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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 22. They Also Serve Who Stand and Wait
Edoras was bustling with activity by mid-afternoon. Although the sky remained cloud-streaked, the rain had ceased, and repair work had begun in earnest: warriors and common folk lent their hands—and backs, and shoulders, and knees—to clear the streets of the wreckage. The city's draft horses and ponies were put to good use hauling bricks and stone, and every so often, one would even see a war horse helping to pull timber from the still-smoldering ruin. The grim task of burying the dead continued, and the blockades and choke points that had been set up earlier were being dismantled, mostly by the women of Edoras. Merry frowned as he stared through the swirling mass of Rohirrim, unable, unless he lifted his eyes, to see much more than a blur of legs, and he wondered how many of them there were.
"How shall we cross without being trampled?" Pippin asked, voicing the question on both of their minds. At about noon, the pair had gone to pay a final visit to Bregalad, who had earlier told them that he and the Huorns would likely leave that afternoon. By then, the Entwood had already moved beyond the ruined gates to stand guard near Gimli's grave, for the Rohirrim could do little with the trees still in the middle of Edoras. Fearful of them, they would not dare the eaves, nor lead any horse through the wood.
"And perhaps they are right to stay away, for we have had too many accidents!" Bregalad had said mournfully. Most of the Rohirrim who had fallen or been thrown beneath the shadow of the trees had emerged more or less unscathed, but Gimli had not been the only ally to fall to the Huorns: some thirty Riders had been found dead of wounds that no orc could have inflicted. Neither Théoden King nor Aragorn, nor even Legolas had believed that such deaths were anything but accidental—the results of fatal panic or unintentional provocation—but most of the Rohirrim knew only that the forest was perilous and they refused to go near it. "Well, my hobbits," the Ent had said as he prepared to leave, "I shall miss you. And I wish you good fortune in the wide world, though the very earth groans with the hatred of war."
"Safe journey, Quickbeam," they had answered. "And thank you for your kindness!"
"I shall bear your greetings to the Eldest. Assure the king that the Ents shall take good care of the wizard. Fare you well!" And the Ent had lifted his hands to cup his mouth, and a great, resonant hrooom! had issued forth, halting all work as the Rohirrim looked up. And as all watched in amazement, leaves and branches had quivered, as if beneath a strong breeze, and then tremors had run up the trunks as the tree roots pulled themselves from the soil. A great, groaning sound had filled the air, and then the entire forest had begun to move almost as one, following Bregalad. Other Ents had appeared from the forest eaves and ranged themselves all about the trees as they called what was presumably encouragement. Or else directions. They're like great sheepdogs! Merry had thought. Very swift they were, and it had not been not long ere the entish herd had disappeared, leaving only a path of turned soil in its wake. For some time after that, the two hobbits had sat upon the ground beside Gimli's grave, and an oddly silent pair they had been. None had disturbed them, and save for the arrival of a pair of riders out of the north-west, who seemed to cause quite a stir among the Rohirrim, work continued uninterrupted, forming an oddly lulling backdrop to the hobbits' silent thoughts. But as noon had passed and the sun had sunk steadily westward, they had risen, intending to return to the guesthouse and find their friends.
Now, though, as they stood just below the square where Aragorn and Éomer had made their final stand, they were at a loss. For not only had they the work parties—which seemed to include every able-bodied inhabitant of the city who was not already on guard duty—to contend with, but it seemed that the guard detail was changing shifts. "We could try the back ways," Merry suggested, and glanced sharply at his cousin when Pippin snorted.
"After the Old Forest, I'm not sure I trust your short cuts, Merry," the other replied. "Besides, they haven't finished tearing down all the barricades that Strider and what's his name— the marshal— put up!"
"True enough. But do you really want to wait for all that to clear?" Merry swept an arm to encompass the crowd, then jumped back as a Rohirrim—a child, by the looks of him, though already he was a good foot taller than either of the hobbits— swerved aside suddenly, guiding a laden, dark-spotted pony on a short lead rein.
"Cum, Blæcig!" the lad shouted over his shoulder, encouraging the beast, and apparently oblivious to the hobbits' existence. Further up the road, more calls could be heard, and as the hobbits stared, vainly seeking to discover the cause of the commotion, a gap opened in the crowd. Merry and Pippin cast a quick glance at each other, but did not hesitate. Darting forward, they dodged Rohirrim as they sought to take advantage of the momentary clearing.
"Ha! Git ætstande!" Someone snatched at them, but lost his grip, and the hobbits' momentum had them flying forward into the middle of the street in spite of themselves. "Reccelaesan bearn!"
"Reckless... what?" Merry glanced about... and then cried out in alarm, shoving Pippin forward as he put on a burst of speed. The cart driver cursed as he passed, but held his course, calling out sharply to the horse. Almost instantly, the Rohirrim filled the street in his wake, though those nearest the hobbits paused to inspect them, and Merry's ears rang with their voices. "Pip?"
"I'm all right... um... thank you...?" Pippin offered in response to the flurry of Rohirric, staring uncertainly up at the concerned, and sometimes glowering, faces of those who crowded about him. Some of the Rohirrim were eyeing the pair skeptically, as if uncertain what to make of them; others were chattering at them in what seemed soothing tones.
"Styrath!" At the sound of that voice, the knot of people shifted quite abruptly, and Merry and Pippin looked up. A tall woman stood there, gazing down at them expressionlessly, and from her clothing, which seemed very fine despite its being trousers and a tunic, made her a noblewoman, surely. "Hwæs bearn sind éow?" she asked, kneeling down on one knee, the better to look them in the face.
"Whose... ? I beg your pardon, milady, but did you ask whose we were?" Merry asked, being careful to speak very slowly and distinctly. The woman blinked, and her brow furrowed thoughtfully as she looked them up and down, eyes narrowing slightly. Merry chewed the inside of his lip gently, wondering if she had understood a word. It seemed that between them, the hobbits and Rohirrim understood enough of each other's speech to know that they missed much in conversation. But usually, if the hobbits spoke slowly enough, someone would understand, though it seemed not to work half as well the other way around.
"I did," she answered after a beat, and although her Common was pleasantly accented, it came quite easily to her as she spoke. "But it seems that the question was ill-put. You are not children, surely, if you do not speak Rohirric. Gá heonon, god folc." She raised her voice slightly, and the others dispersed. When they were more or less alone, given the crowded conditions of the square, she continued, "If you be not children, then what are you, if I may ask?"
"Hobbits, my lady. We came with the Ents," Pippin replied, and then paused, gazing with great interest at her pale, shapely face and golden hair. "You speak very well, if you don't mind my saying so."
"Pippin!" Merry hissed, appalled. But the woman only smiled slightly at that, seeming unoffended.
"Thank you. And for one who speaks not my tongue, you understood well enough my meaning, Master Hobbit," she replied, shifting her attention back to Merry. "How are you called?"
"Meriadoc Brandybuck, my lady. Or Merry, if you like. And this is Peregrin Took, my cousin," Merry answered.
"And I am Éowyn, Éomund's daughter," she replied. "So you came with the Ents, yet now that they are gone, you remain. Why?"
"Well, we found our friends here, so there is little reason to stay."
"Ah. Then you are the friends that Prince Legolas spoke of, I guess," Éowyn said, her tone sharpening with interest.
"You know him?" Pippin asked hopefully.
"Aye, a little. Come you with me, and we shall away to find him, then," Éowyn declared, rising. "Stay close! It is quite a crush." So saying, she strode into the crowd, and the hobbits hastened to keep up with her long stride. Fortunately, despite the close quarters, the Rohirrim seemed miraculously to melt away before her, leaving the three of them a clear path. Merry could not quite understand the polite-sounding murmurs that floated after her, but he guessed that Éowyn must be a high lady, indeed, to merit such deference. He and Pippin did their best to ignore the many curious stares turned upon them, trying not to embarrass their guide, though Merry felt his cheeks heat in response to the attention. At length, they came to the inner keep, and Éowyn was admitted with scarcely a second glance. The courtyard beyond was quieter, though certainly not empty, and the hobbits relaxed somewhat.
"Where are you taking us, Lady Éowyn?" Merry asked.
"To Meduseld, the king's high hall, where you shall find Prince Legolas, among others. My brother is there, and my uncle. And Lord Aragorn, whom you must also know, if you are friends with the prince," she replied, glancing down at him for confirmation.
"Aye, we do," Merry replied, wondering at her matter-of-fact response. Surely not just anyone walks into a king's hall! "Is your uncle a counselor?" he asked after a moment.
"Nay, nay, he is no counselor," Éowyn laughed, but her tone hardened slightly as she continued. "My uncle is Théoden King."
"The king?" Pippin blurted out, staring wide-eyed up at her. "But then... what were you doing down there?"
"Pip!" Merry nearly groaned, although in truth, he had been wondering the same thing. Fortunately, Éowyn seemed made of sterner stuff than the princesses in the tales his mother had read to him when he had been a boy.
"I went to escort Gríma from the city," she replied, and Merry frowned at the queer note of grim satisfaction in her voice. "And it seems it was well that I did, else we might not have met."
"But you were alone," Merry protested.
"Master Wormtongue rode in the cart that nearly crushed you," she informed them dryly.
"Oh." A pause. "But I saw no one but the driver. Although, I suppose I hadn't the chance to look closely... wait a moment!" Merry frowned again, and more deeply, thinking over his blurred impressions of that harrowing crossing.
"The dead are accustomed to lie in a box, Master Brandybuck. Doubtless that is why you missed him. Do not concern yourself overmuch," Éowyn replied, and now there was no mistaking the steel in her voice. "He was a traitor, and deserves no one's good remembrance. This way!" She climbed the steps that led to the hall, nodding when she reached the guards before the doors. A few words she spoke, gesturing to the hobbits, and then she beckoned them onward. "Come! 'Tis not far now."
"Do you know what they're talking about, your uncle and our friends?" Pippin asked, skipping a bit to catch up as Éowyn lengthened her stride a bit more. "Do you know what happens next?"
"Many things, doubtless. Edoras' people must be defended, and the muster continues to build, for the summons will have spread throughout the land. An army must be fed and housed, and such matters do not happen of their own accord. And of course, we must prepare for battle."
"Again?" Pippin protested, amazed. "But you just won!"
"Would that it were so simple, Master Took," Éowyn replied, wryly. "But the messengers who arrived perhaps an hour ago brought news that indeed, Saruman has forces still at Helm's Deep. My uncle's man encountered one of those whom I had earlier sent out, and learned that the wizard had indeed left a part of his forces there, just as Éomer suspected he would. Thus we must move swiftly to relieve the besieged--this very evening, I should think." Arriving at a spiraling staircase, she began to climb it, moving briskly, and the hobbits hurried after her.
"How far must we ride?"
"It is some day and a half's swift journey by horse," she answered easily.
"Another battle," Pippin sighed, and Éowyn quirked a fine, pale brow at him. The hobbit shrugged slightly in response to that look, which seemed puzzled, and explained, "We are not warriors, Merry and I. I fear we do not look forward to another fight."
"And yet you speak as if you would follow my brother and your friends to a war."
"Well, it is simply that... well, we have not been much use, I suppose you could say," Merry said, feeling rather awkward beneath Éowyn's gaze, which was at once solemn and yet oddly eager. "There must surely be something that we could do, and in truth, we would not be parted from them again. Not unless we must!"
"Then you would go for your honor, and to honor your friends. That is reason enough," Éowyn declared. "And here we are!" she added, as they approached a door with guards to either side. Even as they slowed, however, it opened, and out of it came Háma and Éomer, followed by Strider and Legolas. The two Rohirrim spoke quietly in their own tongue, and Strider, although he spoke with the Elf, seemed to be listening as well to the Rohirric conversation. How does he do that? Merry wondered, realizing that the Ranger was speaking Sindarin at that. And then a certain dread crept over him, for Aragorn rarely used the elven tongue unless he wished to keep something between himself and Legolas, or between himself and Gandalf. What now?
"Éomer!" Éowyn said just then, and her brother looked up. "Excuse me," she said to the hobbits, and then went to place herself in the Third Marshal's path. Was it Merry's imagination, or did the two Men tense up at that, as if they would rather be anywhere else at just this moment? An odd sort of lady, she. Not like I would imagine, and nothing like an Elflady, but a high-hearted one nonetheless, I think. I wonder what could make her brother flinch like that? But that is not our business, I suppose, though I daresay I could find out if I set my mind to it. Turning to the remainder of the Fellowship, he and Pippin went quickly to join them, and at least their friends seemed glad to see them.
"Merry. Pippin," Strider greeted them. "How have you fared?"
"Well enough, save for a bit of trouble getting here through that crowd," Pippin replied. "I don't know how you Big Folk manage! Don't you ever get in each other's ways?" That inspired a chuckle, and Strider and Legolas exchanged a look.
"No more than hobbits at a birthday party, I should imagine," Strider answered. "But what brings you here?"
"Éowyn brought us," Pippin replied, and then glanced at Merry.
"She told us that we would be riding to another battle, at some place called Helm's Deep," Merry said, gazing intently up at Legolas and Aragorn.
"Indeed, that is Théoden's intention, and we leave within the hour," Legolas replied. "If we are fortunate, it shall be a short contest. We should be able to pin the enemy shall be between our forces and the Deeping Wall, at least, since the Dike is breached, according to the messengers."
"As for the rest, they go to Dunharrow, for Edoras' defenses are largely destroyed. There, even a small force might hold out for long against many, should it come to that," Aragorn added. And Merry, hearing this, narrowed his eyes as he thought through what he had just been told, and came to one conclusion.
"You're going to send us to Dunharrow, aren't you?" he asked, feeling his heart sink with the certainty of it. "You don't want us to come with you."
"It will be safer there," the Ranger replied, and although his tone held no apology, his eyes told of regretful sympathy. Pippin and Merry shot each other identical looks of disbelieving disappointment, before Pippin protested.
"But we want to come with you! And we've been in four fights already! Five, if you count Weathertop."
"None of which were anything like a pitched battle between armies," Aragorn replied, kneeling down, the better to see eye to eye, or as close as he could get, given the disparity in their heights. "Listen to me! We have been terribly fortunate thus far, for we have been far outnumbered and overmatched in all but one instance. Only the will of our enemies or a fortuitous accident has kept the lot of us alive. Even so, we have lost Gandalf, Boromir, and Gimli. Moreover, the Rohirrim are cavalry men by preference. Could you wield a lance from the back of a horse?"
"You could put us down," Merry began, and then sighed, seeing almost immediately the flaw in that logic. If we cannot even manage in the courts below, how would we manage all alone amidst orcs and horses?
"I am sorry, Merry, but this is not a battle for infantry, unless very skilled. At Dunharrow, we shall meet again, if fate is kind."
"Fear not, my friends," Legolas said, quietly, and something in the Elf's voice commanded immediate attention, not only from the hobbits, but from Strider as well. "You were chosen for this Fellowship, and not without reason. You will find your purpose, or it shall find you. We are all but the instruments of the Age."
"Well, I wish the Age would hurry up and figure out what to do with hobbit-shaped instruments!" Pippin muttered, pulling a sour face, but after a moment he offered a slight smile. "It doesn't sound quite so bad when you put it that way, I suppose. So long as we do have one, that is."
"When do we leave?" Merry asked.
"Éowyn shall tell you, as Théoden would have her lead the people while he is away," Strider replied, dragging his eyes from Legolas' face. And it seemed to the hobbit that he was troubled, though why, Merry could not tell. "If you would have a purpose, keep the White Lady of Rohan out of trouble!" said he, casting a significant look at the trio of Rohirrim, who still stood talking together in low, but intense, voices.
"We'll do our best. But do come back," Merry replied, eyeing his taller companions quite seriously.
"Rest easy, then, for a wretched few orcs are but pennies in the payment I intend to collect," Legolas responded, and the hobbits shivered slightly. How so fair a voice could produce so grim a note and yet be beautiful was a mystery Merry refused to contemplate too deeply. He still felt cold inside when he remembered that awful, keening lament over Gimli's body. "Fare you well, and we shall meet again in Dunharrow!" The Prince of Mirkwood smiled a smile frighteningly suited to his tone of voice, and then made them a bow ere he swept off down the hall.
"Lest you believe it a jest, do watch the lady Éowyn. I think she may need friends in the days to come, with Éomer and Théoden away," Strider said in an undertone, and smiled slightly when they nodded.
"You seem tired, still, Strider, if you don't mind my saying it," Merry said, worried. "Are you certain that you should go?"
"Such weariness as I feel comes more from the heart than from the body, and I shall not let it affect me in battle. Still, I would envy you your place in Dunharrow, if only I could. Until we meet again, my friends," he replied, rising to follow Legolas. The hobbits stared after him glumly, and then Pippin sighed.
"How many days did she say? One and a half? So three days altogether just getting there and coming back, and that assuming Dunharrow isn't much further!"
"We'll manage. We shall have to, and maybe Éowyn could find us something useful to do. Surely it must need a lot of hands to keep so many people in order!"
"I suppose," Pippin replied, sounding unconvinced.
"Well then, let's not think too much on it, shall we? Come on, Pip, they'll be back soon," Merry said, determinedly, just as the meeting of Rohirrim broke up. The two men followed in the wake of Aragorn and Legolas, leaving Éowyn standing there, gazing at the hobbits with a rueful smile and eyes like ice... if ice could burn.
"It would seem that we three shall be companions for awhile, or so say your faces, and doubtless mine as well," she said at length. "Come then! There is much to do, and I would not have any say that we stood idle while others fought." Holding out her hands to them, she beckoned, and they came. Éowyn's grip was firm, and Merry was surprised to feel the calluses on her palms and fingers. As rough as Strider's hands, and almost as strong, he thought, gazing up at her. Not an ordinary lady, this one! Well, I thought I could figure her out if I had time. I suppose now I'll have the chance to do so. Somewhat heartened by that thought, he let Éowyn lead him through the passages of Meduseld, and hoped that the mystery would keep him too busy to worry about absent friends.
It was somewhat more than an hour later that Aragorn sat his horse at the head of the waiting ranks of Riders. Evening would come all too soon, but Théoden was determined that they should make a start, and the steeds of the Mark, at least, would be fresh. A little ways away, Legolas perched, having found a horse to suit him and rid himself of the hated bridle and saddle. They had argued, after leaving the hobbits, about his participation in the next battle, but the elf would not be gainsaid.
"I am not beholden to you, Aragorn; now I know what it is that ails me, I will be well enough to do what honor–to say nothing of affection–requires. Already, I had learned sufficient to risk the walls, and I was no danger to the men about me," Legolas had said firmly, green eyes flashing. It had been the capstone to a rather difficult meeting, for with a brief space between battles, it had fallen at last to Aragorn to explain something of the business of the Fellowship that had led them to the Mark. He had felt Legolas' eyes upon him for the omission of all mention of the Song, but the elf had apparently decided that there was some wisdom in silence on that matter. Nevertheless, it had been an uncomfortable hour, and the argument afterward had not improved his mood. Aragorn had been forced eventually to bow to Legolas' decision, but he was hardly happy to see the other take up a position in line now.
At length, Théoden appeared, with Éomer trailing in his wake. The King of the Mark nodded gravely to him, and Aragorn returned the gesture. I should not argue Legolas' place in this line if I am unwilling to argue Théoden's, he told himself, striving for equitability. For certainly, Théoden was no warrior in his prime; age was an ill that none could cure, nor could a few days in the saddle suffice for a man to recover all his strength. But when Éomer, during their conference earlier that afternoon, had suggested that Théoden should ride to Dunharrow, the king had replied, "If what Aragorn has told us this day of the meaning of the Rhyme of Imladris is true, then it is not meet that I remain. For I am old, my son–yes, I name you so now, for you have been as a son for many years, and Théodred now is gone–and though I would it were otherwise, I have but little left to give, and I owe much. Such prudence as I have for governance–this was meant for another time, and I grieve that I used it not these last years, when I might have done so and so honored what the years have given me. Therefore I shall ride." To that, none had been able to muster an objection.
The King of the Mark now made his way to the head of the mass of horsemen, turning his charger and standing in the stirrups to survey the éored, and also the people who had gathered at the ruined gates, including Éowyn, accompanied by two small figures at her side. Gold-chased armor gleamed in the shafts of weak, afternoon sunlight and a ruddy light shone in his white braids. A sunset king for the world's eventide, Aragorn could not help but think, though he was quick to thrust that thought aside as memory turned elsewhere, across the leagues to Lórien and another who bore the sunset in her name. Shall you come again? Arwen's voice whispered in his mind, and Aragorn drew a deep breath as he raised a hand, returning the farewell waves of Merry and Pippin. Until Dunharrow, he thought once more, and resolutely.
And then the horns blew, and Théoden reared his horse, that all might see as he pointed west and cried: "For Helm's Deep!"
"For Helm's Deep and Théoden King!" chorused the men. From the gates they thundered forth, and the sound resounded in the land, long after the Riders had been swallowed in the sunset's brilliance.
Thanks again to HF for correcting the OE.
For I am old, my son–yes, I name you so now, for you have been as a son for many years—cf. "The Muster of Rohan", TTT, 78
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