45. The Meaning Of Hope
The Meaning Of Hope
Legolas and Gimli stood next to one another in the very back of the crowded library of the Houses of Healing. Aragorn had insisted that they come, as representatives of their races.
"I am no more a representative of the folk of Durin than young Pip would be of the Shirefolk, or than you are of all of Elvenkind—High, Low, Green, Grey, and every other variety," Gimli grunted. "Besides, our people have no need to join this war—war marches to them…"
"Indeed," Legolas breathed. His mind was filled with the images he had seen in the Mirror of Galadriel, of conflagration in the forest of his homeland, and of Thranduil standing against the fire. "And I fear that even if the Darkness can be brought to an end here, in the South, nothing will be left of our homelands for us to return to, my friend…"
In reply to that, Gimli had no words. He merely glared up at his tall friend, and worriedly tugged on the end of his beard.
The surviving Lords of Gondor's fiefdoms sat together on chairs set beneath one great bookshelf. The Prince of Dol Amroth, his high-browed, fair face still very pale, sat on a cushioned chair between Elphir and Erchirion, his sons. Aratan came as newly commissioned Commander of the City Regiment. Théodred brought Erkenbrand and Elfhelm in addition to Harmund—for Grimbold had fallen on the Pelennor. Even Master Húrin was in attendance. They muttered and whispered, waiting for the others to appear. Finally the door opened.
A low murmur quickly built into a cheer as Boromir, Captain-General of Gondor, was rolled slowly into the library upon a wheeled chair pushed by his grinning brother. Behind them strode Aragorn, his face stern and unsmiling, followed by Elrohir Peredhel, and in the rear came Halbarad and Mablung. Seats were found those who wished them, and the conference began at last.
Gimli would later recall few of the words that were spoken at that long debate. He was familiar with nearly everything that now had to be explained in dreary detail to a host of skeptical, anxious men. The Enemy's Ring was but a murky legend to many present there. Its dark history was uncovered, step by laborious step, and the pivotal role of that small object—and its current location—laid out. This is nothing like the Council of Elrond… Strange, but he found himself wishing for the company of Elves. Only two Mortal Men in that room in Rivendell, October last; all those Elves and Half-Elves had much to say, but at least they stayed on point and did not dither this way and that… Of course, the tone of that council had been set by none other than Lord Elrond himself, and Gandalf had much to say, too, filling in several crucial gaps, weaving many threads together and guiding them toward their inevitable conclusion.
The Dwarf frowned as his attention strayed. Gandalf… He tried not to dwell upon the wizard's fate; yet he could not help but feel sick with horror at the thought of what must now be happening in some darksome dungeon far to the East. When Aragorn had revealed what he had learned by peering into the Stone of Isengard, Gimli was at first simply numbed with grief. But soon his thoughts turned to Aragorn's plight. He suspected—indeed, he all but knew this was the wizard's plan, and he bore that terrible knowledge alone… No wonder the man seemed driven. By his dreams, by his destiny, by the desperate need of this fateful hour—by all those things, but also by his anguish for the fate of one who has been to him a friend and mentor…
Gimli looked up. Aragorn was masterfully steering the frightened, overly cautious Lords of the southern fiefdoms to examine the evidence and draw the same conclusion he had. He needs them to do this with their whole hearts… To commit their men—their kinfolk—to a hopeless campaign in service of a greater good that none of us are likely to live to witness… Elrohir's words echoed in the Dwarf's head. No one else could do this but Aragorn. Though yet uncrowned, he is their King, but to have any chance at success they must follow him not because the King commands it, but because they believe he is right…
The Lord of the Morthond Vale was speaking.
"What you propose has a grim, icy sort of logic to it, Lord," he said, his voice gruff and his face twisted with grief. "But the losses we have already suffered are great. How can you ask us to sacrifice even more?" His only sons, both skilled archers, had fallen the previous day.
"Your losses are indeed grievous, Duinhir," Aragorn said. "My heart reaches out to you, and to all who have lost sons, brothers, fathers, friends… As I have, my Lord… But if there is to be any hope to bring an end to such losses—mayhap not for ourselves, but for our surviving kin, for all our people—we must act now…"
"As for me, Lord Aragorn, I pledge to follow where you lead," said Angbor of Lamedon. "What I witnessed on the banks of the Gilrain and at Pelargir has convinced me that the Powers have sent you to us at this perilous time, sire. Yet, an assault on Mordor's impenetrable Gate shall take a mighty army. Would you empty our lands of defenders and leave our folk unprotected? There be a host of Orcs unfought, I hear, to the north. We might succeed in drawing the Dark Enemy's Eye from his real peril and help bring about his fall, but there shall be no success in it if our people are slaughtered in the meanwhile…"
"Would that the Steward Denethor had lived," sighed Dervorin of the Ringlo Valley. "Grim he seemed to me, but wise. Cautious he was always, yet bold when necessary… Alas that his stern wisdom was taken from us in the hour of our greatest need…"
Faramir opened his mouth to speak, but Boromir, who had to that point said nothing, raised a hand. The brothers' eyes met and Faramir nodded, gesturing to the Captain-General to go on.
"My Lords and my friends, allow to me speak. I claim none of my father's wisdom, yet I believe I knew his heart…" Boromir's voice broke, and he closed his eyes. Faramir laid his hand on his brother's arm. The others waited in silence for him to compose himself and go on. "These were the words of the Steward Denethor, just days before the end: 'We must do whatever we can, without thought for ourselves, to bring an end to this Darkness.'" He gazed around the room, meeting the eyes of the men gathered there. "Were my father here, I firmly believe he would endorse the Lord Aragorn's plan, without hesitation… as do I, my Lords…"
"And as do I," Faramir said.
"You have Dol Amroth's full support, sire," said Prince Imrahil.
"And Rohan's," Théodred said.
Aragorn bowed his head in acknowledgement of their words. "I will not express my personal thanks to you, sires, for this weighty decision is too grave for such a small thing. Know instead that the gratitude of the generations of free folk of the West shall be yours for all time."
No others expressed doubt. The remaining minutes of the debate were spent in tallying what numbers could be sent in the campaign and in ordering the defences of the City and the realm that would be left behind. "For indeed," Aragorn said grimly, *"the force that shall go East need not be great enough for any assault in earnest upon Mordor, so long as it be great enough to challenge battle—and that it move soon. Therefore I ask you, my friends: what force could we muster and lead out in two days' time at the latest? And they must be hardy men that go willingly, knowing their peril."
"All are weary, and very many have wounds light or grievous," said Théodred, "and we have suffered much loss of our horses, and that is ill to bear. If we must ride soon, then I cannot hope to lead even two thousands, and yet leave as many for the defense of the City."
"Forget not that new strength is on the way from the southern fiefs, now that the coastline has been rid of foes," Angbor said. "Four thousands march from Pelargir, and my son Sador rides before them. They will arrive here ere we depart, if we are to leave in two days' time."
"And others were bidden to follow up the River in any craft they could gather," Aragorn said. "With the winds in the South they will be at hand soon. I judge that we could lead out seven thousands on horse and afoot, and yet leave the City in better defense than it was when the assault began."*
The details were shaped, their strength reckoned, and plans for the journey ahead laid out. Aratan and Hurin called for their clerks to begin the organizing of supplies and stores for the desolate road before them, and orders were given for riders to be sent to gather news of the enemy's movements in the North and East. Then in the midst of the discussion, the Prince of Dol Amroth suddenly laughed aloud.
*"Surely," he cried, "this is the greatest jest in all the history of Gondor: that we should ride with seven thousands, scarce as many as the vanguard of its army in the days of its power, to assail the mountains and the impenetrable gate of the Black Land? So might a child threaten a mail-clad knight with a bow of string and green willow! If the Dark Lord knows so much as you say, Aragorn, will he not rather smile than fear, and with his little finger crush us like the fly that tries to sting him?"
"No, he will try to trap the fly and take the sting," said Aragorn solemnly. "And there are names among us that are worth more than a thousand mail-clad knights apiece. No, he will not smile."
"Neither shall we," Faramir said. "If this be jest, then it is too bitter for laughter."
"Indeed, it is instead the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game," Aragorn said. Then he drew Andúril and held it up. "You shall not be sheathed again until the last battle is fought."*
* * *
Before he left the Houses of Healing for his tent pitched upon the field, Aragorn bid Halbarad inquire to the whereabouts of the man, Faeron, and to find a healer who could explain the nature of the man's injuries.
A young woman who introduced herself as Mareyn came and bowed politely, offering to guide them to the man's room. As they walked she explained how Pippin came to meet the soldier, and what the Halfling had done to help the man move to more appropriate surroundings.
"Alas, my Lord, there is little to be done but to give him comfort," she said. "His neck was broken in the first day of the battle… I believe it was even before the siege itself began. He was brought in the first wave of wounded, from Cair Andros, or the Rammas, perhaps… Well, it matters little, for his limbs have remained still and unmoving…"
"Does he labor to breathe?" Aragorn asked as they followed the apprentice healer through a narrow back hallway.
"At times, my Lord," Mareyn said. "As is oft seen in injuries of this nature, he must be positioned just so, or he begins to choke. It is a challenge, even now that he has been moved here, to the Sixth Circle, to provide him with the constant attention necessary for optimal care for one injured in this way… It is, though doubly tragic in one sense, perhaps fortunate that his young wife remained in the City and was not sent to the country for safety, as so many women were…"
Hal frowned. "I don't understand. Why wasn't his wife sent to safety?"
Aragorn held up a hand. "Listen… I understand…"
The sound of an infant crying came from the slightly open doorway at the end of the hall.
They followed the young woman quietly to the room, and she knocked on the doorframe. "Good afternoon, Aerin! I have brought someone who would like to meet Faeron. May we enter?"
"Of course, Lady Mareyn," a young woman answered. "Faeron? Wake up, darling… We have visitors…"
The two men entered the small chamber. The room seemed to have been especially chosen for cheer, and also privacy, for though it was tucked well away from the traffic of the center of the Houses, its wide window looked out on a bit of greenery, and the afternoon light slanted in. The young mother sat cradling her boy-child in her arm, while on the cot, her husband lay, propped on his right side, supported by pillows and bolsters. He moved his head slightly, but he could not turn enough to bring his visitors into view. Yet he smiled warmly.
"Welcome, friends," he said. Aragorn noted that his voice was wavering and weak. He had to lean forward to catch his words. "We do not often have visitors… Forgive me, I.. I am unable to…" Aragorn and Halbarad hurriedly slipped to the other side of the cot and within the man's view. "Ah, there you are, how thoughtful of you to move… My name is Faeron… and my wife, Aerin…"
"…and Hal… call me Hal…"
"So pleased to make your acquaintances, sires…"
Mareyn stood by Aerin's chair. Her arm was about the young woman's shoulder as she shook with silent sobs, hidden behind her husband's back. The apprentice healer spoke in a calm, measured voice.
"Faeron, these men know our young Master Pippin…"
"Really, do you?" Faeron whispered. "He's such a good friend, comes to see me whenever he can… He rescued me, did you know that?"
"We have heard something of it," Aragorn murmured. "Pippin is a good friend of ours, too, and he asked if I might visit you. You see I have some knowledge of healing…" He glanced at Aerin, then at Mareyn. "I wonder if I might examine you, Faeron…"
"If you wish…"
Aerin turned her head and hid from the sight of her young husband's ruined body. His muscles were already pitifully thin, and deep sores dug into his wasted flesh despite the efforts of the healers to cushion him. He was wrapped in a loincloth, which, though it had just been removed and a clean one placed, was already soiled. His limbs had begun to stiffen and curl; his body would no longer lie flat. Aragorn felt heat within him, and when he laid his ear upon the man's chest, the telltale sounds of a lung fever were obvious.
With Halbarad's assistance, he carefully moved Faeron into a comfortable position, doing his best to turn him away from the sores. Some injuries can't be fixed… Pippin's words echoed in his ears. Despite that harsh reality, could he offer some sort of healing to this gentle soul whose body had been damaged beyond repair, whose only future lay slumbering in the arms of his weeping wife?
Aragorn pulled a stool near the cot and sat. He gazed into the man's eyes, and read there that Faeron knew, without doubt, that his life would very soon come to an end.
"What is your son's name?"
Faeron's thin face burst into a smile as bright as the first flower of springtime. "Estelion… the name means…"
"I know what it means: 'son of Hope.' A fine name… Faeron, may I tell you the story of a young boy with a similar name?" he said with a wan smile.
As Halbarad listened to his kinsman's deep steady voice weaving the tale of his own life and everything it represented—including the return of true hope for the infant, his mother, and for everyone else—he thought that perhaps he had never been more proud of him.
* * *
In the last hours before the march, a few special preparations for the final campaign of the War of the Rings took place.
Late on the final afternoon before the host of the West was to depart, Aragorn sent two of those closest to him on a mission for which they were peculiarly suited.
"I would go myself, but my time is all too short," Aragorn said. "And you two will, I deem, suffer the least ill effects. At least, so I hope…"
"Worry not, Estel," Elrohir said with a sniff. "If my hands begin to freeze I shall push down my pride and request that the full-blooded Elf do the dirty work."
The Wood Elf peered at the Noldorian with a look of supreme indifference, and the son of Elrond glared back imperiously, which caused Aragorn to burst out laughing. But they agreed to take on the task.
"This is no search to undertake at night," Legolas said as he walked away from Aragorn's tent beside Elrohir. "I am glad, for my part, that Aragorn thought to ask this of us before the light fails."
The Elf and the Peredhel strode together over the pocked and torn surface of the Pelennor, weaving to and fro: between trenches full of rotting Orc carcasses, around stacks of rubble and burned timbers, and the ever-enlarging piles of dead foes ready for the pyre. They decided to begin with the farther site, toward the South. They had both, after all, been witness to the Witch King's demise, and knew where to look for what they sought.
The place was just as they remembered it: the turf flattened by massive rounded footprints, the winged beast crumpled and squashed in a twisted pile. They had no difficulty finding Angmar's broken helm lying near a swath of black fabric. Elrohir held open a sack of heavy cloth while Legolas gathered the pieces, dropping them in one by one.
He shivered. "The steel is still frigidly cold…" He pointed at the dagger. "This shouldn't be left lying about. Do you suppose he will want this, too?"
Elrohir shuddered and nodded. "I believe he will. Any symbols of power will help… But don't put it in the sack unsheathed." He hesitated. "Are you willing to carry it upon your belt?"
Legolas bent and picked the thing up. He turned it distastefully in his hands; the gruesome hilt was a human bone, and the curved blade was laden with runes of dark power. He could feel the curses woven upon it. He was loathe to carry it near his body. He looked around, searching for some way to safely bring it back to Aragorn.
"I have an idea…" Elrohir set the sack down, and stepping a few feet away he knelt and began digging in the sodden earth with his bare hands. In moments he had formed a ball of thick black mud. "Here," he said, reaching out for the dagger. Legolas turned it, and with a shudder he handed it to his companion, hideous hilt outward.
"That ought to do it," Elrohir said as he buried the blade in the ball of mud. He reached around his waist to his ever-present healer's pack, and brought out a roll of white cloth—bandage material. He proceeded to wrap the mud-ball thoroughly, and wound the rest of the cloth around the hilt. He tied it securely, and lifted the entire thing into the sack. He looked up and smirked. "Your turn to carry this…" as he pointed to the sack.
Legolas sniffed. "You have not carried it at all, save when it was empty…"
"True, but my feeble Mortal blood is beginning to cool," Elrohir laughed, as he did his best to hide the real knot of terror that had suddenly gripped his heart.
A bemused look came over Legolas's face; but he took the sack and slung it over his shoulder.
"Now where?" he said. "Let's get this over with as quickly as we can."
It was several miles to the place where the Lady-Knight of Rohan and the Hobbit had felled Gothmog the Terrible. They spoke little as they made their way across the battlefield. The men of Gondor were hard at their grim task of picking out the bodies of the slain defenders from the tumbled wreck of foe and friend mixed together. A few living men had still been found the day before, but now, a full two days after the end of the battle, nothing but the dead remained—and the carrion birds, who squawked and scattered as Legolas and Elrohir walked by.
Finally they arrived. The earth here was stained with two great splotches of blood, one black and the other dark red, where the beast's neck had been cleaved in two, and where Éomer had bled to death. Someone had already dragged the creature's carcass away for burning; the ground was rutted with the marks of a wheeled cart. The bodies of the fallen Rohirrhim and Haradrim had been removed. But the result was that much debris had been tossed about, obscuring the terrible tale writ in the dirt. They had to overturn many clods of dirt, broken weapons and tattered scraps of cloth before they found the Wraith's intact helm. They considered whether to bring the heavy mace, and decided to leave it to rust. With their horrible treasures, they returned as quickly as they could to the City.
* * *
Aragorn sat in a chair near Boromir, and Faramir perched on the edge of his brother's bed. For once, Mablung and Halbarad were busy elsewhere, finding a few last minute items before the morning's journey. A letter lay upon the coverlet of Boromir's bed, its white wax seal with the symbol of a knobbed rod broken open.
Faramir had found the letter upon the third shelf of the bookcase in Denethor's study when he explored the room where he knew the entrance to the Palantir Chamber must be hidden. In it, Denethor had explained everything he had already told his sons, and detailed the locking mechanism and the secret upper room. The late Steward also admitted his long-held assumption of Captain Thorongil's identity. He gave exactly the written endorsement of his former rival that Boromir guessed he would, and if the siege was broken, Denethor proposed a nearly identical strategy to draw the Enemy's attention from the two Halflings he had glimpsed in the tumbled rocks above the Nameless Pass.
"We might not have found this for weeks—if at all—if you had not approached me with your plan," Faramir said, indicating the letter.
"It was you who proposed that I—or rather, we—use the Anor Stone rather than the Stone of Isengard," Aragorn said. "I would say that the fates have converged for us to know of your father's words before we depart."
"When do you plan this little venture?" Boromir said, as he shifted uncomfortably. His flank wound had festered, and was burning fiercely. Aragorn had just completed examining it and applying a new, cleansing poultice—the same remedy that Elrohir had used upon the Lady's tainted arm wounds. The Captain-General had declined the healer's offer of a draught of poppy, wanting to stay as alert as he could while his friend and his brother remained at his side.
"Tonight. Midnight, I'd say…"
"Seems appropriate," Faramir muttered.
"I wish I could be there," Boromir whispered.
Faramir shook his head. "I wish no one had to gaze into that Stone, ever again—until the day comes that it is safe to do so. But if you are to draw his Eye to you, and to our coming assault upon his Gate, how better to do so than through the Anor Stone, linked as it is with the Isil Stone of old?"
"Yes, to turn what had been our Enemy's advantage to our own is more than satisfying—hence my thought of displaying the helms of his fallen Nazgûl." Aragorn said. "Halbarad will bring the Standard. He has been at my side each time I used the Stone of Isengard. Are you certain you wish to be present as well, Faramir?"
Faramir's eyes flashed. "Think me less resolute than your Northern kinsman, my Lord?" he said with a sharp edge in his voice.
Boromir cleared his throat and glared at his younger brother. "Pay no attention to him, Aragorn. And keep reign on your tongue, Fari—you are not speaking to just anyone, you know! I begin to understand just why you and Father were so oft at odds. You can be so like him: stubborn and full of pride, quick to take offence where none is intended… Now I see why the constant bickering 'tween Gimli and Legolas seemed so familiar to me: it reminded me of the two of you!"
Aragorn struggled to keep his face impassive, while Faramir frowned and flushed.
"Forgive me," he murmured. "Bori is right—I do take offence too quickly…"
"No apology is necessary, Faramir. And as to your point: no, I do not think you less resolute than my kinsman Halbarad, or, for that matter, of anyone I have ever met. I merely thought it might trouble you to enter the Chamber of the Palantir so soon after your loss, for it was there that Denethor so often suffered alone with his burden."
Faramir looked up. "You have a generous heart, sire…"
"And yours is wise—and one that has been tried sorely, and not just of late," Aragorn said quietly. "Your father's temperament was known to me, and I am gratified to learn that he regained the hope and fullness of heart that had always been within him, before the end, and was able to reconcile with both his sons, whom he loved dearly." Aragorn rose, and nodded. "Until tonight, then. Halbarad and I shall come to the Citadel near to midnight, and we shall bring the means, I hope, to strike fear into the heart of our Enemy."
He left, and the brothers sat and spoke quietly for another hour. Then Boromir spoke. "I want you to do something for me," he said.
"Anything you'd like… Anything I can…"
"Go up to my chambers, and find my horn. I dropped it in the middle of the Gate Courtyard, but I'm told it was retrieved and cleaned up. I want you to carry it now."
Faramir's eyes widened. "But that's your horn, Bori! It's even your mark…"
"Nay, little brother—it is the Horn of the House of Húrin, borne by the Captain-General of Gondor. That's you now, if it is either of us. It is your turn to carry it."
Faramir bowed his head and nodded solemnly. He promised to carry the horn… "For both of us, Bori—for all the sons of the House of Húrin…" Then he took his leave at last, embracing Boromir firmly.
"I think it best if we say our farewells now," he whispered as he pressed him to his chest. "I should go among the men… Their spirits are low, though they are as resolute as any Dúnedain, North or South…"
"Of course… Take care of yourself, little Fari… If there is any hope left in this world, take care of yourself, and come home to me…"
"I will… Goodbye…"
* * *
Gimli said his final goodbye to Merry as he stood in the Halfling's chamber. The Hobbit was fretful, and the Dwarf wished he could find some way to comfort the youngster. But he has every right to feel fretful and worried, Gimli thought. The Dwarf discovered that Pippin was not in the room the Hobbits had so recently shared.
"He's as determined as I have ever seen him," Merry sighed. "I suppose it is a sort of payback, for how things went in Lothlorien… From his viewpoint, back then, I was the one who wouldn't listen to reason. And I'll admit he's better off than I am now. But still! What on earth is he thinking?"
After taking his leave of Merry, he thumped through the hall in search of the one he called 'The Smallest Cousin.' Gimli asked for directions to the healer's barracks, and a friendly young lad named Bergil gladly showed him the way to the warren of makeshift rooms and dormitories.
"Everyone knows Master Pippin, my Lord," Bergil said as he guided Gimli through a maze of passageways. "We messenger boys knew him before, of course, for he was one of us for the last days of the Siege… But now, the whole City knows the story of how he plucked that cursed splinter right out of Lord Boromir's side, and saved his life… He's right famous! Here's the place—his cot's at the back, in the corner…"
Gimli muttered his thanks to the lad and entered. Pippin was whistling something that sounded vaguely familiar to the Dwarf. Hmmph… the Old Hobbit's walking song… The Thain's Heir appeared full of cheer as he rummaged through his possessions, placing most of his belongings in one pile and putting a much small number of things into his pack. Most un-Hobbit-like behavior… far too practical…
"Hullo, Gimli!" Pippin said with a smile as he looked up. "Don't tell me Merry's sent you to try to convince me not to go with you!"
"Nay, lad, nothing like that." The Dwarf shifted from his still tender left leg to his right as he stood watching the Hobbit pack. "I had come to say goodbye… to you both."
"Well, then, no need to say goodbye to me, as you've already discovered!"
Gimli scowled. "Are you certain about this, Pippin?"
The Hobbit's face was suddenly serious. "Yes, Gimli. Very certain. For one thing, my hand's almost healed. I heard that poor Bori's wound got infected, but mine's as clear as can be…" He held out his right hand, tiny threads of sutures and all, and wriggled his fingers. "Merry can hardly move his arm yet, but mine seems to work all right…" He demonstrated with a flapping motion. "I wonder if his is worse because he still had a grip on his knife when… well, you know. I tossed mine, so perhaps that made the difference…" He seemed to have completed his packing; he bent down and fastened the buckled straps on his pack and closed it. "And besides, I think one of us ought to go. One of us should be there, to represent… to… to be a witness, or something… Oh, I can't say it properly… But you know what I mean…"
"I do." The Dwarf gazed at him intently. "But I was wondering if you had spoken to Aragorn yet, about your plan to come…"
"Strider?" Pippin said. "Why, no. What does he have to do with it?"
Gimli snorted. "What does he…! Well, lad, he is merely the Commander in charge of the entire army that marches on the Black Land! That's what he has to do with it…"
"But I'm not going as part of the army. I'm going as one of the healers! I've got permission from my superior officer, if you will—from Master Meneldil, and from his superior, the Head of the Houses, Master Turin himself… And Master Lathron, who will be in charge of us as we accompany the troops—he's given his blessing as well. Indeed, he was quite encouraging…"
The Dwarf eyed his young companion with amazement. When had the young Hobbit become so sure of himself? He grunted. "And you don't think it might be wise—or even just polite—to let your old companion and member of the Fellowship, Aragorn, know of your plans?"
Pippin frowned for a moment. When he looked up again, Gimli saw a remarkable reflection of the determination he'd seen on another Hobbit's face: Frodo Baggins.
"No, I don't think so. Not before we're well on our way—just in case he'd get some idea in his head that I shouldn't come. I'll tell him, once we reach a point where there is no turning back." His perky chin lifted, and his smile was of the sureness of his resolve. "I'm going for Frodo, just as I've done all along, from the back gate of Bag End and on from there. And just like I said back in Rivendell, if anyone tries to stop me, I'll follow along behind you all unless I'm tied in a sack. But this time, not even being tied in a sack would slow me down for long."
"Then I shall see you along the road to Mordor, Master Took," Gimli said with a bow.
Pippin bowed solemnly in return. "Yes. On the road to Mordor."
* * *
Mablung accompanied Captain Faramir as he made his rounds in the barracks of the soldiers who would march in the morning. He made certain that the younger man finally sat down to a hot meal—his first, Mablung knew, since two days before the siege began. He insisted that the Captain take a steaming bath, complete with soap, and provided him with an entirely new set of clothing, from his small garments to his cloak and boots. Where he had come by these things in the rush of preparation for their imminent journey, he would not say.
He accompanied him as he searched his brother's rooms for the horn, and watched as Faramir cleaned the blood off its gleaming surface—Boromir had been misinformed about that—and as he affixed it to his belt. He stood guard outside the Steward's study and waited as a battle of sorts was waged within. Finally, when Faramir agreed that every last task had been done, the lieutenant of the Ithilien Rangers brought his Captain to his chambers. Only then did he swing his own cloak aside and reach into a pocket. He bowed as he brought forth a small, very old book.
"For the journey, sire, when you have need of its comfort…"
It was the book of Tales of Beleriand that Faramir remembered vividly from earliest boyhood, when his mother would read to him and Boromir from it at bedtime. He had not seen it in many years, but he recognized it instantly.
"Wherever did you find this, Mablung?" he said in a hushed voice, as he carefully fingered its fragile bindings.
"Oh, here and there," the officer muttered. Fortunately, his Captain was so enthralled with his gift he did not question him further, or honest Mablung would have been forced to admit that he had broken into the Steward's private study and stolen it.
"Thank you, old friend. It is a wonderful and thoughtful gift, and it shall indeed be a source of comfort for me on this dark road. Thank you."
Mablung bowed and retired, smiling as he walked down the hall. At least now, though he is still likely not to have a moment of sleep, he will spend it living in the glorious past and not in the doubtful future.
* * *
The Heir of Isildur looked into the Stone of Anor and once again defied the Shadow and the Eye. With a ferocious strength that thrilled Halbarad to witness, his kinsman struck fear into the heart of their Enemy as he displayed the evidence of his growing power, and laced his words with forceful hints of powers yet unrevealed. When Aragorn finally wrested control of the Stone and turned its focus elsewhere, the very air in that Chamber seemed to crackle with fiery energy. Then Hal saw how much the task had cost him, and how mightily he struggled to hide that fact from the Lord Faramir, who gaped in awe.
Making sure no one saw their future King stumble, Halbarad guided his weary friend down the streets of Minas Tirith. He led him to his tent, forced him to drink a skin of water and eat the last half of the last wafer of lembas in his pack, and commanded him to get what sleep he could for the remaining hours before dawn. He made certain that Aragorn was settled beneath his blanket and his breathing was even and deep. He refused entry to the Peredhel, muttering that there would be time for the dratted wound to be checked in their next encampment. He stood guard for a while to make certain Elrohir did not return. Then the lieutenant slipped silently away.
He went to his own tent and lit a lantern. From his pack he withdrew a small package, wrapped in white cloth. He unfolded it; within were neat coils of white, gold and silver thread, a small scissors, and three fine needles, that by some miracle he'd managed to procure in the ruined City. For the next five hours, until the dawn came, Halbarad Dúnedain squinted in the dim light as he filled in the missing stitches that the Lady Arwen had not had time to finish. He was determined to complete the last details of the Star of the North Kingdom and the Winged Crown on his Lord's Banner. He knew his rough handiwork could not compare to that of Undomiel's; but each stitch would be placed with a similar measure of devotion. For it will not do for the King of Gondor and Arnor to fly anything but the most magnificent Standard in all of history before the Gate of Mordor.
* * *
At first light the assembly began, and the folk of Gondor watched from the walls as the horsemen and foot soldiers gathered into rank after rank beneath the rippling colours of their realms. Boromir's fever had taken a turn for the worse, but he overruled Master Túrin and insisted that he be brought in the wheeled chair to the walls to witness it. Merry, his right arm in a sling and a look of utter misery on his face, stood silently beside him.
Boromir's eye was drawn to two ladies who stood a few dozen yards away, gazing out over the Pelennor. Both had the yellow-gold hair of the women of the Mark, but one was young, and her cheeks were full of color, and she smiled and spoke to her companion. It seemed to the Captain-General that the younger woman was doing her best to raise the spirits of the second, but was failing in her task. Her companion's complexion was wan and pale, and no smile graced her face. Both her arms were bound in slings, and a white bandage peeked out from the cuff of her left sleeve.
He turned to Merry. "Is that the Lady of Rohan?"
The Hobbit glanced in their direction. "Yes... Poor Eowyn. I visited with her yesterday evening. She would hardly speak to me. I think she's torturing herself with guilt, because her brother died... The Wraith put a spell on her, and she couldn't move a muscle..."
"Yes, I've seen that in the field, in Ithilien... Horrible..."
"I tried to convince her that no one could have done better," Merry sighed. "After all, by the sheer strength of her will she broke free of the spell, moments later, and put her sword to good use..."
"She broke free of a Morgul spell? She must be strong-willed, indeed... not to mention fearless..."
"I do hope that she finds true healing somehow, and that her will and strength have not been permanently shattered."
Boromir reached out and squeezed his companion's shoulder. "You are a good friend, Merry. Continue to visit her, whether or not she smiles or speaks to you... Believe me, it will do her good..."
Others watched from the Sixth Circle. Master Turin stood solemnly at the wall, and the Lady Gwaeleth was near him, her eyes shimmering as she focused on the Silver Swan on the Blue Standard of Dol Amroth. She could just pick out three horsemen beneath the colours: her two sons, flanking their father, the Prince. Imrahil had bid her farewell just before dawn that morning, murmuring that he could as well heal from his arrow wound in the saddle on the way to Mordor as in the gardens of the Houses of Healing.
Ivreniril's eyes were drawn to the healers, gathered loosely around two wains stocked with supplies for the battle infirmary they wound assemble within sight of the Black Gate. She could easily pick out tall, thin Meneldil, and could guess that the hidden friend he smiled down upon at his side must be the Perian. But then her gaze drifted forward in the ranks, and near the foremost of the cavalrymen beneath the Standard of the King, she watched the tall black-haired figure, his fair face beardless among all the bearded men. He in his turn looked proudly at the man he had called his foster-brother. And the Assistant to the Master Healer wondered at her own heart, for never before had it leapt within her at the sight of another. She felt a hollow place in her breast, and sighed, for she suspected that what she now secretly sought could never be.
And at the very end of the wall, squeezed between a pair of matrons, stood Aerin, and she held Estelion in her arms. Her young husband, Faelon, had slept more peacefully the night before than he had since before his injury; and he had let go his grip on this world and passed on just before dawn. The young widow lifted her son above the wall and whispered.
"There is Hope, my son... there is hope for better days, for the King has come again..."
Then every heart in Minas Tirith thrilled to the sound of horns: first the rising notes of the Rohirrhim, then the deep tones of the City Regiment. Next came the clear silver peals of the horns of Dol Amroth, followed by the familiar call of the great Horn of the Captain-General. And last came a crystal clear, beautiful sound as the Heir of Isildur himself raised a shining silver horn to his lips, the like of which had not been heard in Middle Earth for two Ages.
When the music ceased, the Host of the West began to move. They marched toward the rising Sun, and the people of Minas Tirith watched until all sight of them was lost.
* Passages taken almost verbatim from "The Last Debate," ROTK, though some words ascribed to different speakers than in the original.