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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.
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