Choices: 1. The Choices of a Man

Reader Toolbox   Log in for more tools

1. The Choices of a Man

For John (1953-2000)
Who walked with courage and with grace
Into unrelenting death.

*******

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.'

'Aye.'

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.

'Yes, Mithrandir?'

'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.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: lindelea

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 11/29/03

Original Post: 02/04/03

Go to Choices overview

Comments

No one has commented on this story yet. Be the first to comment!

Comments are hidden to prevent spoilers.
Click header to view comments

Talk to lindelea

If you are a HASA member, you must login to submit a comment.

We're sorry. Only HASA members may post comments. If you would like to speak with the author, please use the "Email Author" button in the Reader Toolbox. If you would like to join HASA, click here. Membership is free.

Reader Toolbox   Log in for more tools