Long and black, their black sails caught full, the shadowed ships came gliding with sinister grace northward upon the Anduin like great black clouds of doom as they drew ever nearer to Legolas where he stood upon a narrow bay of rocky shoreline along the great river, a high wall of stone at his back, the clattering water lapping almost lightheartedly at the tips of his boots as his eyes roved over the Men that manned the ships as they drew ominously nearer along the water’s path. Their faces were hard and cold, their eyes, cruel and shallow, their thirst for the death of Gondor an almost palpable scent upon the wind. But above the heaviness, rose a curious, almost light hearted hope within him, and he wondered from where it had come even as Legolas stood upon the brink of the Anduin, waiting straight and calm as a young tree for the black ships to draw nearer.
Beyond the ships’ black masts to the south and west, the clouds rode high and white against the dome of the sky in the south and the west, and Legolas’ heart twinged at the thought that there, beyond the many splayed fingers of the Ethir Anduin, lay the sea.
The Sea, and the very thought of it sparked a wrenching in his heart that was both aching and sweet at once. Was that from whence this curious peace came from? And for the briefest moment, a fleeting image of a woman standing upon the prow of the ship flashed through his mind. All about her, the ship was awash in the golden light of the setting sun, her gown and her hair catching wildly in the ocean breeze as she strained toward the golden horizon, her arms outspread in an attitude of perfect joy. And then she turned and smiled at him, and he could have wept in joy at the blissful light upon her face. Lalaith.
But just as quickly, the image was gone. And the great black ships drew nearer, filled with Men whose hearts were black with corruption, who, bent to the wicked promises of Sauron, were coming now, to crush Minas Tirith, to kill his beloved, who waited there, for him. And at this thought, Legolas’ heart filled with warm, seething wrath.
“You may go no further,” Aragorn’s voice called from beside him, the ranger’s voice strangely calm, though it carried powerfully across the water. Powerful enough that the bosun of the nearest ship took swift notice, and rose from his seat, a harsh scowl upon his fierce face.
“You will not enter Gondor,” Aragorn continued in his calm, even voice as the bosun strode near to the port side of his ship, and glared toward the shore.
“Who are you, to deny us passage?” the man barked back.
“Legolas,” Aragorn murmured, his voice ever calm and powerful at once, “fire a warning shot past the bosun’s ear.”
Eagerly, Legolas reached a swift hand over his shoulder, and snatched an arrow from his quiver.
“Mind your aim,” he heard Gimli mutter softly at his side as he drew his bow taut to his cheek.
Legolas registered the swift tap upon the edge of his bow in the very moment his fingers released the string, and even as the arrow flew from his bow, he knew where it would strike, well below the space of empty air beside the bosun’s ear. And sure enough, with a harsh crack, his arrow slammed into the chest of one of the pirates who stood near the bosun, the mocking grin upon his face crumpling into a look of astonished horror as he wailed, and fell with a heavy thump, dead upon the deck of his ship.
“Ooh,” Gimli gasped out, in mock surprise, his gloved hand darting to his mouth. A brief well of annoyance rose in him as Legolas shot a glance at Gimli, though inwardly, he admitted he could only admire the Dwarf’s surly audacity.
“That’s it. Right. We warned you,” Gimli crowed loudly toward the other pirates upon the great black ship as it glided past, their faces still drawn in seething mockery of the three men upon the shoreline. Entirely ignorant of their slain comrade they were, unfeeling, Legolas realized, of even one another’s pain. “Prepare to be boarded!”
“Boarded?” the bosun shouted back, his face fierce and jeering. “By you and whose army?”
“This army,” Aragorn murmured in a fierce whisper.
Legolas drew a deep breath into his lungs, his eyes fixed fiercely upon the corsairs of the black ship nearest them, his fist tightening about his bow as from the great stone cliff behind them, the army of the dead seethed out passing like a cold wind through his frame as they soared low over the water.
Terror filled the eyes of the men upon deck, their cries of fear and horror drowned in the roaring of the dead men, that carried over the water as a swift wind upon a winter’s night as it howled, unseen, through the dark depths of the forest-,
He turned his eyes down, as the ghostly vapor spilled across the water and up upon the decks of the several ships ship like a swiftly rolling mist enshrouding the surface of the river. Though these Men were cold of heart, unfeeling, still he could not but feel a remote pang as their shrieks rose, and faded at last, into a heavy, dreadful silence.
He only looked up again, when the creaking of rope, and the plash of water against the prow of a ship, drew near as one of the black ships, seemingly unmanned, drew near to the shore, and paused in the shallows before them.
“Augh, well what are we waiting for?” Gimli grunted, the first of the three to speak, breaking the heavy silence, and brandishing his axe within his sturdy hands, he marched boldly out into the water, making for the rope that, without visible hands, dropped over the side as Aragorn, marched with a clatter, out toward the ship. And Legolas, after releasing a swift, long held breath, started out after his friends.
“The scouts report Minas Tirith is surrounded!” the voice of Éomer called out from a short distance away as he, with two flag bearers, drew swiftly nearer to the king.
Merry, perched upon a low rise of earth gnawing at a small portion of bread, watched Éowyn’s face as she stood with her back toward her brother and uncle, scanning the surrounding hills, her eyes empty, her attitude visibly agitated. Elfhelm, the marshal who commanded the éored in which they were riding, sat upon the ledge of stone behind Merry, his head down, a troubled look pursing his lips beneath his scraggled beard. He knew of Éowyn’s ruse, Merry understood, but he was trustworthy, and would say nothing of his liege-lady, or the small Hobbit who rode with her.
“The lower level’s in flames,” the king’s nephew continued as he paused beside the king who stood at the head of Snowmane, his mount. “Everywhere, legions of the enemy advance.”
“Time is against us,” Théoden returned in a fierce voice. Then lifting his voice louder, he called, so that more could hear his order, “Make ready!”
Éowyn shook her head slightly at this, her gaze unreadable as she glanced down at the young Hobbit.
“Take heart, Merry,” she choked, her voice low and forced, “It will soon be over.”
Over? Merry wondered. He did not like the sound of it, not the way she said it. For in her voice, there seemed to be a hidden longing for lasting finality. Death, he thought. Was that why she had come, Merry wondered as he studied her troubled blue eyes. Because she sought death? Whyever for?
“My lady,” he blurted quickly, sympathy rising swiftly within his heart. “You are fair and brave, and have much to live for. And many who love you.” He sighed softly, and lowered his eyes at the wetness that touched the lady’s eyes as she turned and looked fully upon him. What was hidden there, in her woman’s heart that remained unspoken?
For the briefest moment, his thoughts darted far and away, to the green, glad vales of the Shire, and in his mind, he saw the bright, laughing eyes of Estella Bolger-,
Merry quickly shook the thought away. He wasn’t in love with her, was he? She was just a pleasant little lass he knew. And with such uncertainty looming over him, he dared not think of what the future might hold. But perhaps someday-,
“I know it is too late to turn aside,” he continued, pushing the thought far from him, now. “I know there is not much point now, in hoping-,” he smiled briefly at a new thought as he lifted his meager crust of bread. “If I were a knight of Rohan, capable of great deeds-, But I’m not. I’m a Hobbit. And I know I can’t save Middle earth.” He paused a short moment at the look in her shining eyes as she drew a step closer to him. Was that, perhaps what caused her sorrow? He was a Hobbit, smaller than the bold, broad men of Rohan, and she a woman of the race of Men, slender, and weaker of arm than her kinsmen, though no less bold of heart.
“I just want to help my friends,” Merry continued softly, glancing downward, and picturing their faces once again, smiling and laughing in the sun, carefree as they had all once been. “Frodo, Sam,” he murmured quietly, smiling briefly. “Pippin.”
Her tear wet eyes were focused upon him now, as she drank in his words.
“More than anything, I wish I could see them again,” he finished quietly.
He smiled softly, a smile which she returned, and a soft peace seemed to settle upon both of them, interrupted a moment later, by her brother’s stern voice calling from a short distance away, “Prepare to move out!”
“Make haste!” the king’s voice followed swiftly upon his nephew’s. “We ride through the night!”
In response to this, several voice about the encampment sounded deep and long, throbbing through the air about them.
A weight, deep and grim, settled upon Merry’s heart. This was no idealistic dream toward which he rode, an easy path toward fame and glory. Evil, real and breathing, was waiting for him. And perhaps-, perhaps he would not return to the Shire, perhaps never again would he see Estella’s pleasant, round little face, set with the gems of her shining eyes-,
Yet knowing this bitter thought, he set aside his bread crust, and snatched up his helmet, anyway, rising swiftly to his feet as he pulled it firmly over his honey brown curls.
In response to this, Éowyn drew her own helmet over her head, her soft blue eyes now fixed with a fierce determination.
“To battle,” she breathed, and Merry nodded to this.
“To battle,” he returned quietly.
At the balustrade, Pippin could see the fires raging in the lowest level of the city, the glint of the warriors’ armor as they rushed to defend the gate. The shadows of the orcs below him, were little more than a blurry sea of dark bodies in the black shadows that were illuminated only here and there by the flicker of distant fires-. Were Lalaith with him, he mused, she could see them better.
The stones beneath his feet shivered as a great boom rolled up from the lowest level. The stones shuddered again. A, he guessed. A massive battering ram was driving into the gate with strength enough to shiver up through the very bones of the mountain.
If only Lalaith were here, he sighed to himself. Or Beregond, perhaps. But Lalaith was down there, somewhere. Down with Gandalf and the armored warriors. He had not seen her when he went down with Beregond, and others of the Tower Guard who had been called down to fight, before he had returned up the hill at Gandalf’s order, though Beregond and the others had stayed. But surely Lalaith was alright, he assured himself. Surely, she had been leading another group of men, somewhere else, in heated battle against the orcs. Surely she was yet alive-, He shivered slightly. He could not bear to think of her as anything else.
A soft noise behind him alerted Pippin, and turning, he saw a small light beyond the tree where the dark cloaked guards stood, tall sharp javelins in their hands, ever watchful, ever unmoving. Denethor was coming from out an arching doorway at the feet of the high tower of Ecthelion. And behind him, strode a group of armored soldiers clad in dark cloaks bearing a bier on their shoulders upon which lay Faramir, quiet as death and beside them, matching the Faramir’s bearers still form step by step, marched another group of darkly clad soldiers bearing a similar bier, upon which another quiet form lay, though Pippin could not see who the other fallen warrior could be, for a white shroud had been lain over the still form, though Faramir had no covering. Behind them, were other robed men bearing torches that glowed dim in the heavy darkness that lay like a pall over Minas Tirith as the acrid scent of ash and brimstone wafted up from the lowest level.
Denethor strode ahead of the group, mumbling softly to himself as he went, though Pippin could not hear his words. Faramir’s bearers followed slowly along behind him. Pippin scampered across the green sward near the white tree, its branches reaching heavenward like the tortured fingers of a skeletal hand, his eyes widening with wonder.
A shuddering chill ran along Pippin’s limbs as he stood beside the white tree, his hand upon its once smooth, gleaming bark, though now it was dull and dry as a bone beneath his fingertips.
Who of high rank had fallen, that he would deserve to be borne in so honored a manner as this?
Pippin’s heart pounded swiftly within him as scampered after them, followed the somber column far behind as Denethor led his servants toward the silent tombs that rose stark as white bones against the blackness of the night.
Down from the Citadel they went, down, down toward the monuments and domes of stone and marble that flanked the Silent Street, that which he had heard called Rath Dínen.
The long hall of the burial house of the Stewards, dank with age and decay, flickered ominously in the weak torchlight as Pippin shuffled softly along the hallway, flanked with silent forms of stone, laying as if they slept. He made his way silently toward a circled chamber in the center of the long hallway, beneath the dome of the burial house upon which rested a wide table of stone.
Pippin’s eyes shot wide in alarm, for about the great stone table, were stacked many bundles of bound sticks, and upon them, Faramir’s still form lay beside the other figure still shrouded beneath the white mantle.
Denethor, hunched with misery, was kneeling upon the dried sticks stacked upon the stone alter, between the two figures, speaking.
“That Finduilas could have borne such a fair daughter as you,” Denethor was mumbling softly as Pippin eased closer, unnoted by the guards and the Steward’s other servants as they continued to stack more of the dried, brittle bundles about the three forms. “Such a fair and noble maiden, the pride of her father’s house. And now, though in death, you shall now truly become my own daughter-,”
And with that, Denethor grasped a hand upon the white mantle, and whipped it back, like a flag cracking in a sudden wind, and catching white in the light of the torches.
Pippin gaped as a wave of unpleasant shock took him. And Pippin’s eyes went wide in horror as the still face came into his view at last, her eyes closed, her face fair and white, as her golden hair lay billowed about her upon the dried sticks. No! Not Lalaith!
“Here now, I bind thee to my son by my authority as Steward of the House of Anárion.” At these words, Denethor drew up Lalaith’s small white hand, still and unmoving, and placed it into Faramir’s limp hand. “A daughter you are now to me in all truth, fair Lalaith, maiden of the Elves, and child of the stars-,”
“No!” Pippin cried, running forward, and Denethor raised his head, looking with a glance of hardened distaste upon the Hobbit.
“Not Lalaith!” he screamed. “She’s not dead! What did you do to her?! And Faramir! He is not dead!”
A wild madness seized him as he grasped a heavy bundle of sticks, wrenching on it. “They’re not dead!” he shrieked wildly, wrenching the dried kindling back.
“They’re not dead!” he screamed again even as Denethor, dark of face, his eyes flashing with deep anger, leapt from the stone altar, and snatched Pippin roughly by his mail hauberk, and wrenched him away.
“No! No!” Pippin shrieked, flailing furiously as the Man dragged him toward the door.
With all the fury of his strength, he grasped upon Denethor’s arm, wrenching fiercely, but the Man’s grip was maddeningly strong as Pippin struggled and twisted, straining his head to watch the scene with awful disbelief as the Steward’s servants, ignorant of his cries, continued their silent task of gathering the wood bundles about the stone plinth and the two still forms that lay upon it. Why did they not heed him? Did they not know?
“No! They’re not dead!” he screamed again, grasping at Denethor’s iron grip.
“Farewell, Peregrin, son of Paladin,” Denethor cried out, his voice deep and authoritative, Pippin barely heeding his voice amidst his own wild cries. “I release you from my service.”
With a rough shove, Denethor pushed Pippin across the threshold. Pippin fell harshly upon one arm and tumbled in a wild vortex for a space before he thumped to an abrupt spot, and catching his arms under him, pushed himself up, bruised and dizzy.
“Go now, and die in what way seems best to you,” Denethor muttered, studying the Hobbit with a look of bitter disappointment in his glazed eyes as if somehow, Pippin was in the wrong.
And with that, the Steward flung the doors shut with a noisome clang, a clap of a lock being thumped into place, and Pippin knew he was locked out.
“Pour oil on the wood!” Denethor’s muffled voice cried from within.
Releasing a groan of frustration, Pippin pounded his gloved fist against the ground. His own strength would not be enough to dash the door down! Lalaith was in there, and Faramir as well, soon to be burned to death because of Denethor’s madness! But perhaps if he braved the nightmare of the lower levels, he just might find Gandalf, and save his friends in time. That one thought, brought a small sliver of hope to his heart. And as Denethor had released him even now-,
Pippin sprang to his feet, giving no more time to his thoughts, and dashed away from the silent, bone white tombs, and back across the causeway toward the flames of the city, his short legs carrying him more swiftly than they had, in a long while.
“Gandalf!” Pippin cried, as he scampered swiftly through the maze of streets, his eyes scanning the faces of the soldiers as they fled past, wounded and bleeding, here and there, a soldier dragging his wounded comrade along through the shattered rubble. Pippin’s lungs burned from his hurried search, his voice growing hoarse from his shouting. His legs were turning into jelly, but still he ran. Was he too late? Had Denethor burned Lalaith and Faramir to ashes already?
“Gandalf!” he cried again.
“Pippin?” a voice taut with pain and fear called through the haze of dust, and Pippin’s heart leapt in his throat as a group of women, carrying wailing babies, and tugging weary weeping children along with them, escorted by a handful of soldiers, came rushing up the path, their faces anxious and written with fear.
Among them, Pippin recognized the brown hair and the features so like his father’s as the boy struggled to put on a brave front.
“Bergil!” he cried, seeing the bloody gashes upon one of the boy’s legs as he leaned heavily against a young woman who tugged him quickly along.
“Come on, my lad,” the girl gasped breathlessly as Pippin cast Bergil a last glance, then turned and darted swiftly away, his urgent mission returned to him.
“Gandalf!” he cried, darting down through the streets clogged with burning rubbled and retreating soldiers. Oh, where was the White Wizard?
“Fight!” came the strong, deep voice he knew so well over the approaching noise of screeching orcs and snarling wargs. “Fight to the last man! Fight for your lives!”
And blessedly, the white robed form of Gandalf, mounted upon Shadowfax, came into view in that moment as Pippin rounded a sharp corner, and came darting down a set of rubble strewn steps, skirting between the armored forms of fleeing soldiers.
“Gandalf!” Pippin shrieked, his energy renewed as he scrambled toward the white figure, and Gandalf, wielding his white staff, turned suddenly upon him, his wrathful eyes filling now with concern.
“Gandalf,” he gasped his breath rough and fierce, reaching Shadowfax’s flank. “Denethor has lost his mind! He did something to Lalaith! And he’s burning her and Faramir alive!”
Gandalf’s eyes opened in wild anxiety at this. “Up! Quickly!” the wizard cried without hesitation, and snatching the Hobbit by an arm, he jerked him up behind him upon Shadowfax, and with a touch of his hand, the silver horse leapt away, up the swiftly sloping streets, leaping scattered piles of broken stone.
Up Shadowfax leapt, his hooves flying beneath him, clattering swiftly over the stone up the steeply sloping streets, surging higher and higher on toward the citadel, and Pippin’s heart grew hopeful within him. Surely they would arrive in time to save them both!
But just as Shadowfax passed beneath a arching tunnel and into the wane light, a heavy shadow, like a thick, suffocating pall fell suddenly over Pippin’s heart. He felt it even before Shadowfax reared back in angry fury, before he saw the dark towering figure swoop down from the ash covered sky to land with a harsh scrape of stony claws upon the parapet before them. But as Shadowfax snorted and turned slightly, he saw the great black shape, the cruel naked wings clawing at the parapets about it, and the figured mounted upon its hunched back, the ragged cloak cast over the faceless void beneath the iron helm.
Before Pippin, Gandalf stiffened, brandishing his staff toward the undead Ringwraith. The Lord of the Nazgûl! The Witch King!
“Go back to the Abyss!” Gandalf cried, his voice strong though Pippin flinched at the hint of fear he heard in the wizard’s voice as a slow hiss as of the chill air of death’s breath, seethed from beneath the wicked helm. “Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your master!”
“Old fool!” a seething voice seeped from beneath the crowned, faceless hood. And the voice seared like fire through Pippin’s veins. Against his will, he cried out in wrenching pain. “Do you not know death when you see it?”
Who could endure such a presence as this, his mind cried out to itself. For even Gandalf feared this vile creature!
“This is my hour!” the Witch King breathed fiercely. “I do not fear you. You cannot defeat me. The only one whose blade I need fear, burns upon a pyre! Die now, and curse in vain!”
And with that, the Witch King lifted his sword high, and wild streaks of flame ran down the blade as a shrieking sound of wind screamed through the air, whipping about the flaming sword.
A sudden burst of strength blasted from the burning blade, and with a crash, Gandalf’s white staff shattered, and Pippin found himself flying through the air, to land with a rough crash upon the harsh stones, as Gandalf fell, helpless as well. Pippin scrambled swiftly up, his back pressed against the cold stones of the wall behind him, his heart hammering wildly in his chest.
“Gandalf!” he cried out. Shadowfax, skittered wildly to the side, though the horse refused to back further even as the winged monster stamped nearer to the fallen wizard, its long mottled neck straining toward the wizard.
Mustering his courage, Pippin snatched his short blade from its sheath, and with a cry, leapt forward. But at the sight of him, the great wicked beast bared its teeth and released a wild roar of fury, exposing its many rows of razored teeth. Shorn of his courage, Pippin stopped, helpless. Why was it he could do nothing? Why was he so very powerless?
“You have failed,” the Witch King breathed. “The world of Men will fall.”
The blade lifted in the gaunleted hands, and Pippin could only look on helplessly, waiting for the death stroke to fall.
Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, there came from far away, as clear and bright as a beam of light spearing through a darkened cloud, a high clear note. A horn.
The faceless demon paused, glancing away toward the sound. The faceless eyes glanced back again toward Gandalf, and then, with a hop, the great mottled beast whipped away, swooping down from the wall, and away over the masses of orcs.
Gandalf sat up, visibly shaken, as Pippin swallowed fiercely and stumbled forward, weak and drained, shamed at his fear. Though Gandalf merely smiled and rose again to his feet, helping Pippin up with him as Shadowfax trotted nearer.
The wizard glanced up, his eyes catching a light in them which Pippin was glad to see as another horn followed upon the first, joined a moment later by many more.
“Come, Peregrin Took,” Gandalf cried as he swung upon the silver horse’s back, and grasped Pippin, pulling him up swiftly behind him. “I would have Faramir and Lalaith live to see the hope that comes now again to the Men of Gondor. For Rohan at last, has come.”
And with that, Shadowfax once again sprang away.