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Choices  by Lindelea

Chapter 2. Journey

He was once again by the hobbit's bedside when he heard a cheer go up outside. He debated with himself getting up to lift the flap, but he had just managed to settle his arm comfortably. He did not have long to wait for the news. The tent flap opened and a smiling Legolas extended a drinking bottle to him.

'I have one,' he said in surprise.

'Drink,' the elf ordered. He did, and the water was cool and refreshing. 'The waggons have come from Ithilien. They're being unloaded now, as quickly as may be. Get your gear and be ready to go.'

Beregond nodded at a pile in the corner. 'My pack's there; so's his.' The elf nodded approval, shouldered the packs, and thrust his way out of the tent. Beregond rose then, walked to the doorway and lifted the flap.

Outside the tent was controlled pandemonium. Lines of men were unloading barrels and bags from the supply waggons and passing them down the rows to be stowed out of the sun in the hastily raised tents that had been first to come off the waggons. As soon as a waggon was emptied, it was driven to the cluster of smaller tents where the healers tended the wounded, to be padded with blankets and stocked with supplies. Harness was pulled from the horses, which were led away to food and rest, and others from the camp were substituted in the traces. The cavalry that had guarded the incoming waggons from remnants of the broken Mordor armies were dismounting, unsaddling and rubbing down their mounts, while another group of cavalry from the camp were saddling up and checking their weapons.

Beregond let the tent flap fall, sat down again by the bed, took Pippin's hand in his good one and leaned forward. 'Pippin,' he whispered. 'Keep on fighting. We'll have you to fresher air soon.'

Legolas returned with two guardsmen. They formed a chair with their arms, locking hand on wrist, and carried Pippin, still sitting up, to the waggon. Legolas steadied Beregond as they came behind. Able-bodied men surrounded the waggons, lifting the injured over the sides. Despite their care, Beregond's shoulder was jostled as he was passed into the waggon and he had to bite back a cry. Aragorn himself was in the first waggon. He hardly looked kingly in his grey cloak, and Beregond noticed that his arm was scratched and battle-scarred as any common soldier's as he settled the guardsman with his back to some bundles. 'He will need to be held up in a sitting position for the entire journey,' Aragorn said, holding Beregond's gaze, 'not comfortable, but...'

'I have one good arm still; I can hold him,' Beregond replied evenly. With cries of 'Careful, now!' the hobbit was handed up to Aragorn, who placed him against Beregond's right side. Beregond opened his arm to make room and cautiously settled it again, circling the limp body, trying not to impede the labouring chest. Aragorn used several pillows to prop them securely, then caught Beregond's eye. 'You will need to ensure this weight keeps the ribs on his right side from shifting,' He held the guardsman's gaze to underline the import, then jumped from the waggon.

Another guardsman was handed in, swearing under his breath. 'Well, Targon,' Beregond greeted him, 'It seems we cannot spend enough time in one another's company.' Grumbling, the other guardsman shot him a look and pulled himself over next to Beregond. Several other guardsmen were lifted in. Beregond saw that they were keeping men from the same companies together as much as possible, probably for morale's sake more than any other. Might as well be miserable with friends.

'How is he? Nobody would tell me anything at all, except that we were to go to Ithilien. Suits me just fine to leave this forsaken place,' Targon muttered, 'but what will the army do without you and me to keep them straight?'

'We go to Ithilien for his sake, and for the others who cannot breathe this pleasant air,' Beregond replied.

'Ah. We don't go for my health, I imagine.' Targon was silent, then repeated, 'How is he?'

'Well, he hasn't died yet,' Beregond answered in exasperation.

'Good. See to it that he doesn't.' The old trooper jerked his chin for emphasis. 'That we will.' Targon's attention was pulled away as soldiers loaded a firkin of water and metal cups. He directed their placement where he could pour out water without having to jar his injured leg. More bags followed, which the loader told them contained bread, dried meat, and dried fruit. 'At least if we stayed here we could have a cooked meal,' Targon grunted.

'Why don't you hop out then?' Beregond asked.

'I just got myself settled. What's this, now?' Beregond turned as well as he could to see what Targon was looking at. Aragorn and Mithrandir were approaching their waggon, each carrying a small body completely swathed in blankets. More injured soldiers had been handed into the front of the waggon, propped up sitting as Beregond was. The two bundles were carefully placed in their arms in sitting positions like Pippin's. 'Ah, more bad lungs, I gather,' Targon muttered sourly. 'There's not enough air in this waggon as it is.'

'Show some respect,' Beregond snapped. 'That's the Ring-bearer. I should imagine his lungs would be bad after standing atop the Mountain.' Wide-eyed, the old trooper subsided. 'I had heard...' he breathed, and said no more for a long while.

The loading of the waggons was nearly complete. The canvas covers were set in place. The cavalry was mounted and waiting. Drivers took their places on the waggons. Several of the healers climbed onto horses; they would ride up and down the column, keeping an eye on the patients as the waggons made their slow journey. Beregond watched the Lord Aragorn confer with Mithrandir, then jump into their waggon. Checking everything one last time, he supposed, but the Dúnadan settled himself by the Ring-bearer and the order was given to proceed. Beregond tried to cushion Pippin from the jerk as the horses pulled the waggon into motion. He bent his head to speak close to the hobbit's ear. 'We're on our way, now. Keep fighting, Pippin. It will get better.'

The sun beat down upon the canvas covers, combining with the bad air of the plain to make the waggon interiors stuffy. 'I don't know if the shade is worth the lack of air,' Beregond remarked over the rumble of the wheels.

'At least we're in the first waggon. We get the least dust here,' Targon said, an uncommonly optimistic answer from him. The grizzled guardsman looked down at Pippin. 'This wee one is going to need every chance.' For all his rough demeanor, his hands were gentle as a woman's as he soaked a cloth in some of the water he had poured out and wiped the dust from the hobbit's face.

Pippin's breathing was no longer steady and even, but shallow as it had been in the tent. The airless heat had him gasping once again for breath. Beregond held him carefully upright, helpless to do any more, and Targon constantly sponged his face with the cool water. At one point, he surprised Beregond by wiping the sweat from his face that he could not spare a hand to wipe away. The cloth felt cool, giving a temporary relief.

'Hold on, Pippin,' he murmured urgently in the hobbit's ear. 'Just hold on. The fight will get easier soon.'

Sunset was a relief. The drivers stopped the waggons to take the canvases off as soon as they were no longer needed for shade. The covers were not preventing the dust from entering the waggons in any event. Aragorn took advantage of the stop to leave the front of the waggon and come back to check on Pippin.

One of the healers rode up to their waggon to confer. Evidently there had already been deaths. Now the sick and wounded travellers understood the reason for the empty waggon that followed at the end of the train, as blanket shrouded forms were taken to the rear from waggons farther forward in the column. Beregond briefly tightened his hold on Pippin. He would not see the hobbit carried to the rear. 'Fight, Pippin,' he whispered.

A cavalry scout spurred over to Aragorn to report that all was quiet ahead. While they were stopped, Targon shared out food and water to the guardsmen in their part of the waggon. He had not yet drunk his own cup when the order to resume was given, and he cursed as half of it spilled out with the jolting start. 'Ah, well,' he said as he raised his eyes to Beregond's. 'At least I didn't spill it in the heat when it would have dried quickly.'

'Got to look on the bright side,' Beregond answered.

As the night deepened the heat of the day gave way to a chill. Aragorn ordered a halt. The more mobile injured broke out blankets from their waggons' supplies and made sure all were well wrapped against the cool night air. Targon tucked a blanket around Pippin and Beregond both. 'There now,' he muttered, 'you can help him keep warm as well as keeping him breathing, and it might stop him sliding down.'

About midnight Beregond noticed a change in the air. He had been dozing and jerked awake with a deep breath -- which didn't burn his lungs. They weren't in Ithilien yet, but the air was getting better. Pippin had slid down a little as the guardsman's grip relaxed, and Beregond woke Targon and another man to help prop him up again. The hobbit moaned slightly as he was shifted.

The road was rough here, the waggon jolting over large stones. Pippin's breath came faster, and he protested. Whispered words came to Beregond's ear, of orcs and whips and hopelessness. This was one story the hobbit had not shared with him. He murmured words of comfort but the hobbit continued in his nightmare. A particularly large jolt made him gasp, and Beregond could tell that it hurt him to do so. 'It's all right, Master Perian. You're safe. There are no orcs here, just friends.'

'Steady now, lad,' Targon spoke. By the starlight, Beregond saw him stroke the dusty, sweat-matted hair back from the hobbit's forehead. He poured half a cup and held it up. 'D'you think he would take any of this?'

'You can try,' Beregond answered.

Targon shifted forward, for a wonder not cursing as he jarred his leg. 'Here, lad,' he crooned. 'Fresh water from Ithilien. Take small sips.' The guardsmen were encouraged to see Pippin moisten his lips, then take several swallows. When he turned his face away, Targon lowered the cup and poured the rest onto a cloth which he used to wipe the hobbit's face.

Beregond felt the ghost of a sigh from the body he cradled, followed by a moan. It seemed the hobbit's pain was worse. 'Don't try to take a deep breath,' he murmured. 'The air is already getting better. We're getting close to Ithilien. It'll be easier to breathe there.' Pippin's head fell back against Beregond's arm as the hobbit slipped once more into uneasy dreams.

Aragorn crawled to the back of the waggon to check Pippin. 'He's hurting bad, I think,' Beregond told him. Just then a mounted scout rode up to the waggon to confer. A halt was called. The cavalry wanted time to scout this stretch of road. They were out of treeless country now, and there was more cover than was comfortable to contemplate. Beregond saw a shrouded bundle being taken from their waggon. He wondered if the Ring-bearer still breathed.

Aragorn took advantage of the halt to check the bindings on Pippin's ribs and re-position the weight that stabilised one side. The hobbit struck out feebly, murmuring about orcs, and the Dúnadan crooned reassurance.

'He seems to think orcs are carrying him off somewheres,' Targon said. 'Wonder where he'd get such a notion?' Aragorn shot him a quelling look and leapt down from the waggon to check with the healers.

'Very Kingly,' Beregond remarked.


'I do not know many men who could silence you with a look.' Targon grumbled something under his breath.

As Aragorn was climbing into the waggon again, the hobbit moaned for water. Targon poured another half cup and raised it to Pippin's lips. 'Take care that he doesn't choke,' Aragorn said in passing. 'If he starts coughing...'

That didn't bear thinking about. 'Take small sips, Pippin,' Beregond urged. After only a few sips, the hobbit turned his face away from the cup and fell asleep again. The road smoothed out some, and his sleep seemed more peaceful. Many of the guardsmen were nodding, there were snores to be heard. Though he fought it, Beregond himself drifted off.

He woke with a start, knowing something was wrong. The hobbit was no longer propped against his side. Pippin had slid down, lying almost prone, unmoving, eyes half open, staring at the sky. 'Targon!' he hissed. 'Targon!' The old guardsman awoke and immediately grasped the situation. Without regard for his injured leg, he moved to Beregond's side. His movement awakened the next guardsman, who crawled over. Somehow the three of them got Pippin upright again.

Beregond felt sick; what if the hobbit had suffocated while they all slept? He could not feel Pippin breathing. He called urgently to Aragorn over the noise of the wheels, and the Dúnadan came quickly. He unpacked a well-wrapped pot of coals from the supplies, uncovered the coals, and had Targon hold a cup of water over them until steam rose from the cup. Beregond watched as he once again performed his magic with leaves of athelas. Somehow the hobbit's breathing eased once again into a steady rhythm. 'Hold on, Master Perian,' he whispered into the hobbit's dusty curls. 'Keep fighting. We're nearly there. No time to give up, now.'

Just before dawn, they arrived.

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