Steward and the King, The
Long hours later, Aragorn entered the hall. There was a white tree behind the throne shrouded in darkness. Halbarad had carried a white tree in the red sunlight, the white gems gleaming. He had died on the field, orc-arrow through his neck. Nuhael, who had caught the banner before it fell, was nearly hit moments after. Now Pippin wore the tree.
Aragorn forced away his doubts. Trap it might be, but the tree's temptation could be used against Sauron as well. Great was the debt he owed to Elrond and Arwen; heavy was the responsibility he carried, but he did not wish for different sires. I will keep the Dark Lord's eyes on me, come what may, he thought. Many more will die before this war is done.
Denethor watched his approach coldly. "Ill news," he said, and Pippin closed his eyes. "Thorongil," he said to Aragorn when he stopped before the seat. "Have you found Meriadoc Brandybuck alive?"
"No." Aragorn had claimed the burden to bring this news, but he could find no comforting words. "Elladan has brought his body from the field."
"Go," Denethor said to Pippin.
Aragorn knelt on one knee to catch the hobbit in a quick embrace as he stumbled by. "I'm sorry," he whispered in his ear as he let him go. Then he slowly stood to look at Denethor. "King Theoden and Lady Eowyn still live, though they are both weak."
The silence was not answer, it was contempt.
Aragorn locked eyes with the ruler of Gondor with a heavy heart and stone cold blood. There had been no "thank you" for the breaking of the siege or the safety of the South; there had been no reaction to the names of Theoden or Eowyn. The man before him cared not. The words for Merry and to Pippin were not in any way friendship. Rather they had been a means to wound an enemy.
Denethor looked him up and down, trying to provoke him to speak. He wanted Aragorn, in this throne room, to make his pretender's claim so he could laugh and refuse. The sons of Arvedui Last King died with him in battle, leaving only daughters; your family can have no closer blood-claim to the throne than Mardil had, and he claimed it not!
Aragorn, instead, stood waiting.
Denethor could scarce abide the silent accusation. In the dim light he could see not a gray hair on his head, not a whisper's difference from when he last saw him forty years before. Bitter envy clouded his eyes. He felt all his age, but Thorongil -- he could well see -- was still in his prime. What devilry, what powers was he puppet to? Could no one see the truth, would no one listen?
"If your business is done here, go."
"Tomorrow, outside the walls. A council. Boromir will know where." Aragorn turned and left.
"Denethor's mood has not changed," Imrahil said to Eomer in a low voice. They stood at the door of King Theoden's room. "Boromir, as myself and all others here, is honest in his thanks for rescue. Boromir and his father have argued much. Denethor would spend all seeing nothing but death and Boromir counsels prudence. Denethor is even more angry that many have been approaching Boromir alone, putting Heir before Ruler. He will consider it a great betrayal that Boromir personally welcomed Thorongil and brought him into the city."
Two hours later Pippin walked quietly back into the throne room and returned to his place at Denethor's side. "I grieve with you," Denethor said, looking at the hobbit's red eyes. "What have you learned?"
"Merry was supposed to stay in Dunharrow with Eowyn, but she dressed herself as a man and rode into battle, and took Merry with her. Whatever happened, he was close. He was dazed." The first statement was said softly, but with certainty. His voice then began to quiver with pain and doubt and questions that would never be answered. "He must have tried to follow Gandalf as he took Theoden and Eowyn here and Eomer left with the rest of his men, and they rode too fast for him to follow on foot. Elladan found few marks he could read. He could not find his shield. He thinks Merry was trying to walk to the city and was hewn from the back by some fleeing orc, and then took a few more steps and fell; his sword was still in its sheath. He thinks that if he had not been moving he might not have been a target."
"Will they bury him with the Rohirrim dead?"
Pippin's eyes filled again with tears. "Lord Elladan asked your people to embalm the body. They did not think odd of the request, because they think him a 'prince', same as me." He had to cover his face a while before he could continue. "I said his family would want it returned to the Shire after the war is done."
"Fool child," Denethor said softly. Pippin looked down. "You are the only thing that has come from the North that has been any use to me. There will be no 'done' until Sauron has killed us all. Thanks to Mithrandir and his pretender, we have no weapon that can defeat him; we can only hold on as long as might be."
"Yes, Lord," Pippin's eyes remained bleakly downcast.
"I am sorry," Denethor said, after a long moment. "If only for your sake, I will hope that this pause lasts time enough that we might send your friend's body back to his home."
"Yes, Lord. Thank you."
Pippin lay on his cot, face toward the door, eyes open, and did not move.
Gandalf entered. He opened his mouth to speak, then with an awkward motion Pippin did not see, he held the words back. He lit a candle, then walked back to Pippin who had raised himself up to sitting.
"I didn't see him! He was too small to see in the confusion." He paced angrily. "There was no reason for him to have been there! I thought he had more sense." His voice was a mix of hurt and frustrated anger. "Eowyn's presence was no surprise to me. I knew she was at risk. Grima's years of poison had been on her as well as King Theoden, but I had no time and much else before me, and could only hope banishing Grima was enough. After the palantir, I brought you with me for watching. But Meriadoc -- " The voice was bitter sadness, for all that could be said was pointless. There was no way to undo the fatal oversight. "He had the sense to study maps in Rivendell. You both had wit, courtesy and courage enough to wake Fangorn's anger. When I didn't have the sense to realize the fool risk I took in trusting my letter to Barliman, Merry had made his conspiracy and got Frodo and all out to Bree and Strider in the bare nick of time. I thought he would heed his Lord's orders. The fool Brandybuck was too polite to open his mouth and ask for the help he sorely needed when those of higher rank were being tended to. He, too, was worthy! The black breath touched him, he should have been carried."
"I don't," Pippin began. The words were a whisper. "He -- I don't think Merry would want you to blame yourself."
Gandalf paced the small room. "This is war, I cannot have my eyes everywhere. I know this. Aragorn saw the arrow that killed Halbarad. The Pelennor was covered with bodies, and more still being found. But I grieve."
"Boromir thinks Faramir is going to die. Will they die? Lord Denethor says we are all for death. That Sauron has found -- "
Gandalf spun around, his eyes flashing in warning.
Pippin stammered, taking more care of his words. "He said that Sauron has what Frodo had."
With an effort, Gandalf calmed his angry mood. It was dangerous and selfish of him to lose control. He sat next to Pippin and placed the hand that wore Narya over the hobbit's heart. "Sauron does not have it. If he did, I would know, by the powers I have he could and would attack me as soon as he had the means. As long as I am free be assured Frodo still lives."
"Or he is dead, and the treasure not yet in the Enemy's hands."
Gandalf sighed. "Do not fall into despair, Master Took. Denethor is already there. He is capable of much damage, though Boromir does his best to thwart it. You alone will he let near. We need you to be strong!"
== end chapter ==
Author's note: from RoTK ch. 8: "Are you going to bury me?" said Merry.
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