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For John (1953-2000)
**************************************************** Author's Note: This is a work of "fanfiction", a reflection of admiration for the original author. This author owns no rights to this material, save perhaps the imagination used to take existing yarns and weave them into a new pattern, and a few original characters. The text incorporates direct quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings". However, footnotes being what they are (distractions from the flow of the text), quotes will be attributed, to the best of the author's ability, in the chapter entitled "Notes".
Chapter 1. The Choices of a Man
The stench nearly overpowered his senses but not enough to counteract the paralyzing pain. Above him he could still faintly hear the sounds of battle, men shouting or crying out in pain as they fell, orcs screaming, trolls roaring, the clash of arms. A voice rose above the tumult, 'The Eagles are coming!' Other voices took up the cry: 'The Eagles are coming!' He wondered what it portended.
He tried to move, but too many bodies had fallen above him and he was pinned down. Agony shot through his left shoulder and arm where the troll's hammer had beaten down his shield and then his flesh. He wondered that there was still air to breathe. Just his luck, to be stuck in an air pocket under the tangled corpses, to die of slow suffocation, or thirst. It was a lonely feeling. He almost envied the dead their peace. Maybe not so alone--he thought he heard a muffled sound nearby, not from the battle field above. He forced himself to think despite the pain and stench. The young Perian had been to his right... he loosed his sword and inched his right hand out in a painful search.
It was hard to move with the weight of the troll pressing down upon him, though he had seen Pippin take the brunt of the impact as the troll fell. Beregond relived the moment, repeating endlessly in his mind and memory: the stunning blow, the horned claw lifting him into the air as if he weighed no more than a mug of ale, the grinning jaws gaping to tear his throat, and then a cry from the ground below. He saw again Peregrin, eyes starting from his white face, thrusting his sword upward. He felt the claw tighten painfully as the troll stiffened; he saw the shadow of the troll cover the young Halfling and grow swiftly as the hill-troll toppled upon him, crushing him into the ground, and then there was the blackness of blessed unconsciousness, until he wakened to this...
The voice came again faintly through the pile of bodies, 'Stand fast, Men of the West! Stand and wait! This is the hour of doom.' The earth rocked beneath him and some of the troll's weight shifted from him, further to the right. He was able to move his right arm more easily and took up again the groping search for the young Halfling. There was a great roaring sound above and a drumming rumble in the earth that lasted long seconds and slowly died away. The sounds of battle were fainter as if the battle had moved away from the pile that crushed them. Then his questing fingers found fabric, a sleeve; he reached further and discovered a small hand. Taking it in his own, he felt the small fingers twitch as he closed his hand around them.
'You are Peregrin the Halfling?', he said. 'I am told that you have been sworn to the service of the Lord and of the City. Welcome!' He held out his hand and Pippin took it.
'I am named Beregond son of Baranor. I have no duty this morning, and I have been sent to you to teach you the pass-words, and to tell you some of the many things that no doubt you will wish to know. And for my part, I would learn of you also. For never before have we seen a Halfling in this land and though we have heard rumour of them, little is said of them in any tale that we know.'
He looked curiously at the Halfling, dressed in stained and travel-tattered clothing. His feet were unshod and sturdy, the tops covered with warm-looking curly hair. This Peregrin was not even as tall as his own ten-year-old son, yet was not at all childlike in his bearing. He wondered where the land of the Halflings was to be found, and what curious customs they might follow. As they began to talk, questions crowded his mind and he nearly forgot his purpose, not to satisfy his own curiosity but to answer any of the Halfling's questions.
It surprised him that Peregrin's first request was about food, but as he got to know the hobbit better he realized how typical the question had been.
'An old campaigner, I see,' he said. 'They say that men who go warring afield look ever to the next hope of food and drink; though I am not a travelled man myself.'
They walked first to check on the wizard's horse. He marveled at the noble creature, surely 'horse' was too common a word to apply to Shadowfax. He made so bold as to handle the horse's head gently and stroke his great flanks, and thought longingly of his father's house in Lossarnach, the fields and woods and animals there. But it was worth being shut up in this stony city, to be one of the Tower Guard. It was all he ever wanted to be.
He must have swooned for a time, because suddenly he was aware of the silence. The battle had ceased and he heard nothing, not even the calls of men searching for wounded comrades. He squeezed the small hand still grasped in his and was relieved to feel the fingers twitch again.
He wondered if he ought to shout, to let someone know he was there. He took a deep breath, almost choking on the smell from the troll, and let it out again. The silence was unnerving. What was up there? He took another breath and shouted this time. No answer. No one searched, apparently. Maybe no one was alive to search. Shouting took too much air, and he was forced to breathe shallow breaths for a time. There was some air coming through the pile, he knew not how. But it came slowly for all that.
He heard a muffled voice beyond him and recognized Targon, who had stood on the other side of Pippin.
'So you are here too. Tell me, what do we do now?' the other grumbled.
'I am open to ideas,' Beregond replied. He tried to move but agony seized his shoulder and bright specks swam in the darkness before his eyes.
'We could try to push this troll off,' Targon muttered.
'Do you know how much a troll weighs?'
'Oh, not that much more than a carthorse, I would suppose. Two carthorses together, maybe.'
'I saw a man pinned beneath a dead horse once.'
'Yes?' as the silence lengthened, 'Are you going to enlighten me?'
'It took four men and some clever rope-work to haul it off him.'
'Ah. I think we are lacking two.'
'And the rope.'
He heard Pippin's voice, muffled, muttering, though an occasional word or phrase came clearly. His heart leapt -- perhaps the Halfling was not crushed after all. If the dirt he fell on was soft enough, the troll would simply have pushed his body down into it. He felt the hard scrabble beneath his own back and did not feel so sure. Pippin muttered again '...Boromir...'
'What did he say?' Targon asked querulously.
'I don't know. Something about Boromir. He wanders in dreams.'
'Not a bad place to wander. Do you think they are looking for us? I tried shouting for a time, but no one heard and it wasted air. Do you think anyone is looking for us?' the dour guardsman repeated.
'I hope so. But we don't even know who the victors are. Perhaps it would be better... not to be found.'
'Anything would be better than this stench!' In spite of their predicament, Beregond laughed. Targon always had complained of a sensitive nose.
Not long after, Targon spoke again. 'So what would your wise old gran have to say about this situation?' he asked gruffly.
'Don't know,' Beregond replied. 'She was too wise ever to let a troll fall on her.'
Targon snorted and was silent again.
He had found this Halfling... hobbit, as he called himself, to be fair-spoken despite his strange accents. After making sure the horse was well looked after, they went to find some food for themselves. Oddly enough Targon had been the next guardsman to meet Pippin. He had been on duty in the buttery that day, and he looked curiously at the hobbit as the two packed their food into a wicker basket that they might eat in the sun and look out over the world, talking of their differing homelands, ways and customs, and all the strange territory Pippin had seen.
It was hard to believe the tales Pippin told. He looked almost as a lad of nine summers or so, but the perils and marvels he spoke of! Yet he did not boast, but spoke so matter-of-factly that Beregond must almost believe him.
After they finished eating, they looked out over the wall and he told the hobbit the names of the sights they could see. He was surprised when they spoke of Osgiliath that Pippin seemed familiar with Black Riders, though he did not give any details and he had not mentioned them before when regaling Beregond with his adventures. Even as they talked the shadow of doom passed over, a Fell Rider of the air.
Pippin did not long remain cowed, but soon stood again erect. He spoke of hope, and Beregond felt hope stir within himself. In turn, Beregond told him of Faramir. Faramir, whom he would follow through the Fire, if need be. He could not keep the pride out of his voice as he spoke of his Captain.
Pippin accompanied him to his mess at noon, for the hobbit had not yet been assigned to a duty section. Beregond's mates greeted him warmly and made him welcome, thanking him for coming among them and hanging on his words and stories of the outlands. They were astonished at how much food and ale this half-sized person could consume; more than many a Man in the mess that day. As he relaxed and talked they grew more used to his strange accents, and soon it was as if he had always been among them. He had a knack for making men laugh, and many lingered longer than usual after the meal was done.
Beregond was almost sorry when the time arrived for him to go on duty, but he suggested the Halfling should seek out his own son to guide him about the City. As Pippin started to turn away, the guardsman smiled, secretly wondering what Bergil would make of this... hobbit. 'Farewell, Master Perian,' he said with a small bow. 'I shall hope to see you on the morrow.'
'And I, you, Master Guardsman,' Pippin returned with a grin and a bow of his own. And so he left the mess with his short, but confident stride.
It was uncanny, how quiet the battlefield was. He wondered if he and Targon were the last Men left alive on the field; he tried to shake the eerie feeling that they might be the last living Men in all of Middle-earth.
He felt Pippin's fingers twitch again, and a few of the hobbit's words came clearly to him. 'What about breakfast?' He smiled at that, even as tears stung his eyes. Surely the hobbit had never missed a meal in all the time Beregond had known him. His own mouth was dry. He wondered how many hours they had lain beneath the troll.
'What time do you think it is?' he called to Targon.
'Breakfast time, evidently,' Targon grunted back.
'Do you have any water?' Beregond asked.
'If I had some, I wouldn't be able to reach it. Why ever did you have to mention water, anyhow? I was doing just fine trying not to think about it. You are no help at all. And this troll stinks worse than he did before... Do you think they will find us soon?' The last words were almost pleading.
'Soon,' Beregond promised, but his own hope was nearly gone.
Bergil had thought his father would be angry, his nearly coming to blows with the Halfling in a boyish test of strength, but Beregond threw back his head and laughed heartily at the story of their meeting. He had heard it first from the Halfling himself when he came late for the daymeal in the mess. This hobbit had a real sense of humour and a way with people. Look how quickly he had got Bergil on his side, and Bergil as wary of strangers as he was. While Beregond was always eager of news of faraway places, the lad was infected with the suspicion that had permeated the City as the days grew darker. He should have sent him away with the wains to the dubious safety of the mountains.
The next day was dim, for a dark cloud was streaming westward from the Black Land and seemed to consume all light. The air felt sulphurous as if a great storm was about to break. In the morning, Beregond went out over the Pelennor to the Guard-towers upon the Causeway. Returning to the City and to the mess, he was glad to see the Halfling again, now arrayed in the livery and gear of the Tower. He looked a proper guardsman. Well, nearly. All but the bare feet where boots normally would go. Beregond supposed it was custom in the land of the Halflings, and he grew accustomed to it soon enough. As a matter of fact, it soon seemed that a Halfling in boots would be an oddity indeed.
As they sat and talked in the gloom where the sun had shone on them the day before, they were suddenly stricken dumb and cowering with the fear that only the Fell Riders could bring. At the familiar sound of the Captain's trumpet on the breeze, Beregond looked out from the wall and saw men on horses riding flat-out for the Gate. He cried,
'Faramir! The Lord Faramir! It is his call! Brave heart! But how can he win to the Gate, if these foul hell-hawks have other weapons than fear? But look! They hold on. They will make the Gate. No! The horses are running mad. Look! the men are thrown; they are running on foot. No, one is still up, but he rides back to the others. That will be the Captain: he can master both beasts and men. Ah! there one of the fearful things is stopping on him. Help! Help! Will no one go out to him? Faramir!
He sprang away and pelted towards the Gate, drawing his sword as he ran. He heard the hobbit cry Gandalf's name, and new hope surged in him. As he burst from the Gate with others whose love for the Captain was stronger than fear of the Riders, he saw the foul creatures swerve away from the wizard's stabbing light. Soon he and the other guardsmen had reached the men on foot and, swords at ready, pulled them to the safety of the City.
Faramir spoke a few words to the rescuers then turned to enter the City with Gandalf, stopping in amazed recognition at seeing the Halfling cheering with the rest. Beregond wondered... were there other Halflings abroad in the land? How else had Faramir recognized one? Gandalf summoned Pippin to follow, and Beregond lost sight of them as they made their way to the second gate. It took him a few moments to regain his breath, and then it was time for him to return to his duties.
Something was happening. He thought he heard a voice call out the hobbit's name, but listening intently heard nothing more until the heap of bodies above them began to shift. Suddenly the pile was crushing him down, there was no air to breathe, he was suffocating. He heard a strangled cry from Targon and then his mind spun down into black silence.
He awakened minutes later, free of the pressure that had been on him for so long that he had almost forgotten how it felt to move. Pippin's hand was pulled from his, but he felt too weak to move or speak or even open his eyes. He heard a gruff voice, mourning, and then a fair voice say, 'He made a good end, it seems.'
That sounded promising. Evidently they had not been found by victorious orcs. He forced his eyes open. The dwarf he had seen riding behind an elf in Lord Aragorn's company was sadly cradling the Halfling. The guardsman tried to speak but his mouth was so dry... Someone helped him to sit up, crooning reassurances--the fair voice he had heard, the elf!--and the pain of his shoulder brought him fully awake. He had to tell them that Pippin wasn't dead! He managed to croak, 'Not... end.' He drew breath and continued, 'not yet, I think... he spoke but a few moments ago as we lay together beneath the troll.'
The dwarf shook his head. 'He is not breathing.' Beregond's heart sank as he watched the dwarf undo the hobbit's helm. A dark bruise covered half of Pippin's face, and when the dwarf drew his hand from behind the hobbit's head his fingers were red. He wiped them off and sought the hobbit's throat, then stiffened. 'The heart! It beats!'
The elf leaned forward, 'He must breathe, then!'
The dwarf bent closer. 'Yes. It was so faint that I missed it at first. Small breaths, widely spaced.' His fingers tightened on the hobbit. 'Fight, Peregrin Took! Do not give up now! Keep fighting!'
The elf spoke urgently, and the dwarf lifted the hobbit's body and clambered away over the fallen.
Laying the guardsman down gently, the elf climbed to the top of a heap to call and wave vigorously, then climbed down to check Targon, who had not spoken since the pile had shifted and then been cleared from on top of them. 'He breathes,' the elf reassured Beregond. The elf helped him sit up again, so skilfully that his shoulder gave no more than a twinge, and then gave him of his own water bottle to drink. The warm, stale water tasted wonderful.
'Sure and I'm not dead yet!' Targon grumbled suddenly. 'What took you so long?'
'I do believe we have been found,' Beregond grinned. 'You were asking me about it just a moment ago, as I recall.'
It was not long before stretcher bearers arrived.
Faramir was closeted with his father, Denethor the Steward of Gondor, and Gandalf, and the hopes of the guardsmen were higher knowing he was in the City again. Beregond wished to ask the hobbit what had been discussed, if he was allowed to tell, but he did not see Pippin any more that day. His heart, as well, was lifted by the presence of the Captain. But Denethor sent Faramir away the next day, a day with a morning like a brown dusk, a day of dread where the faint cry of the winged Shadows was ever present high above the city. Faramir had been sent to defend Osgiliath, and Beregond could only wish he were marching there as well. Better to go into danger with the Captain than to stay in the gloomy city without hope, waiting for dread to fall upon him.
Beregond's gaze was drawn often that day towards the ruined city of Osgiliath, wondering what chanced there. Though he had pointed out the ruins to Pippin on that sunny day which now seemed ages ago, today gloom shrouded the ruins and hid them from sight. Often the talk turned to Rohan, and whether the Riders of Rohan would come in time... and whether they would come at all. He remembered that Pippin's kinsman rode with the Rohirrim, and wondered if this kinsman hobbit would arrive to see a ruined city, gates cast down, houses burning, people slaughtered. He shook his head at the gloomy thoughts, but wondered if it was less gloomy to imagine Rohan arriving in time to be slaughtered alongside those in the White City by the approaching forces of Mordor.
He awakened in a tent with one of the sons of Elrond -- Elladan? -- bending over him. He thought he recognized him as one of the twain who rode with Lord Aragorn and the Dúnedain. The other was speaking to a healer of the City beside him. 'Brought in from the field some hours ago, not an urgent case.' Gentle fingers probed his shoulder and arm. 'Upper arm broken in at least two places, broken bones in shoulder--feel them grating here,' another hand touched the spot, 'and the collarbone as well.' Elladan saw Beregond's eyes now open, and spoke directly to him. 'We must set the bones, and then bind the arm in place.' He thought he could drown in those eyes, ageless, filled with wisdom, compassion and sorrow, yet somehow almost... detached?
He shook his head to free himself of fancies, then looked into the eyes again. 'I am ready,' he answered. 'Why do we wait?' Elladan looked to another healer behind him, and the man moved to one side of the tent, filled a cup brimful and brought it to Beregond as the son of Elrond and the first healer helped him to sit up. The cup was held to his lips and he sipped: strong wine. He raised his good hand to the cup to steady it, drained half the wine from the cup, and pushed it away. Meeting the cupholder's eyes he said, 'I would like to keep a clear head, if I may.' The healer stared at him for a moment, then nodded. They waited a few moments for the wine to start to take effect, using the time to lay out splints and bandages. One of them picked up a biting stick and lifted it towards Beregond's mouth. Beregond intercepted it with his good hand, took it from him, and positioned it between his own teeth. Looking to Elladan, he nodded. The three took hold of him from different sides. The next few moments were a blur; he tried to make no sound but a grunt and then a low moan escaped him as he bit down hard on the stick. He felt splints applied to his arm, bandages wrapped around. Someone lifted his good arm out of the way and the splinted arm was bound to his side. He opened his eyes again as they were adjusting the sling to hold his forearm. Elladan looked him in the eye and nodded once, a gesture of respect, then turned to go. Too spent to lift his good hand, Beregond let the biting stick fall from his mouth.
'Wait...' The son of Elrond turned, politely. 'There was a hobbit, a Halfling brought in earlier...'
Elladan bent down to his level, 'Which one do you mean?'
More than one hobbit? Had more hobbits been in the battle? He knew that Pippin's kinsman was to have remained behind in Gondor to recover from his illness, so what could Elladan mean?
'He was taken from under the body of a troll.' Beregond, confused, tried to explain.
Elladan nodded, enlightened, 'Ah, of course, yes, I remember. Elrohir helped the Dúnadan tend that one.'
'Where is he? Can I see him?' Beregond asked eagerly. He saw the questioning look one of the healers shot Elladan. The son of Elrond paused, considering, then made an assenting gesture and turned to go.
'Good thing you only had half a cup of wine,' the healer said as he helped Beregond to his feet. 'Do you think you could watch at his bedside? We're a bit short on help. Anyone who isn't in a bed is sitting next to one, on watch.'
After nightfall word came from the fords that a great host of forces of the Dark Lord were approaching Osgiliath, led by the fearsome Black Captain. When his duty ended, Beregond lay himself down, but could find no rest and soon rose again to pace the walls. Surely Faramir would be quickly overwhelmed and the Dark Lord's army would soon reach the White City. Beregond wished once again that he had gone with Faramir to Osgiliath, to stand by the Captain's side as the assault broke upon him.
Dawn came, if you could call it that. News came that the enemy forces had crossed the river, and Faramir was retreating to the Causeway Forts, ten times outnumbered, but trying to rally his men for an orderly retreat. A rout would be disastrously costly in lives. Gandalf rode off into the darkness to face the Black Captain. On his rounds as the dark day turned to darker night, Beregond saw Pippin standing sleepless at the wall, eyes straining eastward, then northward, but the two did not speak.
The healer steadied him several times on the short trip to the tent where Pippin lay. The last time he took Beregond's arm, he turned Beregond to him with a questioning look that Beregond could read even in the torchlight. 'I'm all right,' he insisted. 'I'll be fine once I can sit down.'
They came to a small tent. The healer lifted the flap and waved Beregond ahead of him. The elf from the battlefield was sitting on a stool beside the bed, one hand on Pippin's forehead and the other holding one of the hobbit's limp hands, straining as if trying to pour his own strength into the small figure. 'Legolas,' the healer said, 'this one has come to watch with him. We could use your help in the healing tent.' Legolas' eyes flashed protest, then he nodded resignedly, looking back at the bed in a helpless way. He rose from the stool.
Beregond had eyes only for the small figure on the bed. Head and chest bandaged, half covered with a blanket, mouth gaping like a fish out of water, the hobbit gasped. After a pause, another gasp. 'How long has he been like this?' the healer demanded. Legolas merely shook his head. The healer crossed to the bed, placed his fingers around the limp wrist, eyes glued to the labouring chest. He stood abruptly. 'I know Elrohir decreed that the Lord Aragorn should rest without being disturbed, but... the Halfling is much worse than the last time he or Elladan looked in, and they have been much cumbered about, tending the wounded. Waken the Lord Aragorn at once.' Legolas was gone from the tent before the next gasping breath from the hobbit was heard.
Morning came, but not day. As the morning bells began to ring Beregond heard a dull roar, and turning to look into the easterly gloom he saw red flashes, followed by thunder. Men shouted that the wall of the Pelennor had been breached. The enemy would be there soon. Pippin no longer watched at the wall; it was his hour to attend the Lord Denethor.
Beregond strained his eyes to look towards the wall of the Pelennor for any sign of his Captain, then shook his head. Faramir would be at the rear, covering his men's escape. He would be one of the last to come. Beregond wondered if, perhaps, he was already fallen. A great dread was on his heart.
In the middle of the morning, a handful of horsemen led by Gandalf escorted waggons filled with wounded from the disaster at the Causeway Forts. 'Mithrandir! Mithrandir!' Men called to him for news as he entered the City, but he went straight to the high chamber of the Steward without stopping to speak more than a word or two of encouragement that sounded empty to the hearers' ears. There was still no sign of Faramir.
Hours of eternity passed, and Beregond could now see small groups of retreating men, many wounded, most running as if pursued. Then rivers of small red flickering lights could be seen flowing from Osgiliath towards the City Gate. Larger fires, assuredly houses and barns, sprang up here and there. The enemy were approaching with torches, burning everything in their way as they came.
Horses were led to the street behind the City Gate, nervous hoof scrapings rang against the stones through the darkness. There was a murmur of men soothing their mounts, a rustle of equipment and harness being checked and rechecked, low-voiced orders being issued by officers. Hope stirred in Beregond as he realized a sortie was being prepared to cover the retreat.
Beregond strained his eyes to see through the darkness and gave a shout when a body of men, marching in fair order, came into view about a mile from the City. It must be Faramir! Only he could keep men in such order in the face of the Black Captain and his overwhelming forces. He watched their approach, only becoming aware that he was holding his breath when he swayed dizzily and staggered against the wall. He forced himself to take deep breaths, but gasped when he saw the rearguard, what was left of it, gallop out of the darkness behind the marching men, stop and turn, keeping themselves between the marchers and the oncoming enemy. Suddenly enemy forces were charging with wild shrieks and yells, and worse, the winged Shadows swooped upon them.
Beregond cried out, white-knuckled hands gripping the top of the wall. No longer marching in order of any kind, the retreating men threw down their arms and ran in a panic, pursued by their triumphant, bloodthirsty enemies. Horrified, the watchers on the walls could not tear their eyes from the incipient slaughter.
It seemed that Legolas had hardly left when Aragorn thrust his way into the tent and went to his knees by the bed. Legolas came soon after with a steaming basin. Taking the hobbit by the shoulders, Aragorn lifted him to a sitting position as gently as he could. He turned his head. 'Pillows. Cushions. Something to prop him with. And we must replace the weight that keeps the broken ribs in place on the bad side.' Legolas put down the basin; he and the healer improvised a backrest as quickly as they could. Aragorn eased Pippin back. The healer picked up the heavy bag that had slipped to the floor and placed it against the hobbit's right side. Once the hobbit was propped to his satisfaction, Aragorn pulled a pouch from around his neck as Legolas picked up the basin and held it out to him. Carefully, Aragorn extracted some dried leaves from the pouch, rubbed them between his hands, breathed on them, and cast them into the basin.
Beregond had heard of this in the City, how the King had been identified by his healing hands. Old Ioreth of the Houses of Healing had told everyone she met, and the tale spread through the White City as fast as fire through tinder-dry forest on a hot day of high wind. He had only half-believed the tale, though he had watched Faramir's healing. He had seen his gran nurse men deep in fever, seeming to be dying, but then the fever would break and the danger would be past. Aragorn's healing of Faramir could have coincided with the fever running its course. Beregond did not find it easy to believe in signs and wonders. He had not seen the healings of the Halfling and the woman of Rohan. Now, as a refreshing fragrance filled the tent, he felt the deep ache in his shoulder subside, and weariness replaced by new strength, almost as if he had just risen from a night's peaceful rest.
With a sudden fierce cry a body of mounted men charged from the City Gate. Beregond found himself shouting as well; heard the walls of the City erupt with a great cheer as the blue banner of Imrahil led the charge. 'Amroth!' they shouted. 'Amroth for Gondor!' The mounted force split to break upon the flanks of the attacking enemy, and ahead of them rode a blazing white torch: Gandalf on Shadowfax. 'Mithrandir!' the watchers shouted, as the winged Shadows scattered and retreated from his light. The routed men took new courage, scooped fallen weapons from the ground, turned to charge the dismayed enemy forces who fell away before them. But Denethor sounded the retreat; screened by the rescuing cavalry, the body of men reformed and marched in good order into the City.
As his guardsmen had anticipated, Faramir was one of the last to pass the City Gate, but he did not ride or march. Wounded, senseless, he was carried on the saddle before Prince Imrahil, who had scooped him, stricken, from the battlefield before the enemy could hew his body. Out of the darkness, an enemy dart had found him. Beregond could not stop the tears as his Captain was carried past.
The Gate was shut and barred, but the encircling enemy jeered and cursed the watchers on the walls. It was only a matter of time, they promised. Only a matter of time. The men on the wall returned no answer. Likely enough it was true. Rohan had not come.
Some time later, Beregond looked up, his eyes caught by a flash of light in the high tower. He shook his head. It must have been a trick of the eye. The tower windows stared dark and silent to his gaze.
Through the night he and others watched from the wall as the enemy set up camps that covered the plain, dug fire pits just out of bowshot of the walls, and burned or hewed all of Gondor they could find outside the walls, man or crop or building or tree. Some time in the night great engines were brought up, and though they were not strong enough to breach the mighty walls, they soon had parts of the City in flames from the missiles they cast. More terrible was the rain of severed heads that came later, heads hewn from men of Gondor, faces branded with the image of the Eye. Beregond saw several faces he knew, but his initial sick horror turned to numbness nearing despair as the night wore on. Word had come that his Captain was dying, and all hope seemed to die within at the news. Beregond, too long sleepless, found himself dozing as he stood at the wall, head nodding, jerking him awake, only to doze again. He must not fall asleep at his post when his hour came, so he took himself away from the wall at last and cast himself down in a corner, covering his head with his cloak. In spite of the noise and the smoke and the horror, he slept.
The guardsmen looked for Denethor, grim old man that he was, to come to rally them, but he did not come. It was whispered that he sat in frozen grief by the side of his son's bed, and neither moved nor spoke. The dawnless day wore on as the City foundered like a rudderless ship. Fires burned in the first circle of the city, and many guardsmen lost the fight with despair and abandoned their posts to flee to the second circle. The winged Shadows lazily spiraled high above as carrion birds await death on the ground. Gandalf and Imrahil paced the walls to rally the defenders in the absence of Denethor. Some stirred to new courage at their coming, only to sink into despair as they passed out of sight. Some murmured that Mithrandir was not their true leader.
As middle night approached Beregond went to his post at the gate of the Citadel. Relieving the guardsman there, he received grievous news. Faramir, accompanied by his father, was being borne to the Houses of the Dead. He bowed his head, tears streaking his face. The two guardsmen embraced in grief, then Beregond assumed his post and the other stumbled away into the darkness.
Aragorn called Legolas to hold the basin before Pippin, that the hobbit might breathe the steam. The Dúnadan leaned over the basin to cup the hobbit's face in his hands. He spoke urgently. 'Pippin! You must fight! Peregrin Took!' Taking one hand away, he reached into the basin for a cloth that floated in the scented water. Wringing it out as best he could, one-handed, he wiped the hobbit's ashen face, then dipped the cloth again and held it to Pippin's forehead, murmuring encouragement that the hobbit gave no indication of hearing. The hobbit's tortured gasps were almost beyond bearing. Beregond wanted to close his eyes and turn away, but somehow he was riveted to the scene.
'Pippin!' Aragorn called again, more softly. One gasp came, a pause, another gasp, another pause that lengthened into silence. Aragorn's eyes closed and he sagged in defeat. Legolas put down the basin and rose, but stiffened, staring at the hobbit's chest. His hand gripped Aragorn's shoulder, forcing his eyes to open. Beregond looked as well, to see the chest silently rise and fall, rise and fall, in a shallow but steady rhythm. The guardsman staggered and found himself steadied by the healer, whom he had forgotten behind him. He allowed himself to be lowered to the stool.
He looked up and nodded his thanks. The healer squeezed his arm and left the tent, returning soon with a folding camp chair. 'This will be better, I think,' he whispered. The sound broke the tableau by the bed. Legolas shifted his grip on Aragorn's shoulder, put a hand under his arm, and urged him to stand.
'Yes,' Aragorn agreed faintly. 'Rest.' He turned his eyes on Beregond. 'Call me at once if there is any change.' Soft as it was, steel was in his voice. Beregond nodded. Aragorn looked once more to the bed, then allowed Legolas to lead him from the tent. The healer set up the chair by the bed and motioned Beregond into it. He handed Beregond a drinking bottle and eased himself out of the tent. Beregond took a long pull of the water and settled in to watch.
At his post near the gate of the Citadel, Beregond numbly assumed his watch, for all the good it would do. The Captain was dead, the Steward was mad, and the City would fall. Still, he would stay at his post until the orcs came to hew him; he would take a few of them with him into death. Faintly came the roll of drums and roar of battle to his ears.
A hurried tapping of feet approached, and he recognized the light step of the hobbit. He called out as the steps passed, and heard that Pippin sought the wizard. Not wanting to delay the hobbit in his duty, yet desperate for news, Beregond asked after Faramir. He heard with a blow that the rumor was truth; Faramir was being taken to the Silent Street leading to the tombs. He could not stop the tears from flowing, so he bowed his head to try to hide them. But Pippin caught his arm and said that the Captain yet lived! And that Denethor, in a dangerous mood, sought to harm his son. The hobbit repeated his quest for Gandalf, and Beregond told him to go down to the battle. He was relieved to hear that Lord Denethor had given Pippin leave to go, that he was not deserting his post, but then the Halfling urged him to abandon his own post, to try to save Faramir from harm.
’Beregond, if you can, do something to stop any dreadful thing happening.’
’The Lord does not permit those who wear the black and silver to leave their post for any cause, save at his own command.’
’Well, you must choose between orders and the life of Faramir, and as for others, I think you have a madman to deal with, not a lord.'
Beregond repeated the order, that unless relieved by the Steward he could not leave his post for any reason. Not even to save Faramir. The hobbit bit his lip in frustration but could not stay to argue. He left Boromir to ponder a terrible choice: obedience or his Captain's life. He hesitated, caught between two powerful needs. The wild blowing of horns in the distance released him from his immobility, and cursing his delay in choosing he ran to the Closed Door.
The porter rose from his little house but would not admit him for all his pleas. Beregond wrestled with the locked door and turned to find the porter swinging a sword at him. With the instinct of long training he swept his sword from his scabbard, a second later he stared aghast as the porter sagged lifeless to the floor. There was no time for regret; he bent to take the keys from the limp hand, wrested open the door, and ran down, down. Was he too late? He thought he saw torches ahead.
Sword held before him, he ran to catch the torchbearers, ploughed through them, and turned to face them once again. 'Stop!' he cried. 'This is madness!' They drew their own swords and beat him back, down the Silent Street, to the very porch of the House of the Stewards. Glancing behind him through the doorway, he caught a glimpse of Faramir wrapped in oil soaked blankets, wood piled around him ready to be lit.
'Outlaw!' and 'Traitor!' they cried, and would not listen to his pleas. He was hard pressed, and in the fight could not spare any thought for mercy, for they would slay him if they could, and then the Captain would die a terrible death. Two had fallen to his sword, as Denethor urged the rest to make haste and slay the renegade. Almost sobbing with weariness and horror, Beregond fought on.
He saw Denethor, sword drawn, coming towards the door, so he wrenched it shut, trying to fight off the remaining servants and hold the door with his other hand at the same time. He would be slain at any moment, he knew, but every minute he could hold was another minute of life for Faramir.
The door was wrenched open, and Denethor appeared, but instead of his own death Beregond saw a blinding light. He dropped his sword to shield his eyes with his arms, and no blade struck his unguarded body. He heard the clang of swords falling to the ground, then Mithrandir's voice. He sagged a moment with relief, and then steeled himself to follow Gandalf and Pippin into the tomb.
With surprising strength, Gandalf sprang upon the table and lifted Faramir from the ready pyre. Denethor pleaded for his son, Gandalf reasoned with him, and for a few minutes Beregond had hope that he might yet recall the Steward from his madness. But then Denethor grabbed a knife and sought to stab his son on the bier where he had been laid. Beregond, weaponless, put himself between the mad Lord and his Captain. With bitter words, Denethor snatched a torch from one of the servants, ran back to the pyre and thrust the torch into the fuel. He leapt to the table and broke his staff of stewardship across his knee, then laid himself down in the flames, cradling a round stone to his breast.
As Beregond and the servants stared aghast, Gandalf closed the door to the tomb. The roar of the hungry flames drowned the sounds of battle from without; Denethor gave a great cry and was silent. As the dome of the tomb fell in, the hesitant servants fled from the door, and Gandalf sent them away, bearing their fallen comrades. He and Beregond took the bier with Faramir to the Houses of Healing, Pippin following behind, head bowed in shock and grief.
Beregond walked in numb misery. He had slain the porter, and two of Denethor's servants who were only trying to do their duty. He had left his post. He had saved his Captain, but at what cost?
Ill deeds have been done here, Mithrandir had said above the roar of flames as he turned from the door that hid the pyre of Denethor. Let all enmity that lies between you be put away, for it was contrived by the Enemy and works his will.
How? Beregond wondered. How can such be put away? He had slain loyal Men of the City, comrades who had only been following, albeit blindly, the orders of their lord... his lord. Mithrandir had said as much: but for the “treason” of Beregond Faramir, Captain of the White Tower, would now also be burned...
Mithrandir’s words held little comfort. Beregond was guilty of the blood of comrades, guilty of abandoning his post, guilty of breaking his oath. He was forsworn. He stumbled as they reached the steps to the Houses of Healing, and Pippin’s hand steadied him.
After taking Faramir into the Houses of Healing, Beregond and Pippin found Gandalf standing in thought before the door of the Houses. The wizard spoke of the death of the Dark Captain and the part the Seeing Stones had played in the madness of Denethor. Beregond remembered seeing the light from the topmost tower windows, and recounted the rumour that Lord Denethor had been believed to wrestle with the Enemy in thought.
Gandalf nodded. He beckoned Pippin to leave with him, but stopped with one more word for Beregond.
'Return to the Citadel and tell the chief of the Guard there what has befallen.' Beregond's eyes fell, but he raised them again to meet the wizard's gaze steadily. The wizard went on to counsel that Beregond should be given the duty of watching by Faramir's side, if and when he should wake again. The guardsman felt a rush of gratitude as the wizard concluded, 'For by you he was saved from the fire.'
Yes. He had saved his Captain from the fire. That was worth... even the price Beregond expected to pay.
The night seemed endless, measured in shallow breaths. The hobbit sagged against the back support, face waxen, scarcely seeming alive but for the steady movement of the chest.
Beregond thought of the events that had followed his treason. The turning of the tide of battle, with the arrival of Rohan, and Lord Aragorn coming in ships bringing unlooked for aid rather than enemy reinforcements. The death of the Captain of the Nazgul at the hands of a Halfling and a woman. The hopelessness of the healers to help Faramir and Pippin's kinsman, who had fallen while stabbing the foul creature that menaced the Rohirrim -- come at last, and not too late as it turned out. The revelation of the King, through his hands of healing, bringing the hopeless dying back to life. Faramir's words, as he woke from his fever. 'What does the King command?' It seemed they had lost a Steward, only to gain a King, though Aragorn would not yet take the crown.
Beregond was barred from the Tower Guard until his case could be judged but who knew when that might be? Of course, he thought, they needed every able bodied soldier, so they wouldn't execute him for his treason right away. At least, not so long as there were battles to be fought.
He led a company of picked Men of the City with the army of the West, on a march to the Black Gate of Morannon. He did not know why the decision had been made. It seemed a desperate folly to lead such a small force into sure destruction. But it is not the common soldier's place to question his orders, and duty was strong in him.
Pippin marched too, taking two strides to every one of the tall guardsmen. Yet he did not seem at all troubled by his short legs, trotting along by the hour with the rest of the Company. At night when they camped, he tried to lighten the spirits of his companions with tales of faraway places and astonishing sights. Sometimes Beregond would surprise an expression of worry on his young friend's face, but the hobbit always smiled so quickly that the guardsman questioned what he thought he'd seen.
In the face of increasing horror, Pippin was an anchor of sanity. He joked, he told stories, he pressed his comrades to eat and drink. Though none had any appetite they did eat, if only to please him. He stayed close to Beregond, plying him with questions about life on his father's farm, and Bergil's exploits, and Faramir's example as Captain. He avoided what formerly had been Beregond's favorite subject, life as a Guard of the Tower, and for that Beregond was grateful.
Only once did Pippin approach the cause of Beregond's greatest pain, his treason -- of old, death was the penalty. Oh, the guardsman didn't mind the thought of dying, not for himself. But what would happen to his son, who was already motherless? Even if the King proved merciful, the best he could hope for was exile, expulsion from the Guard of the Tower and from Faramir's service. That would be a death in itself.
All the hobbit said was, 'Beregond? I think you will find the King a fair and a just Man.' Then Pippin turned away with a joke for sour Targon, and the significance of his words only struck the renegade guardsman later. The young hobbit continued to address Beregond playfully as 'Master Guardsman', and the latter returned the compliment with 'Master Perian'.
After a long march into increasing horror, they reached the Black Gate. The armies of the West formed ranks on two great slag heaps before the gate. The Captains of the West went forward; Pippin, though no captain, went with them to represent his race, Halflings. They were met by a group led by a tall, evil man cloaked in black. Beregond heard nothing of the parley, but he saw the man brandish several items, a short sword, a cloak, and something like a small coat of mail that glittered as he held it aloft.
Beregond saw Pippin bow down as if pressed to the ground, and then the two groups turned backs to each other to return to their forces. As the Captains regained their lines, Pippin came to stand beside Beregond, in the front rank of the men of Gondor and Dol Amroth. Beregond looked down to see his young friend's face grey with shock and fear, and wondered, but the hobbit did not meet his eyes. Beregond heard him mutter, 'I wish Merry were here.' ...and then the assault broke upon them.
The tent flap was lifted and the dwarf from the battlefield stuck his head in. He tossed Beregond's pack and Pippin's ahead of him, then came through the door.
'The elf said you were to take some rest now,' he rumbled. 'I will watch awhile.' He began to spread out Beregond's bedroll to one side of the tent. He rose, asking, 'Is there aught you be needing?' Beregond extended the empty drinking bottle to him, and taking it he ducked out again.
The night was so silent that Beregond could hear the guttering torches in the wind outside. Though a breeze blew, the plain seemed airless and stifling, and even a deep breath was not satisfying. He wondered that the hobbit, with his ruined chest, could cling to life in this place. But the bandaged chest still rose and fell, a small pause between each breath. He had the feeling that Pippin's hold on life was another kind of battle in which every breath was a fight. He hitched his chair closer and took one limp hand in his good one. But now the fingers lay unresponsive in his. Not the slightest twitch answered his gentle squeeze.
There were words that needed to be said. Words that might come too late, but he could not wait until a better time. There might not be a better time.
'Master Perian,' he began. He paused, at a loss for words, then leaned forward despite the pain it caused him. 'Pippin,' he said urgently. 'I hope that you can hear me.' The broken form on the bed made no sign, only the rise and fall, pause, rise and fall of the bandaged chest gave indication of life. He shifted, trying to ease his arm and shoulder.
He tried again. 'I find I owe you an apology, Peregrin Took. You see, I listened to your many tales with pleasure, never considering there might be any truth in them. In truth, I thought you a fine teller of tall tales.' He chuckled low in his throat, without humour. 'I could not imagine why the King would travel with such as your kind, except perhaps as clown or jester to lighten these dark days...'
His voice threatened to break, and he had to clear his throat before going on. 'But I saw your courage today. You stood against that troll, taller and broader than a Man. He lifted me as if I were no more than a sack of meal; I saw his jaws open to tear my throat... and you stabbed him. You brought him down, while the Men around you quailed. I misjudged you badly, and I beg your forgiveness.' He drew his good hand impatiently across his eyes, then bent forward again to take the hobbit's hand. 'I count myself proud to be your friend.' The hand lay limp and unresponsive in his own, and he bowed his head.
...then he felt the fingers give a twitch...
...and then the lightest of squeezes.
Chapter 2. Journey
He was once again by the hobbit's bedside when he heard a cheer go up outside. He debated with himself getting up to lift the flap, but he had just managed to settle his arm comfortably. He did not have long to wait for the news. The tent flap opened and a smiling Legolas extended a drinking bottle to him.
'I have one,' he said in surprise.
'Drink,' the elf ordered. He did, and the water was cool and refreshing. 'The waggons have come from Ithilien. They're being unloaded now, as quickly as may be. Get your gear and be ready to go.'
Beregond nodded at a pile in the corner. 'My pack's there; so's his.' The elf nodded approval, shouldered the packs, and thrust his way out of the tent. Beregond rose then, walked to the doorway and lifted the flap.
Outside the tent was controlled pandemonium. Lines of men were unloading barrels and bags from the supply waggons and passing them down the rows to be stowed out of the sun in the hastily raised tents that had been first to come off the waggons. As soon as a waggon was emptied, it was driven to the cluster of smaller tents where the healers tended the wounded, to be padded with blankets and stocked with supplies. Harness was pulled from the horses, which were led away to food and rest, and others from the camp were substituted in the traces. The cavalry that had guarded the incoming waggons from remnants of the broken Mordor armies were dismounting, unsaddling and rubbing down their mounts, while another group of cavalry from the camp were saddling up and checking their weapons.
Beregond let the tent flap fall, sat down again by the bed, took Pippin's hand in his good one and leaned forward. 'Pippin,' he whispered. 'Keep on fighting. We'll have you to fresher air soon.'
Legolas returned with two guardsmen. They formed a chair with their arms, locking hand on wrist, and carried Pippin, still sitting up, to the waggon. Legolas steadied Beregond as they came behind. Able-bodied men surrounded the waggons, lifting the injured over the sides. Despite their care, Beregond's shoulder was jostled as he was passed into the waggon and he had to bite back a cry. Aragorn himself was in the first waggon. He hardly looked kingly in his grey cloak, and Beregond noticed that his arm was scratched and battle-scarred as any common soldier's as he settled the guardsman with his back to some bundles. 'He will need to be held up in a sitting position for the entire journey,' Aragorn said, holding Beregond's gaze, 'not comfortable, but...'
'I have one good arm still; I can hold him,' Beregond replied evenly. With cries of 'Careful, now!' the hobbit was handed up to Aragorn, who placed him against Beregond's right side. Beregond opened his arm to make room and cautiously settled it again, circling the limp body, trying not to impede the labouring chest. Aragorn used several pillows to prop them securely, then caught Beregond's eye. 'You will need to ensure this weight keeps the ribs on his right side from shifting,' He held the guardsman's gaze to underline the import, then jumped from the waggon.
Another guardsman was handed in, swearing under his breath. 'Well, Targon,' Beregond greeted him, 'It seems we cannot spend enough time in one another's company.' Grumbling, the other guardsman shot him a look and pulled himself over next to Beregond. Several other guardsmen were lifted in. Beregond saw that they were keeping men from the same companies together as much as possible, probably for morale's sake more than any other. Might as well be miserable with friends.
'How is he? Nobody would tell me anything at all, except that we were to go to Ithilien. Suits me just fine to leave this forsaken place,' Targon muttered, 'but what will the army do without you and me to keep them straight?'
'We go to Ithilien for his sake, and for the others who cannot breathe this pleasant air,' Beregond replied.
'Ah. We don't go for my health, I imagine.' Targon was silent, then repeated, 'How is he?'
'Well, he hasn't died yet,' Beregond answered in exasperation.
'Good. See to it that he doesn't.' The old trooper jerked his chin for emphasis. 'That we will.' Targon's attention was pulled away as soldiers loaded a firkin of water and metal cups. He directed their placement where he could pour out water without having to jar his injured leg. More bags followed, which the loader told them contained bread, dried meat, and dried fruit. 'At least if we stayed here we could have a cooked meal,' Targon grunted.
'Why don't you hop out then?' Beregond asked.
'I just got myself settled. What's this, now?' Beregond turned as well as he could to see what Targon was looking at. Aragorn and Mithrandir were approaching their waggon, each carrying a small body completely swathed in blankets. More injured soldiers had been handed into the front of the waggon, propped up sitting as Beregond was. The two bundles were carefully placed in their arms in sitting positions like Pippin's. 'Ah, more bad lungs, I gather,' Targon muttered sourly. 'There's not enough air in this waggon as it is.'
'Show some respect,' Beregond snapped. 'That's the Ring-bearer. I should imagine his lungs would be bad after standing atop the Mountain.' Wide-eyed, the old trooper subsided. 'I had heard...' he breathed, and said no more for a long while.
The loading of the waggons was nearly complete. The canvas covers were set in place. The cavalry was mounted and waiting. Drivers took their places on the waggons. Several of the healers climbed onto horses; they would ride up and down the column, keeping an eye on the patients as the waggons made their slow journey. Beregond watched the Lord Aragorn confer with Mithrandir, then jump into their waggon. Checking everything one last time, he supposed, but the Dúnadan settled himself by the Ring-bearer and the order was given to proceed. Beregond tried to cushion Pippin from the jerk as the horses pulled the waggon into motion. He bent his head to speak close to the hobbit's ear. 'We're on our way, now. Keep fighting, Pippin. It will get better.'
The sun beat down upon the canvas covers, combining with the bad air of the plain to make the waggon interiors stuffy. 'I don't know if the shade is worth the lack of air,' Beregond remarked over the rumble of the wheels.
'At least we're in the first waggon. We get the least dust here,' Targon said, an uncommonly optimistic answer from him. The grizzled guardsman looked down at Pippin. 'This wee one is going to need every chance.' For all his rough demeanor, his hands were gentle as a woman's as he soaked a cloth in some of the water he had poured out and wiped the dust from the hobbit's face.
Pippin's breathing was no longer steady and even, but shallow as it had been in the tent. The airless heat had him gasping once again for breath. Beregond held him carefully upright, helpless to do any more, and Targon constantly sponged his face with the cool water. At one point, he surprised Beregond by wiping the sweat from his face that he could not spare a hand to wipe away. The cloth felt cool, giving a temporary relief.
'Hold on, Pippin,' he murmured urgently in the hobbit's ear. 'Just hold on. The fight will get easier soon.'
Sunset was a relief. The drivers stopped the waggons to take the canvases off as soon as they were no longer needed for shade. The covers were not preventing the dust from entering the waggons in any event. Aragorn took advantage of the stop to leave the front of the waggon and come back to check on Pippin.
One of the healers rode up to their waggon to confer. Evidently there had already been deaths. Now the sick and wounded travellers understood the reason for the empty waggon that followed at the end of the train, as blanket shrouded forms were taken to the rear from waggons farther forward in the column. Beregond briefly tightened his hold on Pippin. He would not see the hobbit carried to the rear. 'Fight, Pippin,' he whispered.
A cavalry scout spurred over to Aragorn to report that all was quiet ahead. While they were stopped, Targon shared out food and water to the guardsmen in their part of the waggon. He had not yet drunk his own cup when the order to resume was given, and he cursed as half of it spilled out with the jolting start. 'Ah, well,' he said as he raised his eyes to Beregond's. 'At least I didn't spill it in the heat when it would have dried quickly.'
'Got to look on the bright side,' Beregond answered.
As the night deepened the heat of the day gave way to a chill. Aragorn ordered a halt. The more mobile injured broke out blankets from their waggons' supplies and made sure all were well wrapped against the cool night air. Targon tucked a blanket around Pippin and Beregond both. 'There now,' he muttered, 'you can help him keep warm as well as keeping him breathing, and it might stop him sliding down.'
About midnight Beregond noticed a change in the air. He had been dozing and jerked awake with a deep breath -- which didn't burn his lungs. They weren't in Ithilien yet, but the air was getting better. Pippin had slid down a little as the guardsman's grip relaxed, and Beregond woke Targon and another man to help prop him up again. The hobbit moaned slightly as he was shifted.
The road was rough here, the waggon jolting over large stones. Pippin's breath came faster, and he protested. Whispered words came to Beregond's ear, of orcs and whips and hopelessness. This was one story the hobbit had not shared with him. He murmured words of comfort but the hobbit continued in his nightmare. A particularly large jolt made him gasp, and Beregond could tell that it hurt him to do so. 'It's all right, Master Perian. You're safe. There are no orcs here, just friends.'
'Steady now, lad,' Targon spoke. By the starlight, Beregond saw him stroke the dusty, sweat-matted hair back from the hobbit's forehead. He poured half a cup and held it up. 'D'you think he would take any of this?'
'You can try,' Beregond answered.
Targon shifted forward, for a wonder not cursing as he jarred his leg. 'Here, lad,' he crooned. 'Fresh water from Ithilien. Take small sips.' The guardsmen were encouraged to see Pippin moisten his lips, then take several swallows. When he turned his face away, Targon lowered the cup and poured the rest onto a cloth which he used to wipe the hobbit's face.
Beregond felt the ghost of a sigh from the body he cradled, followed by a moan. It seemed the hobbit's pain was worse. 'Don't try to take a deep breath,' he murmured. 'The air is already getting better. We're getting close to Ithilien. It'll be easier to breathe there.' Pippin's head fell back against Beregond's arm as the hobbit slipped once more into uneasy dreams.
Aragorn crawled to the back of the waggon to check Pippin. 'He's hurting bad, I think,' Beregond told him. Just then a mounted scout rode up to the waggon to confer. A halt was called. The cavalry wanted time to scout this stretch of road. They were out of treeless country now, and there was more cover than was comfortable to contemplate. Beregond saw a shrouded bundle being taken from their waggon. He wondered if the Ring-bearer still breathed.
Aragorn took advantage of the halt to check the bindings on Pippin's ribs and re-position the weight that stabilised one side. The hobbit struck out feebly, murmuring about orcs, and the Dúnadan crooned reassurance.
'He seems to think orcs are carrying him off somewheres,' Targon said. 'Wonder where he'd get such a notion?' Aragorn shot him a quelling look and leapt down from the waggon to check with the healers.
'Very Kingly,' Beregond remarked.
'I do not know many men who could silence you with a look.' Targon grumbled something under his breath.
As Aragorn was climbing into the waggon again, the hobbit moaned for water. Targon poured another half cup and raised it to Pippin's lips. 'Take care that he doesn't choke,' Aragorn said in passing. 'If he starts coughing...'
That didn't bear thinking about. 'Take small sips, Pippin,' Beregond urged. After only a few sips, the hobbit turned his face away from the cup and fell asleep again. The road smoothed out some, and his sleep seemed more peaceful. Many of the guardsmen were nodding, there were snores to be heard. Though he fought it, Beregond himself drifted off.
He woke with a start, knowing something was wrong. The hobbit was no longer propped against his side. Pippin had slid down, lying almost prone, unmoving, eyes half open, staring at the sky. 'Targon!' he hissed. 'Targon!' The old guardsman awoke and immediately grasped the situation. Without regard for his injured leg, he moved to Beregond's side. His movement awakened the next guardsman, who crawled over. Somehow the three of them got Pippin upright again.
Beregond felt sick; what if the hobbit had suffocated while they all slept? He could not feel Pippin breathing. He called urgently to Aragorn over the noise of the wheels, and the Dúnadan came quickly. He unpacked a well-wrapped pot of coals from the supplies, uncovered the coals, and had Targon hold a cup of water over them until steam rose from the cup. Beregond watched as he once again performed his magic with leaves of athelas. Somehow the hobbit's breathing eased once again into a steady rhythm. 'Hold on, Master Perian,' he whispered into the hobbit's dusty curls. 'Keep fighting. We're nearly there. No time to give up, now.'
Just before dawn, they arrived.
Chapter 3. Ithilien
Beregond did not see Pippin for a few days after their arrival in Ithilien. There were matters of business to see to, making sure that his men were properly cared for, arranging for their sleeping quarters and feeding, setting up and overseeing a duty roster. The duty involved was sitting by the bedsides of the badly wounded, for none who had come from the Morannon was fit to stand any other kind of watch. The camp was well guarded by reinforcements sent from the White City, though no attack was anticipated. The last of the Dark Lord's forces were being hunted down, and there was no force left of any strength to menace Ithilien or any part of Gondor.
In the evenings after all his duties were finished for the day, Beregond would walk in the glades of Ithilien, breathing the sweet air and hearing the rustle of the breeze in the trees. As the sky darkened, his eyes would seek the stars above, and he drew much comfort there.
One evening a soft step sounded behind him. He turned to see Darothorn, another guardsman from the City. Even in the twilight he could see the strain in the Darothorn's expression.
He waited. Darothorn would speak when he was ready. When he did speak, it was abrupt, straight to the point. 'One of those men you killed... Denethor's servants... was my brother.'
'Berethorn,' Beregond confirmed, adding, 'I went to see the families, but there was nothing I could say. No solace I could offer. Not even the small comfort that they were killed in battle, defending Gondor. Killed by a friendly hand, what kind of words could I offer them? What words could do any good? Nothing.' He shook his head and said again, low, 'Nothing.'
Darothorn nodded again. 'My sister told me you came.' He paused and the next words came out through gritted teeth. 'My mother weeps and has no consolation.'
Beregond took his dagger from its sheath, handed it hilt-first to the other guardsman. 'Here, hold this for me a minute.' Dumbfounded, Darathorn took the hilt. Beregond awkwardly unfastened the leather strap holding his mail shirt closed, pulled the shirt open to bare the tunic beneath, unprotected now.
'Go ahead,' he said. 'Strike. It is your right, to avenge your brother's blood.' Darathorn raised the dagger automatically, then lowered it again.
'No one will blame you. It is your right, under the old laws.'
Darothorn shook his head in bewilderment. 'I do not understand. You want to die?'
Beregond, to his surprise, had to fight down laughter, but answered seriously, 'It seems I am marked for death, either by blood feud or public executioner, so what does it matter what I want?'
Darothorn said between his teeth, 'I know you saved the Captain. But did you have to kill my brother, and Fardon, and the Doorkeeper, to do so?'
Beregond answered softly, 'I would do it over if I could, but I think it would come out the same. I fought to save the Captain. Had I let them slay me, he would have died in flames.' He looked up at the emerging stars, then back to the guardsman who still held his dagger. 'I will never forget what I have done. Their faces haunt my dreams.'
Darothorn was breathing raggedly, but said nothing.
Beregond went on, 'It would have been better for everyone had I died in battle, but I didn't.'
Darothorn agreed. 'It would have been at least an honourable death.' He threw the dagger down. 'I am not going to do you any favours,' he gritted. 'If their faces haunt your dreams, the longer the time stretches out the better.' He turned on his heel and stalked away.
Not long after arriving in Ithilien Aragorn sought out Targon. The guardsman was sitting alone in the mess, honing his knife with care.
'May I join you?' Targon looked up and jumped to attention. Aragorn gestured him back to his seat, then sat on the opposite bench. The Dúnadan proceeded to ask questions about the Citadel, the Guard and the Company, which the old guardsman answered in the fewest possible words.
In the middle of a reply Targon put down his knife and stone and looked Aragorn in the eye. 'Begging your pardon, Lord Aragorn, Sir.' The Ranger raised an eyebrow. Taking a deep breath, the guardsman went on, 'What will happen to Beregond? Finest guardsman I ever knew.'
'I will not give you false assurance,' Aragorn replied. 'The law is very clear. The penalty for leaving one's post in time of war is death. Add to that the blood he spilled in the Hallows and my hands are tied.' He raised his hand as the old guardsman started to speak. 'I know the purpose of the law as well as you do. I have looked to precedent for guidance, but found little enough hope there. '
'Valdil?' At Aragorn's look of surprise Targon nodded. 'What guardsman would not know that story? He left his post to save his drowning son, and being Captain of the Guard pronounced judgment on himself. Certainly it is not commonly spoken of, and many outside the Guard have not heard the story, but every guardsman knows. The only way to quit your post without the Steward's leave is to die there.'
Aragorn nodded, then held Targon's gaze. 'I know of one alternative to execution. I will have to search the records to be sure there are no others, before I judge his case.'
'Exile?' Targon said sharply. 'You would do better to kill him outright.'
'At least he would live.'
'A guardsman lives by his honour. You would take that away?'
'You are saying there is no choice in the matter?' Aragorn was startled to see... was that pity? ...in the other man's eyes.
'Even the King must live by the law. Else we would be no better off than those under the Dark Lord, he who made all law according to his whim.'
'I would save him if I could. He is a fine, brave soldier. He saved Faramir's life. And I don't think my young friend, the Halfling, would be here if not for Beregond.'
Targon snorted, 'The Halfling saved him first.' He tried the side of his knife with his thumb, and drew the stone down its length. 'I hope you can find a way to save him. I would fain see him live.' He sought hope in the Ranger's eyes but found nothing there to reassure him. 'Perhaps in one of those dusty records back in the City you will find another way for him, one with honour. But if you cannot...' he raised his eyes to the Ranger's again.
Aragorn leaned forward. 'If I can grant it, I will,' he agreed.
'Let him not be executed like a criminal, like a coward who abandoned his post, or a craven murderer who struck another in the back.'
'Die like Valdil, you mean?' The grizzled guardsman nodded. Aragorn took a deep breath, held it a moment, then let it out in a sigh. 'That much I can do for him, Guardsman. But I will do more if I can.' Targon held his gaze for a long moment, then bent his head and went back to honing his knife.
That evening Targon seemed more morose than usual. Beregond waited. He expected that the guardsman would speak when ready. The man usually did not keep his troubles to himself. The fact that he had stopped grumbling and limped about in silence was itself worrisome.
After most of the men had sought their beds, Beregond took his customary walk in the woods. Night-blooming flowers scented the air. The night was refreshingly still after the bustle of the encampment during the day. He heard soft footsteps behind him and recognized Targon's tread. He stopped in a clearing to look up at the stars and let the guardsman catch him up.
Targon limped to his side and stood silent for many breaths. Finally he spoke. 'The Lord Aragorn sought me out today.'
'Oh?' Beregond's tone was casual but there was a tightness in his gut. There was another long silence.
'Old friend, he is investigating your case. He had many questions.'
'The law leaves no choice. The options seem to be death or exile.'
'Another kind of death. Just not so quick or clean.'
'Look at the bright side. They could have left you under that troll.'
Beregond smiled grimly. 'Would have saved lots of trouble.'
'Yes, but a terribly stinking death. There's one other thing you could do.'
'You could ask the King for mercy.' He looked affronted at Beregond's guffaw.
'And then I can take up tatting and settle in my chair by the fire with my tea and shawl! ...what do you suppose Lord Denethor would have said?'
'This new King is not Lord Denethor. But I see your point. Might be a blow to the pride to cry mercy and be turned down. 'Twould make it harder to die with honour,' Targon muttered.
'So, the choices, should I decide not to crawl before the new King, are to be executed in disgrace by the public executioner, or cast out from the City into exile.'
Targon made a sudden protesting movement. 'No...'
'Valdil's choice.' He put his hand on Beregond's good arm. 'He promised that if you must die, you may keep your honour.'
'Die before the face of the King, not in the public square, and by the hand of a friend?'
'Aye,' Targon said heavily.
Beregond breathed deeply. 'And you said there were no choices in the matter.' He sighed. 'Well, I suppose it could be worse.'
'We could be still breathing the stench of that troll.' He gazed up at the stars for awhile longer, and then the two walked in silence back to the encampment.
More people and supplies arrived daily, tents were set up in the open and the encampment took on the air of a temporary city. One day a guardsman came to him and said, 'Have you heard the latest? They're making new uniforms for the Guard, and all the men of the City who went out to the battle.'
Beregond raised an eyebrow, 'That's quite an endeavor. You should all look quite fine at the feast.'
'What do you mean, 'you'?' the guardsman demanded.
'I am not a guardsman,' Beregond said, low. 'Not anymore.' The guardsman lifted a hand to his good shoulder. Beregond did not meet his eyes, not wanting to see pity there.
The hand was removed and the guardsman straightened, stiff and proper once more. 'You led the men of the City to the battle,' he said. 'Your name is on the list.'
How much longer before judgment would be pronounced? Targon had said that Lord Aragorn was already hearing evidence in his case. Perhaps he could wear his fine new uniform to his execution. 'I don't need a new uniform. It would be a waste of good material,' Beregond protested.
'It is the Steward's order,' the guardsman argued. Beregond was puzzled, then realized... Faramir was the Steward. Of course.
'Well, if the Captain commands it, then who am I to disobey?' The guardsman couldn't help a wince at Beregond's choice of words, but quickly regained his bearing. 'They'll be expecting you this afternoon at the tailors' tent.' He waved vaguely towards the tent city beyond. Beregond nodded, the guardsman saluted him and left.
Beregond nearly collided with Targon as the latter stomped out of the tailors' tent. The old guardsman was muttering angrily, 'Blinkin' great waste of a...' he broke off and glared at Beregond. 'Mind the pins!' he snapped, and stalked away.
Beregond entered with a quizzical expression. The slender woman with a measuring tape hanging around her neck turned to meet him, and he recognized with pleasure Gilwyn, his wife's sister.
She brushed back an errant tendril from her forehead and sighed in exasperation. 'Truly, it was only one pin, and that because he moved when he oughtn't.' She added under her breath, 'The man has all the charm of a dwarf!' She looked up again at Beregond and smiled. 'Do you know what that scamp of a son of yours did? He blacked Fargil's eye!'
'I'm sure he had good reason,' Beregond replied.
'Well, it might've had something to do with the fact that Fargil had flattened his nose for him...' She cocked an eye at Beregond, who threw back his head and laughed. 'They were fast friends again when I departed...' she added.
'Nothing like a blackened eye or flattened nose to further a friendship,' Beregond agreed. 'Makes the other boys quite envious.'
She gestured him to a stool and he sat down. She walked around him, peering consideringly from all sides. 'Now how are we to do this?' he heard her musing under her breath, then she spoke to him. 'Can you remove the sling? Or will it cause you harm?'
'As long as I don't move my arm I will be fine.' He answered. He bent to cradle his left arm in his lap and slipped the sling from his neck with his right. He felt her hands rest on his shoulders, then move down his arms, measuring. She turned away and went to a pile of cloth, picking up a piece that he recognized as the front and back of a tunic, joined only at the shoulders.
'Hold still,' she admonished him as she slipped the neck hole over his head and positioned the flaps of fabric, front and back. 'Hold your right arm out straight,' she ordered and took a long rectangle of fabric that was draped over her shoulder, laying it on his arm. She took a mouthful of pins and said through her closed lips, 'Now don't move.' Swiftly she pinned the fabric together on his right side, sleeve and seam, and soon he was wearing half a tunic. She stepped back to check the fit. 'I think I can manage now without having to fit the other sleeve,' she said. 'I will have to allow extra room for the splint and bandage. You can come back tomorrow and we'll see if I was right.'
He slipped his left arm back in the sling and stood. 'How are they taking care of you here?' he asked.
She laughed. 'If I keep eating all the food they give us, I'll need to make myself a new dress!'
'Good. You always were too thin anyway,' he teased. 'Make it a blue one,' he added. She had worn her widow's weeds long enough.
She quirked her lips, 'For you I will!'
Beregond sobered abruptly. 'No,' he said, shaking his head. 'Not for me. Do it for yourself... and for Fargil.' She stared after him as he turned to leave.
Someone came out of another fitting area and he caught a glimpse of a small figure standing on a stool in the uniform of the Tower Guard. He stared in astonishment, remembering how Pippin had looked as they unloaded him from the waggon a few days ago. Surely the King was a healer indeed!
'Master Perian!' he called. The hobbit turned and he saw that it was not Pippin, but his friend's kinsman Merry.
'Hello,' Merry said cheerfully. 'You have the advantage of me. I'm afraid everyone knows who I am but I cannot return the courtesy. I know I have seen you in the City.'
Beregond introduced himself, and Merry brightened still further. 'Of course, you're Pippin's friend! He speaks of you often.'
Beregond looked at him quizzically. 'Have you joined the Guard?' He knew that the hobbit had ridden with the Rohirrim.
Merry laughed. 'No, I am just standing in for my cousin. I am a bit taller, but they can adjust for that.' Beregond smiled, thinking that he did not see much difference from one hobbit to another, at least in terms of size.
'All right, Master Perian, you may change into your own things again,' the tailor said. Merry jumped from the stool.
'Will you come to see him soon? He's been asking for you.'
Beregond said, 'I have been occupied with business, but as I am in charge of the duty roster, I will put myself down for a few watches with him.'
'Good,' Merry said firmly, then smiled again. 'I will hope to see you there.' The Halfling picked up his clothes from a bench, and Beregond left with a farewell.
Beregond had found a place where he could lie on the grass and trees blocked off the torchlight from the camp so he could see the stars spread out above him.
Gilwyn found him there. 'Just like old times,' she teased. 'I could always find your hiding places back in Lossarnach. I was even better at it than Gilmarie.'
'You girls were the plague of my life,' he agreed.
'Yes, and I would have plagued you more had I known it was the key to your heart,' she murmured. 'Instead you married my pesky sister!' They laughed together. She lay down beside him on the grass. 'Hmmm,' she said. 'A very nice view. I can see why you chose this place.'
'Yes, a nice view indeed,' he answered, but his eyes were on her face. Abruptly he rose.
She sat up. 'Do you have to go already?'
'Yes. I am called to sit with the Halfling this night.'
She rose and moved to his side, twining her fingers in his. 'I've started working on that blue dress,' she said playfully. 'I could wear it to the great feast... it would look striking if my escort wore a black uniform.'
'And who is your escort to be? I can name any number of guardsmen who would be willing to oblige.'
The fingers of her other hand walked up his sleeve. 'Well,' she murmured coyly, 'he must be tall, and strong, and it would be nice if he had a son named Bergil...'
'Mmmmmm,' he answered. 'Not sure I can think of anyone who will meet all your requirements.'
She stepped back, hurt. 'Beregond?'
He reached out and captured her hand. 'I am sorry, Gilwyn. I would love to escort you to the feast. But I do not know if I will be there.'
'Will you have duty that night? How do you know so far ahead?' She smiled, 'Oh, I know what you are doing. You are just teasing as you did in the old days.'
He remained silent.
'I know,' she said suddenly. 'If you are not planning to go to the feast, we could have our own picnic. We could pack a basket, borrow some horses, ride into the hills...' her eyes were luminous as she looked into his, 'perchance do some planning for the future...'
It would be so easy to imagine a future with her. He stepped back. He had no future. The walls he had built up against the knowledge of his certain fate came tumbling down in the face of what might have been, but now could never be.
'I can make no plans, Gilwyn,' Beregond said softly. 'You know what has happened. I am under sentence of death.'
'Beregond,' she gasped.
His shoulders sagged. 'It is true. I left my post in time of war. I spilled the blood of servants of the Citadel. I took the lives of loyal men, Gilwyn. The law would call me renegade.'
'Renegade? Not you, of all people. Faithless? You went to save Faramir,' she protested. 'Those "loyal men" would have watched him burn to death!'
He turned back. 'The law is clear. It does not make allowances. When the King has judged my case I will die. The only alternative is exile, and I do not expect a just king would send an honourable man into exile.'
'You would walk open-eyed to your death?'
He shook his head. 'I see no alternative.'
'Can you not appeal to the King? What of mercy?'
'The law is clear, Gilwyn. The King cannot change it at his whim. But at least he offers me the opportunity to die with honour.'
'Why not exile?'
He regarded her soberly. 'Would you have me subject my son to that? Seeing his father ceremoniously cast out of the City?'
'They would remember Faramir.'
'The memory would fade, I fear, but the disgrace would hang over him the rest of his life.'
'Faramir would remember.'
'He is as bound by the law as Lord Aragorn.'
'There is no escape? Either your death or disgrace for your son?' He shook his head. A wild thought came to her. 'We can leave. We can take our sons and go away. They will not hunt you, not after what you have done.'
He returned to her, placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, looked sadly into her face. 'It is my duty,' he whispered. 'I will not abandon it again.' Looking into his eyes, she saw no way to sway him. She broke from him and stumbled away, hands pressed to her face to catch the tears. He let her go.
Merry was called back to the tailors' tent for another fitting. This time he was welcomed by Gilwyn.
'What, more clothes for my cousin? He's going to need a pony to carry all his baggage!'
'A different cousin, this time,' Gilwyn answered. Though she smiled, Merry could see that her eyes were red and swollen and the smile trembled on her lips as if it might dissolve at any moment. 'The Ring-bearer needs new clothes, and his servant as well.'
'Yes, I'm afraid they lost all their baggage on the way,' Merry nodded. 'Ah, well, what do you want me to do?'
'Stand on the stool. I have your measurements from the other day, and just need to check what I've already made up, for fit. How does your cousin compare with you?'
'Well, he was a little taller, but I think I might have caught up to him,' Merry answered with a grin.
'And the other?'
'I'm sure I am taller than Sam. He'd be a little shorter than Frodo, I think.'
She had him carefully pull on a shirt that was held together with pins. 'Can we go outside the tent? I'd like better light to check the fit.' He hopped down and courteously carried the stool outside for her and clambered up on it again.
'It will be just fine.' She had him hold out his arms while she made adjustments. He was surprised to feel a drop on his hand and looked up, but the rain from earlier in the day had cleared. Then he saw Gilwyn surreptitiously trying to wipe tears from her face.
'What is it? What's wrong?' he asked, immediately concerned.
'Nothing. I'm sorry. I didn't mean...'
'No, tell me!' Merry urged. 'How can I help?'
'You are kind, Master Perian. But you cannot help. No one can. Not even the King.' He let it go, but when they had returned to the privacy of the fitting room in the tent, he pressed the matter again. He had seen desperation in Éowyn, and he would not let it pass now in Gilwyn. Somehow his concern reached her, and she broke down and buried her face in the fabric she held. He sat her down upon the stool and stood patting and rubbing her back for a long time as she cried. When the storm was over he plied her with skillful questions as only a hobbit could do. When he left he sought out Aragorn. Strider would know what to do.
Merry shook his head in disbelief. 'I do not understand!' he objected. 'Beregond saved Faramir! What kind of law would condemn a man for saving his Captain?'
Aragorn looked troubled. 'The law was made for a reason, Merry, good reason. Not even the King may do as he please.'
'But Strider!' Merry protested.
Aragorn held up his hand to stop him. 'I am still trying to find a solution, but the law leaves me very little choice. Quick death by sword, or slow death by exile. I am sorry, Merry, you know that I can find no joy in this. Be assured of one thing: Beregond will receive justice, under the law.'
'But does the law allow for mercy?' Merry pressed.
Aragorn stood without speaking for the space of several breaths. When he looked up again, his eyes were sad. 'Go, Merry. And do not speak of this to Pippin.' Tears in his eyes, Merry stumbled away.
That evening Gilwyn and Beregond walked together in the dark beneath the trees, stopping when they came to a clearing where the stars shone down, cold and indifferent, untouched by any turmoil on the earth beneath. 'Perhaps it would have been better if I had fallen in battle,' he said almost bitterly. 'Much less trouble for everyone.'
'Do not say that!' she gasped. He looked at her in surprise. She was angry. 'Do not ever say that again! I have never seen you give in like this before. You have always been a fighter. Why are you going like a lamb to the slaughter now?'
'If I must die, at least I may choose to die well,' he said. Her shoulders sagged, and he put his good arm around her. 'We cannot ordain our own end,' he soothed. 'We can only decide how best to use the time that is given us. That's what my gran always used to say, and she was a wise woman indeed.' She clung to him, not wanting to let him go.
'You're trembling,' he observed. He wrapped his cloak about her.
'I'm frightened,' she admitted, looking searchingly up at his face in the darkness. 'I've never been so frightened, not even when the forces of the Dark Lord were assailing the Gate. For there was still hope, then, hope that Rohan would come, or Mithrandir would somehow prevail against the Dark Captain.' She bowed her head. 'But now there is no hope at all.'
He pulled her closer, nestling her head under his chin. He rested his chin on her fragrant hair and they stood awhile, just breathing together. He spoke again, reflectively. 'When I went to watch with the Halfling today, Lord Aragorn was sitting with him.' She had stopped trembling, and stood passively in the circle of his arm. 'He was telling the story of Beren and Luthien.' He paused, his eyes seeking the bright stars above. 'Do you know...? They both died, and left Middle-earth, but the tale says they were reunited beyond the Sundering Seas...'
She stood drinking him in for as long as he chose to stand there, and remained a long time still wrapped in his cloak, after he had turned to walk away.
Chapter 4. Cormallen
He managed to hide his despair from the Halfling; indeed, it was easy to push it away in the face of his joy at Pippin's rapid improvement. The first time Beregond sat a bedside watch with Pippin, the hobbit slept most of the time, rousing only for brief intervals to be fed like a babe from a spoon or to sip water from a cup held for him. Beregond sat through the long hours watching him sleep, thinking of the irony that this friend of his had saved his life in battle, only to have to see him lose it in disgrace. Ah, well, perhaps the trial and execution would be over with before Pippin left his bed and he would not have to be witness to it.
The next time he sat with Pippin, the hobbit could ply his own spoon and stayed awake for longer intervals. Pippin's breath came easier, though he remained propped up in the bed some days more. They had brief times of talk, during which the hobbit would unexpectedly lapse back into sleep.
A day or two later, Beregond and other semi-able men were summoned hastily from the mess. Clouds were rolling in. They quickly set up tents over the wounded who had been bedded in the open air -- these were the ones whose lungs had been most damaged, and needed the most fresh air possible -- and then when the rain had passed they took the tents down again. Beregond wanted to laugh at the look of wonder on Pippin's face as he awakened to the pattering of rain on the canvas. Pippin turned to him. 'It's got such a homey sound to it,' he said dreamily.
'That it does,' Beregond agreed. How many times had he tramped the fields and forest surrounding his father's house and slept beneath a canvas, listening to the patter of the rain? He wished he could see Lossarnach one more time, see his old haunts and walk the old trails.
The next day when Pippin awoke, he murmured, 'Cool sunshine and green grass.'
'What was that?' Beregond queried gently.
'I thought I would never see it again,' the hobbit said without further explanation, but Beregond understood.
A day later Pippin could hold a mug by himself. They toasted his success in some of the good ale that had been brought from the City. Of course, the ale made him sleepy again quite soon. That was not a bad thing. Sleep seemed to bring healing.
It wasn't long before the hobbit was chafing to be out of bed. The wrappings around the chest and the stabilising weight were no longer needed, and he no longer had to be propped up to breathe. The Lord Aragorn had some strong words with Pippin, and managed to get the high-spirited little fellow to promise to stay quiet awhile longer. It wasn't easy. Beregond suspected that it was only the lack of britches that kept Pippin in his blankets.
When he was not sitting with the hobbit or attending to the business of his Company, Beregond was walking in the woods, or watching the stars. Sometimes Gilwyn would seek him out, sometimes she would avoid him. He did not press her. She was coming to terms with the idea of losing him just as she'd found him again.
He felt sorry for the Lord Aragorn. He was a decent man, bound by a law that had been made for good reason. Men simply could not desert their posts in time of war. Beregond had done so, fully knowing the penalty. He had spilled men's blood, and that could not be forgotten. He was ready to pay, almost wishing that payment would be demanded sooner than later. He was tired of putting on a courageous face for his friends and comrades. Most of all he dreaded seeing pity in their eyes, but so far all they had offered was respect.
For the most part, he and the men of his Company lived for the day, ignoring what the future must surely bring. It must come soon. Surely Lord Aragorn had completed his investigations by now. There would be no forewarning. A muster would be announced, like any other muster, except that he would be called to stand forth from the ranks, and that would be the end. It was better that way. Gave the men less time to anticipate. As long as no announcement was made they could live each day as it came.
One morning the word came that there was to be a muster the next day, and all were to wear the fine new uniforms ordered by the Steward. All the Company went about that day in deep gloom, but those who sat the bedside watch with Pippin were careful to put on a casual, cheerful demeanour.
On the morning of the following day, Targon helped Beregond into his new uniform. Gilwyn had made it ingeniously for a man with one arm bound to his side. Instead of going over his head and having to poke his arms through, the tunic had fastenings at neck and left side, and a detached left sleeve, with extra room for splints and bandages, that could be separately pulled on over his arm and fastened at the top. Someone had modified a hauberk for him, completely opened up the left side so that he could get it on easily enough and stick his arm and elbow through the hole. Not too practical in battle, though. Targon adjusted Beregond's arm in the sling, bent down to give his boots a polish, and straightened up again to reach for the surcoat. Beregond stopped him. 'No.'
Targon cut off his protest at the sight of Beregond's face. 'I'll just go see to the men,' he muttered. 'Call if you need aid.'
Targon was an excellent swordsman, strong and accurate. Beregond regarded him seriously. 'The Lord Aragorn spoke to me again the other day of the choice of Valdil.' Targon nodded without speaking. Death by the sword of a friend, who would see to it that it would be honourable, and as quick and painless as possible. 'When the verdict is given, will you...?' The old guardsman dropped his eyes, then raised them to meet Beregond's steady gaze. 'I will make it swift,' he promised. He reached out his hand, they grasped each others' forearms, held tightly a long moment, then Targon broke the grip and strode away.
Beregond stood by the bench where the folded surcoat still lay. His fingertip traced the silver Tree. He would never wear that emblem again. His throat ached, but he took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and turned away. Squaring his shoulders, he strode from the tent.
He was met by a cheer from his men. Targon came forward with a grin. The cantankerous old soldier was actually beaming with joy. 'It is not to be a trial,' he exulted, 'not this day!'
'What is it, then?' Beregond asked.
'The young hobbits, they are to be made knights of the City and of the Mark.'
Beregond felt his face split in a grin. Oh, he was glad to have lived to see this day! 'When?'
'After the meal. We are to muster on the field at the sound of the trumpets.'
Beregond looked up to see Gilwyn hovering at the entrance to the tent. He placed his good hand on Targon's shoulder. 'I will meet you at the mess, old friend,' he said. Targon, following his gaze, nodded and spun to growl orders at the men.
Beregond went to Gilwyn, whose face was pale and strained. 'Today is not the day,' he soothed.
'I heard... the muster...'
'It is for a happier reason. The hobbits are to be knighted.' Her eyes brightened. He noticed black cloth protruding from her fist. 'What is that?' She let her hand fall open, and he saw she held a length of shining black silk.
'That sling does not go with your uniform at all!' she said defiantly. 'I brought you a better one.' He laughed, and let her change the white cloth for the black silk. 'There!' she exclaimed when she had adjusted it to her satisfaction.
'It does look nice against the hauberk and black tunic,' he teased.
'Go on with you,' she said, and pushed him towards the mess. She turned away, but not before he saw the sparkle of tears in her eyes.
He met Pippin and Merry on the way to the mess, looking fine indeed. He bowed and smiled. 'You are a credit to the Guard of the Tower, Master Perian. You look ready for battle... But no battle today, only a few matters of business.' Merry looked apprehensive at this, but Beregond nodded at him with a smile and the hobbit wiped the look from his face before Pippin could catch it.
Pippin thanked him, and they entered a grove where long tables and benches had been set up. The meal was simple, bread and cheese and new-drawn ale, but it was eaten with as much merriment as if it had been a feast. The guardsmen made much of Pippin, and included Merry in all they said and did.
Finally all was eaten and Beregond rose, hefting his mug in the air. He toasted the Captains of the West, and then the armies of the West, and then the common soldier, and all roared their agreement as they drank. Then Beregond raised his mug silently, and as the mess quieted, he said, 'And now I ask that we drink to the ones who will not return, the comrades who fought beside us.' The men drank soberly.
Beregond turned towards Pippin and said, 'and one more toast. To my friend, and comrade, and one to whom I owe my life.' Pippin grew red as the soldiers rose together to drink a toast in his honour. He rose from the table a little shakily, and lifting his mug in return, he thanked them, and said, 'and now let us drink to the start of a new age, but let us never forget the friendships of the old one.'
Toasts over, the men set down their mugs and began to go about their business. Pippin sat down again, and Beregond could see he needed a moment to catch his breath. Many of the soldiers came to rest a hand on his shoulder or slap him gently on his back and congratulate him on his recovery.
Pippin made move to rise again, and Beregond's uninjured hand steadied him. 'Make haste a little more slowly, Master Perian,' he smiled, then sobered. 'A Man with your injuries would have lain abed for months... or not risen at all.' Trumpets sounded and Beregond was cheerful again. 'They are calling us to muster.'
When they reached the greensward they found many soldiers of Gondor and Rohan already drawn up in ranks, with Aragorn and Éomer standing together at their head.
A trumpet sounded, and a herald cried, 'Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, Periain of the Shire, stand forth!' Beregond's hand tightened reassuringly on Pippin's shoulder, and then he stepped into the rank.
He watched with pride as his friend received the rank of knight of the White City, joining in the cheer that arose at the ceremony's close. He joined whole-heartedly in the celebration that followed, as well.
In the midst of the revel, a hand touched his arm and turning, he was surprised to see Darothorn. The other indicated with a jerk of his head that he wanted to walk to a quieter place. Beregond nodded, and they slipped through the crowd.
Targon caught them up as they reached the outskirts of the merrymakers. 'Beregond?'
He smiled. 'It is all right, Targon.' He touched the grizzled guardsman's arm reassuringly. Targon looked as if he wanted to protest, but Beregond shook his head and indicated with a gesture that he did not want to be followed. Reluctantly the old guardsman nodded.
Beregond followed Darothorn into a quiet glade and waited for the other to speak, but the Darothorn remained silent.
Finally Beregond spoke. 'Well? Did you come to tell me you changed your mind?' He put his hand on his dagger hilt.
Darothorn's eyes followed his motion. 'Put it away,' he said in a hoarse voice. 'We won't need that.'
Darothorn spoke again. 'Yes,' he said. 'I did change my mind.'
'Then what are you waiting for?'
'Do not be so eager to die, Beregond. That has always been a failing of yours: you have no fear. Look where it got you the last time, buried under a stinking troll for the better part of a day.'
'What do you want, Darothorn?' Beregond asked wearily.
'There has been enough blood spilled,' the other answered. 'Your life will not bring my brother back. Your family's tears will not make my family stop weeping.'
Beregond stood silent.
Darothorn shook his head. 'Today, when I thought I would watch you walk to your execution, I realized I did not really want to see you die.' He met Beregond's eyes in the gathering gloom. 'My brother was in the wrong, if he knew Faramir still breathed.' He hesitated. 'Did he know?'
'I knew,' Beregond answered. 'The Lord Denethor knew.'
The other shook his head in despair. 'I do not know how he could have followed a madman. Why he did not turn and fight by your side, I will never know.' He met Beregond's gaze once more. 'You have been a fine guardsman... and a good friend.' He held out his hand, Beregond grasped his arm; he grasped Beregond's in return, and they stood for a long moment before dropping their hands and walking back to the celebration.
Targon met them with a raised eyebrow and expression of relief. Beregond slapped him on the arm. 'Come on, old friend. Darothorn says he is buying the next round of drinks.' They walked back to where the kegs of ale were being tapped.
The next day was another muster, but they knew ahead of time that it had been called to honour the Ring-bearers. As the diminutive figures came to the field, Beregond unsheathed his sword with the rest, raised it high to glitter in the sun, and lustily joined in the shouting. 'Praise them with great praise! Praise them! Long live the Halflings! Praise them with great praise!'
After the King had set the small figures on his own throne, and the last glad shout had swelled up and died away again, a minstrel of Gondor stood forth, and knelt, and begged leave to sing. And one of the hobbits laughed and cried out, 'O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!' And then he wept. Beregond joined the host in laughing and weeping, and hushed with them to hear the minstrel's song. He heard the full tale now with wonder, how duty had led these little people to walk into despair, without hope, yet somehow they had come through peril and death with honour. Against all inclination, hope stirred in his heart.
Gilwyn in her blue dress sat next to him at the feast that followed. They did not say much, but sat with hands entwined. Of course, that made it hard for a one-armed man to eat, but Beregond felt little hunger. The guardsmen made merry, for it was indeed a great feast that had been in preparation for days, ever since the healers had announced that the Ring-bearer was out of danger. There was fine food, wine, song, and much laughter. Beregond drank it all in greedily. Life was good, and he was loathe to leave it. But when the time came he hoped he would walk the path with as much courage and grace as those small Halflings had done.
There was a great bustle of dismantling and packing. The tent city that had stood the last few weeks was gone, a trampled meadow where it had been. Loaded wagons had been leaving for the past few days, and the last day the guardsmen found themselves seated on the ground to eat dry rations as if they were on a long march, and they slept that night in their blanket rolls instead of in beds.
Gilwyn had not wanted to go back to the city with the waggons of wounded not yet recovered enough to march, but Beregond had been gently insistent. The army would march back to the City, and there would be no place for a woman. She looked up, running her fingers over his face as if trying to memorize him, and he could see the anxiety she tried to hide.
'It's all right, Gilwyn,' he soothed. 'Nothing is going to happen yet. Not until after we get back to the City.'
'How can you know?'
He smiled. 'I have been thinking. Lord Aragorn is not a cruel man, to prolong the waiting, nor a kindly but weak man who delays to give us more time together. In truth I believe he hardly knows we exist. He has been busy with matters of command. He is not King yet.'
'I don't understand.'
'Do you not see? He put off his crowning to march to the War. He did not choose to be crowned until the fate of Middle-earth was decided. Wise of him. Who would want to be King of a failing realm?'
'But what does that have to do with...?'
'Because he is not the King, under the law he cannot judge me. Faramir is still Steward of the City. I am sure he would have given me a swift end after the battle was decided. He is a fair man and he knows his duty. But Faramir is not here. And Lord Aragorn is not yet King.'
He smiled down at her. 'Do not fear. This is not the final parting. Wear your blue dress to stand at the City wall. I will look for you when we march in.'
'Oh, Beregond...' she buried her face in his chest, holding him tightly enough to hurt his bad arm through the splint, though he made no sign.
When she relaxed, he gently disengaged from her and handed her into the waggon.
The march was the same distance as it had been when they had come down this road to do battle, but now they were headed homeward and the distance flowed under their feet. Pippin had been allowed to stay with the Company, though he rode the better part of each day on the supply wagon. Targon was not completely healed; he was limping by the end of the day, though he kept his grumblings to himself. He did not want to be ordered to ride. Beregond marched with his men. There was nothing wrong with his legs, after all. Still, at the end of each day he was ready to stretch out after seeing to his men. Often Pippin would bring him a hot drink from the fire, and they would sit and talk. Beregond asked him questions about his life, and he learned much about the Ring-bearer and the other Halflings and their life back home. Strange that such a funny, simple folk should have such steel inside.
He did not wear the surcoat over his mail, but carried it in his pack. When wakeful late at night, when all slept and only the sentries on the fringes were awake, he would sometimes take it out and trace the broidered Tree with his finger. He was glad that he would see the White City again. He wondered if his trial would come before or after the crowning of the King. He rather wished it would come before. Somehow it seemed more fitting for Faramir, his Captain, to declare his fate. His respect for Lord Aragorn had grown, however, and he supposed the man would do a fair job once he was King. For the most part, he put it out of his head. No need to worry about tomorrow. As his gran said, today's troubles were enough to deal with for today. Not that there were many troubles, the men were too disciplined for that. He enjoyed the marches, and the evening bivouacs. In truth, he was at peace, living each moment as it came, savouring every bite of food, every sip, every word, every sight and sound.
As they approached the City they could see bright pavilions standing before the walls. Faint upon the breeze came the sound of clamouring bells from the City, and they saw as they approached the standard of the Stewards, raised upon the White Tower of the citadel for the last time. Banners flew from every wall.
The soldiers were in fine array. Every piece of gear that would take polish had been buffed to high gleam. They marched in perfect unison towards the Gate, and when ordered to halt a furlong from the Gate they stood like statues, proud.
There was a barrier across the road and men in the uniform of the Tower Guard waited, swords drawn, glittering in the sun. Before the barrier stood Faramir the Steward, Hurin Warden of the Keys, other captains of Gondor, and many of Rohan, and on either side of the Gate people thronged, their garments a rainbow of colors. Sweet-scented flowers perfumed the air. Beregond let his eyes rest with satisfaction on Faramir. It was good to see the Captain alive, well, strong, himself again.
The Lord Aragorn walked slowly into the space before the gate, followed by the Dúnedain in their silver and grey. For the first time he looked to Beregond's eyes like a King. He was clad in black mail girt with silver, a long white mantle clasped at his throat with a green stone that shone afar; a slender fillet of silver bound a star upon his forehead. With him were the Ring-bearer and his Companion, Éomer of Rohan -- Merry by his side --Prince Imrahil, and Gandalf -- truly a White Wizard now, no longer veiled. Beregond couldn't help the twitching of his lips in a smile to see Pippin in his fine guardsman's uniform standing with the great folk, jaunty as ever.
The massed crowds cheered and bright cloths fluttered from many hands. Without moving his head, Beregond searched the walls until his eyes found a blue dress. Beside Gilwyn he saw her son Fargil and his son Bergil waving and cheering lustily.
A single trumpet sounded and dead silence fell. Beregond heard a horse stamp, and then even the beasts were still.
Faramir walked forward to meet Aragorn, followed by four men in the high helms and armour of the Citadel, bearing a great casket of black lebethron bound with silver. They met in the middle of the open space, and Faramir knelt to surrender his office. He extended his white rod, and Aragorn took it, but then he gave it back, proclaiming that the office of Steward would remain for Faramir and his heirs as long as the King's line should last.
Then Faramir stood up and spoke in a clear voice: 'Men of Gondor, hear now the Steward of this Realm! Behold! one has come to claim the kingship again at last. Here is Aragorn son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Dúnedain of Arnor, Captain of the Host of the West, bearer of the Star of the North, wielder of the Sword Reforged, victorious in battle, whose hands bring healing, the Elfstone, Elessar of the line of Valandil, Isildur's son, Elendil's son of Numenor. Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?
Beregond felt the pride thrill within him as a stubborn place melted that had up until this moment remained deep within, a kernel of fierce loyalty that would allow no other to take Faramir's place of command. He shouted, 'Yea!' with all the host and all the people, and the banners and cloths were waved wildly on the walls and in the crowds beside the Gate.
Faramir spoke again, of how kings had been crowned in the past. The guardsmen stepped forward as one, bringing the casket to Faramir. He opened it and held up an ancient crown, shaped like the helms of the Guards of the Citadel, save it was loftier and shone white and fair in the sun, and jewels sparkled from it.
Aragorn took the crown from Faramir and held it up, crying out in a strange tongue. Then, to Beregond's wonder, Aragorn did not place the crown on his own head but gave it back to Faramir. By his direction, the Ring-bearer took the crown from Faramir and carried it to the White Wizard; Aragorn knelt, and Mithrandir set the crown upon his head.
Beregond was set to cheer with the others when the newly crowned King arose, but the sound died in his throat. He felt as if he had never seen him before, this man he had followed into horror and battle, with whom he had shared bedside watches and a jolting waggon, this man he had so often seen sitting with the Dúnedain by the fireside, drinking quietly and talking like any common soldier on a march.
Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.
'Behold the King!' cried Faramir. All the trumpets were blown, the barrier was set aside, the people shouted and sang, waved banners and threw flowers, music poured forth, and the King entered his City. As the armies of the West stood at attention, they saw the banner of the Tree and Stars unfurl upon the topmost tower and knew that at last, they had a King.
Beregond had little time to himself in the next days. Though he was not a guardsman he was still assigned to duty in the City. Wise, that. They didn't want to give him time to brood -- not that he was brooding. Tired, more like. Tired of the waiting and ready to get on with it. Sometimes he dreamed he ran a race where the finish beckoned just ahead, yet if he looked down and up again would seem to have retreated.
When not on duty he still had little time to himself, for friends surrounded him. He spent as much time as he could with Gilwyn and Bergil. The lad would be all right. Gilwyn had practically raised him since his mother's death. The boy would not be truly orphaned. Beregond and Gilwyn did not speak of the future; there was no point in worrying the boys. It was hard to hear Bergil and Fargil make plans of going back to Lossarnach in the summer and the many adventures they would have together. If the adults were quieter than usual, the boys in their exuberance hardly noticed.
Faramir sought him out. They quietly shared a mug of ale, talking over old times. It was good to have some time with the Captain. He always saw things so clearly.
The Captain was shaking his head, 'It is an ancient law, and no one saw any reason to change it. Not even when Valdil made his choice. It may be rewritten now...'
'But not in time for me,' Beregond observed quietly.
'We of Gondor have always prided ourselves on swift and sure justice.'
Beregond laughed softly. 'Swift indeed. Some weeks, already. I could die of old age waiting.'
Faramir's eyes were sorrowful. 'I think there will be no danger of that, my faithful guardsman. The King has been busy, in truth, but most of the pressing matters have been settled.'
Beregond nodded, then looked up, unspoken question in his eyes.
Faramir put a hand on his good shoulder. 'I will be there.' He took his hand away, drained his mug, stood. He hesitated a moment, saying, 'Do not surrender all hope, Beregond. The King is a wise man.'
'Hope?' Beregond asked. Despair was not in his eyes, only calm acceptance. 'The only hope I can see is for a fair morn and a swift stroke.'
Faramir paused as if he would say more, but no words came. He saluted the guardsman, turned, and walked out.
The Surgeon had taken the splints off his arm. Though he still needed a sling, he was told the arm was healing nicely. Good news, he supposed. He was given a new uniform to replace the one adjusted for a man with arm bound to his side. A waste of fabric, he wouldn't be needing it that long. Still he wore it. Might as well look like a soldier as long as he was one. He dutifully exercised the arm as the Surgeon had instructed. He was always one to follow orders.
King Elessar laid aside the last parchment and sat back with a sigh, rubbing his eyes. He looked up at the scribe. 'All right, Gumbrad, you may leave us.' The scribe nodded and laid down his quill. After bowing, he exited the chamber as quickly and neatly as he transcribed the business of the Kingdom.
Faramir stretched in his chair. 'Are we done for the day?'
'With official business, at least.' Faramir started to rise, but the King forestalled him. 'I would not keep you any longer from your Lady, but there is a matter to discuss...' A parchment was pulled from under another pile, this in the King's own hand. He tossed it over to Faramir, who caught it with a questioning look. 'Read,' the King urged him. 'The facts of a case I must judge.' Faramir began to scan the page rapidly, but slowed and raised his eyes to meet the King's before he was halfway down the page.
The King leaned back in his chair. 'If you were still Steward, what would you do?'
'Not an easy question... the blood he spilled in the Hallows... one might argue he was executing the law by trying to prevent a murder, but I do not think the man himself would agree. He is haunted by the blood he spilled. Oh, a soldier expects to loose a lot of blood with his sword, but not the blood of friends.' He sighed and repeated, '...not the blood of friends. On the other hand, he saved my life. I would owe him his, I know. But the Stewards have upheld the law for centuries.'
'In this one case...'
Faramir smiled grimly. 'Ah, but that is how it always begins. Like standing at the top of a grassy slope and taking one step down, only to find yourself sliding on the dew. You bend one law, and soon the courtiers are coming around asking you to bend another law. Just a little. And then another, just for convenience. My father taught me that. He learned his lesson early.'
'Denethor? He was one of the steadiest men I knew.'
'Firm and unyielding might be closer to the truth. He would have executed Beregond on the spot. The law would have upheld him. When a man deserts his duty, you do not necessarily have to bring him to trial. Finding him away from his post without leave from his Lord is enough to try and to convict him.'
'Even if Beregond had saved his last remaining son from death?'
Faramir looked troubled. 'I cannot pretend to speak for the dead, or know his mind. But he was so stern, so immovable in these latter years, as the Shadow stretched out its hand... yes, I think he would have. With some regret, perhaps. But no mercy. There was no mercy left in him at the end.' He sighed and looked down at the manuscript still in his hand. 'You have talked with Beregond?'
'Does he plead for mercy?' He looked up again to meet the eyes of the King and shook his head. 'I thought not. He is a fine guardsman and has great pride. He is sworn to uphold the law and has done so without thought for himself, all his life.'
Faramir leaned forward. 'What?'
'He asked for the choice of Valdil.'
Faramir leaned back, shaking his head. 'He would. I expected that.'
'It fits well with tradition.' The King sighed deeply. 'Tradition lies heavy on the White City. Every person I have talked to expects Beregond to be put to the sword. Sooner than later. They are not happy about it. And yet... in truth, I think many would find relief in it.'
'But they do not know their King,' the Steward said.
One day the captain of the Guard came to Beregond as he was coming off duty. Beregond started to greet him but the words died on his lips at the sight of the captain's face. 'When?' he asked, quietly.
'Tomorrow,' the captain replied.
'I am ready.'
'I know you are.' The captain hesitated, started to speak, then set his lips in a grim line. He raised a hand to Beregond's good shoulder, squeezed hard, and turned away.
Somehow the news preceded him to the mess. The men picked at their food in silence, shrouded in gloom.
Suddenly Targon climbed up upon one of the tables. Beregond stared at him in astonishment.
'Whatever are you all just sitting there for?' he demanded. There was a stir and a murmur. Fists on his hips, Targon glared around the room. 'What kind of a sendoff is this? Is this what ye'd give the man to remember you by?' Another guardsman slammed his mug down, sending a fountain of ale sloshing over its sides. 'No!' he shouted in reply then jumped up from his bench. 'Let's have a song, lads!' He began to shout in his rough voice a lively marching tune. More tuneful voices joined in and soon the mess rang defiantly with song.
Later that evening Beregond was sitting with Gilwyn when Bergil burst in, face wet with tears. 'It's not true! Say it's not true!' he shouted. Gilwyn shot Beregond a glance, bit her lip, and started to rise. Beregond put his good hand on her arm to restrain her. She sat back down as he regarded his son.
'Sit down, Bergil,' he commanded.
'No! Tell me it's not true!'
'Sit down and tell us what the shouting is about,' he repeated calmly. Bergil, breathing hard, stood locking eyes with his father for the space of several breaths. Beregond neither moved nor spoke. Finally, as if a cord had snapped within, Bergil loosed his fists and lowered them. Beregond nodded to the bench on the opposite side of the table and finally the boy sat down.
Beregond kept his eyes on the boy's. After a few more ragged breaths, the boy half-sobbed, 'I heard men talking in the marketplace. They say you're to be treated like a traitor. They say you are to be put to the sword. They say --' His voice died as he looked into his father's face.
Beregond was nodding slowly. 'Yes,' he said coolly. 'That is right, Bergil. I left my post in time of war. I killed men who wear the same uniform I wear. The law calls my actions those of a renegade and outlaw.'
The boy said desperately, 'But I thought --' He swallowed hard. 'They didn't do anything. There was no trial. They sent you off to battle. And then you came back, and still nothing happened, and I thought --'
'No, Bergil,' his father replied quietly. 'The King has simply not had time to hear my case.' He smiled. 'It has been good to have this time together, hasn't it?' The boy stared at him in shock, then suddenly put his head down on his arms and sobbed violently.
Beregond continued as soothingly as if he had been gentling a fractious horse back on his father's farm. 'Bergil. It will be all right.'
Finally the cloudburst was over and the boy raised his head, sniffling. 'How can it be? How can anything ever be all right again?' he said raggedly.
'You have your home with Gilwyn and Fargil. Things won't be that much changed. Even now I only see you every few days.' The boy stared, breath shuddering. Beregond smiled, doing his best to maintain the soothing, even tone, the last gift he could offer his son, some kind of hope, some kind of peace in the midst of the world's ending. 'Perhaps you and Gilwyn and Fargil can move back to Lossarnach. That is a fine place for a boy to grow to manhood. There will be nothing to tie you here.'
'What kind of a King would put you to death for saving Faramir?' the boy demanded angrily.
'Bergil!' the voice of the father cracked like a whip. 'I will not hear that kind of talk! The King is a wise man and fair. I have heard of the judgments he has already handed out. But there is a law, and he is sworn to uphold it. He will do what is right.'
His voice softened. 'I killed, Bergil. People whose names I knew and who had families and friends. There's not a house untouched by grief, but I, a guardsman, spilled this blood, not an orc, and that must be paid for. Perhaps the King could somehow rule that in leaving my post I was doing my duty towards the Captain, but how can he excuse those deaths? How can I ever wash their blood from my hands?'
He repeated, 'The King will do what is right.' He gazed compassionately at his son, so tall for his age. Surely he would grow to be a tall man like his father, and his father's father before him. He added gently, 'Can I do any less?'
The boy bowed his head in silent defeat, then threw his head back again, not willing to admit that this was what must be. 'But, why?' came the agonized question from the boy.
'We all have choices we must make in this life, Bergil. When the time came, I had to choose between my own life and that of my Captain. If I could go back and change what I did... well, I would not. How could I choose to let Faramir die if it was in my power to save him? How would I live with that choice? There are times when we must choose to do the right thing, no matter the consequences. I hope that I have taught you that at least. I am sorry I will not be able to teach you more.'
'My one regret is leaving you, Bergil. Leaving those I love.' His eyes met Gilwyn's. 'Promise me you will seek to live well, to choose rightly, to walk with honour as I have tried to teach you.'
'I... promise.' Unable to bear any more, the boy buried his face in his hands. Beregond rose from his seat and went around the table to him. Bergil rose and turned to embrace his father fiercely, and Beregond held him tightly with his one good arm. He nodded to Gilwyn, and she came to hug the lad from his other side. They clung together for a long time as the boy wept until he had no tears left.
The next morning he dressed carefully. Targon had polished his gear and his boots to a high shine. The arm was enough better that he declined help, so when Targon entered as he was trying to fasten the clasp of his cloak one-handed, he looked up, surprised. Targon came to him and grasped the cloak, undid the clasp Beregond had just managed to fasten with much fumbling, and laid the cloak over his arm. He went over to the bench where the surcoat still lay in its neat folds. 'You are to wear this today,' he growled. At Beregond's look of surprise he jerked his chin sharply. 'Orders.' Of course. Having lived as a guardsman, he was to be permitted to die as one. He nodded and took the garment from the old guardsman's hands, slipping it over his head, settling it until it fell smoothly against the mail. His fingers caressed the Tree for a last time.
Targon started to pick up the sling, but Beregond forestalled him. 'No. I won't be needing that.' The old guardsman nodded and took up the cloak he held, fastening the clasp at Beregond's throat.
'The helmet, too,' he said, and Beregond picked up his helm and tucked it beneath his good arm.
'I am ready. Are you coming?'
'I will stand with you. Haven't I always?' Their eyes met. There was no need for more words. They left the deserted barracks. Beregond wondered where all the men were. Ah, well, they had taken their leave in the mess last night. Walking jarred his bad arm a bit, but he didn't mind overmuch. It wouldn't be bothering him that much longer.
The captain of the Guard met them outside the barracks. No words were exchanged. None were needed. He fell in behind Beregond and Targon, a proper escort.
Striding through the corridors towards the Hall of the Kings, they met the hobbits. Pippin greeted him with a delighted shout, 'Beregond! You're a guardsman again!' He smiled even as Merry was hushing his cousin in consternation. 'Aye, Master Perian, that I am.' Pippin would have walked with them but Merry pulled him back by the arm, whispering urgently. He caught Pippin's look of confusion, deepening to horror, and then their strides had taken them past the little group. He heard the hobbit cry out behind him, and shook his head slightly. Perhaps they shouldn't have kept it from him. But no. It was better this way. Beregond wouldn't have wanted anything to impede his friend's recovery.
When they entered the Hall of Kings he saw the men of his Company, gear polished to highest gleam, drawn up in razor-straight lines. Come to see him off. Good men. With the captain of the Guard behind him and Targon at his side, he walked up to the King and fell to his knees. Finally. The waiting was done. Time to get it over with. He felt a curious sense of relief. He gazed directly into the eyes of King Elessar.
'Stand before the King,' the captain of the Guard ordered. He rose to his feet, eye-to-eye with the King.
And the King said to Beregond: 'Beregond, by your sword blood was spilled in the Hallows, where that is forbidden. Also you left your post without leave of Lord or of Captain. For these things, of old, death was the penalty. Now therefore I must pronounce your doom.'
Beregond sensed Targon moving beside him. From the corner of his eye he saw the guardsman draw his gleaming sword and hold it at the ready by his side. King Elessar saw as well, and hesitated. A grim smile touched his lips, and for a moment Beregond saw not the King, but the man Aragorn he had known, if only slightly. Smile gone, it was once again the King who stood before him. He met the King's gaze, waiting. Ready. Time seemed to stretch out to eternity.
'All penalty is remitted for your valour in battle, and still more because all that you did was for the love of the Lord Faramir. Nonetheless you must leave the Guard of the Citadel, and you must go forth from the City of Minas Tirith.'
He heard Targon gasp beside him. The impact of the words struck. Not death then, but exile. Another kind of death. He realized he had been holding his breath, and now he exhaled sharply, his heart seemed to stop, he bowed his head. Was this truly justice? Was it mercy? He heard the King continue,
'So it must be, for you are appointed to the White Company, the guard of Faramir, Prince of Ithilien, and you shall be its captain and dwell in Emyn Arnen in honour and peace, and in the service of him for whom you risked all, to save him from death.'
It took a moment for the words to sink in. He raised his head to meet the King's eyes, and Lord Aragorn... King Elessar was smiling. Beregond stared unbelievingly until the King nodded. Joy filled his heart, and he dropped to his knees to kiss the hand of the King. He heard Targon shout, saw the old soldier throw the gleaming sword high in the air. It cartwheeled and came down again to his hand. His company behind him erupted into a great cheer. The King reached out to raise him from his knees. Eyes shining with joy, Beregond marched out, the captain of the Guard, and Targon, and then the rest of his company falling in behind him.
Next: Final chapter: Epilogue
Chapter 6. Epilogue
Most of the travellers had sought their beds; the morrow would bring an early start. Two figures still sat by the fire. They had talked long, and now shared the comfortable silence of old friends, looking into the flames, watching the sparks fly up as a log shifted.
Finally, Pippin spoke. 'I suppose we will not meet again.'
Beregond was silent until another log split, sending a shower of sparks heavenward. 'No,' he said, lowering his eyes, then raising them to meet Pippin's in the firelight, 'I do not suppose we ever shall, Master Perian. But it has been good to know you.'
Pippin was quiet once more, and finally Beregond spoke. 'Something has been troubling you, Peregrin Took. If you are to speak of it, you had better make now the time.'
Pippin hesitated. Beregond waited. At last the hobbit said, 'That day, when I thought you had gone to your death... I knew... the fault was mine! Had I run straight to Gandalf, you never would have left your post.'
'And then Faramir would have died.'
'Gandalf would have stopped him.'
Beregond shook his head. 'He would not have been in time.'
'All you ever wanted was to be a Guard of the Citadel. And now you have been sent from the City. I am sorry, Beregond.'
'My old gran used to say it was the 'could haves' and 'should haves' that will break your heart.' He raised his eyes to the stars and gazed without speaking until a shining finger of light traced its way across the sky. 'Look!' he said. 'A falling star. I always used to watch them and wonder what far country they might land in.' He looked back at the hobbit. 'Pippin,' he said gently. 'You did the best that you could. Lord Faramir lives today because of the choices that you made, and that I made. And in truth, the outcome is not so terrible. Yes, I am no longer a member of the Guard of the Citadel. But to tell you the truth, it was serving the Captain that kept me in that City of Stone. And now, I dwell in a fair green land, and yet serve the Captain. How, then, have you wronged me? Where is the fault?'
'My life is better than I ever dreamed it could be. But, Pippin...' he held the other's gaze in the firelight. 'Had I died, it would have been an honorable death. I made my choice. I knew the penalty. I would rather have died than let the Captain die because I was too fearful to take action. It was not your doing at all.'
'Then, you forgive me?'
'There is nothing to forgive.'
'And we are friends?'
'That we are, Master Perian. That we are.'
'So what would your wise old gran have said about friends parting?'
'I think she would have said, 'Friendship will live as long as the remembering does.' Pippin nodded, and the two sat silent, companionable, until the fire burned low.
The next morning, Beregond rode to the top of the first hill with the travellers, then watched as they descended into the valley. He thought he saw Pippin looking back as his pony climbed the next hillside. He started to turn his horse to ride back to Edoras, where Faramir was staying some time longer, when he heard Pippin's clear voice call out, 'Remember!'
He drew his sword, and it caught the light of the rising sun as he held it high. On the opposite hilltop, he saw the glint of the sun from another upraised sword, and he watched until it was gone from sight as Pippin's pony descended behind the hill.
Story under construction, pending addition of footnotes.
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