that the sharp ears round the table had not missed Merry's quiet prodding. "The truth is the Orcs were given orders not to kill us. They knew little regarding dwarves and treated me as they would a man, that is, easily killed. Therefore, I was not as terribly injured as I expected to be. Even so, I was not fed, and received water only that once before you found me. So, in the main, I need to eat!
"But they knew much of Elves. Most important to them was that Elves are difficult to kill. They did not concern themselves overmuch with their treatment of Legolas, because they knew he would live, as long as they did not injure him too grievously. There was much they could do to him. And he was given neither food nor water. So his body is in poor state as well. I can only hope the Lady Éowyn feeds him well."
After a moment of silence in contemplation of Orcs, Merry apparently decided he would rather think of food. "Well then, if you need to eat, let's feed you then. Talking won't fill your stomach!"
King Théoden rose from his chair at the head of the great dining table, until moments ago laden with such heapings of food, Pippin had barely contained himself. The meal had begun once the king had joined them in the dining hall, a room smaller than the Golden Hall, and plainer, with less tapestry and carvings on the walls. But what designs they had were no less fine than that which graced the King's Hall.
They were at last to have their talk of battle now that the meal was eaten. "Lord Aragorn has his path to decide. We, the Rohirrim, have ours. For though the Ents have seen to the Orcs that marched from Isengard, we yet have Orcs from Mordor to fight. Although my mind was bespelled by Saruman, I do recall giving orders to Éomer to prepare for battle." He glanced at Gandalf on his right, and Pippin thought he looked uncertain.
"I fear I was not present at the time, lord. I cannot tell you what plans you have made."
"I was present," Strider said from Gandalf's other side, but he hesitated. "I believe you ordered Éomer to prepare to fight beside the uruk-hai of Saruman. But I cannot say for certain." Pippin wished to assure Aragorn that he remembered rightly, but he would not interrupt the king.
"With those orders, they would prepare for a battle to be fought with an army larger than our own. Now we face Mordor alone."
"Your men should know as well that they fight for you, not for Saruman," Gandalf said.
"Rohan's army is no match for the forces of Mordor," King Théoden said with a scowl. "But there is no time to call to Gondor for aid. And we have good reason to believe Sauron will soon send a force upon them as well. They may not be in a position to come to our aid if there were time." Lord Théoden stopped then and closed his eyes, as if at a loss for ideas.
Pippin realized there was a misunderstanding among the Big Folk. They misjudged the plans Saruman had made. With so many formidable people present, he hesitated to speak, but he knew this was important. He sat up straighter in his chair and looked to the front of the table. "Gandalf?"
The wizard, sitting beside the king, turned at the hobbit's question. "Pippin, now is not the time-"
"Pippin, we can discuss it later, I assure you," he said sternly.
Pippin frowned. Gandalf dismissed him as if he had nothing useful to say, as he had done many times before. But before was... different. So much had changed. He had changed. And he knew when his words were worth interrupting the king. He took a deep breath. "No, Gandalf, we cannot discuss it later," he answered with a sternness that surprised even himself.
Gandalf's eyebrows rose to new heights. Pippin raised himself on his knees and tried to ignore all who watched him, especially the newcomers. He bowed his head to the king. "King Théoden, I am Peregrin Took of the Shire and cousin to Merry. I apologize for my interruption. But there is something you ought to know. It is not all of Mordor that comes to Edoras."
There was silence around the table.
"How do you know this, Pippin?" Gandalf said warily.
Suddenly, the attention, and especially the scrutiny, of the Big Folk was too much for him. Why did he think he should speak in the first place? "I - I heard Saruman..."
"You heard him? When?"
Strider spoke up, to Pippin's relief. "Gandalf, Pippin is perhaps our best source of information at the moment." Before offering a brief, private smile of assurance to Pippin, he turned to the king. "He was kept as Saruman's vassal while we were imprisoned. I imagine he heard most of his plans," he said, turning to Pippin for confirmation.
"Yes, I have. All of them, or nearly so." Now they all looked at Pippin with new interest. He focused on King Théoden, whose attention seemed least intimidating.
"My apologies, Pippin," Gandalf said. "You have a great deal to tell us."
"Yes, beginning with the army from Mordor," King Théoden insisted. "You say it is not all of Mordor?"
"Well, that was not my impression. Saruman used a word... contingent? I though it meant a part of the army, the way he used it."
"Precisely," Gandalf said, smiling. "So, then only a contingent of Mordor's army approaches. We have no way of knowing the size of this contingent - eh, do we, Pippin?" The hobbit shrugged. "So we will have to make a battle plan-"
"With one meager army," Théoden finished, looking at Strider. Pippin remembered Strider using the phrase when they had first met with the king. The king's memories must have fully returned. King Théoden turned to one of the guards who had accompanied him. "I must speak with Éomer at once." He narrowed his eyes. "Tell him nothing more."
The guard smiled. "As you wish, my lord King," he said loudly.
"Pippin," Gandalf said, "Is there any more regarding the force from Mordor that you feel we ought to know now? We will talk on all the rest soon, but now we must plan for Rohan to meet this army. Is there aught else you recall of Saruman's plans?"
Pippin closed his eyes. "Well," he said reluctantly, "only that this army is coming..." he glanced at Strider, "to collect Strider." All eyes were on Pippin - including Strider's. "I can't be sure Saruman was going to go through with it, Gandalf. He was trying to double-cross everyone. Even Sauron, it seems. Sauron had demanded that Saruman bring Strider to him. That is why Sauron sent this force in the first place. But then Saruman began talking of fighting the army, so he might not have planned to hand him over. Perhaps he thought to do so if he could not put Strider under his spell completely."
Strider's face grew hard, and Pippin wished he did not have to say these things.
"Sauron sent this army to collect Strider," Gandalf said thoughtfully. "Do you remember any of the precise words Saruman might have used? We are trying to grasp a sense of the size of this army. What you say now makes me think it might be quite small."
Pippin frowned, but shook his head. "I am sorry, Gandalf. I don't remember anything else, not about the size."
"Then, with what little information we have," Gandalf said, turning to the king, "I believe that we have a chance with your army."
King Théoden nodded. "The news that the men fight unaided will be welcome to some, as they were loath to fight beside Orcs, but their numbers will be smaller nonetheless, and that is never welcome news. Despite this, knowing that Saruman no longer has final word in Rohan may strengthen their resolve."
"Pippin," Strider suddenly asked. "Why did you say that: 'not about the size'? Is there something we have overlooked?"
Pippin frowned. "I meant I hadn't heard mention of anything about the size." He looked at Strider with confusion.
"But you have heard mention of much more, I am sure. Is there aught that struck you as odd or significant, or a word perhaps niggling at the back of your mind?"
"I was only thinking about Saruman's plans. And Sauron, frankly. Saruman had talked of taking you and King Théoden to lead an army to Gondor. It seems he thought to make the Steward of Gondor feel he could not refuse him, when Mordor was on its way." Pippin frowned. "He always said Sauron was coming to Gondor, but never why. I think he knew he was going to make Sauron angry with whatever he did in Rohan, and Sauron would really be coming for him. I think he was going to try to double-cross Sauron. I am not sure that helps you at all."
Ranger, wizard, and king looked at Pippin for a long moment, a gleam of high esteem in their eyes, and Pippin finally felt relieved for having spoken. "At the very least, this confirms much of what we already suspected. And that is a great help." Gandalf said. "You have done very well, Pippin. There is more to eat, if you like. You have certainly earned it." Pippin grinned broadly as he grabbed another piece of bread.
Strider turned to Pippin. "Well done, Peregrin." The hobbit didn't know what to say in return, though he welcomed the words, so he offered only a small smile.
On Pippin's right, a hand patted his. "Nicely done." Gimli looked at him proudly. "It is gratifying to see the Big Folk reminded that the little folk have words worthy to hear." Beyond the dwarf, Merry looked on proudly with a wide grin.
As Pippin chewed, he heard the sounds of footsteps approaching. In a moment, the king's nephew - why the Rohirrim said 'sister-son' instead Pippin couldn't fathom - Éomer strode into the hall wearing a stern expression Pippin thought was meant to hide curiosity and worry. The man slowed as he neared the king at the head of the table, clearly sensing a difference from the man he had seen at their last meeting. His eyebrows rose and his lips parted as he saw the clarity in his uncle's eyes. Speechless for a moment, he finally whispered, "Uncle." The stern expression fell away and hope and wonder took its place for a rare moment. The familiarity must have been improper even for the king's kin, for he quickly added, "my lord," and bowed, but even then he could not tear his eyes from his restored uncle.
Théoden rose slowly, smiling. "Éomer, sister-son, yes. Saruman has been dispelled from my court and my mind. I am once more your uncle and your King." He strode to him and clasped his shoulders while Éomer beamed. Pippin shared the man's glee, for he was immeasurably pleased to be rid of the wizard himself.
"Ah, there will be time for that. There is much you should know, but I feel the story belongs to Gandalf." He looked back to the wizard who had remained at the table.
Gandalf came forth, nodding to King Théoden. "Éomer, it is gratifying to see your joy in seeing your King returned. Long had he been held under a spell of Saruman and so you may be gratified as well to learn that Saruman shall wield spells no more."
"That is indeed great tidings, Gandalf. No longer can they say you are only the bearer of ill news." Éomer sobered. "What of his army of Orcs? When they do not receive his command, might they not attack?"
"Saruman's Orcs will be attacking no one. That tale is longer than the time we have. But be wary of the new woods you will find to the northwest of Edoras. It would be safer not to enter it."
"New woods? To the ...northwest?" Pippin saw his confusion and wondered what he would think of the story of Ents Gandalf had quickly related to them. He contemplated what a forest striding across the plains would look like.
"Éomer," Théoden interrupted, "as Gandalf has said, it is too long a story, one you will have difficulty believing regardless. There are more pressing concerns."
"Yes, my lord," Éomer said reluctantly. "The Orcs are gone then. The army from Mordor - it yet approaches, does it not?"
Gandalf nodded. "That problem has not been eliminated, I fear. But what our dear friend, Pippin, has told us has made an important difference: he has the impression from Saruman's words that the army is merely a contingent. We have concluded that Sauron has not sent the whole of his forces against you. It may be possible to defeat them with what forces you have." Pippin sat up straighter at the mention of his name and hoped he would not be questioned as he was before.
Éomer looked from Gandalf to Pippin. "You say this servant that came trailing in with Saruman is your friend?" Pippin realized the man had not seen him since they had first arrived, when he was still tied to Saruman's side. What must he think of him?
"Pippin was forced in to the service of Saruman when he was taken prisoner by Orcs. In that position he learned a great deal of Saruman's plans for Rohan and I imagine beyond," Gandalf assured Éomer. "He will share with us as much as he can remember of what he learned. For now, we have focused on the Orcs that approach Edoras."
Éomer looked closely at Pippin, and the hobbit tried not to squirm beneath his scrutiny. The man looked as if he wished to ask a question, but kept it to himself.
"Éomer?" Éomer tore his eyes from Pippin to turn to Gandalf. "Have you not met a hobbit before?"
"A hobbit?" Éomer's brow wrinkled with further confusion.
"Yes, a hobbit. Others might refer to them as halflings, and the Rohirrim seem to have for them the name holbytlan."
"A holbytla? The folk from the children's tales? Gandalf, surely this is no time for jest."
"No, no time for jesting, but time for Rohan to awaken to the outer world around them, perhaps. Pippin is not a child, as you might have assumed. He is a hobbit, as is his cousin, Merry."
Pippin appreciated Gandalf's efforts at clearing up the misunderstanding, but thought Éomer needed further explanation as to who he was. "Yes, we call ourselves hobbits, and I'm nearly a fully grown hobbit, thank you. My coming of age is in less than five years time, when I'll turn thirty-three."
Éomer looked upon him with wonder and then laughed. "And from this little one comes such important news as to change our battle plans. And more of it you have, you say?"
"Yes, sir. I was always near Saruman, but he often paid me no heed, so he did not hide from me his plans."
"Well, may I never make the same mistake. Hobbits are small, I see, but wise as well."
"You already learn the first lesson on hobbits," Gandalf said with a smile. "There is much to learn of hobbits - and from them," he added, "but that is for another time. Most important now is relaying to you that the Orcs are no more, and so only the Rohirrim will fight the force from Mordor."
"But you now believe the approaching force to be smaller than previously thought; is this correct, my lord?"
"Precisely," King Théoden said. "You must now adjust your plans for battle accordingly."
"As you wish, my lord." Éomer looked about the room then, taking in the two hobbits across the table. Pippin noted the flicker of emotions that passed through his eyes as they fell upon the dwarf among them. Much more filled his eyes as he saw the sons of Elrond and the Rangers. Pippin wondered if he would also assume Strider was a servant of Saruman, as he was when he had last seen him.
"It must be said, Gandalf, your friends are many and varied," the man finally said.
"Indeed they are, and for that I am blessed. We have with us, in addition to the hobbits Merry and Pippin, Gimli, son of Gloín, from the Lonely Mountain. Halbarad, who brought thirty Rangers from the North, arrived this very morning with Elrohir and Elladan, who rode from Rivendell with a message from their father Elrond for none other than Aragorn."
Éomer took all this in with another sweep of the table before his eyes came to rest on Strider. "You stood with Saruman when you arrived in Edoras, and met with Lord Théoden, did you not?" His voice barely held back the accusation in the question.
"I did," Strider said, and nothing more.
"You said you would fight for Saruman, and that we had no choice but to do the same. Are you now of a different mind?"
"Aye." A ghost of a smile flitted across his face. "I am indeed of a different mind," he said quietly. He looked up then to face Éomer. "I do not fight for Saruman." When Éomer's eyes narrowed in doubt, he added, "With Gandalf's aid, I am free from the spell under which Saruman held me."
"You were under his spell as well, then?" Éomer said hesitantly, clearly still harboring distrust of this man whom he saw tied to Saruman.
Strider looked away from Éomer for a moment. "I was. Pippin tried valiantly to keep me from falling to it, but in the end... I was not strong enough."
"There is no shame in it. Even our King Théoden fell under his spell. If a king cannot best him, what can ordinary men do?"
Pippin glanced at Gandalf, who stepped forward. "Not all Saruman said were lies, Éomer. Aragorn is indeed this man's name, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and as such, the heir of Isildur and to the throne of Gondor. I suspect this is what made him such a prize in Saruman's eyes. He is no ordinary man, Éomer. There were likely special circumstances that led him to succumb to Saruman's spell, or else, Saruman was particularly ruthless and relentless, or possibly both."
"There were, Gandalf! There were!" Pippin cried out, unable to contain himself. "Saruman would never have gotten Strider, but he was wounded and starved. He - he wasn't at his strongest."
"I believe you entirely, Peregrin," Gandalf said indulgently. He turned again to Éomer. "You no longer have a horde of Orcs to fight for you. But you have many sturdy folk to lend their swords to your cause. All is not lost."
Before leaving, Éomer took one last look at Strider. Clearly struggling with what he had seen and what he had been told, Pippin recognized the doubt warring with hope on Éomer's face. As he returned to his warriors, he took his struggle with him.
Once talk of battle had concluded, Gandalf leaned closely to the man beside him. "Aragorn, I would hear more of your story, but before any of it, I would hear of this Stone that you believe is a palantír. I must know this for sure, and I wish to see it, if possible."
Pippin shivered as his eyes grew wide. He wanted to hear nothing more of that Stone. Strider sighed, wearing a familiar look of dread. "Gandalf, maybe he would rather not speak of it!" Pippin said. "It's a terrible, awful thing that takes you to frightful places you wish never to return to. But Saruman made him return and return. Don't make him return once more."
Gandalf's eyes bored into him and Pippin's heart jumped. He hated when Gandalf got that look. It rarely turned out for the good. For him, at least. He glanced at Strider, and the man wore a rather strange expression as well. What had he said? His stomach tightened, chasing away his hunger. The last time he had wondered what he had said wrong, disaster had followed.
Gandalf turned to Strider, and the man looked almost apologetic, though Pippin could hardly imagine why. Gandalf addressed Pippin slowly, using his full name, ever an ill omen for the hobbit. "Peregrin, what do you know of the frightful places to which this Stone takes you?"
Pippin's mouth dropped. How did Gandalf know? He looked at Strider, who wore a resigned expression. If Strider had not intended to tell Gandalf, he now saw no choice in the matter. Well, Pippin did. "Strider told me every nightmare he saw when Saruman put him on the Stone-"
"Pippin, tell him. It will be all right."
All right? How could Strider think it would be all right? Gandalf was certain to be angry with him - again. He looked down at his empty plate. Could he ever manage to do - or say - the right thing? Could he ever manage to keep Gandalf from being angry with him? When would he stop making horrid mistakes? "I - I touched the Stone," he mumbled, but then an urge to defend himself pushed his words out in a rush. "I didn't mean to. It just happened! And Strider and Saruman both said that I was drawn to it. So I really didn't have much say in the matter. Before I knew what had happened, I had done it..." He trailed off, confused when Gandalf hadn't started to yell at him right off.
Gandalf surprised Pippin by rising and coming round to him, crouching down, and putting a hand on his shoulder. Pippin couldn't explain the almost sad expression on Gandalf's face. It wasn't at all what he had expected. "Do not fret so, Peregrin. No, I am not angry with you, for Aragorn and Saruman were correct. If you touched it without understanding why, rather than for the curiosity of it, then you were indeed drawn to the Stone. And that is cause more for worry than anger."
"I would never have touched that horrid rock. Strider warned me about it, said never to touch it. But he didn't have to. I saw - I saw what it did to him. If it could do that to such a man as Strider, then a hobbit has no business with such things." He shivered again and, to his dismay, felt his throat constrict.
"No, a hobbit has no business with such things. Which is why you had no chance to stop yourself. The Stone was far stronger than you."
"Tell him what you saw, Pippin." Strider's voice was gentle.
Pippin swallowed. He closed his eyes, hating to return to that fiery world inside the Stone. He felt his chest tighten and struggled to take a deep breath. "I saw a man. A man before a window. He didn't look at all pleasant. And then - he looked at me, as if he saw me!"
"What did this man look like? It is very important to tell us anything you remember."
"It was dark, so I couldn't see much. He was not a very old man, but not young. I think he wore a cloak. Em, the cloak might have had some fur around the edge."
"You said you saw high mountains behind him, through the window, did you not?" Pippin nodded. "I believe those to be the hills of the Ephel Dúath," Strider said to Gandalf. "And Denethor wears such a cloak."
Gandalf nodded and stood. "Denethor has taken it upon himself to use the Stone of the White Tower. This complicates matters greatly. Did you say aught to him?"
Pippin mumbled then forced himself to speak up. "I - I told him my name."
"So, the Steward of Gondor Lord Denethor has laid eyes upon you."
"Is he - is he evil?"
"No, Peregrin. Denethor is not evil. But he is a force to be reckoned with. And he will know you are a hobbit. I must consider how to attend to this matter. Our next moves must be taken with great care."
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.