Though it was well past the second hour, the day was as dim and grey as if evening were approaching. Pippin gazed morosely at the candles brightening the gloom in his chamber, as he chewed his meager breakfast under Gandalf's impatient eye. Today he would be learning his duties as esquire to the Steward of Gondor, and Pippin admitted to himself he was daunted by the prospect. In an effort to settle his nervousness and strengthen his resolve for the day, the hobbit was trying to make his meal last as long as possible -- but Gandalf was watching and waiting, so he dared not dawdle too long over his loaf.
"You returned late last night, Gandalf," he commented, as he sipped the thin milk the wizard had brought him and wished heartily for something stronger. "I remember now, you were here in the middle of the night when I awoke -- you said you had come back here to have a little peace, alone. It must have been a long day for you, as long as mine was! Were you in council all day long? I looked for you, during the day, but never saw you. Boromir's man, Dûrlin, came to visit me last night, and he said he'd seen you, that you'd come to have a conference with the lord Steward. Did you talk about Frodo and the Quest? I know you wanted to do that yourself -- I tried hard not to say anything when the lord Denethor was questioning me, but it was hard!"
Gandalf smiled and patted the hobbit's shoulder.
"There is never an end to your questions, is there?" he chuckled warmly. "But fear not: you have done well, my dear Pippin! It was a long day for you, in a new and strange place -- but you carried yourself well and spoke well in a difficult situation. You have made some good friends in a very short time, for which I am glad. Dûrlin is a fine man, and I am comforted that he has been looking after you. I am sorry I left you so long alone, but there was much to be done, and much news to be gathered. I was indeed in council much of the day, and yes, I was finally able to speak with the lord Denethor about Frodo and the Quest."
"How did it go?" Pippin asked hesitantly. "Was he... was he angry?"
Gandalf was silent for a long moment, remembering Denethor's strong words in response to the wizard's announcement...
'Did I say you are wont to come when the hour is dark, Mithrandir? This time, you bring the darkness of doom with you, upon your very heels! By your own doing darkness shall fall! I fear our fate has been sealed by your presumption and your folly to send Isildur's Bane into Mordor in the keeping of one who is little more than a child. Oh, I have no doubt this Halfling has some quality which causes you to believe he is worthy of such trust, but to put the fate of all the Free Peoples in such small, weak hands, and then to send him straight into the waiting arms of the Enemy... Foolishness! Madness!
'What hope is there that such an absurd policy could succeed? None that I can see! What chance could a Halfling possibly have against the awful might of Mordor? For Mordor is strong indeed, far stronger than even you realize, Mithrandir! I know this, and I begin to fear that strength to be too much for even me, and Gondor cannot stand. It has taken all the might of Gondor in these days to hold the Enemy back, and still we barely manage it. Did Boromir not tell you? Did he not speak of how Mordor allies with the Haradrim and with evil men from the East, and presses us until we are nigh to being beaten down? As yet, we are not beaten -- we still have the mastery, and Mordor has not won the River passage.
'Yet all our stalwart valor will be for naught if the Ring goes to Sauron -- which it surely will, for how could it not? The Halfling will be taken, and the Enemy will regain the Ring, and then all shall be lost. I can see no other outcome...
'I should have been told of this, before ever you brought the matter to council -- but now matters have gone beyond me, and my wisdom will avail little to salvage any shred of hope from this foolish venture. I shall do what I can, but you must keep no more secrets from me, Mithrandir....'
Gandalf was silent for a long moment, remembering; then he sighed.
"Yes, Pippin, he was angry -- rightly so, to his mind. But even in his anger, the lord Denethor is master of himself, and though he does not understand what I have done, nor does he approve, he will still aid us, for he is not our enemy. Harsh he may seem, and cold, but he is fair and honorable, and wholeheartedlly opposed to Sauron, no matter Denethor's own opinion of my policies. So do not fear to serve him, as you have promised to do. He will not fail you, if you do not fail him."
Pippin nodded, though he felt only vaguely comforted. Not for the first time did he wonder what he had gotten himself into.
"Come along, now," Gandalf said, once more impatient to be gone. "We are late, the Steward is expecting us -- and today, he will not be in any humor to be delayed, particularly by a Halfling!"
Denethor paced the Great Hall, which was yet dim, grey and cold in the twilit morning. The silence of the Hall was broken only by the faint swish of the Steward's robes and the echoes raised by his feet upon the marble floor. He was not troubled by the cold or the gloom, and the silence was welcome, for it was calming and conducive to thought.
He had great need of calm. He had been shaken, deeply shaken, by the news that the fate of Gondor -- indeed, the whole world -- had been placed in the feeble hands of a simple Halfling, who had been sent alone and unprotected into Mordor. It had taken him the better part of the night and a lengthy session with the palantír to settle himself and quiet his own bleak fears for the future.
"Obstinate fool!" Denethor muttered, as he recalled again the confidence with which Mithrandir had spoken the previous evening. "You speak cleverly of your own stewardship and of your care for all worthy things that are in peril. Your talk is all of aid offered and of realms preserved for the king returning, so that even my kinsman Imrahil is persuaded to consider your plans as wise and worthy of consideration. But you plan and scheme without consulting me, and that will cost us all dearly, if your fool's errand fails..."
He paused in his pacing and, looking up, found himself gazing into the looming face of a graven statue, an ancient stone king standing shadowed in a recess between the black marble pillars lining the Hall. In the king's hand was a large stone globe that reminded Denethor of a palantír. At the sight of it, Denethor smiled and relaxed. He was not so uninformed as it might seem, he knew, though Mithrandir chose to keep from him many secret counsels. Nay! He knew something of this matter that even Mithrandir did not...
Had he not but a few days ago seen two Halflings in the crystal, seeking a way through the pathless hills of the Emyn Muil? And again, more recently, had he not seen a glimpse of them, walking under fir trees in a land that could only be Ithilien?
He had been right in believing these two had something to do with the riddling dream that had taken Boromir from him; something to do with Isildur's Bane, and yes, with Thorongil. He had been wise to caution Faramir against them, and to give him explicit orders concerning strangers in the land:
'It may be that you will meet strangers passing through the land,' he had said to Faramir, ere sending him on his errand to Ithilien. 'Be cautious of them; do not allow anyone passage without close questioning. Need I remind you of the penalty for those who attempt to pass through our lands without the leave of the Lord of Gondor?'
And Faramir had answered with a promise to serve him with all his heart and loyalty. Yes, Faramir would serve him faithfully in this matter. All would be well! He would obey his father, and if the Halflings were found, he would bring them to the City. Disaster would be avoided, and Sauron cheated of his prize. With the Ring safe in the keeping of Gondor, the world need not quake in fear.
"Aye," Denethor repeated with a satisfied smile. "Faramir will not fail me."
With his anger for the most part spent and his fear under tight rein, Denethor ceased his pacing; returning to his Steward's Chair, he settled himself to await the coming of those who would seek his counsel for the day. As he waited, his thoughts turned to Rohan. Just as he depended upon Faramir's obedience, so too he also depended upon Theoden's aid in this, Gondor's moment of most dire need. He did not doubt that Théoden would remember old friendships and oaths long spoken. He would heed the call, if nothing prevented...
"I must know more of what passes in Rohan," Denethor mused aloud to the silent chamber. "I know much, but it is not enough. Perhaps Mithrandir will relent in his secrecy and be willing to share some of his knowlege of recent happenings in that land. I would know more of this young Éomer who is heir to King Théoden; what his standing is, and what sort of man and ally... Boromir has spoken of him, I believe..."
Éomer peered thoughtfully through the lowering gloom as he tightened the girth on Firefoot's saddle and checked the harness and tack, all the while murmuring soft words of comfort to his mount. About him and beside him, other Riders were doing the same. The horses were uneasy, for though they were undaunted by the gathering assembly and fearless in the face of coming battle, the oppressive shadow that settled over the land affected the mood of the Riders, and that which brought unease to men's hearts was communicated in kind to their steeds.
Still, the darkness will serve us well, Éomer reflected. No matter that it is the design of the Evil One to dishearten us and strengthen our enemy! The shadowy gloom will effectively shroud us, so that we are free to ride eastward in all haste, without taking thought for concealment. Much-needed speed will be lent to our journey if we may ride unhindered upon the open road...
Unhindered! The thought gave Éomer pause. Would that they could actually reach the encircling walls of Mundberg without meeting resistance! But it was unlikely. No reports of the enemy advancing upon the road east had as yet reached his ears, but the journey would take several days, even with such haste as they could afford without needlessly taxing horse and man -- and who knew what manner of Orc or beast might be awaiting them as they approached the Stone City?
But Éomer had already taken thought for such matters, for he had no wish to be taken unawares by the enemy. Even now, men of his own household who served as scouts in the Eastfold were passing through Anórien in Gondor, well in advance of the Rohirrim army. They would range far and wide, south and east, and ride swiftly back with report of any movement along the Road.
If anything or anyone moved in the land, Éomer would know of it.