"Sounds a bit like Old Man Willow, if he remembered he could walk."
"Imagine such a cranky old fellow walking about."
"I would rather not."
"I would not describe Treebeard as ill-natured in the least. It is a pity you could not have met him. I am certain you would have enjoyed each others' company."
Seated atop the steps to Meduseld, the hobbits mulled over all that they had learned from Legolas as they digested their second breakfast, which they had been served after a few well-placed hints. The following meal had turned into a veritable feast. Once more in their element, the hobbits had held court, regaling all present with their tales. Now sitting with Legolas, newly released from the infirmary, the hobbits had attempted to draw out every detail of his time in Orthanc and in Fangorn, though he had not been forthcoming enough for their tastes. Gandalf had listened nonchalantly but closely, finding even he knew little of the elf's tale. The hobbits were no match for Legolas's cleverness and stubbornness, however, and had learned only what he had cared to share.
Except on the subject of Ents, on which he had endeavored to answer all of the hobbits' questions patiently and fully. Gandalf had almost admonished Pippin for his rigorous inquiry, but saw that the hobbits had done much to bring Legolas out of his reticence.
However, it seemed some deeper wounds had yet to heal. Gandalf was grieved by the lack of conversation between Legolas and Gimli. Since freeing Gimli of his cuffs and joining the others on the terrace, dwarf had sat beside wizard on the steps, silently observing the sunny plains of Rohan and the approaching dark from the East, while the elf had paid him no heed. The rift made the hobbits nervous, but they were likely at a loss as to what to do, and simply strove to ignore it. Gandalf still had faith the two would approach each other before long. But he would leave this to the two of them - unless they made no move. The loss of their friendship would be a severe blow to the entire Fellowship, fragile as it now was.
The doors to the Great Hall opened then and released Aragorn out onto the terrace. Looking a bit less weary, if not less hungry, the Ranger had opted for sleep over food and had not joined them at their second meal. Now standing at the top of the broad steps, Aragorn stared out into the distance. What he saw he did not share, but the morning surely weighed heavily on his mind. Gandalf wondered whether the last weeks weighed heavier.
"Strider!" Pippin rose to greet the man.
"Strider, you missed a wonderful meal. Aren't you hungry?"
"You really ought to eat, Strider," Pippin said with concern, ever the man's caretaker.
"I found I was more weary than hungry. It was good to sleep and not dream," he said, with a glance at Pippin.
"I am told you have much to consider regarding your coming days," Legolas said, rising to join them. "Have you made your decision? Or did you leave that to your dreams?"
Aragorn grew quiet and looked out to the plains once more. "I have made my decision."
Gandalf was not surprised to hear it. Aragorn was not one to take long to choose his course. That he had not announced his judgment upon hearing the words of the seer might have been of concern in other circumstances. Gandalf reasoned it to be another measure of the man's weariness. When Gandalf sought Aragorn's eye, however, he saw more than fatigue. What he found he had not seen there in many years: doubt. If Aragorn harbored doubts over his choice, why proclaim it made?
"You take the Paths of the Dead, do you not?" Gimli said, speaking for the first time. He sounded resigned. He knew full well once Aragorn made his decision he would not be swayed.
"Aye. I will pass through the Gate of Dunharrow with the morrow's dawn. It was Elrond's intention that I remember the words of Malbeth, and so there is a reason, even if I cannot see it.
"I believe the time is come to strike a new path from Edoras," he said, looking at them in turn. "Tomorrow, I call the Sleepless Dead to fulfill their oaths and fight against Sauron. A treacherous path, I agree, but one I must take. We have the need of which the seer spoke." He looked at his each of his companions. "It is a path of death and fear and so I ask few to accompany me and only if they be willing. But those who be willing, I welcome to ride with me."
Gimli grumbled. "We do not have the uruk-hai of Saruman to fight for us, so Aragorn turns to the cursed dead." He looked to Gandalf as he stood and climbed to the top step.
"He follows the wisdom of Elrond. It is not a poor choice," Gandalf said, wondering what this decision would do to the Company. Gimli clearly disapproved, but Gandalf suspected the dwarf would follow Aragorn in the end. He could not say, however, who of the others might do likewise, though Pippin would be loath to be parted from the Ranger.
"Strider," Pippin said suddenly, as if hearing the wizard's thoughts, "I don't understand all this about Sleeping Dead needing to be woken up, but if it's so dangerous, can't you find another way?"
Aragorn smiled ruefully. "Pippin, I cannot say your concern is unwarranted. But I now follow the counsel of Elrond that this is the best way. We may not yet see the path, and so I go by my trust in him."
Pippin's mouth puckered. "Well, then, if you insist on going on such a preposterous journey, I will have to go with you. You will not look after yourself properly, I am sure, so I will have to do it for you."
Gandalf gaped at Pippin, as did Aragorn. The wizard had not expected Pippin's protective nature to extend so far. The hobbit would not take kindly to Gandalf's news then.
"Pippin," Aragorn started, "I am no longer in need of a caretaker. Truly. I am grateful for your concern, but you need not look after me any longer. And this road I take is fraught with peril and death. I would not wish such for you, so soon after the horrors that you have suffered."
Gandalf cleared his throat as Pippin began his new protest. "It is good that you feel no need of a caretaker, Aragorn, for you will have none on this journey. Pippin cannot travel with you."
"Gandalf! How can you say such a thing!" Pippin's shock turned to indignation. "I know best what Strider has suffered. I know better than the healers whether he is fit-"
"Peace, Pippin," Gandalf said. "I mean no offense. I merely mean to say that you have another journey ahead of you."
Pippin made to continue his objections, but clearly stopped when his mind caught up with his mouth. "I do? What do you mean, Gandalf?" he asked warily.
"I mean that my new path for the morrow will take me to the city of Minas Tirith," Gandalf said, glancing at the others. "I must speak with the Lord Denethor immediately, for he is a volatile piece on this board. He will have concerns regarding Rohan and I must assure that he looks to Mordor. I must also assure him that what he saw in the palantír is not a cause for concern. I do not wish him to think we are hiding Pippin's identity. For he knows of the words read at the Council that speak of a halfling and the Ring." He took a step toward the hobbit. "He will begin to think more of you, Pippin, than there is to know. And so, you will accompany me to Minas Tirith. Denethor is far more likely to trust me if he sees you as no threat."
Pippin looked at Gandalf, then Aragorn, then again at Gandalf, for a moment speechless. "Minas Tirith? Is... that very far?"
"It will require a few days journey to reach the city."
"Couldn't I meet this Lord Denethor later? I could accompany Strider, then go to Minas Tirith."
"There is no time, Pippin," said Gandalf crossly, trying to squelch his impatience with Pippin's stubbornness. "Besides, the Paths of the Dead are not fit even for Men. I cannot say I would consider it wise for a hobbit to walk that road."
"Why not?" Merry spoke up now. "We have fought and bested Orcs and goblins, Gandalf. And if Pippin cannot look after Strider, perhaps I can do the looking after for him. That is, if Gimli comes along. I must keep an eye on him, too." Merry glanced at his cousin before turning back to Gandalf. "But truthfully, my first choice is always at my cousin's side. If you must take Pippin, might I ride with you as well? It matters not where I go if he and I are together."
Gandalf scowled. "And where would you ride - on your cousin's shoulders? Or perhaps in the saddlebags?" He saw then Merry's sincerity and hope, and his pity softened his face. "You cannot ride with us, Merry. There is only room for two on Shadowfax." As the hobbit's hope transformed into a scowl of his own, Gandalf sighed deeply. Hobbits.
While Gandalf sighed, Gimli's frown, which had appeared with Aragorn's announcement, now deepened with Merry's comments. "Merry, I need no looking after! And there is certainly no need for you throw yourself into a new peril, when you have just gotten out of one."
"And why should you? But if you do go, why should not I go as well?"
Gimli looked exasperated with Merry and grumbled under his breath. Perhaps the dwarf intended to follow Aragorn, as Gandalf had thought he would. He wondered now if Gimli sought a way to discourage Merry from following him, or if he was uncertain in his intentions.
"I yet would counsel an alternative to such a desperate course. But whether I agree with his reasoning or not, should not Aragorn have my axe by his side?"
"Why do you wish to put yourself back in danger so quickly?" Merry frowned deeply. "Did I free you so you could walk into a place no one's ever come out of?" Gandalf was astonished by the bold comment, but he knew that, as Pippin had with Aragorn, Merry felt a need to protect Gimli.
To Gandalf's surprise, Gimli laughed, but it was without humor. "Merry, I sincerely appreciate your concern. But we have never truly been out of danger. I am simply deciding what sort of danger I face next. That does not require that you face the same, especially such a path of death."
"My friends," Aragorn said, interrupting their argument, "please, you must think of your own fate as well as others. For I would have no one accompany me for misplaced motives." Aragorn looked to Merry and Pippin. "When I enter the Gate of Dunharrow with the morrow's dawn, I know not what I shall face nor if I shall see the other side. Were any to follow me, I would have them do so because they believe it is their path, not for the sake of another." He looked then to Gimli. "I welcome your axe, Gimli, but you must be sure of your choice. We know not what we shall meet on the road." After a short pause, he added more firmly, "And there shall be no alternative course." Gimli sighed and frowned in thought.
Merry turned his protest to Aragorn. "You think I should not go. You believe I am too small, that I cannot wield a weapon."
Aragorn looked at Merry sadly. "No, Merry. I do not doubt your skill. You have proved yourself with the Orcs of Isengard. And you have served the Company well, especially in freeing Gimli. To best serve the Company now, you must consider yourself." Merry's brow furrowed, and Aragorn crouched before him. "We each have our part to play, in the Company, in the Quest, in the war that is to come. Think on what should be your part, Merry. What will be your part. You must take the step that is of your path, not that of another."
A stormy look gathered on Merry's brow. "And what is my part on this Quest, Aragorn? As extra baggage?"
Aragorn stood, sighing deeply. Gandalf understood that sigh. It was the sound of one trying to win an argument with a hobbit. "You have never been extra baggage, Meriadoc Brandybuck. You must know that. Where would Gimli be without you? But remember this: if my fate is to walk through the Gate of Dunharrow but not to emerge from the mountain, I shall be lost to the Company. Any who walk beside me shall be lost with me. If all those not riding to Minas Tirith walk with me, and are lost to the Paths of the Dead, only Gandalf and Pippin shall remain of the Company, to aid Frodo and Sam in whatever way they may. If you take another path, a path of your own, you shall also remain, for the Company and for Frodo." Aragorn looked at the lost expression on Merry's face, but perhaps his patience had reached its limit, for his resolve seemed to harden rather than crumble.
"Merry, in truth, on the morrow I see myself walking through the Gate of Dunharrow, if my foresight has returned to me." Gandalf frowned at the notion that Aragorn had ever lost his foresight. The Company had indeed suffered much while he was away. The wizard's heart ached for Frodo and Sam and whatever sufferings they might have encountered. "That is my path," Aragorn continued, "and I shall trust it. But Merry, I do not see you by my side. I do not believe that is your path."
Pippin shot a sharp glance to Aragorn, and then to Merry. "You don't see him with you? Where do you see him?"
"I know not, Pippin." He returned to Merry. "You have a path and a purpose on this Quest. You may have yet to accomplish your greatest act, Merry. But you must allow the path to unfold, and not dictate your next step by the paths of others, whose fate you may not share." Merry's expression became more thoughtful, but he had clearly not yet given up the fight.
Gandalf admired Aragorn's efforts to help Merry make his own decision, but he felt it took no foresight to see the error in allowing Merry to walk through the Gate at Dunharrow. It was terribly wrong. He wished he could simply say that hobbits did not walk such paths. But Gandalf knew better than to underestimate hobbits. And yet, he could not shake the feeling of wrongness in the notion of a hobbit walking that haunted road. The Ranger might mistrust his foresight, but Gandalf would always trust his own.
"Don't you see yourself coming out the other side?" Pippin asked hesitantly, as if urging the man to give him the answer he desired.
"That far I cannot see."
Then Aragorn turned to Legolas. Gandalf saw doubt return to the Ranger, but likely for new reasons. "I would have you by my side on my journey. But only by your choice can you go."
The wizard watched Legolas and found another surprise as the elf turned in silence to face the view of Rohan once more. Before Legolas had turned from the man, Gandalf caught a glimpse of fear in his eyes.
In all his long life, Gandalf never thought to see an elf shrink from such a plea. Least of all, Legolas, a proud and seasoned warrior of Greenwood the Great. Gandalf had to admit, while Legolas had healed much, he had yet to regain his former proud and self-assured posture. He thought suddenly of Pippin, nearly standing in his chair as he had stood up to Gandalf at the morning meal. It was one of the most courageous acts he had seen from the hobbit. No, that was unfair. In the past weeks, Pippin, like the others, no doubt had found courage and strength he had not known he had had. The ordeal had changed him, that was clear to Gandalf already. Gone was much of the trepidation he was accustomed to seeing in the young hobbit. And with it likely much of the innocence, he thought, remembering the boldness and determination Pippin had shown in the dining hall. If it had not been entirely impossible, Gandalf would have said that the hobbit had grown. His stature was taller, larger, somehow. Mayhap he had been surrounded by the Big Folk for so long... yes, he held himself as one of the Big Folk. The wizard wondered what sort of welcome the hobbits of the Shire would offer him upon his return. He shook his head. What the elf seemed to have lost, this hobbit seemed to have gained. What sort of days were these when hobbits grew and elves shrunk?
This would not do. Legolas and Gimli would not speak to one another. Such a cleft was devastating enough. Now, as Aragorn declared he would take a course from which no man had emerged in all the history of the Rohirrim, the others argued over accepting the decision. Gimli disagreed with the wisdom of such a path. The hobbits found it an unnecessary risk. Yet these three appeared ready to follow Aragorn in the end. Difficult as it was to believe, it seemed Legolas feared to follow such a path. Not for meeting the dead, Gandalf was certain, for elves had no such fear, so surely Legolas's fear stemmed from his trials of recent days. He had certainly had had enough of Orcs. And he could not yet wield a bow. Mayhap he feared to meet the Enemy while unable to defend himself.
Far worse than the fear and reluctance among the Fellowship, however, was the doubt he had seen in Aragorn. If the Ranger doubted his own decision, all that followed could go awry.
Gandalf climbed from the steps onto the terrace. Looking over the Company, he found other signs of danger. Fatigue - bone-deep fatigue - in every face, better hidden in some than others. It was an exhaustion of more than the body, from which the doubt and fear grew that was replacing their determination and bravery. Could they have forgotten their first steps from Rivendell and their oaths to see the Quest through to the end, no matter the cost? No, their courage was not lost. It remained within, Gandalf was sure, buried beneath doubt and pain.
Scowling, Gandalf put one hand on his hip, his ever-present staff in the other. Something must be done. The Company was collapsing before him. It was time for some wizard meddling.
As he took another look at each of them in the growing silence, they turned to him one by one. That was better. "In recent days, our feet have traveled different paths in the grass. Each path has had its own rocks and rabbit holes with which to contend-"
Merry scowled. "Rabbit hole? We fell into an Orc-sized hole!"
Gandalf looked at him sternly, but he received only defiance in return. Ah, neither hobbit had been unchanged. "Yes, indeed," he murmured. "...and with them a measure of suffering for body, mind, and spirit. Yet the paths have led all of us here to Edoras. Because of this, I believe we are meant to continue the task assigned to us in Rivendell."
Elven eyes darted away. Dwarven hands fumbled with a beard. Hobbit feet shuffled, while the man before him seemed weighed downed by his words. The wizard continued undaunted. "We left Rivendell with the will to see this Quest through, despite any obstacles we might face. There were indeed tremendous obstacles, which Boromir did not survive: capture, imprisonment, and torture by Orcs, and by Saruman as well," he said with a glance to Aragorn. "But you have survived. Even the smallest among us have shown their strength and valor.
"I see in your faces your weariness and your doubt. You must now find that will within you once more. You must remember not merely your trials but that you have survived them, and you will know you have the strength to go on." Gandalf looked upon their faces and saw more doubt rather than less. They doubted even him. He sighed, flexing the fingers that gripped his staff. "If those words do not restore you, then think upon this: these trials we have suffered, even Boromir's death, are for Frodo and Samwise. And all that Aragorn has told me leads me to believe that they yet live. Aragorn and Pippin tell me that Saruman negotiated with Sauron. Hence, Sauron's attention has been on Isengard. Frodo and Sam make their way to Mordor, passing east of the Anduin, perhaps through the marsh lands that lie between the river and the Black Gate. Sauron has not been looking to the North but rather to the West. All the while you were imprisoned, you ensured Frodo and Sam's safety a while longer. Not the manner in which you had intended to safeguard the hobbits, but you have nonetheless.
"Sauron sends an army into Rohan, and soon sends more into Gondor. We prepare now to face these. You must go on, by one path or many, but you must go on, for Frodo and Sam's task likewise is not accomplished. I ask you to find your courage beneath the doubt that has overcome you, and let it feed your will. For we have much to do." He was silent then, letting the sound of the wind replace his voice.
After a time of silence, Aragorn spoke. "I thank you for your words, Gandalf. Ever has your wisdom served us. I fear its loss led us to our dire straits of the last fortnight." He paused. "There must come a time when we rely on our own wisdom. Therefore, I must overcome the doubt that plagues me. Such indecision goes against my nature, and so I have faith I shall conquer it. As I draw comfort from this knowledge, my will draws strength." He offered Gandalf a hint of a smile. "I shall continue."
Encouraged, Gandalf then peered at Legolas. The elf was unmoving as he looked out on the plains. He turned to Aragorn, and Gandalf longed to know his thoughts. He felt sure Legolas ought to accompany Aragorn, but for the impossible sight of the fear in his eyes. If he refused, Gandalf doubted he could convince them to continue as a Company.
Legolas looked again at Gandalf, still mulling over the wizard's words. Doubt still warred within, as he strove to come to a decision Gandalf could not discern. The elf attempted a smile, but failed. He continued to look out from the terrace as he began to speak. "While in Orthanc, Orcs did all they could to break me, much that I will not speak of and much that I need not." Gandalf was careful not to reveal his surprise, for those few words revealed more than all the elf had said to the hobbits. The elf stepped toward them. "Your wisdom might have served me in that pit, Gandalf, but it does not serve me now." He sighed deeply, turning away as if drawn to the sight of hills and far-off trees. "As you say, I have survived. All of it. And through that, you say, we must find the will to continue. That is where I say you have it wrong."
Gandalf's heart sunk. There was an unconscious gasp of breath as the others hung on Legolas's words. The elf turned to Aragorn. "Gandalf spoke his words because he sensed little will within us to continue this journey. He was not wrong. I have found it difficult to find within myself the strength and more important the surety of will that I may go on. Never before have I doubted myself so," Legolas murmured, as if to himself, then shook his head as if to shake off the words. He smiled broadly then, as he turned to the hobbits. "Until this morning. Seeing you all hale and whole has been the boon to my heart no healer could offer. Gathering together here on this terrace has made clear what I have lacked and sorely missed in recent days. Even the contentious words shared among us this hour have soothed me and shown me my errors. You see, Gandalf," he said, facing the wizard now, "I have found the will to continue with the Company not in my survival, where I survived alone, and perhaps despite myself, but because of the Company, in their friendship and love and faithfulness. These continue to heal me more than all the bandages in which Éowyn has wrapped me. Nearly as well as food," he said with a wink to the hobbits.
He turned then to Gimli, who leaned against the opposite balustrade of the stairs. Gimli stared back with a stiff mouth that could not hide the emotion in his eyes. "Gimli, please forgive me." Legolas closed his eyes for a moment. "So much to forgive," he said quietly. "I apologize for my words, or lack of them, when you told the tale of your escape. It was a tale of wonder, but all I could think on was the escape I did not have." Gimli closed his eyes in regret, and Legolas rushed on. "I could not have come with you, Gimli, even had I been free, do you not see that? I was far too - too weak by then to climb out of such a passage as you did - surely a feat worthy of song. And there was also the matter of my hand." He held up his splinted hand. "I could not have used this hand to climb. I would have slowed your progress-"
"We would have found a way!" Gimli cried roughly.
"And perhaps lost your chance altogether. Do not begrudge yourself your choices. As events unfolded, I was afforded a meeting with an Ent for the first time. A new sight for an elf is a rare thing." He became sober once more. "And in that escape by Treebeard, there was a moment for which I must beg your forgiveness. All of you, in truth. Indeed, it was my shame that held my tongue today, even as I saw the folly of my actions. When Treebeard plucked me from the Tower, I told him that I did not know where my friends were. They might have yet been within the Tower, though it seemed that Saruman had taken them when he left. But I could not be certain. Treebeard asked if I wished to return to the Tower, to learn if any of my friends remained. I thought of the Orcs I had only just escaped at Saruman's balcony, stepping onto Treebeard's branches." Legolas swallowed hard, the regret heavy in his voice and his eyes cast to the floor. "I could not bear to return. Even had you remained in the Tower, Gimli, I chose not to return for you. That is a greater betrayal than your escape, for you had no choice. I had the choice, and chose not to."
Gandalf's eyebrows rose. It was indeed a greater betrayal and spoke deeply of what Legolas had run from that he would not return to the Tower even for his friends. But he spoke of it now, and Gandalf could only pray his fear would follow his words upon the wind.
Gimli's expression had softened considerably, despite Legolas's revelation. Slowly, he shook his head. "All the words I can say to you, Legolas, are as useless as flash on the anvil, for I can see you feel as I did." He sighed heavily, his own thoughts turning. "Shall we consider all debts paid, then?" He smiled, hope in his face once more.
Slowly, as if reluctantly releasing the guilt he had held onto, Legolas smiled as well. "Paid."
With that hint of a smile and the words exchanged between the two, Gandalf felt the skies brighten a small measure against the encroaching Shadow. The happiness on the dwarf's face heartened him; the elf's relief revealed the lifting of a weight Gandalf had not realized he had carried.
Gimli turned then to Aragorn. Scowling as he looked at him, the expression softened as he began to speak."I swore to fight by your side, no matter the danger or fear. I know not what the end may bring, but as you trust in Elrond, I trust you, Aragorn. I am able and willing, and I stand by your side. Whatever the cost, I go with you. For my oath. For the hobbits."
Aragorn smiled and bowed his head in acceptance of Gimli's offer. But as he turned to Legolas, his smile faded, and his eye wandered to the visible bandages and splinted fingers.
Legolas's eyes narrowed. "You see my wounds and fear I am not fit for the journey. You forget with whom you speak, Aragorn. I am no man. This splint will be removed in a matter of days. Because of Lady Éowyn's courage, I shall wield a bow again, and I am eager to do so."
"I dearly hope you speak truly, for the ride ahead is perilous, full of dangers unforeseen. But you are improved since we first arrived, and I have no doubt you are eager to do battle with the Enemy."
The fierce expression that settled in Legolas's eyes might have been disturbing had it not been directed to some outside party. "Yes. Yes, I am."
Aragorn nodded and turned to Merry. "What say you, Merry?"
Merry was silent for a moment. He looked about at the others, lingering on Pippin, and Gandalf felt for him for a moment. No matter his next journey, it would not be beside his cousin. All before him knew the direction of their next journey, and they now awaited for Merry to announce his. And while Pippin would ride beside Gandalf to Minas Tirith, and Gimli and Legolas had thrown their lot with Aragorn and the Paths of the Dead, Gandalf knew Merry would not want a role any less than the rest. He would wish for an honorable role, at least more so than luggage. Staying behind with the Rohirrim women and children would not satisfy the hobbit.
Merry looked up at Aragorn, and for a brief moment looked younger than his years. "I will follow the path meant for me, Aragorn. I believe you are right in this, only... how do I know what is right for me?"
"It will come to you, Merry, if you let it. There is no need to decide this moment." Merry nodded, and he was once again the hobbit who had faced Orcs, uruk-hai, and a Ringwraith on the plains.
"Be not too troubled, Master Merry," Legolas said suddenly, a sly smile creeping onto his lips. "I wager your answer will arrive before long. There are others here who look for their next journey, as they are none too satisfied with the path given to them." Merry looked at him for an explanation, but Legolas merely said, "I would inquire after the Lady Éowyn. I believe she may have some suggestions for you." Strangely, though the elf would say no more, Gandalf's anxiety over Merry's fate seemed to ease with his words.
"Well, that is better," Gandalf said, with a small stomp of his staff, gratified that his words had had such immediate effect. "Legolas and Gimli shall join Aragorn and his kin through the Gate of Dunharrow. Pippin shall join me as I set out for Minas Tirith. Merry shall strike his own path, and he will apprise us of such path as soon as he learns it." He raised a brow at Merry to be sure his message was received. He would know what plans Merry made.
"Then it looks as though we shall all part ways tomorrow," Pippin said to his cousin, surprising Gandalf with his composure.
"Yes, Pippin. But as we met each other in Edoras, we may meet again unexpected along our paths. And I shall find my way to Minas Tirith."
"Well, then I suppose this is as good a time as any." Pippin's eyes twinkled as all brows creased in question. He dug into his pockets, rooting around as if they were bottomless. His face brightened when he apparently found his prize. He pulled out a small sack.
"What is that, Pippin?" Gandalf asked warily. He hardly dared to hope it was what it resembled.
"It's pipeweed, of course!"
"Pipeweed!" said Merry and Gimli at once.
"You mean to tell us you have carried that sack all the way from the Shire, through all your trials?"
"No, Strider. The truth is, well, I stole it." He looked sheepish for only a moment. "It comes from Saruman's pantry! He often sent me there on errands, and well, there's only so much a hobbit can resist."
"Pip! If he had caught you plundering his pantry, who knows what he would have done to you!"
"I know it, Merry. Which is why I never took food except to feed you. But once I saw the pipeweed, well, I couldn't help myself."
"Indeed," Gandalf said. "I am rather impressed you did resist taking food, for it must have been sorely tempting. But knowing that it is from Saruman's store of pipeweed, I can hardly begrudge you the pilfering."
Aragorn frowned. "How did Saruman come by the pipeweed? The weed must have been brought from the Shire." Aragorn pondered this for a moment. "Strange."
"Yes, well, something to ponder later, Strider, or perhaps over some pipeweed!" Merry said.
"Eh, do we have any pipes in which to smoke it?" Gimli looked at Pippin hopefully.
Pippin smiled tentatively. "I - eh, also took two pipes," he said quietly.
Aragorn laughed. Legolas looked at Gandalf. "I will suffer through it today, to sit with you."
They sat themselves down on the steps of Meduseld. Legolas seated himself lower than the others, and gifted them with a song, one of a mixture of sorrow and joy such as Gandalf had not heard in many years. The rest of the Fellowship gathered close and shared their last smoke together.
A/N: One more chapter left! An epilogue follows to wrap up loose ends! Thank you for reading!
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.