More than anything else, it was the smell: Peregrin Took would never forget that smell.
No--it was not a single smell--it was a succession of smells.
The room in which Faramir lay smelled of sickness, fever, old blood, and another smell that overlay all else. But what it was at the time Pippin could not say. It grew less when the Lord Steward went away; but when he came back it was even stronger. Denethor’s face, so proud and strong, now appeared grey and shattered. A veil covered his no longer clear gaze. He sat not proudly but bent over, his shoulders slumped.
The healer who would have washed Faramir’s wounds once more and seen them rebandaged was sent away. Instead, as the morning approached Denethor dismissed Pippin from his service and summoned those of his servants and his personal guards whom he trusted most, and set them to carrying the bier upon which Faramir lay to the Silent Street. And that scent, Pippin noted, was contagious. As Denethor laid his hand upon each one’s shoulder, that one, too, would begin producing the same odor, a sour, rank scent that cloyed at the back of one’s nose.
Three times in swift succession the Hobbit sneezed. Denethor glared at him, then turned his attention away, back to his purpose.
The porter who kept the door to the Rath Dínen bowed them within, locking the gate behind them, and they continued on until they came to an edifice that somehow reminded Pippin of a house in the Shire for all it was built of dressed stone, and it worried him that he could not say where the resemblance lay--until he realized that it was the dome. Here was not a tall building of many stories, but one of a single story under a great dome, and that dome and the curved walls spoke to the Hobbit of home--of comfortable homes burrowed under the rolling hills of the Shire. But when this door was opened it was not to reveal any place of comfort. Pippin looked about the room at the succession of tables on which lay embalmed figures shrouded in ancient, rotting cloth, and at the tombs and plaques of memorial for those whose bodies had, in spite of all, begun to moulder, and he shuddered. Here it smelled dry, musty, of ancient herbs and ointments and aging leather. It was, he realized, the smell of ancient deaths and the foolish thought to somehow preserve the bodies of the dead as if somehow their spirits could, at some unforeseen time, be convinced to return and stride again through the levels of the city.
“Bring wood and oil!” At Denethor’s command his servants scurried to do their master’s bidding. But where would they find such things? Not, Pippin realized, within the cemetery itself. Nay, they would have to return to the storehouses for the Citadel to find such things, which would take time.
“By your leave, my lord,” Pippin said once he fully understood the Steward’s intent. And with that he ran, ran seeking some aid for Faramir--some aid against that odor--that odor he now knew was despair. While I live, he thought as he left Beregond, torn as to his duty, at the entrance to the Sixth Gate, while I live myself I will not allow a madman take the life of one who cannot choose for himself whether to live or die. I will not leave Faramir to his father’s despair!
And with that thought in mind he raced as he’d never done before down through the city in search of Gandalf.
Near the gate he found himself fighting again against that same miasma, and even more strongly, it seemed. Yet here all were fighting it equally, he noted. Faces might be white or grey with strain and fear, but the Men and their weapons held steady. And before all, the only one not to emit that foul odor was Gandalf himself, who sat, uncloaked, a shining figure of white flame before the devouring darkness that surrounded the Nazgûl. “You cannot enter here!” Gandalf said, and in the depths of his heart Pippin knew that he spoke truly. Darkness such as dwelt about creatures like the Ring-wraiths cannot bear Light, and there was no question in the heart of any individual present that Gandalf was indeed the Servant of the Light.
Even the chieftain of the Nazgûl paused, uncertain, in the face of that Light and that authority. The odor of despair was giving way to something else--and in those by whom he stood Pippin recognized a new, bracing scent--hope to go with the determination.
“You fool!” And with his further taunts the wraith raised his fiery sword--black flames with blue edges, Pippin noted as for a moment the odor of despair fought to overwhelm them all again.
But then the cock crowed.
Such a simple sound, one Pippin had awakened to for so many years, there on the farm at Whitwell. Oftentimes it came at anytime but dawn--his mum’s favorite rooster had been happy to shout his day-greetings at midnight as often as naught. But now the young Hobbit knew that above the reek the day was rising, and somewhere out in the darkness, well behind the enemy, Frodo and Sam were finding a way into Mordor, finding their way to the Mountain.
Just knowing something that foul thing did not know, something the Enemy in all his self-conceit could not appreciate, gave Pippin heart----
----And then all heard the horns, the horns answering the crow of a rooster who’d sought only to greet the dawn it could not see.
He saw a smile just touching Gandalf’s eyes, even though he never took them from those of his opponent. And he saw that fiery blade waver----
He’s blinked! Pippin realized. The Black Rider--he’s blinked--and he’s lost! Gandalf didn’t have to do anything--just stare him down! Now he’ll go and try to recoup his losses, but he’s lost it all already and just doesn’t know it yet!
That scent of despair was gone now, and now the determination could be scented even better. But as the wraith disappeared back through the gate Pippin remembered his errand and ran forward. “Gandalf!”
The wood that had been brought from the storehouses behind the Citadel had been of a kind Pippin had never seen before, rich with its own oil, and well seasoned. He was told later that the oil brought had been taken from the bodies of huge sea beasts known as whales, creatures that were cruelly slain that their oil and fat might be rendered for the use of Men. Afterwards when he was brought to a house or inn within the White City where such oil was used in lamps Pippin found himself unable to remain within the building. And anytime anyone burned a joint or a chop it would make him physically ill to smell it--ever; from that day, he ate his meat still at least pink in the middle.
But the strongest scent within the House of the Stewards was still that odor of despair--until Gandalf thrust wide the doors, went within, and brought out Faramir, weak and unconscious, but still alive, that oil slicking down his hair, the scent of the wood on his coverings.
Then the scent of despair gave way to something else--a sick pride and defiance. “But in this, at least, thou shalt not defy my own will: to rule my own end!” Denethor cried. “Come, if you are not all recreant!” he shouted at his servants and guards, and at that Halargil, his face filled with shock at his own obedience, hurried forward enough to allow Denethor to take his torch.
And they watched as if in the throes of a terrible dream as the Steward of Gondor, unable to give over his own despair and unwilling to take a lesser place to him who even now beat his way up the river against the current, set fire to his pyre and laid himself down to die.
Hours later Hope finally entered the city. Minas Tirith smelled now of exhaustion, grief, smoke and fire, fallen stone, the coppery tang of blood spilt--too much blood spilt, weakness, wounded Men and horses, but ever more and more of relief. Those within the city stayed back from the sight of the battlefield if they could, for even worse stench rested there, from the overwhelming reek of the fallen fell beast on which the Witch-king had ridden to the blood of countless Men, orcs, horses, mûmakil, trolls, wargs, and other as yet unnamed beasts as well as the bale-fire set in the trenches intended to deter the defenders of the city from successfully facing the Enemy’s forces.
But the fires had guttered out sometime after the dawn, and now in one of the cleaner portions of the Pelennor Men were setting up ranks of tents to house those who’d come to the defense of Minas Tirith. Folk from the Falas, from Langstrand and the Morthond Vale, from Dor-en-Ernil, from Lamedon and Lossarnach, from Pelargir and the other river towns were still pouring off the boats taken from the Corsairs of Umbar, were beginning already to sort through the chaos of the battlefield, finding those who were but wounded and sorting them from the dead and dying, finding ways to drag away the corpses of the great beasts from the south, seeing dying horses freed of their agony and setting their bodies in order, finding weapons and lost packs and cloaks....
And up through the city strode one more heavily cloaked figure, accompanying the shining form of Mithrandir; and where flickering torches and lamps threw this one’s shadow Hope was rekindled in his wake.
Standing with Beregond at the door to the room in which Faramir lay, perhaps yet to die, Peregrin Took smelled that Hope advancing through the halls of the Houses of Healing, even before athelas leaves were laid in the hands of the King.
It was October, and Peregrin Took, considerably grown in body and mind and spirit from the feckless young tween who’d left the Shire thirteen months earlier, stood on the Bywater Road, again smelling that change taking place. Here he’d smelled that cloying odor of despair from the moment they’d entered through Lotho’s gates. But it was already giving way as Hobbits who’d thought themselves beaten and weak gave it over, accepting the Hope with which the four Travelers had been infected.
There are few better things with which Strider might have infected us, Pippin thought as he announced, “But someone’s going to get in again, now. I’m off to the Smials. Anyone coming with me to Tuckborough?”
And followed by a small group of likely Hobbits, he began the swift journey, fourteen miles across the fields, to fetch Took archers to the Scouring of the Shire.
Never will I allow our own folk to suffer such an odor about them! he determined.