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Choices  by Lindelea

Chapter 4. Cormallen

He managed to hide his despair from the Halfling; indeed, it was easy to push it away in the face of his joy at Pippin's rapid improvement. The first time Beregond sat a bedside watch with Pippin, the hobbit slept most of the time, rousing only for brief intervals to be fed like a babe from a spoon or to sip water from a cup held for him. Beregond sat through the long hours watching him sleep, thinking of the irony that this friend of his had saved his life in battle, only to have to see him lose it in disgrace. Ah, well, perhaps the trial and execution would be over with before Pippin left his bed and he would not have to be witness to it.

The next time he sat with Pippin, the hobbit could ply his own spoon and stayed awake for longer intervals. Pippin's breath came easier, though he remained propped up in the bed some days more. They had brief times of talk, during which the hobbit would unexpectedly lapse back into sleep.

A day or two later, Beregond and other semi-able men were summoned hastily from the mess. Clouds were rolling in. They quickly set up tents over the wounded who had been bedded in the open air -- these were the ones whose lungs had been most damaged, and needed the most fresh air possible -- and then when the rain had passed they took the tents down again. Beregond wanted to laugh at the look of wonder on Pippin's face as he awakened to the pattering of rain on the canvas. Pippin turned to him. 'It's got such a homey sound to it,' he said dreamily.

'That it does,' Beregond agreed. How many times had he tramped the fields and forest surrounding his father's house and slept beneath a canvas, listening to the patter of the rain? He wished he could see Lossarnach one more time, see his old haunts and walk the old trails.

The next day when Pippin awoke, he murmured, 'Cool sunshine and green grass.'

'What was that?' Beregond queried gently.

'I thought I would never see it again,' the hobbit said without further explanation, but Beregond understood.

A day later Pippin could hold a mug by himself. They toasted his success in some of the good ale that had been brought from the City. Of course, the ale made him sleepy again quite soon. That was not a bad thing. Sleep seemed to bring healing.

It wasn't long before the hobbit was chafing to be out of bed. The wrappings around the chest and the stabilising weight were no longer needed, and he no longer had to be propped up to breathe. The Lord Aragorn had some strong words with Pippin, and managed to get the high-spirited little fellow to promise to stay quiet awhile longer. It wasn't easy. Beregond suspected that it was only the lack of britches that kept Pippin in his blankets.

When he was not sitting with the hobbit or attending to the business of his Company, Beregond was walking in the woods, or watching the stars. Sometimes Gilwyn would seek him out, sometimes she would avoid him. He did not press her. She was coming to terms with the idea of losing him just as she'd found him again.

He felt sorry for the Lord Aragorn. He was a decent man, bound by a law that had been made for good reason. Men simply could not desert their posts in time of war. Beregond had done so, fully knowing the penalty. He had spilled men's blood, and that could not be forgotten. He was ready to pay, almost wishing that payment would be demanded sooner than later. He was tired of putting on a courageous face for his friends and comrades. Most of all he dreaded seeing pity in their eyes, but so far all they had offered was respect.

For the most part, he and the men of his Company lived for the day, ignoring what the future must surely bring. It must come soon. Surely Lord Aragorn had completed his investigations by now. There would be no forewarning. A muster would be announced, like any other muster, except that he would be called to stand forth from the ranks, and that would be the end. It was better that way. Gave the men less time to anticipate. As long as no announcement was made they could live each day as it came.

One morning the word came that there was to be a muster the next day, and all were to wear the fine new uniforms ordered by the Steward. All the Company went about that day in deep gloom, but those who sat the bedside watch with Pippin were careful to put on a casual, cheerful demeanour.

On the morning of the following day, Targon helped Beregond into his new uniform. Gilwyn had made it ingeniously for a man with one arm bound to his side. Instead of going over his head and having to poke his arms through, the tunic had fastenings at neck and left side, and a detached left sleeve, with extra room for splints and bandages, that could be separately pulled on over his arm and fastened at the top. Someone had modified a hauberk for him, completely opened up the left side so that he could get it on easily enough and stick his arm and elbow through the hole. Not too practical in battle, though. Targon adjusted Beregond's arm in the sling, bent down to give his boots a polish, and straightened up again to reach for the surcoat. Beregond stopped him. 'No.'

Targon cut off his protest at the sight of Beregond's face. 'I'll just go see to the men,' he muttered. 'Call if you need aid.'

Targon was an excellent swordsman, strong and accurate. Beregond regarded him seriously. 'The Lord Aragorn spoke to me again the other day of the choice of Valdil.' Targon nodded without speaking. Death by the sword of a friend, who would see to it that it would be honourable, and as quick and painless as possible. 'When the verdict is given, will you...?' The old guardsman dropped his eyes, then raised them to meet Beregond's steady gaze. 'I will make it swift,' he promised. He reached out his hand, they grasped each others' forearms, held tightly a long moment, then Targon broke the grip and strode away.

Beregond stood by the bench where the folded surcoat still lay. His fingertip traced the silver Tree. He would never wear that emblem again. His throat ached, but he took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and turned away. Squaring his shoulders, he strode from the tent.

He was met by a cheer from his men. Targon came forward with a grin. The cantankerous old soldier was actually beaming with joy. 'It is not to be a trial,' he exulted, 'not this day!'

'What is it, then?' Beregond asked.

'The young hobbits, they are to be made knights of the City and of the Mark.'

Beregond felt his face split in a grin. Oh, he was glad to have lived to see this day! 'When?'

'After the meal. We are to muster on the field at the sound of the trumpets.'

Beregond looked up to see Gilwyn hovering at the entrance to the tent. He placed his good hand on Targon's shoulder. 'I will meet you at the mess, old friend,' he said. Targon, following his gaze, nodded and spun to growl orders at the men.

Beregond went to Gilwyn, whose face was pale and strained. 'Today is not the day,' he soothed.

'I heard... the muster...'

'It is for a happier reason. The hobbits are to be knighted.' Her eyes brightened. He noticed black cloth protruding from her fist. 'What is that?' She let her hand fall open, and he saw she held a length of shining black silk.

'That sling does not go with your uniform at all!' she said defiantly. 'I brought you a better one.' He laughed, and let her change the white cloth for the black silk. 'There!' she exclaimed when she had adjusted it to her satisfaction.

'It does look nice against the hauberk and black tunic,' he teased.

'Go on with you,' she said, and pushed him towards the mess. She turned away, but not before he saw the sparkle of tears in her eyes.

He met Pippin and Merry on the way to the mess, looking fine indeed. He bowed and smiled. 'You are a credit to the Guard of the Tower, Master Perian. You look ready for battle... But no battle today, only a few matters of business.' Merry looked apprehensive at this, but Beregond nodded at him with a smile and the hobbit wiped the look from his face before Pippin could catch it.

Pippin thanked him, and they entered a grove where long tables and benches had been set up. The meal was simple, bread and cheese and new-drawn ale, but it was eaten with as much merriment as if it had been a feast. The guardsmen made much of Pippin, and included Merry in all they said and did.

Finally all was eaten and Beregond rose, hefting his mug in the air. He toasted the Captains of the West, and then the armies of the West, and then the common soldier, and all roared their agreement as they drank. Then Beregond raised his mug silently, and as the mess quieted, he said, 'And now I ask that we drink to the ones who will not return, the comrades who fought beside us.' The men drank soberly.

Beregond turned towards Pippin and said, 'and one more toast. To my friend, and comrade, and one to whom I owe my life.' Pippin grew red as the soldiers rose together to drink a toast in his honour. He rose from the table a little shakily, and lifting his mug in return, he thanked them, and said, 'and now let us drink to the start of a new age, but let us never forget the friendships of the old one.'

Toasts over, the men set down their mugs and began to go about their business. Pippin sat down again, and Beregond could see he needed a moment to catch his breath. Many of the soldiers came to rest a hand on his shoulder or slap him gently on his back and congratulate him on his recovery.

Pippin made move to rise again, and Beregond's uninjured hand steadied him. 'Make haste a little more slowly, Master Perian,' he smiled, then sobered. 'A Man with your injuries would have lain abed for months... or not risen at all.' Trumpets sounded and Beregond was cheerful again. 'They are calling us to muster.'

When they reached the greensward they found many soldiers of Gondor and Rohan already drawn up in ranks, with Aragorn and Éomer standing together at their head.

A trumpet sounded, and a herald cried, 'Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, Periain of the Shire, stand forth!' Beregond's hand tightened reassuringly on Pippin's shoulder, and then he stepped into the rank.

He watched with pride as his friend received the rank of knight of the White City, joining in the cheer that arose at the ceremony's close. He joined whole-heartedly in the celebration that followed, as well.

In the midst of the revel, a hand touched his arm and turning, he was surprised to see Darothorn. The other indicated with a jerk of his head that he wanted to walk to a quieter place. Beregond nodded, and they slipped through the crowd.

Targon caught them up as they reached the outskirts of the merrymakers. 'Beregond?'

He smiled. 'It is all right, Targon.' He touched the grizzled guardsman's arm reassuringly. Targon looked as if he wanted to protest, but Beregond shook his head and indicated with a gesture that he did not want to be followed. Reluctantly the old guardsman nodded.

Beregond followed Darothorn into a quiet glade and waited for the other to speak, but the Darothorn remained silent.

Finally Beregond spoke. 'Well? Did you come to tell me you changed your mind?' He put his hand on his dagger hilt.

Darothorn's eyes followed his motion. 'Put it away,' he said in a hoarse voice. 'We won't need that.'

Beregond waited.

Darothorn spoke again. 'Yes,' he said. 'I did change my mind.'

'Then what are you waiting for?'

'Do not be so eager to die, Beregond. That has always been a failing of yours: you have no fear. Look where it got you the last time, buried under a stinking troll for the better part of a day.'

'What do you want, Darothorn?' Beregond asked wearily.

'There has been enough blood spilled,' the other answered. 'Your life will not bring my brother back. Your family's tears will not make my family stop weeping.'

Beregond stood silent.

Darothorn shook his head. 'Today, when I thought I would watch you walk to your execution, I realized I did not really want to see you die.' He met Beregond's eyes in the gathering gloom. 'My brother was in the wrong, if he knew Faramir still breathed.' He hesitated. 'Did he know?'

'I knew,' Beregond answered. 'The Lord Denethor knew.'

The other shook his head in despair. 'I do not know how he could have followed a madman. Why he did not turn and fight by your side, I will never know.' He met Beregond's gaze once more. 'You have been a fine guardsman... and a good friend.' He held out his hand, Beregond grasped his arm; he grasped Beregond's in return, and they stood for a long moment before dropping their hands and walking back to the celebration.

Targon met them with a raised eyebrow and expression of relief. Beregond slapped him on the arm. 'Come on, old friend. Darothorn says he is buying the next round of drinks.' They walked back to where the kegs of ale were being tapped.

The next day was another muster, but they knew ahead of time that it had been called to honour the Ring-bearers. As the diminutive figures came to the field, Beregond unsheathed his sword with the rest, raised it high to glitter in the sun, and lustily joined in the shouting. 'Praise them with great praise! Praise them! Long live the Halflings! Praise them with great praise!'

After the King had set the small figures on his own throne, and the last glad shout had swelled up and died away again, a minstrel of Gondor stood forth, and knelt, and begged leave to sing. And one of the hobbits laughed and cried out, 'O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!' And then he wept. Beregond joined the host in laughing and weeping, and hushed with them to hear the minstrel's song. He heard the full tale now with wonder, how duty had led these little people to walk into despair, without hope, yet somehow they had come through peril and death with honour. Against all inclination, hope stirred in his heart.

Gilwyn in her blue dress sat next to him at the feast that followed. They did not say much, but sat with hands entwined. Of course, that made it hard for a one-armed man to eat, but Beregond felt little hunger. The guardsmen made merry, for it was indeed a great feast that had been in preparation for days, ever since the healers had announced that the Ring-bearer was out of danger. There was fine food, wine, song, and much laughter. Beregond drank it all in greedily. Life was good, and he was loathe to leave it. But when the time came he hoped he would walk the path with as much courage and grace as those small Halflings had done.

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