Pippin stopped and leaned against a tree. True, he wasn't as young as he had been when he'd made his last long journey--he was fifty-five now. Even his pony was exhausted. He rubbed his sore foot and sighed. He had been walking for two days and he had seen nothing of his son, not even a footprint. And now Pippin was beginning to think that Faramir hadn't come this way at all. Maybe he was never planning to go to Gondor.
"Well, Daisy," he said, patting the pony, "ready to set out again?"
"I'd hate to think my best friend would run away to some distant land without even telling me." Pippin turned around to face Merry Brandybuck, atop a pony himself. "Well? Where are you off to?"
Pippin pulled himself up onto the pony. "Faramir has run away to Gondor." Merry's eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up. "We told him who he was marrying and he...well, he overreacted."
"And you left Diamond at home?" Merry supposed. "Bet she was happy about that." Pippin merely frowned. "So...you're going by yourself, then?"
Pippin eyed him suspiciously. "Why do you ask?" He smirked. "You didn't want to come, did you?" Merry said nothing, but looked on with a slightly bemused expression on his face. "Because I could certainly use the company and the help."
"Well, when you put it that way," Merry ceded. "Of course I'll come with you!"
"What about Estella?" Pippin asked a few minutes later. Merry didn't reply and Pippin cast his eyes down toward the sheathed sword hanging from his friend's saddlebag. "You knew all along," he accused. Merry nodded and Pippin became slightly flustered. "Why did you pretend not to know?"
"Because," Merry answered shortly. "I spoke to Diamond and she was very upset about the whole matter."
"I suppose she asked you to go along?" Pippin said.
"She might have," Merry replied.
"Did she request that you look after me as well?" he asked rather scathingly.
Merry grimaced. "Well, those weren't the exact words she used." Pippin grunted in an annoyed manner and Merry gave his pony a kick to catch up. "What does that matter, anyway, Pippin? We're best friends, we have to look after each other. We always have."
"You're right," Pippin said finally. "I'm sorry....It's this whole mess. I feel like I've become a different person entirely." He bit his lip to control the tears that were welling up in his eyes. "My son is gone, Merry, and I can't find him. Who knows where he is? If he's lost, if he's hungry, if he's cold and wet somewhere...if he's frightened..." He sniffled and without turned around, he said, "I have to find him. I have to know that he's all right."
He took a deep breath and surrendered himself to the overwhelming sadness. In a moment, Merry's hand was on his shoulder. "We will find him, Pippin. Don't you fret."
Faramir shivered and pulled the blanket that continued to blow away in the fierce wind around him. He was cold and now wet from the rainstorm that had swept over the Old Forest. He had gone through that horrid place as quickly as he could, without stopping once for even a short rest. He had heard the tales from his Uncle Meriadoc about the creatures dwelling in the forest and did not want to run into one of them. Naturally, he was exhausted now. He was able to get a few hours of sleep before the storm blew over and the blazing sun came out. He lay there for a while, imagining he was back home. His mother was putting something hot and delicious onto the table....His stomach growled. Slowly, he opened his eyes. When they had adjusted to the light, he was able to look through his bag for something to eat. He only had a few things left--just what he had been able to grab at the extravagant luncheon. Faramir would have to start looking for food.
When he had finished eating, he began to once again trudge in an easterly direction. He was beginning to wish he had never left at all--marrying Violet wouldn't have been that bad, after all, and he wouldn't even have to marry her until he was thirty-three. "I should have listened to them," he said to himself. "Mother and Father were right."
Merry fought to stay awake. He hadn't slept for so many days; Pippin had insisted that they keep going. "We might be able to catch up with him," he had said. And that was true, Merry supposed. "We should have caught up with him already," Pippin said wearily. "We're on ponies and he's only on foot. Something is wrong." He gasped. "What if he was kidnapped--there are those roaming bands of orcs still around. What will I tell Diamond?"
"Pippin," Merry snapped. "He hasn't been kidnapped. You're overreacting." He sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm just so…" He stopped to yawn. "…tired…"
"We'd better keep moving," Pippin said. "Faster now, or we'll never catch up." They rode until nightfall and finally made camp. Pippin stared into the river, his eyes glazed over. He could feel himself deteriorating--he was just too old for this now. He watched the water rippling and the reflection of the trees above. Strangely, a large black shape passed across the water. He perked up and leapt off of his pony. Pippin approached the water's edge and, waiting for the opportune moment, removed the object from the river. He unrolled the bundle and muttered, "This is Faramir's blanket. Merry! This is Faramir's blanket!"
Merry turned his pony. "He's following the river, then. Hurry!" Without waiting for Pippin to mount his pony, his shot off at a gallop. "We might be able to catch up if we hurry!"
Pippin, filled with determination, threw the blanket over Daisy's back and hopped on. Rapidly, he caught up to Merry and even surpassed him eventually. They rode until nightfall, when Merry finally insisted that he needed rest or he could not go on.
"I'm sorry," Pippin said in response. "After finding that blanket, I--I know that we're going the right way." He let out a sigh of relief, not even noticing his friend's silence. "Well. That's certainly a relief. I mean to say...well, I didn't want to sleep because I didn't think I would have been able to. I know Faramir is alive--I can feel it. Anyway, I think I'll sleep quite soundly now." He glanced over at the other hobbit. "Merry." There was a small groaning sound from the recumbent form that indicated to Pippin that he was asleep.
Although he wasn't in the least bit tired, Pippin lay down and closed his eyes. Unfortunately, the silence of the night was the perfect breeding ground for the more dreadful thoughts in Pippin's mind. Why had Faramir's blanket been in the river? What if something had happened--a struggle that resulted in Faramir drowning--no...No, that could not have happened. Before he could convince himself of that, however, Pippin fell asleep.
He awoke the next morning with a start. He had had a terrible nightmare in which Faramir had been carried away by a band of slobbering, growling orcs. He shuddered and washed away the thought with a handful of water from the cool river. He woke Merry up and they started off again. It was becoming colder and the wind was harsher on the hobbits' faces. Pippin's mind was already haunted with thoughts of his son and he was even more terrified at the great black spire rising up above the trees. It was Orthanc, the former lair of Saruman, and neither hobbit was looking forward to traveling through the surrounding forest to avoid it.
"We've been attacked by trees before," said Merry, ducking his head to avoid a rather thorny branch, "and it could happen again. We could go past the tower--spend the night and continue the next day."
"The quicker we get to Minas Tirith..." Pippin began. They were silent almost for the duration of the afternoon, when they reached the blackened grounds of the tower of Orthanc. Pippin couldn't help but wonder if the trees were giving it a wide berth on purpose.
It was getting dark. The hobbits tied up their ponies loosely and wandered into the tower. It would be the first time in several days that they would sleep indoors. A chill ran up Pippin's spine when his feet touched the cold stone floor. He had been inside Orthanc once before and it had not been the most pleasant experience of his life. "Maybe we would be safer outside," he said hopefully.
"Don't be ridiculous," Merry scoffed. "We're as safe in here as we'd be in our own homes."
There was a loud creaking noise and they both jumped. Pippin found himself clinging to Merry's arm and refused to let go. "What was that?"
"I don't know," Merry murmured. He clasped Pippin's hand briefly, then said, "Come on." As they crossed the room, they saw many doors leading to various lighted corridors. Torches clung to the walls, giving off harsh, cold light. A shadow flitted across the hall and Merry started. He thought it odd in the first place that torches were even lit. Perhaps Saruman had placed a spell on them. But that didn't explain the shadow...or the tinny dragging sound echoing in the circular chamber. "Pippin," he hissed, as his friend's hands gripped his arm.
"I think we should leave," Pippin whispered. "Or at least..."
"Come on," Merry interrupted and pulled him behind a tall dark shelf. Papers and strange bottles were protruding from the shelves and drawers, but it was large enough to hide behind. The scraping sound continued and Pippin held his breath, watching the shadow connect with its owner. He pushed himself closer and closer to the wall without fully being aware of it. Pippin's eyes widened and he suddenly went cold. The figure was just coming around the bend.
It was not an orc, but a tall, greasy-looking man. His long brown hair hung low on his back and appeared to have gone a long while without being cut (or combed, for that matter). His face looked rough and unclean, with unkempt stubble creeping along his jaw line. He waved his torch about furiously and searched the room with piercing black eyes. "Filthy orcs," he cried. "Always muckin' about where they don't belong. Hear that, orcs? Morgul scum! You're not wanted here!"
Pippin couldn't take his eyes away from the man. He seemed not to like orcs. Perhaps he could be of some use. "We're not orcs, sir!" he called.
Merry took in a sharp breath and tried to grab Pippin before the hobbit stepped out into the open chamber.
Pippin watched the man as he approached, unaware of how menacing his intentions were. "We seem to have lost our way, good sir, and were wondering if we might spend the night in this marvelous dwelling of yours?"
In a matter of seconds, the man had scooped Pippin up by his neck and pinned him to the wall. "Trespassing, eh? I oughtta stick you right now."
Merry jumped out of his hiding place, sword ready. "Put him down!" he cried."
"Or what?" the man asked angrily. Pippin frantically pulled at the man's filthy hands, fighting for air.
Merry didn't bother with a reply, but slashed at the man's arm. He promptly dropped Pippin and cradled his bleeding appendage. Pippin rubbed his aching neck, taking in deep, rasping breaths.
"Fair enough," said the man. "Now you have me, two against one, and I without a weapon." He turned around and grabbed a stray cloth from one of the cluttered tables. He then wrapped it tightly around the wound to lessen the amount of bleeding. "So where would two halflings be going by foot and all by themselves?"
Merry sheathed his sword, albeit reluctantly. "With all respect, sir, you are mistaken. We have ridden our ponies from the Shire. Two brown mares they are, tied up outside."
"Well," the man began, with a hint of a smile, "they're gone now." At the hobbits' questioning looks, he continued, "I saw two ponies galloping into the forest not two minutes ago. Must've been spooked. Isengard will do that to the weak at heart."
Pippin coughed and rasped, "How will we get to Minas Tirith now?" Merry shot him an angry look.
"Minas Tirith?" the man asked. "What business do you have there?"
Pippin opened his mouth to answer, and then closed it upon meeting Merry's eyes. "I think we've told this stranger enough, Pippin. He hasn't even told us his name."
"Bereth," he replied coldly. "Now why would you be going to Minas Tirith?" He paced in front of the two hobbits, eyeing them suspiciously. "Perhaps for a bit of mischief...?" He stopped pacing and uttered, "Eh?"
"We're visiting an old friend," Pippin replied. He stared at Bereth's unmoving eyes as they were focused on his own.
Their eyes remained locked until Bereth looked away, saying, "I can take you as far as Ithilien. From there you can find your own way."
"But we have no need to go to Ithilien," Pippin protested.
"In Ithilien you will have a warm bed and a hot meal. Besides," he said, "I have a brother there. Perhaps you'd like to make his acquaintance?"
"We'd be much obliged," Merry said.
Pippin shot his companion a vexed look. "Ithilien is out of our way," he whispered. "We can make better time if we bear south."
Merry ignored him and followed Bereth out of the chamber. "Merry!" Pippin protested, but Merry didn't even bother to look back. Frustrated, he made to follow, running a bit to keep up with their swift pace.
"You may sleep here tonight," Bereth said as he handed a few blankets to the hobbits. "If you need me, I'll be in another room. Don't try to find me--it's not worth your time. Besides that, I'd rather you didn't." He added the last quite nastily.
"We won't bother you," Merry assured him as the man left the room. He lit a few candles to bring some light to the dark chamber. Pippin gaped at Merry with unblinking eyes. "Get some sleep, Pip."
"I can't believe that you trust him!" Pippin exclaimed. "He's dirty and filthy, and unpleasant!"
Trying to remain calm, Merry replied stiffly, "He has provided a place to sleep and is willing to guide us safely to Ithilien."
"We'll see how safe we are when he's throttled us during the night," Pippin retorted grumpily.
Merry, fairly nettled now, blew out his candle and covered himself with a blanket. "I came with you because I'm your friend, Pippin, and I'm trying to do what I think is best to find your son. I want to help."
Pippin doused has candle and slowly made a bed for himself. "I know, Merry." He closed his eyes, trying to squeeze the bad thoughts out with the tears that had been waiting to come out. He hoped Faramir was all right. Maybe he had also found a trustworthy guide. Pippin sighed, acquiescing that Faramir would be fine. He was, after all, a Took.