37. Chapter 37 The Last Deep Breath
Disclaimer : usual stuff
Thanks to Anarithilien, without whom, this would still be in a cyber drawer somewhere, and to Melusine for her support and encouragement.
Summary: Elrohir has told Legolas in the last chapter, 'not yet'. Legolas is unconvinced. Pippin overheard theri conversation and although he did not understand the words, he understood the meaning. They are on the way to the Black Gate.
Chapter 37: The Last Deep Breath before the plunge.
"But the victory did little to enhearten the captains... And from that evening onward the Nazgûl came and followed every move of the army. They still flew high and out of sight of all save Legolas, and yet their presence could be felt, as a deepening of shadow and a dimming of the sun; and though the Ringwraiths did not yet stoop low upon their foes and were silent, uttering no cry, the dread of them could not be shaken off." – ROTK, The Black Gate Opens
The next morning was cold. The wind came from the North and there was a freshness that had not been there before. Pippin was riding behind Gandalf but the Wizard seemed forbidding this morning and answered briskly. Not encouraging at all, thought Pippin and wished he were riding with Legolas or Aragorn instead.
To take his mind off the inevitable, Pippin wrote a little mental letter to Merry.
'Dear Merry,' it said. 'We have almost reached our destination and the weather is really not very nice now. The scenery leaves a great deal to be desired. It is mainly rocks and there are big slag heaps. The Dark Lord could really do with a team of Gamgees to smarten up this bit of Mordor. But I have managed to keep myself entertained by watching Legolas and Gimli.
'You will remember, Merry,' he said, 'that last night I discovered through tremendous powers of observation, well, eavesdropping, that Elrohir and Legolas have a bit of thing going on. Well today, Legolas has been very well behaved, and I am a little disappointed to be honest with you. But that may be because Gandalf had a 'quiet word' with Legolas earlier today, (You know, like he does when he thinks people aren't looking, or listening,) but it was all in Elvish so I don't know what he said but Legolas was nodding very seriously. And that usually means he is not listening to a word being said. As we well know!
'Since then Elrodan and Ellahir have had very little to do with poor Legolas all day. (I have adopted Gimli's naming for them as I cannot tell which one is which.) Neither of them is giving Legolas much encouragement and he looks at them every now and again in much the same way as Sam looks at Rosie Cotton!
'Aragorn is the one behaving the most strangely though. It started with him inviting Gimli to ride with him instead of with Legolas as he usually does. Aragorn that is. I mean Gimli to ride with Aragorn rather than Legolas. Never mind.
'Gimli was rather surprised and agreed of course. I mean, it doesn't do to say no to a King Returned and all that. Well Merry, you'll be interested to know that they were having a proper chinwag and Aragorn was doing his best to be discrete, so he was muttering out of the side of his mouth like he does when he doesn't want everyone to know what he's saying. You know, like he did when we were going into Moria and he was trying to persuade Gandalf it was a bad idea. And look how that turned out! I don't know what Aragorn said to Gimli but Gimli still looks mightily cross and upset. He has spent most of the time denying something, so perhaps Aragorn thinks he has taken the last of the pipeweed. You can see where Gimli has been chewing his beard and the ends are all stuck together.
'At the moment, Merry, you will be interested to know that I am riding again with Gandalf so I can watch what is going on very easily...But he is still a bit stern even though I saved him several times during the siege of Minas Tirith. Most notably from having an orc chop his head off!'*
Shadowfax stumbled briefly and Pippin lurched forwards against Gandalf and had to grab him. Beneath the white robes, Pippin felt hard muscle, no fat. Lean and sinewy the Wizard felt, nothing like an old man actually, and it made Pippin a little afraid again of Gandalf for he was so much more than the old grey conjuror they thought of him in the Shire.
'Are you all right back there, Pippin, my lad?' Gandalf asked, turning his head slightly and suddenly affable.
'Yes. Thank you for asking.'
'You are very quiet. What is going on in that Hobbit head of yours?'
Pippin thought for a moment because he did not want to tell Gandalf what he had guessed about Legolas- it was private and he thought Gandalf, being a friend of Elrond's and all, might not approve. And the Wizard had also been quite angry with Elrohir recently so he might not approve that way around either. Anyway, if it was important Gandalf would already know. And he did not think Gandalf would be quite pleased to know Pippin was writing to Merry about how he, Pippin, had saved Gandalf. Sort of.
'I am watching people and writing a letter to Merry in my head,' he answered truthfully, leaving out anything else that might embarrass the Wizard.
Gandalf snorted as if he knew exactly what was in the letter, and exactly what Pippin was watching with such interest. 'I am sure you are. Well. You keep watching and treasure every moment. It will not be long now and I wager once we are before the Gates, it will be difficult enough.'
Pippin decided to do as Gandalf told him and looked back to where Gimli was bouncing around behind Aragorn and looking very uncomfortable, for the magnificent horse was prancing and shaking its head. In fact, Pippin decided, neither Gimli nor Aragorn looked very comfortable.
Pippin grinned and looked around for Legolas. The Elf's horse was ambling along on the edges of the Host, snatching at the grass, and trailing along with its head low, very much at its own pace. Although to anyone else Legolas seemed hugely unconcerned about being so close to Mordor, Pippin could see that really he was scanning the sky all the time and that his bow was strung and held loosely. Pippin wondered if Legolas had truly recovered from his dreadful encounter with the Nazgul. He thought not, for every now and again he would catch Legolas rubbing his chest with his hand and frowning, as if he could not quite work out what was going on.
As he watched, the Elf raised his head and looked around him, blinking as if he had almost forgotten where he was. Pippin saw that Aragorn was beckoning to Legolas and then the Man glanced back to say something to Gimli. Pippin could also see that the Dwarf shook his head furiously once more, in denial of something. He looked increasingly agitated when Aragorn beckoned to Legolas more insistently.
Arod seemed reluctant to leave the edge of the host and snatched at a bunch of weeds before trotting forwards to join the marching vanguard. Once he had caught up, the Rohan horse shook his head and lapsed back into a plod, munching contentedly on the weeds that hung from his mouth. Aragorn's black stallion put its ears back and snapped at Arod bad-temperedly. Laughing, Legolas leaned over and said something to Aragorn which Pippin could not hear. The King Returned looked mightily annoyed and protested.
'I think we are all surprised that Aragorn has not fallen off that horse,' Pippin added as a PS in his letter to Merry. 'And pleased of course, for Elessar, the King Returned. That's another name for Aragorn.'
Pippin frowned because Gimli was chewing his beard and looking very anxious again while Aragorn was just looking frustrated. But Legolas was grinning infuriatingly, so he was probably enjoying befuddling Aragorn, thought Pippin.
The other Hobbits would have loved this, Pippin mused. Sam would have thought they were being disrespectful to Strider of course, and Frodo would have listened intently, translating in his head. Merry and he would just have laughed at Legolas tying Aragorn up in knots and it was more fun when he got annoyed. Pippin sighed and rubbed his hand over his nose. He was thinking a lot about the other Hobbits, and suddenly he felt a little pang of homesickness. He wished Merry was there with him. Then as he looked up at the grim mountains that seemed to loom and close in above them, he thought better of it. Instead he wished that they were all back in Rivendell, enjoying a pipe...or even better, that they were all safely back in the Shire and Sam was with Rosie Cotton dancing on the green...
'The daffs will be out in The Shire,' he found himself saying aloud, wistfully. But Gandalf did not reply so he thought perhaps he had not heard.
Pippin shifted again so he could go back to watching what unfolded between the other members of the Fellowship; Aragorn was leaning back to speak to Legolas and that had Gimli squashed behind Aragorn. The Dwarf was grumbling loudly, but Pippin could not hear what they said. 'Perhaps we can catch up with Aragorn and Gimli, Gandalf?' he asked.
'If you are so keen to know what goes on there, why don't you ride with Legolas instead. That way you will miss nothing,' the Wizard said but not unkindly, and beckoned Legolas over.
'Pippin has had quite enough of bouncing around at my back like a piece of luggage for a Hobbit walking party,' said Gandalf to the Elf as he drew alongside. 'Let him join you for a while and give me some peace. I have other things to attend to.'
Legolas looked pleased. 'Hello Pippin,' he said, extending his arm easily to Pippin and pulling him over.
'Hello Legolas.' Pippin heaved himself aboard the Rohan horse and settled himself behind Legolas, trying to be more cheerful than he felt. 'How are things with you? Isn't this a nice day for a trip?'
'It is indeed, although I think the company could be merrier,' Legolas threw a careless laugh back over his shoulder at Pippin. 'I do believe the Dwarf is cross about something.'
'I can't think what that might be,' Pippin lied, feeling better, and he watched Gandalf canter away to the head of the Host.
A little later, they heard trumpets blowing and then the loud voices of the heralds declared the coming of Elessar, King of Gondor, etc, etc... They passed Shadowfax standing with his head thrown up, nostrils flaring and Gandalf astride him all in shining white. The heralds blew their horns and shouted again. Pippin and Legolas stared for a moment in surprise and then Legolas glanced back at Pippin and smiled.
'All this will go to his head,' he said but there was an edge that was not quite fear but the knowledge all would soon be ended, one way or another.
Legolas allowed Arod to drift back to the edges and nibble at anything that was green but that grew less and less until the horse gave a deep sigh and turned its head back to the march. They had fallen back a little from their companions who rode in the vanguard, and they themselves now marched at the rear of the Rohirrim. The Dunedain were behind them and Elrodan was with them. Ellahir, Pippin marked, was now near the front with Aragorn and Gimli.
As the ambled along, falling further and further behind the vanguard, Pippin and Legolas chatted about Merry, and Legolas was interested to know more of The Shire. All in all, thought Pippin, you would never think they were marching towards Certain Death. But he supposed that living in Mirkwood, Legolas must be used to that and it just did not affect him as much. In fact, the Hobbits had decided a long time ago that that was the reason for Elrond choosing Legolas and not some great and powerful Elf lord like Glorfindel.
The Dunedain drew alongside them now and Legolas spoke to Arod in some horse language, Pippin thought, and they joined the Host once more, walking briskly alongside Elrodan and Aragorn's kin. Pippin grinned to himself with faint smugness. He could see Legolas turn his head towards Elrodan and give his most dazzling smile. Elrodan was usually so stern and forbidding, thought Pippin, but he turned to Legolas and there was definitely a softness, even a hint of a smile, so Pippin thought this must be Elrohir.
Pippin smiled indulgently, and added a note for Merry: 'Legolas is behaving like a besotted tweenager. And Aragorn and Gimli have no idea what is going on.'
Legolas had leaned over towards the one Pippin was sure now was Elrohir and spoke to him in their own tongue. But Elrohir only murmured brief answers, not taking his eyes from the road before them until Legolas gave a loud, exaggerated sigh and quite openly put his hand on Elrohir's thigh. Pippin's eyes were wide with glee but Elrohir seemed shocked, his horse shied and he had to sway in the saddle. He said something sharply to Legolas and Legolas shrugged and looked away.
'What did he say?' Pippin whispered.
Legolas glanced back, green eyes danced with amusement. 'He told me to keep my hands on my weapon, for these are dark times.'
Pippin's eyes were like saucers. Even he knew what that meant. 'Did he?'
'No,' said a darker, deeper voice. 'I did not.'
Pippin turned round hurriedly to see the stern grey eyes of Elrohir who had regained his composure and seat, and rode alongside them again.
'Oh. I do beg your pardon,' he said and found himself bowing a little because Elrohir invoked that instinct in everyone. Pippin hoped it was Elrohir anyway - if it was Elladan that Legolas was flirting with that would be very complicated!
Elrohir inclined his head slightly and glanced at Legolas, lifting an eyebrow in a mannerism so like his father that Pippin stared. Legolas threw an even more dazzling grin at Elrohir but the son of Elrond purposefully moved his horse away and did not look back.
'Well?' demanded the Hobbit a little later, 'Aren't you going to follow him?'
Legolas glanced over his shoulder. 'I follow Aragorn,' he said but there was a definite note of amusement in his voice.
Pippin grew tired of sitting on a horse, his legs were too short to be comfortable and he wondered if anyone would think less of him if he joined the wagons for a while. Peering around Legolas, he saw that the land had changed and they marched across bare rock and shale now. In the distance he could see a thin ribbon, like mist, but it seemed an unearthly pallor, with an almost greenish tinge to it.
As if reading his thoughts, Legolas said quietly, 'Ahead are the Dead Marshes. We have left Ithilien and are entering Dagorlad, where the Last Alliance battled against the forces of Mordor. What you see, Pippin, is where Elrond stood with Isildur and Elendil and Gil-Galad.'
Pippin felt suddenly overwhelmed, as if History had rushed up and enveloped him. He was part of it now. But it was a history of defeat and tragedy. This was the place Elrond had spoken of at the Council; this was where the Last Alliance had stood against Sauron and where Gil-Galad had fallen, where Elendil had been slain and where Isildur had cut the Ring from Sauron's finger...and kept it.
Suddenly Pippin looked up at Legolas and thought how sad he sounded. He knew that Legolas was very old even though he felt like a tweenager.
'Were you there?' Pippin asked in a hushed voice.
Legolas laughed and all the cobwebs and reaching fingers of History were swept away in the brightness. Pippin was suddenly reminded of Tom Bombadil. 'No. I am counted as young amongst my folk,' Legolas said cheerfully, but then his voice changed and he sobered. 'There are none here who remember that day, but in my father's halls that war is called The Grief. My grandfather was lost here...and a third of all our folk were slain, or lost in that battle.'
'A third?' Pippin tried to imagine a third of the Shire menfolk killed and found he could not and did not want to...the fields would lie empty and the harvest ungathered...There would be few children. He could not imagine how it might have affected Mirkwood; for the forest was not The Shire but a perilous realm. Bilbo had loved telling them about the dark forest full of spiders and wargs and elves.
Legolas was quiet after that for a bit but gradually he leaned slightly with his head tilted as if listening. Arod quickened his pace and listed towards the Marshes as if he were pulled by invisible threads.
"Legolas?' Pippin said quietly and pulled at the Elf's sleeve. Legolas seemed to shake himself awake then and Arod pushed his way back into the ranks of the Host. But Legolas was very quiet after that and Pippin became aware too that the Elf rubbed his fingertips together as if they tingled uncomfortably.
'Why do you keep rubbing your fingers together?' Pippin asked curiously. Legolas glanced back at him over his shoulder.
'It is the Nazgul. They are above,' he said softly. Pippin felt a chill creep down his back and realised that he had felt it all along but only now was he aware of it. He suddenly noticed too that the Men were quieter, more pensive. 'I can feel Them trying to get into my thoughts.'
Pippin looked up. He could just see far, far above, three black dots wheeling in the sky. 'I thought those were eagles,' he said suddenly frightened. 'Why are They up there?'
'They are watching us,' replied the Elf seriously and his muscles were tight, bunched under his tunic. Pippin felt that at any moment he might spring off the horse and whirl into action. 'If we have done enough, They think that...They think we have the Ring, and merely await a chance to attack.'
'I thought Gandalf wanted Them to think it was Merry who had It when we were in Minas Tirith?' Pippin said frowning.
Legolas was very quiet for a moment and Pippin looked up at the Elf's back. He sat very tall, taller than most of the men by at least a head, although Aragorn was almost as tall. His long hair was pulled over one shoulder out of Pippin's way but long strands wisped back in the wind and strayed across Pippin's sight. The engraved pattern of vines and leaves that twined around his quiver seemed suddenly intensely clear and he realised for the first time, he thought, that the intricate swirls and curlicues only looked like leaves but were in fact runes or some sort of script.
'Merry is not here,' Pippin thought aloud.
'No, he is not,' Legolas said carefully. He breathed in deeply as if he were preparing himself for something. Then he paused for a moment and said, looking back over his shoulder at Pippin. 'I think perhaps you should ride in the wagon for a while.'
Pippin frowned again and wondered if Legolas grew tired of him…but that had never happened before. Legolas had always been patient and kind with the Hobbits and seemed especially to enjoy his own company. Hardly surprising, thought Pippin less than humbly. He looked at Legolas' straight back again, ramrod straight and although he was light, strong shouldered and lean, Pippin knew he was stronger than anyone else in the Host, even the sons of Elrond, he thought.
But before the Hobbit could answer his own question, a white horse cantered along the edges of the Host and stopped beside them. Shadowfax. He shook his head and fell into step with them.
'Pippin,' the Wizard said quietly, 'I need you to ride with me a while.'
To Pippin's surprise, Legolas did not immediately move towards Shadowfax, nor did he reach round to help Pippin. He sat silently and turned his head towards Gandalf. Pippin shifted to give Legolas a hint that he might actually need some help but unusually the Elf was unresponsive.
He realised that Gandalf was looking at Legolas but he did not seem annoyed. If anything, his blue eyes were softer, as if he understood something that Pippin did not. Then the Wizard sighed and said, 'You know why we are all here, Thranduillion.'
That seemed to work because Legolas suddenly said something back to Gandalf that Pippin could not understand as it was in Legolas' own tongue. It didn't sound like a compliment though, and when Gandalf frowned, Pippin almost ducked in case Gandalf turned Legolas into something unpleasant.
Instead, Legolas reached around and his hand caught Pippin's for a moment. The long hard hands squeezed Pippin's for a second and Pippin was taken aback, but before he knew it, Arod had moved up against Shadowfax and Legolas was lifting Pippin carefully onto the white horse's broad back.
Legolas did not say anything but he glared at Gandalf. 'I will ride with you,' he said firmly, and Gandalf merely inclined his head slightly in agreement but said nothing.
Pippin settled himself more comfortably behind Gandalf and clung to the white robes. 'Back with you again, Gandalf,' he said brightly, wondering what the fuss was about, but no one was going to tell him.
'We are going to the head of the vanguard, Pippin,' Gandalf told him seriously. 'Hold tight.' Shadowfax swished his tail and moved off and Pippin had to grab Gandalf's robes tightly to stop himself falling off.
Shadowfax cantered slowly to the front, and Pippin turned to see that Legolas followed. Oddly, Legolas looked forlorn. Pippin gave him a grin but the Elf briefly covered his eyes with one hand and then smoothed it back over his hair in one of his small gestures of distress that Pippin recognised. Pippin did not think that was because he was no longer riding behind him and his frown deepened.
As Shadowfax cantered slowly up past the ranks of marching Rohirrim, Swan-Knights and Dunedain, Pippin felt a growing unease, and he slowly realized he felt the Nazguls' regard fall upon them. It was suddenly more intense and even more horribly, he felt Their focus was on him.
He quickly realised that he was not alone in this; everyone felt the Nazguls' malevolence. It was like nails scraping down a painted board. It set his teeth on edge. Gandalf kept looking upwards and seemed so tense. He held his staff like a sword as if ready to strike if They came too close. Aragorn came to ride with them, Anduril also unsheathed, and Gimli seemed just as nervous. Legolas too was close, his bow strung and an arrow held loosely, ready. The Elf scanned the sky persistently and he looked like he would let it fly at a mere whisper.
Eventually Aragorn steered the long column of men away from the road and closer to the mountains and it seemed the Nazgul left them then because Legolas suddenly stopped rubbing his fingertips.
When they set their last camp in the shadow of the mountains, Pippin found himself at loose ends. Everyone seemed to have a job to do but him. They were either cooking or cleaning weapons, checking arrows and axes or sharpening swords. He sat near Gimli and idly twirled his finger around a stone. Gimli was fidgeting and anxious and kept glancing up at Legolas as if he wanted to ask him something but could not. Once Elrodan drifted past and Legolas looked up with such devotion and hope in his eyes that Pippin hid a smile, for in that moment Legolas looked every bit as young as he said he was. But Gimli pursed his lips and said nothing though he went back to sharpening his axe rather more vigorously than he had before.
Pippin looked at the Dwarf with sudden interest and wondered if Gimli too suspected something. He thought he would wait until Legolas wandered off and then ask him.
As it happened, he never got the chance. For as night fell, a strange and eerie silence settled over the camp and the men and horses were restless. The horses in particular snorted and stamped their hooves and that made the men even more nervous. As the sun set and twilight stole across the bleak and empty land, Aragorn ordered the guard be doubled.
Pippin had not felt this nakedly terrified since they left the Shire and were pursued by the Nazgul. As the night closed around them, the moon rose but it was shrouded in mists and cloud. A foul, suffocating stench crept from Mordor over the land and no one seemed to want to sleep. Except for Gimli.
The Dwarf sat polishing his axe and then yawned widely, showing his hard white teeth and said, 'This reminds me of the open mines in the Grey Mountains. Sulphur is what you can smell, Pippin. It is from the earth.'
Pippin thought it smelt like rotten eggs and the fact that it came from the earth rather than something created by Sauron did not really help.
Wolves howled on the edges of the camp and raised his hair. But in the darkness, it was not only Pippin who kept looking over his shoulder for there were... things...prowling in the dark. The wolves were not the worst. At least they were real animals... but there was a sense of dread and fear. A prickling in his thumbs made Pippin start to rub his fingers together in the way he had seen Legolas earlier and he recognised the cold dread that crawled across his scalp, and down his neck.
Legolas stood taut as a bowstring on the edge of the camp, looking outward, arrow held to his bow. No one spoke much and there was little attempt to stave off the battle nerves with song or story. Pippin watched the flames and thought of the Shire. And Frodo and Sam. He wished Merry was here and then was glad he was not. At least one of us might get home, he told himself gloomily. Pippin did not really even watch this time as Elrohir passed by.
The mists swirled around the edges of the camp, grey tendrils like fingers crept between the camp fires, wound about each little camp, sneaked beneath blankets and cloaks, cold, cold and damp. As darkness fell, the fires seemed to dim and the men huddled together and were quiet.
Elrohir listened to the wolves, their sharp yaps and little cries drawing close and circling, then as they gathered, one long drawn howl lifted mournfully into the air. It was joined by another, and then another and another until the air thrummed with that strangely lonely sound.
The mist gradually thickened with the darkness until the small campfires were blurred and Elrohir knew that each huddle of men felt they were quite alone in the dark, in the cold. A bitter wind soughed above, over him and a horse whinnied in terror. He looked upwards but could see nothing. The darkness pressed down on him, pressed down on his eyes, his face, his skin, and the clammy mist curled and crept around him.
He rested his hand on his sword hilt and felt the smooth metal warm beneath his touch. Aícanaro. He clasped it for comfort and felt the thrill of power in his fingers.
Above him, the Nazgul circled silently on their great repitilian steeds. He felt the sough of the thin leathery wings as each wraith slid invisibly through the darkness and mist above and no one spoke, but listened and held their breath.
Elrohir was not afraid. He had defeated the Nazgul. He had seen their minds, felt the thin malice sheer against his will and slide off. He strode determinedly between the camp fires and clasped a man here and another there, speaking boldly and letting his own courage fill them. He felt too, Elladan's cool blue peace settle and still them. Another power, a silver-blue light that was Olórin, gave them hope. And through it all ran a song, a ribbon of green-gold light, like a forest stream running through the trees, into dim pools where ferns grew lushly and the clear cold water ran over slate and granite. Elrohir felt the threads of himself drawn tight and pulled inevitably towards it.
He found Legolas standing on the edge of the camp, closest to the horses and the Rohirrim. His song was low, barely heard, almost beneath consciousness. He stood taller than any save Elrohir himself and his brother. In his hand he held his bow loosely. The horses were still and their heads were turned towards him as his song without words drifted over them and their ears twitched and flicked.
Elrohir's hand rested on the hilt of his dark bladed sword. His black hair was pulled back from the strong and stern face, but his grey eyes were intent and he went and stood near Legolas, so close that they almost, but did not quite, touch. Together they stood, here on the edge of Mordor, before the final battle. They did not speak but Legolas leaned towards him slightly and in the cold air, his low, wordless song misted and mingled with Elrohir's breath.
* Pippin is referring to movie verse where he and Gandalf were in the siege of Minas Tirith.
Next chapter: The Black Gate opens, and then we have about two chapters left.