If you've read the books or seen the movie, you can figure out for yourself what I own and what I don't. If you haven't, I don't know why you're even reading this story. :)

Chapter Twenty-Six
The Die is Cast

Aragorn watched in horror as he was pulled unwillingly closer and closer to Minas Morgul. It was as if the world was fading before his eyes, fading into darkness. His hand reached silently into his pocket. All he had to do was slip the Ring onto his finger, and it would all be over.

Suddenly, from high overhead, there came a loud screech. Aragorn's head jerked up. A Nazgûl! No! No, he couldn't let this happen! With the last bit of strength he had, Aragorn wrenched his mind from the Ring's grasp and leapt off the path, diving behind a huge boulder.

Here, in the safety of the rock, Aragorn huddled, alone and silent. Hesitantly, he brought his hand away from his pocket. That had been close, too close. If the Nazgûl had not come at just that second, he would have put the Ring on, and all would have been lost.

Aragorn shuddered, trying to calm his breathing. He had never felt so helpless as he had under the Ring's power. Slowly, his breathing and vision returned to normal, as the screams faded into the distance. But he knew the memory of that moment would last forever.

Slowly, cautiously, he peered out from behind his rock. Minas Morgul was so close now. To come out of hiding would mean danger, whether to go on or to go back to the Pass of Cirith Ungol. He could rest for a while first.

Presently, he heard Orc voices, coming from near the tower. "Here 'e is," cried one. "Little rat thought 'e could escape, did 'e?"

"Is 'e alive?" asked the other.

"Maybe not, but we should bring 'im back up anyway."

"'e don't look alive to me. I say we eat 'im right here and say 'e died in the fall."

That was too much for Aragorn. He didn't want to find out how that conversation would end. Quickly, quietly, he raced for the tower. Neither Orc saw him coming, too intent were they on studying the subject of their discussion. One Orc fell quickly, Aragorn's sword in its back, and the other had no sooner reached for a sword than its head tumbled to the ground.

Aragorn looked down. A man lay there, motionless, at the base of the tower. His arms and legs were bound and his body was torn with wounds, red with blood, and deep in his forehead was carved the symbol of the Red Eye.

As Aragorn watched, he could see the chest begin to rise and fall. He was alive. Aragorn looked around. If they stayed here, they would be found. He would have to risk moving the stranger. Aragorn bent down, gently scooped him up, and carried him back to the rock.

Aragorn set the stranger down gently, not quite sure of what to do. He wished he had some athelas, or at least enough clean cloth and water to tend his wounds. But he had nothing, nothing at all.

No. He still had his wits. He removed the cloak Galadriel had given him and placed it on the ground. Gently, he lifted the stranger onto it, trying uselessly to keep the dust from the ground out of his wounds. Then he cut the ropes that bound the stranger, carefully because they pressed tightly against his skin.

It was a wonder this man was even alive, Aragorn realized as he sat back against the rock. He looked so weak, so helpless, his body torn and bloody. And yet, there was something about him, some silent defiance that could be seen in his face. Somewhere inside him, behind the torture and the agony, there had been the strength to rise above, to continue, to live.

Aragorn managed a smile. Sometimes it took more courage to live than to die. This stranger had that kind of strength, the strength to live, to hope even in the midst of despair.

At last, the stranger groaned softly, and his right eye opened; his left was torn and bloody and swollen shut. He looked at Aragorn with a look of, the Ranger thought, recognition. He opened his mouth to say something, but his throat was too dry, and he only started coughing. Aragorn helped him sit up, and poured water into his mouth.

The stranger swallowed the water gratefully, as if it were the best thing he had ever tasted. "Thank you," he at last managed to say weakly, his voice hoarse and raspy, but the beginnings of a smile on his face.

Aragorn put an arm around the man's shoulders, supporting him. With the other hand, he reached into his pack and retrieved some lembas bread. He broke off a piece and handed it to the stranger. "Eat this. It will help you regain your strength."

The man nodded, and ate it, then leaned back against the rock, trying to breathe deeply, which was obviously painful. He rested his head in his right hand, trying in vain, Aragorn guessed, to ease a headache, or perhaps dizziness. His left arm hung limply at his side. Aragorn sat by him, glad to have a moment to rest.

The stranger noticed Aragorn studying his arm. "It will be all right," he assured him. "It happened some time ago, but has not had the chance to heal."

"Have you been here long?" Aragorn asked.

The stranger shook his head. "A few days, I would guess; there is no way to measure time here. And here those few days seem like years."

Aragorn nodded his understanding. "What is your name, my friend?"

"Faramir," the stranger answered. "Faramir of Gondor."

Sam slowly got out of bed, at last convinced that Pippin was sound asleep. He slipped his cloak on quietly and studied the room. Sting, Frodo's mithril shirt, and the jar of ashes lay near the door. Sam stooped and picked up Sting, the buckled it about his waist.

Slowly, careful not to let it creak, he opened the door. Ever so carefully, he squeezed through as soon as the opening was wide enough. At last on the other side, he decided to risk a little noise. "Take Mister Frodo home for me, Pippin," he whispered, and closed the door.

He hurried to the stables, where he found a lone man on duty. "Please, Sir," he stammered once the man had noticed him. "Radagast left something, something very important. I must take it to him, quickly."

The man nodded sleepily and helped Sam up onto a horse. Sam held on tightly, tears blurring his vision, as he set out for Osgiliath.

Aragorn tried hard to conceal his surprise. "Faramir? Your father told me you were at Isengard."

Faramir let that sink in for a moment before he spoke. "So it was a Palantir?"

Aragorn nodded. "Yes, and your father has one in his possession. I would guess that Sauron does, as well; it would explain the connection between Isengard and Mordor."

Faramir nodded weakly, as if this explained everything. "So Boromir used it, and alerted Sauron to our presence at Isengard."

Aragorn understood immediately. "And so you were brought here."

"Yes," Faramir agreed. "The Nazgûl came. The others escaped safely with Saruman, but I was on top of the tower. They found me." He leaned back against the rock, exhausted. His throat was hoarse and his head ached terribly. But still, he clung to the small bit of comfort that he had: Boromir and the Halflings were alive.

"Faramir?" Aragorn asked, startling him out of his thoughts. "How much did Boromir tell you? What do you know of the purpose of their journey?"

Faramir actually managed to smile weakly. "You were very careful to say 'their' and not 'our,' weren't you? What would you be doing in Mordor if you were not one of them? Yes, I know of the purpose of your Quest, but we should not speak of such things here."

Aragorn stared at Faramir with a new respect. "And you told nothing to Saruman, or to the servants of Sauron?"

Faramir shook his head. "Nothing."

"Then I do not fear to tell you this," Aragorn smiled, taking Faramir's hand in both of his. "It is I who now carry the thing which is the purpose of our Quest. Frodo, who bore it out of Rivendell, was killed by the Nazgûl when he and I arrived at Osgiliath. The others were separated from us on the River. But that is not all that would be of interest to you, I believe." He looked around, then, satisfied that they were truly alone, explained. "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur's Heir and Heir to the Throne of Gondor. As the son of the Steward of Gondor, you have the right to know."

Faramir nodded, then said slowly, "That explains much. While I was in the tower, a vision came to me. I saw you, the crown of Gondor on your head, standing by the gates of Minas Tirith, restored to glory once more." He grasped Aragorn's hand. "I would be honored to accompany you on your journey, if you will have me."

"Faramir, where I am going, I cannot ask any to follow."

"I know this, and that is why I asked you." He paused, then, with a hint of a smile, added, "Where else would you have me go?"

Aragorn smiled as he realized he didn't have an answer to that. "Thank you, Faramir. I shall welcome your company."

Pippin woke early in the morning with an uneasy feeling. One look out the window revealed a dark, cloudy sky. He shivered. The darkness was growing. How long before it covered the whole land?

No, he mustn't think of that. He had to hold onto the light of hope, however dim it may seem. He turned to look in the other bed, expecting to see Sam fast asleep. Instead, the bed was empty, the sheets a little tossed, but not nearly enough to have been slept in all night.

Pippin's gaze flew to the door. Beside it lay Frodo's mithril shirt and the jar of ashes, but Sting was gone. Pippin dashed across the room and out the door. Through the streets he ran, calling for Sam, but already he knew it was useless. Sam was gone.

Pippin stared out into the distance, towards Osgiliath. That was where Sam had gone, he was sure. Not back to the Shire, or he would have taken everything, not only Sting.

The small Hobbit hesitated, unsure of what to do. He could follow Sam, but what good would it do? Would he be able to convince him to return? Or would he simply be in the way, especially if there was a battle? He didn't want to be in a battle, but the thought of leaving Sam to fight in one alone was unbearable, especially because Sam had called the battle a hopeless one.

He couldn't do it! He couldn't leave Sam alone! Frantic, he ran down street after street, looking for someone, anyone, who could help. The darkness seemed to be closing in around him, deafening people to his cries. At last, exhausted from running and from grief, he collapsed on the side of the street.

After what seemed like a lifetime, he felt a small hand tap him gently on the shoulder. "Are you all right?" a little girl asked quietly.

Pippin looked up, tears streaming down his face. "No! I'm all alone! Everyone I know has gone off to war and now Sam has gone to Osgiliath and I'm afraid he's going to die, but I have no way to get there and I don't know what to do!"

Somehow, the child understood him even through the tears. She put a small arm around the Hobbit's shoulder. "My father's at Osgiliath. I'm sure he'll protect your friend."

Pippin managed a small smile. It was just the right kind of innocent faith he'd needed to bring him out of this nightmare. "I'm sure he'll try. But I don't think my friend wants to be protected. He was very upset when he left, upset about something that had happened, something he couldn't have stopped." He looked around. "I wish I could find him. I should have told him, told him there was nothing he could have done, that getting himself killed won't solve anything, that . . . that . . ." He trailed off once more into tears.

"I could help you," the little girl said quietly. "I can show you to the stables. You could follow him to Osgiliath, if that's what you want to do."

Pippin nodded, and slowly stood up. "Take me there."

He followed the little girl down street after street, and for a moment the ever-growing darkness seemed a little less heavy, a little less threatening. They even made their way back to the Hobbits' room first to retrieve Pippin's sword, in case the time did come for that battle which he dreaded. But even the thought of battle was something of a relief. He was finally doing something. He wasn't sitting around waiting for people to handle this themselves. He had to do something. He had to fight.

At last, they came to the stables, and Pippin hastily explained what had happened. The man there remarked that he had, indeed, seen Sam, only a few hours past, and gave Pippin a horse readily. Clinging tightly to the horse's mane, but letting go for a moment with one hand to turn and look back at the little girl, Pippin rode off into the darkness.

Merry looked around from where he sat, in front of Boromir on a beautiful dark brown horse. Beside them were Legolas and Gimli on the left, and Saruman and Thiris on the right. In front of them rode Èomer, with Gandalf on one side and Èowyn on the other. Behind them was a sea of horses and riders, their armor glistening in the beautiful morning sun.

Merry looked up at Boromir, who smiled and patted the Hobbit on the shoulder. Merry's armor clinked, and he laughed nervously. This was it. He was going to war.

Boromir had smiled, but his mind was on only one thing: he was going home. At last, he was returning to Minas Tirith. But what would he find there? How much time could Radagast give them? How long would the City hold? For him, these three days would be three days of agonizing questions, of endless wondering. But at last they were on their way.

Èomer looked back, and Boromir's mood was obvious from his expression, even partly hidden behind a helmet. The King of Rohan drew his sword and gave a loud cry of, "To Gondor!" which was echoed again and again by the riders. Boromir smiled gratefully as they set out for Gondor, and war.

Pippin held on as tightly as he could as he raced towards the city in the distance. It seemed like days that he had been riding, and yet Osgiliath seemed no closer. When he looked back, however, he saw that Minas Tirith seemed terribly far away. He was in the open, vulnerable. Shivering, he held on tighter.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Osgiliath drew closer and closer. Finally, he reached the edge of the city. Realizing he had no one to help him dismount, he rode on. "Sam!" he called. "Sam! Sam, where are you?"

At last, he saw in the distance a familiar figure, robed in brown, a staff in his hand. Pippin's heart leapt. If he could not find Sam, he could at least tell Radagast that they were there. Surely the Wizard would be able to do something.

As he rode closer, he could see that beside Radagast was Denethor, and that neither of them looked happy. They appeared to be arguing in hushed tones, and Denethor's face was growing red. In his hand he held what Pippin knew to be a Palantir, and Radagast seemed to be quite upset that the Steward had brought it.

"Radagast!" Pippin called, and both figures turned towards him immediately in surprise. Radagast instantly dropped his quarrel with Denethor and hurried over to help the Hobbit off his horse.

The Wizard was silent, waiting for Pippin to explain. Pippin relaxed as he realized he himself had been waiting for someone to yell, "Fool of a Took," or something of that nature. Instead, there was only silence.

"It's Sam," Pippin explained, catching his breath. "I woke up and he was gone and the man in the stables said he came here."

Radagast's face grew pale. "Thank you for coming, Pippin. We will find Sam. But now, quickly, come with me. You should return to Minas Tirith." He turned to Denethor. "My lord, please, consider what I have said. It is dangerous to use this thing. You may already have alerted the Enemy to our plans."

"We wanted him to know that I was at Osgiliath," Denethor reasoned. "We wished him to believe this to be our only defense."

"But to reveal this to him yourself shows a confidence inconsistent with our deception. He may suspect the true reason for your presence here, and strike fast and hard. Remember that we are here not to attempt in vain to win this battle by our own devices, but to allow Rohan the opportunity to arrive in time to save more than a pile of rubble."

Radagast turned to lead Pippin away, but at that moment a cry rang through the air, followed by the whizzing of arrows and the clashing of swords. Radagast looked down, and Pippin could see that he was torn. He wanted to lead the Hobbit to safety, but he couldn't abandon Gondor's army. Pippin nodded his understanding and drew his sword.

The war had begun.

Muahahahahahaha. I realize I haven't updated this in forever, but I hope it was worth the wait. Now the war's finally begun, and poor Pippin's stuck in the middle of it. On the bright side, the page breaks decided to work again. :) I'll try to get the next chapter posted sooner.