The Gift of Death, Part 13
Buffy wasn’t thrilled to be woken early the next morning, but Gandalf wanted to go to Isengard and see how that area fared. “I hate mornings,” she grumbled, shooing away Aragorn who was nudging her with his foot. “When this is over, I’m gonna sleep for a year.”
“By the time this is over, you’ll need to,” he replied, grabbing her hand and tugging her up. “Come now, awaken. Gandalf wants to go to Isengard. We must ride.”
She was still rubbing sleep from her eyes when they mounted and headed north. By midmorning they were at the fords of Isen, and the sun was still high in the sky when they arrived at Isengard. The devastation of the trees brought tears to the eyes of the elves in their party, and the smoke still rising from the rushing of the river into the fiery pits dug into the earth made Buffy’s own eyes water.
But it seemed that once the tears started, she couldn’t get them to stop. Something was wrong, terribly wrong, with Legolas but she couldn’t figured out what it was. She’d been wondering at Legolas’ behavior since she woke from her latest death, how he had retreated into a guise of polite distance, where his smiles were courteous but held none of the warmth she’d become accustomed to. It was as if they were back to where they’d been in Moria, when he’d watched much and said little.
Buffy was not ashamed to admit that she was hurt by it, and more than a little confused. Was he mad at her for dying again? Or was it because she’d died for Haldir, of whom it was clear he was more than a little jealous? Aragorn had not noticed, she knew, but Gimli seemed more upset about it than she, and kept casting worried glances at the elf. For her part, Buffy just kept her distance and her silence from Legolas, though she was unable to stop herself from looking his way, so accustomed was she to letting her gaze roam over him. His slender back, always held erect, seemed more stiff than usual, and his shoulders were tenser than she was used to seeing.
“Who stands at the doors to the tower?” he asked, shielding his eyes against the afternoon sun to peer more closely at the base of Orthanc and jolting Buffy out of her gloomy reverie.
She sighed, feeling exhausted, and allowed her attention to be dragged away from her thoughts by Boromir’s question. “It’s Pippin and Merry!” exclaimed Buffy, relieved. She squinted, then gaped. “And… they’re having a picnic. That doesn’t make any sense.” She turned to Aragorn. “Did I take a head shot yesterday, in addition to dying?”
He laughed, and the lines around his eyes eased a little. “Hobbits are always able to locate a feast, wherever they find themselves,” he told her. “My heart sings to know they are safe.”
They rode swiftly to the foot of the tower, and the Hobbits leapt to their feet when they recognized the riders who approached. “Welcome to the field of battle, milords,” Merry greeted them, his eyes sparkling with humour. Holding his arms wide as he bowed, goblet of wine in one hand, half-eaten apple in the other, he continued, “I am the Lord Saruman’s doorwarden; be welcome.”
“Indeed,” Gandalf said with equal humour as he brought Shadowfax to a halt, and Pippin whispered “Gandalf!” with joy in his voice. The wizard nodded benignly at the Hobbit, and Pippin stuffed a fist in his mouth to keep from sobbing with relief that Gandalf wasn’t actually dead.
"The Lord Saruman is within,” Merry said importantly, continuing his jesting role, “but at the moment he is closeted with one Wormtongue, or doubtless he would be here to welcome such honourable guests."
Théoden and Gandalf decided speak with the Ents, especially the one the Hobbits called Treebeard, and investigate the extent of the damage; the others gave in to the Hobbits’ urging and partook of the feast before them, and Gimli and Aragorn even joined Merry and Pippin in smoking some pipeweed once their bellies were filled.
“That stuff’ll kill you,” Buffy told them mildly, and chucked a pear at Pippin’s head when he retorted, “Then why do you not smoke it? I thought that death was your fondest wish?”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “You’ve missed a lot, buddy. I’ve died twice since you saw me last.”
“Is that so?” Merry said around the stem of his pipe. “I am impressed; you are looking considerably fine for a corpse.” He leant to the side, dodging the persimmon that came flying his way. “As are you,” he told Gandalf, who had appeared in the doorway to the storage room where they took their leisure.
“I will have a parley with Saruman,” the wizard told them without preamble, and took up a crumbly-crusted meat pie. “If you wish to witness it, be you on guard, for he has a wily and treacherous tongue.” Then he crammed half the pie in his mouth and stalked away, tension radiating from him. Buffy exchanged a look with Aragorn, and hoped the load of food she’d just put away wouldn’t dull her fighting reflexes if she needed them.
“What a jerk,” Buffy whispered to Boromir an hour later, and shifted her stance on the charred, uneven ground in an attempt to ease the soreness of her feet. Saruman had hurled seductive pleas and promises as well as insults, mockeries, threats, and everything else he could think of at them. Gimli had bantered with him, as had Éomer, until Théoden gave the wizard a stern what-for that impressed Buffy deeply. But still Saruman would not be stopped from his tirade of insults and wrath.
Gandalf was still trying to be civil and mannerly, but even Gandalf’s patience came to an end, and he finally shouted up at the balcony where Saruman stood in his tower-prison, “I am no longer Gandalf the Grey, but Gandalf the White, and I dismiss you from the council of wizards!” There was a flash of light, and Saruman’s staff cracked in two, the head falling from the balcony to land with a thud at Gandalf’s feet. A shriek of fury came from behind Saruman, sounding thready and feeble from such a distance, and then a round black object came hurtling over the balcony at them. Gandalf sidestepped it neatly, and it landed harmlessly to roll by Pippin, who tried to pick it up.
“Heavy,” he muttered, needing both hands to lift it. Buffy marveled to see that there was not a mark on it, even after falling such a distance.
“Come,” Gandalf said to his companions, his voice weary as he snatched the ball of what seemed to be shiny, opaque black glass from the Hobbit. “We leave now. Once we are out of this valley, the Ents will flood the city once more and make sure Saruman does not leave Orthanc.” He looked even older than he had before, the lines in his weathered face etched more deeply and his shoulders slumped in defeat that he had not been able to come to an accord with his former friend and mentor. As they rode from the valley, the feeling of mild pressure in Buffy’s chest—which she’d attributed to an accumulation of evil due to Saruman—eased a little.
They made camp at the end of the valley where the mountains opened up to the plains, and Buffy was barely able to finish her portion of hearty meal served up by the halflings before falling onto her pallet and sleeping heavily. Legolas was careful to unpack his own bedroll as far as decently possible from her, and by now even Boromir had noted the elf’s purposeful distance. He tossed Legolas an angry glance and settled himself protectively at Buffy’s side.
She was awoken just a few hours later by the sound of voices. “What’s going on?” she asked, her voice low and urgent at the sight of Gandalf’s grave and angry expression in the flickering firelight. Pippin stood shaking before the wizard, his face both shamed and frightened as he whispered over and over, “Forgive me, forgive me.”
“This is a Palantir,” Gandalf told them. “It was created long ago, to allow distant people to communicate. This Hobbit, in his curiosity, thought to examine it, but it examined him, did it not, young Took?” His look, while not unkind, only made Pippin shake harder. “Take it,” he said to Aragorn, holding the Palantir out to him. “It is yours by rights.” Aragorn reached out slowly, almost reluctantly, but grasped the dark sphere.
Buffy shivered; once more, she had jumped from her bedroll without pants. “Are you sure you want that thing, Strider?” she asked him, her voice low and urgent. “It’s giving me the wiggins.”
He frowned momentarily at her odd phrasing but seemed to understand what she meant. “I think I can make it work for us, not against us,” he told her at last, eyes locking with hers. She stared back, her gaze searching. She seemed to find what she was looking for, because she nodded briskly and began complaining about getting back to sleep. But an echoing cry resounded from above, and a dark winged shape flew overhead in the direction of Isengard.
“Nazgûl,” Aragorn said resignedly, and passed his hand over his forehead in the universal sign of fatigue.
“There is no time to wait for sunrise, we ride now!” cried Gandalf. The camp was disbanded quickly, and within minutes they were mounted once more. “Pippin, with me, that I might be sure you suffer no ill effects from the Palantir.” Legolas tossed Gimli upon Arod before vaulting lightly up himself, and Aragorn took Merry on his horse before him. Once Buffy was mounted, they were away.
They had not traveled far before Legolas frowned in concentration. “We are being followed,” he told Aragorn. “At least a score, on horseback.”
“Take what ease you may,” Théoden was saying. “We wait to see who follows.” Ease was not on their minds, however, but defense; all began to ready themselves for attack.
Their pursuers turned out to be, not more forces from Saruman, but thirty rangers of Dúnedain—kinsman of Aragorn and Buffy. They greeted Aragorn warmly, but as they had never quite understood why a woman would want to be one of their number, they were much more restrained in their salute to the Dagnir. With them were Elrond’s twin sons, Elrohir and Elladan, with a message from their father to Aragorn. “The days are short. If you are in haste, remember the Paths of Dead.”
Aragorn blanched, but nodded. Halbarad, their leader, handed over a staff wrapped round with black cloth and bound tightly with leather straps. “The Undómiel made this for you, Strider, and bid me give it into your hands.”
Though the others watched curiously, Aragorn did not unwrap the banner, merely holding it reverently as if afraid to soil it with his dirty hands, staring to the north where he knew his love to be, before recovering himself and turning to Buffy. “Still unimpressed with true love, Dagnir?” he asked her. His face seemed to have rejuvenated several years, and his eyes shone brighter than they’d been in months.
She looked toward Legolas, and thought back on her long conversations with him, and how he’d vowed never to hurt her. He sat before Gimli, carefully pretending to ignore her conversation with Aragorn, his beautiful face carefully blank. A little warm something that had been flickering inside her since Fangorn faded and sputtered out. It was hope, she realized, and laughed. It was a harsh and ugly sound, carrying clearly around them, as did her next words. “More than ever, Strider. More than ever.”
And she clucked her tongue at her horse and galloped into the night, not at all caring if they followed or not.
They caught her up within an hour, and it was a weary group who arrived at the capital city of Rohan that evening. Buffy was yawning yet again when she heard her name called. Then a blue blur was engulfing her in a fervent hug.
“Buffy!” Dawn cried. “I was so worried when Haldir came back without you! I’m so glad you’re back! And not dead again!” Beside them, Gimli coughed. Dawn frowned, peering closely at Buffy, who avoided her eyes, instead glaring at the dwarf for causing trouble. “You didn’t!” She turned to Boromir, who stood waiting patiently for his greeting. “Did she die again?”
His grin was very white against his dirty face. “Yes, sweet, she did. Now will you kiss me?”
With a last scolding look at her sister, Dawn allowed herself to be enfolded in his strong arms. “Missed you,” she mumbled against his mouth.
“Missed you more,” he mumbled back, then set her down. “I am going to accompany Gandalf and Pippin to Minas Tirith. Will you come?”
“An hour, perhaps two. No more. There is no time to wait overnight.” His face was carefully neutral, not wanting to influence her decision.
Dawn held onto him, hands gripping his forearms as she scrutinized him, taking in every streak of dirt, every smear of blood. Buffy thought she might be imagining how much different this homecoming could have been if he’d been hurt. “Yes,” Dawn said finally, and turned to her sister, demanding, “Are you gonna try to talk me out of it?”
Dawn knew these were perilous times; she knew Boromir could be killed at any time, and wanted to spend as much time with him as she could. Buffy couldn’t exactly blame her, and sighed. “Would it do any good?”
“Then no, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. Just be sure you don’t die.” She turned to Boromir. “I don’t have to tell you what I’ll do to you if she gets hurt, do I?” She leveled a look on him that had struck fear into many a demon and orc; it scared him no less.
“Um, no,” he replied, and suddenly found pressing things to do far away from his love’s sister while Aragorn smirked.
Éowyn appeared before them then, a vision in white, a circlet of gold and jewels on her pale hair. She had eyes only for Aragorn, leading him into the hall with her arm twined through his, mindless of any filth he might get on the bodice of her pristine gown as she almost snuggled against him.
“If you think any harder, you will give yourself a cramp,” Gimli teased her, and she realized she had been staring at Aragorn and Éowyn.
Buffy sighed, and gave him a wan smile before climbing the steps to the main hall. Inside were Haldir and the remainder of his archers, and when he stood to greet her, to her horror she burst into tears. Alarmed, he grasped her arms. “What has happened?” he demanded. “Is Legolas dead?”
But that elf was entering the hall just then, hale and whole and studiously avoiding Buffy as if she weren’t there, sobbing against Haldir’s chest. Understanding then, he scooped her into his arms and strode out, uncaring of the glances he attracted. Entering a small chamber, he dumped her onto the bed and glared down, hands on hips. “Tell me,” he commanded, and Buffy found herself blabbing about how Legolas had been ignoring her ever since she’d died.
“Ai, Valar,” Haldir sighed in comprehension, sinking to sit on the edge of the bed beside her. “If that elf were any thicker, he’d be a dwarf.” He thought a moment. “No, that’s not true. He’s thicker than a dwarf, at least thicker than the one in your company. He seems canny enough.”
“He is,” Buffy sniffled loyally. “Gimli’s great.”
He sighed again. “I’m afraid Legolas’ change of heart is my doing, Dagnir.” She looked sharply at him, and he held up his hands defensively. “I told him that he had to stop ignoring how devoted you are to your Gift… that it was a part of you, just like your courage and your kindness and your terribly silly sense of humour.” He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I fear he took my words to his heart, and cannot find it within himself to understand or accept that part of you.”
“So he just starts acting like I’m not there?” Buffy demanded, dashing her tears from her cheeks before standing and jamming her hands angrily on her hips. Then she seemed to deflate before him, hands falling limply to her sides. “He never really loved me,” she whispered. “Or even just liked me. Because he wasn’t seeing who I really am.” She turned away to stare out the window. Outside, all of Edoras slept, and few window glowed with light. The dark shapes of the houses and barns against the night sky was peaceful, in direct counterpoint to the turmoil churning within Buffy. Hadn’t she kept a distance from others all these years for exactly this reason? To avoid this kind of pain?
“He said he’d never betray me,” she said. “But he’s turned his back on me. Just like Angel did, just like Riley did. Just like they all do.”
Haldir came to stand behind her, wrapping his arms loosely around her. “I will not turn from you, Dagnir. Ever.”
She twisted slightly to look up at him, and hugged his arms closer to her. “Why couldn’t I fall in love with you, huh?”
He smirked down at her. “For the same reason that I could not fall in love with you, it would seem. We are not meant to love each other in that way.”
She sighed and leaned back against him. “I feel a little better now. Thanks, Hal.”
“It was my honour, Dagnir.” He rested his cheek against her head, gazing out over the city. “And, do not call me that.”
Éowyn soon came to fetch them for supper, after which Aragorn announced that he had looked into the Palantir, but had not allowed it to control him. “Sauron now knows that Isildur has a living heir, and will be sending forces against Gondor to fight me,” he told them. “I hope to distract his attention, so Frodo may continue his journey unimpeded.”
There would be no dancing after the feast this night. All too soon, a fed, scrubbed, and freshly clothed Boromir was helping Dawn onto Timon and climbing up behind her as Pippin sat before Gandalf on Shadowfax. “We will see you in Minas Tirith,” the wizard promised, and with a last wave from Dawn, they were off.
“Gandalf and Boromir will protect her,” Gimli assured Buffy, patting her shoulder. “They would die to keep her safe. Even Pippin would breathe his last to save her life.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” she said, and pointedly ignored Legolas as she turned back to the hall when a cry of dismay sounded from inside. “If I’m not mistaken, that was Éowyn. Sounds like she just heard Aragorn wants to take the Paths of the Dead.”
Éowyn had indeed, and was at that moment squawking up a storm. Her brother, Éomer, had joined his voice to hers in protesting that route.
“There is no other way,” Aragorn said through clenched teeth, and Buffy knew he was close to losing his temper completely. “The decision is mine to make, and I have made it. We leave at sunrise.”