55. At The Black Gate
At The Black Gate
Gimli was accustomed to battles. By now, finding himself surrounded by beings other than his own stout folk as madness and mayhem erupted all about him was nothing new. It was, after all, exactly what he'd seen in the Lady's Mirror. He had but to turn his head, and there was Aragorn, stern and brooding upon Shadowfax, in yet another hopeless struggle against insurmountable odds. The Dwarf was ready to watch the man's back one last time. Though he wished for a battalion of Khâzad warriors, he found grim comfort in the presence of dour Halbarad with his great sword, and let his eyes stray often to the strong but lithe figure of the Wood Elf nearby, loosing dart after dart, too quickly for his mortal eyes to mark. He had even grown a bit fond of the black-haired half-blood Elf with the deadly eyes and the slicing wit who apparently had taken an identical role upon himself--to watch his foster-brother's back.
He did not mind the blistering heat of this blasted mud-plain, or the noisome stench of slag-heaps. Uncounted hordes of Orcs was all too familiar. But holding his breath, waiting to witness the death by fire of someone he knew, someone he could call a friend: that was something he had never experienced. It had unnerved him as nothing else ever had. He could tell he was not alone in his dread. Everyone in eyesight was dangerously distracted by that lumbering cart and its horrible cargo, too far away to intervene, impossible to ignore. Undoubtedly, such distraction had been precisely the Enemy's intention--that, and vicious cruelty. And in stark contrast, the raucous clamor of their attackers was full of glee and jeering laughter. Gimli understood enough Orc-tongue to hear them urge their fellows to begin the fiery spectacle at once.
Things were looking truly awful. He'd glimpsed the fall of the standards of Rohan and Dol Amroth out of the corner of his eye. No order remained in the armies of the Host of the West except here, on this tiny hillock—upon a heap of refuse, in fact. Five horrible, reptilian creatures circled and swooped above, their black-robed riders calling out to them, gloating with their icy chill, terrible voices. Brazen horns sounded continuously, and ominous drumbeats pounded in their ears. And the encircling ring of Orcs, Wargs, Khandians, Haradrim, sundry Trolls and whatever other monsters Sauron saw fit to unleash upon them pushed in ever more closely. Time, all too clearly, was running out.
Then: the flash of fire, and Legolas raised his bow for the Mercy Shot from afar. Surely the Wood-Elf was the only one among them who had the skill to do it, and Gimli had nodded approvingly even as his throat tightened with grief. He'd turned to watch: to give Tharkûn that much, his witness, as he had nothing left to give him… Then he'd seen the Orc upon the cart, and shouted his warning plea. It burst out of him, really; he hadn't taken a moment to consider the consequences if he were wrong. But it was done. Legolas paused, and Aragorn's grim resolve to give the terrible order stumbled, as they all turned to see the astonishing drama playing out amidst the piles of fuel upon the cart.
Every eye was on that Orc, and Gimli's was too—then his gaze flickered up to the post at the top. He was a Dwarf, not a far-seeing Elf, and so he could not be certain. But he swore that at that moment, the wizard's face turned skyward, and a smile broke over his ravaged features. A moment later Gimli heard the cry from the rear.
If it had been mayhem before, Gimli had no words to describe the sudden ear-splitting chaos that exploded like Saruman's infernal powders at Helm's Deep. From every side, the fighting was fierce; he was jostled and tossed as he swung his ax again and again, praying to Mahal that his blade would find foe and not friend. The air was thick with black streaks as their enemies rained arrows upon them. He heard the throaty growls of Trolls outflanking their position, and the faint screams of men as they trampled through what was left of the lines.
Then, shadows flickered over them, blocking out the Sun, all too like the dark deadly wings of the Nazgul's mounts, but with none of the cringing sense of terror. Upon a rush of North Wind and from far above came unearthly, wildly joyful screeches as more than three dozen great Eagles of the Misty Mountains swept in. Their talons were extended as they stooped upon the field of battle, some driving the Nazgûl on their stinking beasts back, and the rest raking the upturned, slack-jawed faces of the foremost ranks of Orcs.
Screaming, shouting, clanging, drumming, smashing, roaring: Gimli's ears buzzed with the din. Then he heard a clear Elven voice piercing through the cacophony.
"Look! Gwaihir, the Lord of the Eagles is come!"
Elrohir cried out. "And see who rides upon the Windlord's back!"
Gimli swept his ax through another Orc-neck and turned his face up to a remarkable sight. The largest Eagle he had ever seen was circling just above them, and upon the great bird's back was perched an old man, his grey hair and beard whipping out behind him, and his dark brown cloak flapping about his shoulders.
"Men of the West!" the man cried. His voice was tremendously loud and deep, like a bear, yet musical, like the wild and strange pipes the Dwarf had heard the Beornings use in battle. "Stand fast! Doom is upon us! Stand fast!"
The noise of battle faltered and faded, and even as the old man spoke, the Nazgûl shrieked and fled with great speed toward the South. The mass of enemies seemed to hesitate; Orc gazed upon Orc in confusion, and the Trolls suddenly stopped trampling and wailed in fear. Wargs howled and shrank back, and the soldiers of Gondor, Rohan, Dol Amroth and the Dúnedain of the North felt their hearts fill with a sudden rush of courage and strength. They charged outward, driving their foes backward with renewed enthusiasm. But the old man's powerful voice rang out from the sky once again.
"Folk of the West, hold fast! Turn your eyes to the South: for behold, the reign of Sauron the Great has ended!"
Every eye obeyed him, and even as Gwaihir spiraled downward with his passenger, intending to land directly beside the standard of the White Tree and the Stars, they all turned toward the wall of the Mountains of Ash and the Great Black Gate. As though an enormous storm was brewing behind the mountains, a huge black cloud rose up, billowing heavenward. At the base of the dark storm, fire and red lightning flickered and flashed. The cloud rose, taking the shape, it seemed to Gimli, of a huge figure robed in black and crowned with lightning bolts. The looming figure reached out toward the West, from whence the firestorm seemed to emanate. Then the Fire burst upward with great fury, and the cloudy black figure was thrown backward and collapsed.
Soon they heard a distant rumbling that grew in magnitude with every passing second, and next they felt rumbling beneath their feet. The very ground shook, and the gathered armies of Mordor wailed in terror, for in the next moment the Gate groaned and screeched and crashed down. The Towers of the Teeth that flanked the Gate trembled and cracked, crumbling into mounds of black stone and steel. Great fissures opened in the dried and tormented earth, and entire battalions of their foes were thrown down, some to vanish entirely into the deep cracks. Those that remained dropped their weapons and turned, screaming, as they fled.
Gimli spun around and pushed his way through the thicket of legs of horse and men. He burst through between Faramir and Halbarad. Afterward, he would recall that those two were the only individuals on the entire field that day who remained entirely unscathed. His own right shoulder stung, and he ignored it, for he had eyes only for Aragorn standing upon an open space upon the top of the hillock of slag. Beside him stood a wizened man robed in brown. He was a foot shorter than Aragorn, his face was ruddy and bronzed with the Sun, and his sparkling, hazel-brown eyes were surrounded by a hundred crinkling lines. This must be the other wizard: Radagast, I'll wager... Behind the Brown Wizard, the Eagle-Lord stood, nervously twitching his huge gold-brown wings and staring at the encircling wingless creatures with an imperious glare.
"Aragorn, son of Arathorn, I presume?" Radagast said in his rich deep voice. His droll half-smile reminded Gimli of Gandalf with a sharp pang. Gandalf! Shouldn't we be doing something about Gandalf?
"Indeed, and you must be Radagast the Wizard," Aragorn said, his voice strangely hoarse. Gimli glanced up at his friend. His heart sank, for Aragorn's face was ashen, his brow was beaded with sweat, and he gripped a bloody hole just above his left knee. The Dwarf looked around, and saw that Elrohir, Mablung, and even Legolas all sported new Orc-dart holes--then his glance shifted to his own shoulder, where a broken black shaft protruded. He grunted and tore the ugly thing from him, tossing it down into the dust.
"We have much to say to one another, my Lord. I bring word from the North--some good, and much evil, I fear--but there is no time for the exchange of news at this moment." Radagast turned toward Legolas, his brown-eyed gaze sweeping up and down over the much taller Elf's figure. "You are wounded, Thranduilion--yet a vital task is undone, for which none other here is suited. Have you the strength?"
Gimli's mouth twitched with a brief grin as the Elf's ire was raised. "Wounded?" he scoffed. He looked toward his left upper arm and a blood-soaked tear in his travel-worn green tunic. "This is nothing. Name the task, Master Aiwendil!"
Radagast pointed toward Mordor. "Your two courageous young friends have but a brief time before the conflagration and smoke overcome them... If indeed, they yet live." He nodded at the Eagle, who turned his fierce yellow eyes on the Elf. "Gwaihir has agreed to bear you--you are far lighter than I, Prince, and the fires and fumes of Sauron's destruction will not daunt an Elf, nor the Windlord, nor his brother Landroval, nor his swiftest lieutenant, Faunernil, who shall fly with him... Find the Hobbits! Bring them out, before it is too late!"
Gimli saw what only a few could possibly have discerned--that even Legolas swallowed a lump of fear as his gaze flicked for an instant toward the tremendous storm that coiled and billowed above the Black Land. But his eyes flashed and he bowed.
"I will do it. I will find Frodo and Sam, and bring them out of... of there..." He stepped toward the Eagle, and the Windlord bowed forward and stretched out his sleek neck. Legolas leaped lightly upon the bird's back, and in a moment they were aloft. Gwaihir, Landroval and Faunernil beat their wings hard and pulled skyward, and the wind of their passing raised a cloud of stinging dust. When it cleared and Gimli could see again, they were three small dots high above, swiftly flying toward the heart of Mordor.
Now the circle surrounding Radagast closed in, and Aragorn leaned forward to clutch at the old man's arm.
"News! You said there was news..." he said in a choked whisper.
Radagast reached out and gripped the man who would be King of the West, who looked near to collapsing. Elrohir and Halbarad jumped forward to support their stricken leader; but Aragorn shrugged them away.
"Tell me--tell me, I beg you," he said hoarsely. "Does she yet live?"
Radagast looked at him with great compassion as he placed his other hand upon the man's shoulder.
"She lives, young man. She is very brave, your betrothed... She was injured, but the wound was not mortal, though quite painful, I fear... but put aside your worry for her, for now. She will join you, as soon as she is able. When I departed from Imladris she was about to be taken into the care of the last remaining Lord of the Eldar Race in Middle Earth. The noble lady-wife of Lord Gwaihir, Menelbrennil herself, agreed to bear her to Mirkwood, and to Thranduil..."
Aragorn's eyes closed and he sighed with relief; but Elrohir beside him winced as a wave of grief overwhelmed him. Halbarad frowned and stared at Radagast.
"What do you mean, the last remaining Lord of the Eldar?"
Aragorn's eyes flew open and all color drained from him; and to Gimli watching it was apparent that another bolt of foresight had just pierced his friend.
Radagast was already nodding. "Yes, alas--Elrond Eärendilion has fallen... And there is more news, equally grievous..."
Gimli could stand it no more.
"Wait a moment! This news is terrible, I agree--but what of Gandalf?"
"Of course..." Aragorn and the others turned toward the great seething battlefield and looked out.
The cart was nowhere to be seen. The vast pitted and ruined plain was filled with heaps of bodies and scurrying, apparently witless Orcs and Wargs. The surviving men of the Host of the West were diligently sweeping through them, intent on butchering every last one. Several of the commanders of the armies of Khand and Harad had laid down their standards and waved the white banner of truce, though a few stubborn hold-outs fought on desperately. Valiant knots of silver, sable, blue, green and gold fiercely attacked them. But the tall tottering cart with its burden of wood and its captive on display had apparently collapsed with the shuddering of the earth. Or, Gimli shuddered, has it been swallowed into the ground, as were so many of His soldiers?
"He's down there somewhere..." Gimli said, his voice rough.
"Yes, and my heart tells me he lives yet," Radagast said sadly. "You are a loyal friend, Gimli Gloin's son. As your companion Legolas has gone into the center of the storm in search of others of your Fellowship, will you lead the search through this vast field of carnage for your friend... and my kinsman?"
Aragorn shook off his grief and was roused fully to action. With Halbarad's assistance he once again mounted Shadowfax. He began to shout orders and call out for his men to rally to him. Every officer able to stand was given an assignment; the remaining soldiers of Gondor, Rohan, and the fiefdoms were organized for the long and arduous tasks of clearing the field of foes and finding any wounded friends who yet lived. A large group was send to begin the separation of the dead of the Host of the West from their slaughtered enemies. Elrohir, sniffing that the dripping slash above his left eyebrow and the arrow wound in his right forearm were nothing more than scratches, took charge of the daunting work of transporting the wounded to the Healers Tents and organizing their care. Radagast volunteered to accompany him and lend what assistance he could. Finally, a party of searchers under the command of Gimli son of Gloin of Erebor was dispatched to the gruesome duty of digging through the thickest heaps of rubble and dead Orcs, in front of the shattered Gate--for it was there that they had last seen Gandalf.
Before the Dwarf left, Aragorn gripped his shoulder. The man pulled the ancient Elvish blade that had come from the treasury of Doriath from his waist and presented it to Gimli.
"Take it. No other blade on this field would be more suited to slice through iron chains and shackles," he said quietly. The Dwarf bowed low and tucked the hilts into his broad belt.
With the contingent of searchers waiting nearby, Gimli stood on the hillock, gazing South across the wreckage of war, simultaneously wondering where in Arda their search should begin, and how Legolas was faring beyond the wall of the sullen Ered Lithui. He had just taken his first step toward the field when he heard a familiar voice.
"Where are they? My goodness, don't tell me I'm too late! I hope they haven't started yet..."
Then came Aragorn's deep--and weary--voice. "Master Took, I hardly think you are fit for such a grim duty..."
Gimli turned and his eyes fell on another amazing sight in a day of startling sights. The Thain's Heir of the Shire, Peregrin Took, stood with fists on his hips, fairly bristling with fury, facing the King.
"Listen to me, Strider--oh, all right, Lord Aragorn," he grumbled as he caught Halbarad's scowl. "I know I'm small--that's what makes me perfect for a search such as this. I'll see things from an angle no one else has: low to the ground!" A few of the tall soldiers nearby snickered; but Pippin glared at them before he looked up at Aragorn again.
"Please, Strider!" he said, his voice full of passion. "I owe him so much--we all do, of course, but I more than any of you... I can't ever properly explain it... At least let me try to repay him!"
Aragorn looked down sternly, his worry clearly written on his gaunt face. "Pippin, the field is undoubtedly full of half-dead Orcs, lying in wait for a chance to strike the wary and take what revenge they can... You are no warrior, you've said it yourself..."
"I'm not entirely without experience!" Pippin said, exasperated. "Why, just a short time ago I felled a Troll...or at least I helped..."
That raised a ripple of outright laughter. But Aragorn stared at his young companion.
"Is that true, Peregrin?" he said quietly.
A soldier standing behind a few men called out. "It is the truth, sire!"
"Step forward, soldier," Halbarad shouted.
The man moved to the fore and bowed low to Aragorn. "My Lord, the Perian speaks truly! I guided him here, from the Healing Tents, where the air rings with the tale. A Troll knocked one of the main tents right to the ground, sire, and two of the healers were killed outright. Healers, guards and the wounded were all scrambling to get away from the thing. The young Master here--" and he pointed to Pippin; "--jumped right into the fray, yanked out his little dagger and leapt upon a table right behind the monster! He was so small the creature never noticed him, and he stabbed the thing, beneath its mailshirt, wounding it sufficiently that others could bring it down in short order..."
The surrounding men looked on in astonishment, but Gimli stepped forward and placed a hand on the Hobbit's shoulder. He looked up and eyed Aragorn.
"Well, then--at least we have an explanation for this Hobbit's uncommonly terrible stench: he's taken a bath in Troll's blood!" he laughed. Pippin grinned and nodded wildly, pointing to the now obvious enormous red-black stain that nearly completely covered his tunic. The splotch of color was so huge that it appeared that his garment had been dyed the lurid hue. "I believe our youngest Companion has earned the right to join in what I hope is the final potentially risky task of our Fellowship..."
Aragorn finally agreed, admonishing Pippin to use extreme caution. With Gimli in the lead and Pippin right behind him, Faramir, Mablung, and a dozen other Men wove a path down the slag-hill and began weaving their way through the debris of battle.
* * *
Legolas had often dreamed of flying. As far back as he could remember, on those uncommon nights when he allowed himself to slide deeply into true sleep, he would dream of racing through the wind, just beneath a layer of thick, roiling storm clouds. When he awoke he would recall the strangest sensation beneath his fingers--of holding on to something golden-bronze in color, streaked with black and tiny lines of pure white, amazingly soft, yet very strong.
Now, he knew, his dreams had been prophetic, for every aspect was vividly real, right down to the Eagle's remarkably beautiful feathers. Yet this reality was far closer to a night terror than his fabulous, thrilling dream of flight. The air through which he raced was thick with smoke and ash; his eyes smarted and his throat burned with the caustic fumes. The landscape over which Gwaihir and his two companions flew was an appalling ruin: a tumbled desert, riven with great fissures and pits, utterly devoid of beauty or life, and without even a trace of water. Hard-packed roads criss-crossed below them, joining one sullen, ugly fortress to another. They had seen hordes of screaming, terror-stricken Orcs fleeing from the narrow Vale of Udûn and back into the foothills of the Ered Lithui; but for many miles now, the land had become empty of anything that moved. Mordor appeared dead--except for the Mountain, which was roaring with life.
He gazed up and forward once again, staring toward their destination reluctantly but determinedly. Orodruin was smaller than he had expected, only a cone-shaped mound, no taller than the stumpy peak of Amon Lanc, upon which the grim fortress of Dol Guldur was built. But black smoke poured from its broken top, and its sides were running with streaks of molten rock. The voice of the Mountain was one continuous roar of thunder, accented by explosions that threw showers of fire, ash and spinning red stones high into the air.
How did they cross this desolate place? How did they achieve the goal of their impossible Quest? And is it possible that those two frail mortals live still, even amidst the awesome power of the Fiery Mountain unleashed?
Gwaihir veered to the left, and suddenly the Black Fortress of Sauron loomed into view. Legolas gaped, astonished and subdued even as he rejoiced, for the great Tower lay in a massive smoldering heap, and the Fortress had crumbled even to the bottom of its foundations. The huge pile of stone, steel and iron crawled with tiny black creatures, appearing as small from their present height as insects frantic to flee a collapsing underground nest. As they watched, the insects seemed to weaken, and they fell over, only to twitch feebly as ash and smoke rained upon them.
Down, down the Eagles swerved. Legolas leaned out over Gwaihir's broad neck, searching for any sign. Again and again they swept the Mountainside, peering through the drifts of black smoke. Radagast had instructed them to focus their efforts upon the Eastern slope; but alas, there, the ruination of Orodruin was greatest. Great rivers of fire flowed downward, and all but thin ribbons of black remained unburned. Soon, Legolas thought, the entire Mountain would be engulfed. His heart hammered even as his hope of finding the Ring-Bearer and his faithful companion dwindled.
Then he saw it: a tiny speck of pale color against black, and that black strip was a small island losing the battle against the encroaching tide of red.
"There!" he cried as his arm shot out to point, but Gwaihir had already spotted it. The great Eagle Lord tipped his wings and they were falling, falling in ever tighter circles.
"There is but one," Gwaihir said solemnly as they came at last to the rocky outcrop upon which Frodo lay, unconscious, his small body curled inward. Legolas turned back and forth, searching every surface as yet uncovered by the fires--no use. He turned his eyes again to the Ring-Bearer.
Landroval, the Windlord's brother, had already grasped Frodo in his great talons. With little effort the Eagle lifted him up and away from the smokes and fumes.
"He is alone!" Gwaihir screeched. "I see no other--we must escape now, else none shall survive!"
"Wait--just one more pass, I beg you!" Legolas cried; but his heart already knew that it would be in vain. Yet Gwaihir and Faunernil flapped and curled once more in a tight circle just above the worst of the heat and stench. But they saw nothing but Fire--and soon no inch of untouched surface remained. The entire Mountain boiled with molten rock and flowing rivers of flame.
"Return northward, my Lord--the search is done," Legolas said in a choked, hoarse voice. "Alas, Samwise the Bravehearted is lost..."
Gwaihir and Faunernil flapped their great wings and soared upward above the fumes and heat. The three Eagles with their passengers headed North, their hearts heavy with sorrow.
* * *
My beloved lives but suffers... Ada has fallen--how? Why?... The reign of Sauron is ended, but where is Gandalf? Where are the Hobbits? Aragorn's heart and head threatened to split apart as all the colliding fates, both good and ill, of that dread day fell upon him. So long... I have waited and prepared for this day for so long...
The Heir of Isildur and Elendil, mounted upon Shadowfax, with Halbarad at his side, rode to and fro across the field as the battle wound down to its inevitable conclusion. They had seen the great dark cloud dissipate into nothingness as the Enemy's Ring was destroyed just as the Sun rode to her zenith. Now, the shadows of afternoon stretched across the vast plain. The smokes and steams of Mordor still churned skyward, drifting on high winds. This day's Sunset will be as crimson as the blood spilt here, he thought, as he scanned the scene from a low ridge.
A semblance of order had begun to return. Men in the liveries of the West marched once again in ranks and companies. Eastward, a large sector had been hurriedly fenced off, behind which those foes who had surrendered were cordoned to await their fate. Upon the West--but not too far West, so as to avoid the putrid Marshes--the encampments of Gondor, Rohan, Amroth and the rest were being hastily erected by a contingent of men too wounded to carry out more strenuous tasks but not so injured that they required the Healers. North, the Tents of the Healers had multiplied ten-fold. There, his step-brother and the strange Wizard were already hard at work, supplementing the skills of the City's Healers significantly. He longed to join them; but he knew his duty was here, on display as the conquering commander and King-to-Be--at least, for the time being.
Halbarad sat on his brown, shaggy warhorse from the North, the Standard of Elendil supported upon his shoulder. Aragorn gazed toward his lieutenant as Halbarad's face was turned to the side for a moment. I am grateful that he is with me at this moment... All too many times the fates might have separated us... It is well that he is here... So many others were not. Prince Imrahil and his oldest son had fallen, hewed down by a fierce attack of Easterlings. The new Prince of Dol Amroth, young Erchirion, lay wounded in the Healer's Tents. Théodred, Prince of Rohan, was lost, with two thirds of his knights. Nearly half of the thousands that had marched from Minas Tirith just seven dawns ago had either been killed or seriously wounded. The cost of this terrible day had been great--very great. And the tally was not yet ended.
Aragorn felt another sudden surge of agonizing pain rip through his right shoulder and down his arm. He had been increasingly plagued by his worsening wound all through this day. His stomach clenched and threatened to forcefully empty itself. It will not do for the future King of two kingdoms to vomit in front of so many witnesses, he thought as he fought the rising bile and struggled to keep himself upright upon the horse. Fortunately, he had eaten very little in several days. His stomach had nothing to toss up at him. And even more fortunate, perhaps, was the grim truth that as Commander of the field, he had been protected behind the lines almost to the very end of the battle; he had not had to even make the attempt to raise Anduril. Another thing to be grateful for... He knew his right arm no longer had the strength to raise a sword, and he wondered whether he ever would again.
Halbarad stirred beside him. He heard his kinsman draw in breath to speak, undoubtedly to admonish him yet again that it was time for him to seek the Healers' Tents for himself. Aragorn muttered softly.
"Not yet, Hal... Not yet..."
Then he caught a glimpse of something high in the sky.
"They return!" he shouted, as he pointed up and above the highest peaks of the Mountains.
Three dots grew larger and larger as they watched and waited. Within a minute they could see the outline of the great birds and their slow, steady wingbeats.
"Can you see anything?" Halbarad cried. "Do they have the Hobbits?"
Aragorn did not reply as he shaded his eyes and gazed upward. He felt a sickening dread as he saw Legolas perched upon the Eagle King's back, a small figure clutched in the talons of another, but nothing in the talons of the third.
"Only one..." he whispered hoarsely as his shoulders sagged. Then he straightened. "To the tents, " he cried out. "They make for the Healing Tents!" Shadowfax swung his great silver-white head and was soon moving toward the back of the lines.
* * *
Pippin carefully stepped over yet another corpse, gritting his teeth as he was forced for the hundredth time to place the bare sole of his foot down upon another bloody mass of...something horrible, squashed and nasty. This task, for which he had so eagerly and confidently volunteered, was every bit as frightful as Strider had said it would be. Why in the world had he felt it necessary to be out here in the horrid slime of this battlefield he no longer had any idea.
He glanced to his right where Gimli stomped slowly, turning ceaselessly from one side to the other, using his ax-blade to overturn bodies and debris, checking beneath everything. The Dwarf had a stronger stomach than a Hobbit, that was certain. Gimli didn't blanch at any sight, no matter how gruesome, nor did the growing stench seem to daunt him in the least. He looked to the right and saw Faramir with Mablung beside him. The two tall men had paused for a moment to lean down and examine some half-hidden mangled thing upon the ground. That isn't him, I could tell you that from twenty-five paces off... The men seemed to agree with his unspoken comment, for they stepped over the object and continued forward.
They had been searching through the bodies of wolf, Orc, Warg, Southron, Troll, Easterling, and all too many severed body parts of unidentifiable origin for two hours--or was it three? Pippin had lost track of the time. He knew he was tired, he knew the Sun was in the Western sky and was sinking toward the Emyn Muil far away. He was no longer shocked or nauseated by the sights of death. But his heart was heavy and his fierce determination to help find the wizard was flagging. They had worked their way forward so close to the Gate that they had already passed between some of the massive black iron beams that lay crumpled upon the ground. And as of yet, there had been no sign of the wooden cart, the bundles of sticks that had been piled high for the fire that never materialized, and most importantly, no sign of the wizard.
The Hobbit thought about the last time he had seen Gandalf. Drifting on that wide lake, what was its name again? Sunlight had glittered on the water, just as Moonlight had shimmered on the surface of the river the night before the Five Companions had been divided into companies of Two and Three. Pippin sighed as he remembered his final conversation with him. Stupid fool of a Took... He had said something about 'all's well that ends well'... Gandalf had been uncommonly kind, he thought. He deserved a scolding for his careless tongue, and even more careless thoughts. For nothing had ended at that point, and nothing was 'well' in any way. Indeed, nothing but dreadful toil and horror remained--and before Gandalf, Frodo and Sam most of all.
He was thirsty, and his hand strayed to the water flask at his waist. He gripped the neck of the bottle firmly, and tried his best to swallow what little moisture remained in his mouth. Not yet... Save it, for him... He had looked, and noted that none of his other companions in this search had thought to bring water, or any other supplies... bandages and the like... Two weeks among the Healers had taught him something, at least.
A blur of movement caught his eye. A black bird was flapping and squawking as rose up from the ground twenty yards in front of him. Nothing unusual in that; the sky above the battlefield was full of carrion birds, swooping and cackling, landing upon the corpses and doing their awful work. He'd seen them gather over the Pelennor, and thought little of their presence today. But this bird was behaving a bit strangely, for the creature flew in a direct line toward him.
Pippin stared at it, frowning. The bird was big, and had a thick bill and a ruff of shaggy feathers at its throat. The thing circled above his head, calling and calling... Croak! Croak! Croak! Then it flapped again and flew back to where it had been and landed. Pippin paused. Something else odd; the black bird had landed among a pack of its fellows, another dozen or so of the same creatures. Not unusual in itself. But what was strange was that these carrion birds were not tearing way at any of the bodies that lay all around them in heaps among the litter of the conflict. They just perched, in what looked from afar like an orderly circle. Some of them were looking downward at something below them; others were facing outward... As if they are on guard... The bird that had flown toward him--or a different one, he couldn't really tell, as they all looked identical to him--took off again and came right at him. Once again it circled above him, crying out its rough call. Croak! Croak!
Pippin began picking his way toward the circle of birds, drawn forward by curiosity--and by something else. He glanced from side to side. Gimli had veered to the right and was farther away. Faramir and his lieutenant had dropped behind him, and were struggling with some large piece of half-burned wood. He looked forward again. Now several of the birds were aloft, circling and calling. Two came toward him, circling and flying forward, then returning and circling again, as if they were trying to draw him along. His heart began to race and he picked up his pace, unheeding now of what gruesome remains he might be treading upon.
When he reached the circle of black birds they all flew up into the air at once and landing a ways off, out of reach. All of them, but two birds. One perched upon the chest of a massive dead Orc lying on his side. Pippin stared at the monster. He was hideous, his misshapen face twisted in a snarling grimace, his yellow teeth bared, his fists clenched upon a broken sword in one hand and a partially charred, blood-tipped spear in the other. The Hobbit's eyes scanned over the huge corpse. He counted over twenty arrows protruding from the thing, every one of them black-shafted and black-feathered. Orc arrows... That's odd....The details of the horrible but fascinating scene upon the cart had not filtered to the back of the lines, and Pippin knew nothing about the Orc that had apparently fought against his comrades.
A second bird's head appeared briefly, peering sharply at him with its shiny black bead of an eye, then ducking down again and vanishing. The bird on the Orc's thorax croaked, more softly this time, and a throaty sound, like the purr of a cat, but much lower in pitch, came from behind the body. Swallowing hard, Pippin eyed the perched bird warily, leaned over the Orc's legs and looked down.
The first thing he noticed was a streak of silver: stringy, tangled, but unmistakably a strand of grey human hair amid all the black. His heart beat faster as he searched frantically, trying to make sense of the jumbled mess in the hole that had been hidden behind the Orc. He saw black-sleeved arms and legs, the bottoms of boots, broken weapons, lengths of dark beams, wood chopped for fuel: all stacked precariously in a massive heap, like some great woodpile tipped helter-skelter into a deep pit... and there! Something else--a tiny square of something pale, several layers down...
Pippin climbed over the corpse and let himself down into the hole. He carefully balanced on a plank. The wood shifted; he held his breath. It settled and held still. He knelt and reached, stretching his arm as far as he could between the criss-crossing tangle of limbs and pieces of wood. The tips of his fingertips touched the patch of pale... Yes! It was flesh--living flesh!
The watching birds fell silent. Pippin nudged the small bit of skin cautiously; no response. He felt tears start in his eyes. No! It can't be too late, not now...
"G...Gandalf?" he said in a choked whisper. The two birds stiffened and twitched their glossy wings. The closer of the two, the one that had been hidden within the hole itself, made the cooing, purring noise again.
Then he heard it. A groan.
It's him! He's down there!
Then a whisper--a very hoarse, nearly inaudible whisper.
"Yes, yes! I found you... Gandalf! Oh, Gandalf... I'll get help... We've found you!"
He pulled his arm free of the jumble and climbed back over the Orc's legs. Finding nothing else handy, he clambered up onto the corpse's broad shoulder, stood as tall as he could, waved and shouted as loudly as he knew how.
"Here! Over here! Gimli... Faramir! I found him! Over here!"
Within minutes the search party gathered and began moving the debris that covered Gandalf. Gimli shouted at them to do it methodically, to have a care, for the twisted pile of beams and bodies was unstable. One by one the pieces were removed and set aside. The arrow-riddled Orc-corpse was laid nearby; Faramir and Gimli stared at it with awe.
"Deserves more than the common pyre, this one..."
"Aye... Mayhap Mithrandir can explain the beast's strange behavior..."
"If we've reached him in time..."
So far, they had not been able to reveal much more than partial glimpses of the wizard's body, only enough to confirm that he was alive. Mablung and Indor worked side by side lifting pieces, body parts and corpses carefully and handing them up to the waiting hands of men perched above. Pippin stood at the top, forbidden by Gimli from scrambling down among the jumble of shifting objects, with nothing to do but stare down into the slowly enlarging opening.
He was the only one of them who had taken any notice of the birds, which had all moved out of reach of the laboring men, even the two that had remained close earlier. He had thought they were crows, or perhaps crebain, like the ones that had spied on them in the foothills below the Redhorn Pass. But their call was quite different--coarser and deep. Ravens... Of course, these are ravens, like the bird that could speak the Common Tongue in old Bilbo's tale... I wish these fellows could speak to me... At the sound of a new ruckus of bird-calls, he dragged his eyes from the tumbled hole and looked up. The birds were now aloft, spiraling upward swiftly. Following their path, Pippin saw the trio of returning Eagles soaring high above, and the ravens seemed to set out in pursuit of them.
"Frodo... and Sam... Oh, I hope Legolas found them..."
A shout came from the hole, and Pippin's attention was drawn downward again. He leaned forward into a crouch, just as did Gimli and Faramir near him.
"Master Gimli!" Mablung shouted. "The sword, sire--come down, the Elvish sword is needed now..."
Pippin couldn't see beyond the backs and shoulders of the dozen or so men leaning forward and peering down. Gimli and Faramir were scrambling into the hole now, and the Dwarf had already taken the great sword of Doriath from his belt. The Hobbit stretched up on tiptoes, straining to see, when two of the men parted to allow Gimli and Captain Faramir to pass. He gasped, for suddenly Gandalf came into view.
Every scrap of clothing had been stripped from him. He was bound with thick black chains, wrapped about his torso and legs, to an iron post, and his wrists were shackled together behind the post. Even from fifteen feet up Pippin could see at a glance that the wizard had been brutally mistreated, for he was covered with bruises, cuts, slashes and burns. But none of this registered on the Hobbit at that moment. He recalled all those other horrible details later. At that instant, he noticed but one thing: that where the wizard's penetrating, fiery eyes had been, now only dark holes remained. Gandalf had been viciously and violently blinded, and by the blackened appearance of the old blood, it had happened many days ago.
Pippin covered his face and shuddered, willing himself not to scream. He heard the others murmuring to one another, and the sounds of clanking metal falling away as someone sliced through the chains and iron cuffs. Then a low voice--Gimli's--called out quietly for a cloak, and he heard Faramir's soft voice responding, and the fluttering noise of a heavy cloak being unfastened and swept off. Still unable to drop his hands, Pippin listened as the wood planks and timbers shifted again, as men lifted something heavy, passing it forward and up. Finally he worked up every last bit of courage in him and dared to look.
Faramir and Gimli carried Gandalf between them, the tall Captain gripping his shoulders while the Dwarf lifted his feet and legs. The Captain's sable cloak--the acting Captain-General of Gondor now wore the colors of the Citadel--was wrapped about the wizard's form, hiding everything but his ruined face. Faramir muttered a terse command to Mablung, who gestured to two other men. When the soldiers emerged from the hole, behind where the others slowly raised the wizard's form, they immediately sped toward the lines of the Host of the West, due South, running all out with no regard for the bodies they trod upon or leaped across, carrying the news.
Pippin sank down to his knees next to Gandalf where they lay him upon the ground. Gimli knelt at his feet, looking up toward his head with a stiff grimace on his face, and Faramir had bowed his head and clenched his eyes shut. The Hobbit reached out, trembling, and placed his small hand on the wizard's arm, hidden beneath the folds of the cloak.
"Sorry... you had... to see this, my boy..."
Pippin's tears overflowed. "D...don't worry about me, Gandalf. I'm so sorry this happened... So sorry..."
"Couldn't be helped... Succeeded... in what I set out to do... Any word? Have they.... been found yet?"
Gimli spoke in a rough whisper. "Legolas went to search... No news yet..."
"I saw the Eagles flying over, coming back, just a few moments ago..." Pippin said.
"Then we ought to know something, Mithrandir, in a short time," Faramir said gently. "I am confident that your remarkable young companions shall be found and rescued in time..."
A brief twitch of the wizard's battered lips seemed to indicate his attempt at a smile. "Captain... We meet again..."
"Yes..." Faramir's voice was hoarse.
"Tell me... tell me of the others..."
"Aragorn is here, of course, and of Legolas I have already spoken," Gimli said, as he placed a cautious hand upon the wizard's leg. "The Dúnadan really is a magnificent leader, Tharkûn... He has truly come into his own... Boromir remained in Minas Tirith, with young Meriadoc..."
"Oh?... Were they... are they well?"
As Pippin spoke he gently stroked his fingers upon Gandalf's forearm. "They both were hurt, a bit, but are already recovering... Oh, I almost forgot... I've brought some water for you, Gandalf..."
Pippin pulled out the flask at his belt and uncorked it, and Faramir lifted the wizard's head and shoulders carefully. The Hobbit leaned close, and between the Halfling and the Man they managed to help him swallow a few mouthfuls. But the cloak fell open, and staring downward, Pippin realized that his small packet of bandages and salves would be less than useless. Tears rolled down his cheeks again as they laid him back down once more.
Faramir placed a hand upon Gandalf's shoulder. "I called for horses, and a wain, if possible... But it would be best if we were to bear you away from this tangled debris... We shall endeavor to carry you as smoothly as possible..."
"Worry not, Faramir... Do what you must..."
Pippin stepped back as three more came forward to lift the wizard. Gimli relinquished this task to the taller Men and he took the lead again, clearing as much of the mess from their path as he could. The procession was silent as they paced slowly over the battlefield.
Pippin walked right beside the wizard, keeping his eye upon Gandalf's sightless face, trying to discern if he was in pain--that is, in more pain than he already must be, as the men walked over the rough ground. He murmured to the tall Men of Gondor, to slow down, or take more care, and they obeyed the Perian without question.
The procession had not gone more than a quarter of a mile when two of the great ravens returned and circled overhead.
Faramir scowled up at the carrion eaters.
"Scat! Get away, you monstrous beasts! Leave him in peace!" he cried hoarsely.
But the birds made no attempt to land. They circled, croaking and calling, then landed twenty or so paces away. Pippin saw them hop and take to the air again, then land behind, following the gradual progress of the men with their burden. He glanced at Gandalf, noticing to his alarm that the wizard's face was twisted in a grimace.
"Ah, no...! Only one...only one..." he whispered.
Pippin called out. "Be careful, you're jostling him again!" and they slowed their pace once more.
In the end, the men bore him nearly all the way across the rubble and corpse-strewn distance, the wains unable to roll over the pitted and uneven surface. At the last, a crew of bearers met them with a stretcher, and Gandalf was brought to the Tents of the Healers. And there, as they had both vowed that they would, Aragorn and Aiwendil waited for him.
Faunernil: "Cloud Prince"
Menelbrennil: "Sky Queen"
Author's note: astute readers might recognize the appearance of the Raven Clan of Isen, from another of my tales, "The Kindness Of Strangers". Many thanks to Glirnardir for the writing prompt!
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.