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First published in Marigold's Challenge 15:
Title: Something to Do before the End
Something to Do before the End
Then Pippin stabbed upwards, and the written blade of Westernesse pierced through the hide and went deep into the vitals of the troll, and his black blood came gushing out. He toppled forward and came crashing down like a falling rock, burying those beneath him. Blackness and stench and crushing pain came upon Pippin, and his mind fell away into a great darkness.
‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear.
Shadows in ones and twos stumbled over the slaughter-ground, some of them scavengers of a sort, searching for life and dealing out death. Harsh cries wafted on the wind, death-cries of Orcs and other foul creatures, mingling with the moans of wounded Men.
One shadow stopped where a soldier cradled another; brothers gone to battle together, but only one would return to tell the tale. ‘Let him go, Berandon,’ he said quietly. ‘His spirit has already gone on.’ But the grieving brother heeded him not.
Shaking his head, the shadowy figure went on, only to be stopped by another. ‘Captain! How do you come to be here?’
‘Tarondil,’ the Captain said, placing a hand upon a bloody shoulder. He nodded to himself as if the touch confirmed his thought. ‘You do not belong here any longer. Your task is done. You have fulfilled your duty. It is time to take your leave.’
‘But I cannot find... I cannot find...’ the soldier said vaguely. He blinked in the gathering light that flooded the battlefield, throwing all into sharp perspective and driving shadows away. His Captain’s face was growing clearer in the Light, and wore an understanding smile.
‘He has gone before you,’ the Captain said, releasing the shoulder and turning the soldier towards the light. ‘Your task here is done—go now. It is time to go on, to leave behind pain and fear, sorrow and care. The victory is won!’ And raising his face to the sky, he laughed, a loud and ringing laugh full of gladness and promise.
Some of the wanderers on the field looked up at the sound and made their way to the Captain, greeting him with wonder and joy, and he sent them on their way with blessing, promising to follow when his final task was accomplished. The scavengers continued their grim duty seeming not to hear, desperately seeking the living among the dead.
The Captain found at last the one he sought, a faint spark of life still within. The Troll was no obstacle to him; he simply reached underneath the creature, wedging himself into a space where there was no space... but then, what was space to him? It was not as if he’d rob the unfortunate trapped soldiers of air, the way things stood.
It might be dark under the Troll, blackness and stench and crushing pain, but the Light flooded all, even this prison, and the Captain eased himself down beside the entrapped hobbit, whispering.
‘All will be well, Master Peregrin. All will be well.’
The hobbit murmured in return, ‘Boromir...’
From the hobbit’s far side another half-crushed soldier said, muffled, ‘What did he say?’
And the answer came, ‘Something about Boromir. He wanders in dreams...’
‘Steady, Beregond,’ the Captain said, though he knew the soldier would likely not hear him. Beregond’s voice sounded full of life, and though the words were laced with pain it seemed he was in no immediate danger. Only those on the threshold, or already crossed over...
‘Do you think anyone is looking for us?’ asked the second guardsman, one of three buried beneath the massive body on this forsaken hill.
‘They are looking, Targon,’ the Captain assured him, even as Beregond uttered doubt as to the ones to find them. Friends would be well and good, but to be found by the foe, to be taken alive... but the guardsman did not hear.
‘They are looking,’ the Captain repeated, ‘and they will find you while there is still breath in your body, for it is not yet your time...’
‘Anything would be better than this stench!’ Targon grumbled, but he answered Beregond and not the Captain at all.
Pippin’s breath came short and pained; he grew ever more solid under the Captain’s questing hand, not a good sign, if one were hoping for his surviving this ordeal.
‘Master Peregrin!’ the Captain snapped, trying to gain the young hobbit’s attention. ‘How many times did I tell you, strike and step away! When you face a much larger foe, ‘tis foolishness to plant your feet in the soil, to be felled like a young sapling!’
‘Crushed, more likely,’ Pippin murmured, so low in his throat that only the Captain heard him. ‘Boromir? What’re you doing here?’
‘I’m here for you, youngster,’ the Captain said in return, with a squeeze for the shoulder. ‘Breathe, now! One-two-one-two. In and out again. Just like sword work: In and out again. Do not wait for the foe to come to you!’
The Captain’s fingers closed together as the hobbit breathed and the small shoulder became less solid under the gauntleted hand. ‘That’s right,’ the Captain said in satisfaction.
‘How do you come to be here?’ The barest whisper, echoing in his thoughts. He laughed.
‘Why, Peregrin! Do you think I would abandon my City when she was yet in peril? Do you think I would find my rest, knowing her desperation?’
‘I stayed to watch over all that I care about.’ The joy on the Captain’s face dimmed. ‘I could do nothing for my father,’ he said sorrowfully. ‘The darkness held him in its thrall, and he could not win free—though he is free, now, and fully healed.’
‘Healed?’ Pippin breathed. ‘I am glad to hear it. And you?’
‘All is well, Master Peregrin,’ the Captain said again. He shifted his weight, reaching to put his hand on the hobbit’s cool hand, still clutching the sword of Westernesse. ‘Never let go your weapon; it seems you learned your lesson well. Now if you’d only stepped out of the way.’
It seemed to Pippin that he could feel the touch of the Captain’s hand; he forced another shallow breath and the touch faded again.
‘That’s it, youngster,’ the Captain said. ‘Just as in the drill. In and out.’
‘Hurts,’ Pippin moaned. ‘And I am so dreadfully weary. Let me sleep...’
‘No, lad,’ the Captain said at once. ‘You mustn’t sleep. Not yet. They are looking for you, you know.’
‘Weary,’ Pippin breathed, and it seemed his hand was growing colder as the Light brightened around them.
The Captain, casting about for an anchor to keep the hobbit from floating away, said, ‘But Merry will come, and it wouldn’t do for him to arrive only in time to bid you fare well! You’ll be the death of him indeed, as he so often threatened along the way!’
‘No,’ Pippin moaned, in protest, and Beregond offered muffled words of comfort.
It seemed that the mention of his cousin was strengthening to the hobbit; in any event the Captain could no longer feel the hand beneath his own. He sat back, for the Troll was no encumbrance, and circled his knees with his arms, a pose Pippin had often seen when the Company were at rest along the journey.
‘I’ll help you to pass the time,’ the Captain said. ‘And I’ve a scrap of unfinished business before I must go.’
He felt the hobbit’s curiosity rising, and he laughed. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Business! You see, I was there...’
The hobbit’s breath might have come shorter, if it were not already very short and shallow indeed.
‘I was watching over the City,’ the Captain said. ‘I was there in the siege; though there was naught I could do, really. Witless of me even to try, I suppose, but I could find no rest, so long as Minas Tirith might fall. My thoughts in life pressed ever after her, and afterwards, I could not give up my anguish, my determination for her defence.’ He rested his chin on his knees and added, ‘I was there beside you, for a part of the time, trying to succor you, to lend you support and courage, though I doubted you knew of it...’
The hobbit thought of Faramir, and the Captain nodded. ‘My brother,’ he said. ‘He was in great peril, and I could do nothing...’ His voice trailed off and his knuckles tightened into fists before he relaxed again, reaching out to almost-touch the hobbit’s sword hand. ‘If not for yourself, Master Peregrin...’ He called beyond, to Beregond, though the soldier would never hear him, ‘and to you, Beregond! I am indebted to you for the life of my brother!’
The hobbit’s thoughts turned to Beregond; his life was forfeit for his actions in saving Faramir, not only for leaving his post in time of battle but also for spilling blood in the Hallows. The Captain shook his head. ‘I cannot see his fate,’ he admitted. ‘He is not close to death at the moment, or perhaps I should say that Death is not close to him. He will survive, and will be pulled alive from under the Troll, as will you,’ his voice intensified as he felt Pippin’s hand taking more solid form under his, ‘just so long as you remember your breathing, youngster! In-and-out again!’
He nodded satisfaction as the hand grew less substantial under his, indicating that the hobbit’s hold on life waxed stronger.
‘But know this,’ the Captain went on. ‘If he is put to the sword when he returns to the City, because of his crimes, he will be received as a hero in the Halls to come. I will see to it—nay, my father will!’
At the question he perceived in the hobbit’s thoughts, he laughed. ‘I said he was healed!’ he said. ‘The Lord Denethor, Lord no longer, proud and bitter, but just plain Denethor now, and a finer Man you have yet to meet—how grateful he is to Beregond for saving Faramir as he did! Why, if he yet lived he would remit all penalty and raise Beregond up in honour.
‘But then, if he yet lived...’ the Captain said, lower, ‘it is likely he would suffer even now from pride and bitterness, and unreasoned sorrow. For he would not know the joy to come, and the honour for his long and loyal service...’ He nodded, and his voice grew stronger. ‘He is healed, indeed! And sends his thanks for your own loyal service.’
The hobbit gave the ghost of a sigh, and the Captain continued to regale him with story and song until a muffled shout was heard.
‘Ha,’ the Captain said in satisfaction. ‘Never have I been so pleased to hear those unlovely tones! Dulcet, he is not, but our Master Dwarf’s voice is tuned to shout above a forge! He’ll soon bring help.’
Help came indeed, but Gimli himself hauled the carcase of the Troll from the soldiers buried beneath the creature.
The Captain followed close-at-hand as the limp hobbit was borne to the healers’ tents; he continued to whisper comfort through the hours that passed. He climbed into the wain that bore the hobbits—for to the Captain’s joy, Frodo and Sam had survived the Quest and been rescued from the sides of the fiery Mountain—from the battle plain to the living land of Ithilien, and he rode by Pippin’s side through that long journey, reminding him of the “drill” whenever the hobbit’s breathing seemed about to fail. When even the “sword drill” was not enough to strengthen the hobbit’s determination, mention of Merry would always bring him back from the brink. ‘Meriadoc is coming, lad. He’ll be expecting to find you. Don’t you disappoint him!’
And so the Captain remained with his young friend longer than he intended. Indeed, he remained by Pippin’s side in Ithilien, until a breathless voice was heard outside the grove where Pippin slept, propped up in bed, and Merry skidded to a stop at Pippin’s bedside, seizing his cousin’s undamaged hand and calling his name.
With a smile the Captain got up from the bed and sketched a salute to the two hobbits. ‘Farewell, my brave soldier,’ he said to Pippin. ‘May you remember me kindly, and hoist a mug for me in my City...’
Pippin’s eyelids fluttered and he seemed to stare into space, seeking.
‘Pippin?’ Merry said eagerly. ‘Pippin, do you hear me?’
‘Where did he go?’ Pippin said, his voice dreamlike. But then, he had been asleep but a moment ago.
‘Where did who go?’ Merry asked, keeping his voice light though his heart grieved at every bruise, every abrasion, every visible cut and every bandage that covered worse damage. ‘Where did who go, Pippin?’
Pippin’s eyes focused and he saw Merry as if for the first time; he smiled. ‘Merry!’ he said weakly. ‘I knew you’d come...’
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