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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 33. Departing Dunharrow
"Hildric of Aescing, in the Westfold. He brings fifteen with him," Greta was saying as Merry returned his attention to his scribal duties. He flashed a brief smile up at the stout older man that his newfound companion introduced. Hildric gave him a nod, but otherwise said nothing, and stared down at Merry with some puzzlement. Beside him, Greta grinned unabashedly at the other's confusion, and Merry felt a surge of mirth at the sight that needed at least to be hidden, lest Hildric take offense. He bent hastily over his ledger.
He had come by Greta's company by sheer good fortune. The young man's éored hailed from a great fortress-town in the Eastfold, Aldburg. His captain, a rather imposing, blunt-spoken fellow named Éothain had taken one look at the hobbit, cocked his head at Merry's labored, broken Rohirric, and then, without art or artifice, had asked in the Common Speech:
"How does it come that you are given such a task as this, Master Holbytla, when you cannot speak our tongue?"
"The lady's kindness, and that I can write. I get along well enough, sir—so many of your folk have a bit of the Common Speech, even a stranger can manage this sort of work," Merry had replied.
"You get along, eh?" the man had grunted. Then, without taking his eyes from Merry: "Greta!" he had beckoned, and a lithe young man with bright eyes and an inquisitive air about him had looked up from a conversation with his horse. Handing the reins to a companion, he had loped over, making his captain a salute before turning curious eyes upon Merry. Éothain had laid a heavy, gauntleted hand upon the Rider's shoulder and said, "By your leave, Master Holbytla, I would see you do better than 'get along'. Greta here has got a smooth tongue in his head—too smooth, I should say—" at which Greta had broken into a startling grin that had had Merry smiling back, unable to help it "—and I am sure he shall not miss stable duties. Take him with you."
"Well, if you're certain, captain—" Merry had begun, but Éothain had waved a hand, cutting him off.
"I have the Third Marshal's éored with me, and several smaller companies from the towns and villages about Aldburg, and that is no few to order. Take him! Return him when you are done with your duties for the day, and I think that many captains may find themselves better and more speedily served than if you came to them alone. And in serving us well, you will serve the lady better, Master Holbytla."
And that had been that. And if Merry had wondered whether Captain Éothain had been seeking an excuse to be rid of the young man and his too-glib tongue, Greta had in fact been quite helpful. He seemed as easy with the Common Speech as with his own, switching between the two with an enviable ease, and Merry never once had difficulty understanding his accent. Though different from Boromir's, it was yet close enough to make little difference to his ear, and he had always found Boromir's speech pleasant. The young man had given him the numbers of his own company—one hundred and twenty Riders, replenished, Greta had confided, after some losses—and then begun taking him round to the commanders of the smaller companies that Éothain had gathered, in order that Merry might record their names and homes and numbers. He did not seem to resent the duty at all.
"They say that we Rohirrim are mad about horses," the young man had said, as they had walked toward the next group of Riders. "'Tis true enough, but I do not love them for the hay they soil." Merry had laughed at this, and Greta had chuckled. And his new companion had glanced down at him then to ask, "Are you truly as the commander said, a holbytla?"
"So it seems, for so I have heard often lately, though we call ourselves 'hobbits'," Merry had told him, and the young man had repeated this a few times to himself, seeming almost to taste the word.
"A good name," he had finally pronounced, with an air of decision, causing Merry to laugh once more.
"Are you certain you do not mind helping?" Merry had asked, then. "There are still many other small bands that I have not yet spoken with today."
Greta had shaken his head. "The commander said I should help you. You would not have me disobey my orders?"
"Then I do not mind. Besides, I had never thought to meet a hobbit."
Merry had smiled. "Then I am very glad of your help, Master Greta."
"No master am I!" the young man had declared. "Greta is good enough."
"Then if you would, please call me Merry, for really, I prefer it." They had shaken hands, and with that, stood no more on any ceremony, and with Greta's help, the morning had gone far more smoothly and quickly than it might have.
And so as the sentries began crying challenges to the newcomer, Merry, who was just blotting the ink dry, glanced up at his companion, wondering who rode in now. Surely there cannot be many more, Merry thought. Greta, though was gazing south, head canted slightly as he listened, and his expression was puzzled.
"Who are they, do they say?" Merry asked.
"There is just one Rider, and he comes swiftly indeed," Greta replied. "A messenger of some sort, I guess."
"A messenger?" Merry repeated, feeling his heart speed suddenly. Could he be one of Théoden's men?
"Aye. So it seems. But bide a while and you shall see him, for he shall be here shortly," the other said.
And indeed, it was not long afterwards that a horse and rider heaved into view, the horse coming to a quick stop, wearily tossing its head as the rider dismounted. The sentries, who had formed a loose half-circle about him lowered their spears, apparently recognizing him. Merry, for his part, narrowed his eyes and leaned forward a bit, trying to get a look at him. As the guards drew back, the man, who had taken his pack from the horse's back, began walking towards the keep, beckoning the horse along in a clear voice that sent a jolt of recognition though Merry, and his eyes widened.
"Merry? Are you ill?" Greta asked with some concern, as the hobbit paled.
"Legolas!" Task forgotten, Merry dashed across the way, dodging Riders and horses, heedless of Greta following after him. "LEGOLAS!"
Hearing his name, the Elf paused, turning towards them, and then seeing who it was, hastily changed course. "Merry," he said, frowning as he knelt down before the hobbit, and he laid a steadying hand on Merry's shoulder. "Are you well?"
"Where are the others?" Merry demanded, dreading the reply.
"On the Road," Legolas replied. And then he smiled slightly. "You need not fear. Our friends are unhurt."
"Oh. Oh, I thought... well, that something had gone wrong," the hobbit finished, with no small relief. But then it was his turn to frown as he looked the Elf up and down. "But why have you come alone?" he asked.
"I have an errand to Gondor that will not wait," Legolas said, rising then, and he nodded to Greta, who bowed in response. "Where is Lady Éowyn?"
"She may be with Dúnhere, up in the keep," Merry replied.
"Very good. Then I shall take my leave."
"But wait! Why are you going to Gondor?" Merry asked, catching the Elf's cloak.
"War is upon that land. The Lady Galadriel has tidings the Steward ought to hear, and I am the swiftest rider. I am sorry, Merry, but I cannot tarry—if you ask Aragorn when he arrives tonight, you may hear all the news then," Legolas apologized. "A good day to you, and take care!"
It was useless, however. The Elf was already gone, jogging up towards the city, his horse following obediently in his wake. Merry bit his lip, staring after him. War in Gondor? Now? Soon? And a message from Galadriel?
"He seems much improved," Greta remarked then, startling Merry.
"What do you mean?" he asked, glancing up at his taller companion.
The young Rider shrugged. "When we encountered him and the Lord Aragorn and the Dwarf near the downs, the Prince of Mirkwood seemed as one under some evil spell. 'Twas said he was wounded, and he did carry his left arm close."
He shook his head, brow knitting in some perplexity, as he continued after a moment, "But this is a strange tale, plainly! Both his and yours. I had meant to ask you later, when we had done, how you came to be in the Lady's service, and now I find you are friended by an Elf! By our Elf, at that."
"It is a strange tale—a long, very strange tale," Merry said, and then sighed. "I suppose," he said reluctantly, "that we should return to our chore. Later on, perhaps, we can speak further of it." So saying, he turned slowly and made his way back towards the encampment. But though he scribed and strove to seem interested and diligent in his work, his thoughts were preoccupied with a far different question from those he had to ask the Riders:
How am I to keep up with an Elf if he's in Gondor?
With Merry's words in mind, Legolas made his way up the crowded paths of Dunharrow, wishing just once to find a city not filled to overflowing with refugees. His horse he had left by the city gate, with orders to find the stables, and then he had headed for the inner keep, where surely someone would know where to find Éowyn.
"The lady confers with Lord Dúnhere," said one of the guards there, when he had answered their challenge. "They are in the great hall, my lord prince."
"Take me thither, then," Legolas replied, and after a moment, the guard had glanced at his partner, and then beckoned the prince to follow.
And so he was led through narrow, high, tapestry-swathed halls to the great doors at the heart of the keep. These were open, and within, bent over a table that was set beneath the windows to catch the light, were two figures: one dark to his eyes, the other nearly lost, it seemed, in the sunlight that poured in through the windows, a glimmer within the gleam. The Lord Dúnhere was speaking in a low tone, tracing a line on what seemed a map. The Lady of Rohan nodded, but then stilled, and cocked her head, as if some distant sound had caught her ear; then swiftly she turned, her eyes fastening on Legolas.
"My lady Éowyn," Legolas murmured, as her eyes grew wide and he sensed a dread, twin to Merry's, steal through her. And so he hastened to say, "I bear greetings from the king and your brother, and a message."
"From Théoden King?" Dúnhere repeated, straightening.
Éowyn was less patient. "What message from my uncle?" she asked, even as Legolas approached.
"In brief, King Théoden sends his greetings to you, and says his messenger has need of a horse," Legolas replied, pausing to produce the token Théoden had given him. Éowyn received it, holding it up in the light, as Dúnhere moved closer to examine it as well. "He said you should show me the mearas."
At that, Dúnhere gave him a sharp, surprised look. "The mearas? What message do you bear?"
"One for Lord Denethor's ears, my lord," Legolas replied, without taking his eyes from Éowyn.
"My lady?" the Lord of Dunharrow asked, glancing down at her, for Éowyn still held the ring, and she frowned slightly as she gazed upon it. But:
"Of course, if Uncle wishes you to see them, I shall take you to them," she replied.
"Lady Éowyn, the Prince is a stranger, and you recall how—"
"Please Dúnhere," she said then, even as she handed the ring back to Legolas, "if the message is so urgent, we should not argue the choice of mount, since Uncle has already decided the matter. I will show Prince Legolas the herds and return when he has found a horse suited to him. Come with me, my lord prince."
With that, she swept out of the hall, Legolas in tow, leaving the Lord of Dunharrow staring after them both. "This way," she beckoned Legolas down an eastward hall. "They have taken to a meadow hard by the keep."
"My thanks, lady," Legolas replied. But then, with a swift glance round to be certain there were none to overhear, he asked, "Is everything well in Dunharrow?"
"Pay Dúnhere no heed," she replied immediately. "He means no harm, only he worries for the horses, for the last time a stranger rode one of the mearas, the horse returned wild and would permit none of us to approach him too closely. But tell me," she continued, and now turned a troubled look upon him, "why have you come, Legolas? And with so strange a request! Why does my uncle not send one of his men to Gondor? Messengers we have aplenty!"
"The message is not wholly his," Legolas answered, and then explained briefly the ride of the Grey Company and the tidings they had brought and the counsel their news had inspired. Éowyn listened silently, and when he had finished, as they left the keep and stepped into the open air, she nodded slowly.
"And when did the king say he would set forth?" she asked at last.
"He should have left an hour after I did, although you will see Aragorn and the Grey Company first no doubt—by nightfall, I should imagine," Legolas replied.
"I see. The Paths of the Dead..." Éowyn trailed off, glancing west over the walls, towards the Dwimorberg that loomed nearby. A slight shiver ran through her, and she quickly averted her eyes. It was a brief moment of discomfiture and swiftly banished, and Legolas was struck once more, as she lifted her chin and quickened her pace, by that unapproachable reserve. But he did not remark upon it—he knew it for what it was, after all. All we broken creatures of the world, he thought, mournfully.
Beneath the walls of Dunharrow they passed, and at length came upon a gentle slope. Éowyn gathered her skirts in one hand and quickly climbed it, to a broad field that overlooked the lower-lying meadow beyond the gates. And there, at the far end of the field, stood a number of horses, unfenced, unhobbled, without even a stable-lad or dog set to guard them. Heads came up, and ears swiveled, pricking forward attentively as Legolas and Éowyn came into view, and Legolas saw nostrils flare among some of the stallions that hovered near the larger herd of mares. But one in particular caught his eye—a great, dark grey who trotted forward a few paces to watch them.
"Behold the mearas, the pride of the Mark," Éowyn murmured, and then made them a graceful curtsey. Looking once more upon the watchful stallion, who had a wiser eye to him than any horse the prince had seen for long centuries, Legolas, after a moment, made him a bow, straightening only as Éowyn did.
"You allow them to run free?" Legolas asked.
"We do not allow it; say rather, they will not have it otherwise, and we respect their wishes," Éowyn corrected. "These are the descendents of Felaróf, Éorl's steed, and his herd. They understand us, and of all horses are swiftest. They would serve a messenger well, if they consented to bear him."
"How does one win such consent?"
"They will decide for themselves. Only wait," Éowyn replied, folding her arms across her chest, fingers pressing hard, as if against cold.
"If my lady would rather not remain—" Legolas began, but she shook her head.
"It is no trouble. The mearas treat more readily with those of the King's Household, and you need all such haste as can be made," Éowyn replied. A brief pause, and then, more quietly: "And I find of late I desire the company of but few."
Who those other few might be, she did not say, and Legolas did not press her. Had she wished to be pressed, after all, she might have waited until Aragorn arrived to make such half-confessions, Legolas thought, though with less bitterness than he might have ere the night before. He might not yet be willing to give up Gimli or foreswear vengeance, but it was good to think that when next he and the Dúnadan met—if they met again—there would be less wariness between them.
But Éowyn was not Aragorn, and neither was he, and so after a moment, Legolas said simply, "Then stay, by all means." And from the corner of his eye, he caught her blushing as she nodded her thanks.
And so for a time, they stood quietly together, the bright sun gilding the air, though the day remained chill. Idly, Legolas watched the grass sway in the breeze that came kiting down off the mountain slopes. A forlorn dance, it seemed to him, especially with the wind so fickle...
"Legolas," Éowyn whispered suddenly, and the Elf glanced up to see that the stallion had advanced a few paces. He tossed his head and backed a step, shying under their eyes, but after a moment, he flipped his ears and, apparently having come to a decision, began trotting towards them.
When he was but a few yards distant, he stopped again, and Éowyn curtseyed once more, before gesturing to Legolas. "Shadowfax, here is Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood, come to ask a boon from Théoden King, of the House of Éorl," she said, and the great head turned towards the Elf, who bowed in his turn.
"Prince of horses," Legolas murmured, then hesitated, glancing at Éowyn. She made a minute gesture—Continue, she seemed to say, and so he did. "I have an errand to the Steward of Gondor, on behalf of Théoden King. War comes, and that city must be made ready to hold until the Rohirrim arrive. If one of yours would consent to bear me swiftly thither, I would be most grateful."
Shadowfax snorted, but after a moment, approached and gently nudged Legolas, who carefully cupped a hand beneath the horse's nose, murmuring softly in Sindarin as he reached with his other hand to scratch between the stallion's eyes. Beside him, Éowyn shook her head, amazed. "He has let none handle him, not since he consented to bear Gandalf hence," she said, and Legolas closed his eyes.
"Perhaps he discerns, as from far off, the air of wizards—the friendship that Mithrandir bore us, who walked with him into Moria," he replied, opening his eyes as he glanced aside to look at her. She said nothing, and Legolas eventually turned his attention back to the stallion, whose eyelids were drooping beneath the Elf's ministrations. "What say you, King of the Winds? Is there one among you that would bear me hence?" he murmured. As if in reply, the great head lifted, and then drooped again, this time over Legolas' shoulder, as if possessively.
"It seems that Elves are indeed sorcerers," Éowyn said at length, as she reached up and stroked Shadowfax's withers.
"Perhaps in some small way yet," Legolas replied, ducking beneath the horse's neck so that he stood before her. And as they stood there, he gazing gravely down at her, and she not meeting his eyes, he felt once more the sting of grief and its mortal weariness, as in his mind's eye memory overwhelmed the present—
And beside him in the Darkness, a grieving girl who had sat silently by, saying nothing. For hours, saying nothing...
—For there was nothing to say, for either of us. It was a bitter truth, and he found himself wondering whether there were any to do for her what Aragorn and even Éomer did for him. On impulse, he caught her chin in his hand, gently tilting her head up. Blue eyes flickered as they met his own, then flinched and shifted, even as most Men's would beneath an Elf's stare. Gone was the daring of those earlier days—were they really so recently passed? A sad thing, one to make him wish he were the sorcerer that the tales of this land made his kind, for then he might remove one grief at least from this world.
As it is, I must do what I can, I suppose, he thought, and then leaned down and kissed her brow. Brief and warm, that touch, and as he withdrew, he murmured his blessing in his own tongue, a lilt of words from gladder times that seemed to him to fit her song.
"Farewell, Éowyn, to such peace as can be found." So saying, he leapt lightly upon Shadowfax's back, and left her standing there, still and white as winter in his wake. Long it was ere she stirred, and then only to turn west once more. Not until one of Lord Dúnhere's men came anxiously seeking her with the news—that it seemed the Elf had departed, and with Shadowfax, and was the lady well?—not until then did she shake off her stillness.
"Yes, he was in haste to depart; yes, Shadowfax has gone with him; yes, I am well," she replied, and then paused, frowning a bit, but not with worry. Rather, it was almost puzzlement, ere she said again, "I am... well..."
"My lady?" the servant asked worriedly.
"Never mind. Tell your lord I shall come shortly," she instructed, and watched as he hastened away, not without a few backwards glances. But she paid him no heed, her gaze fixed westward once more, until she sensed that he had gone indeed, and that she was once more alone. Then, breathing deeply of that solitude, she wiped at her eyes, bowed then to the mearas, and departed to find Dúnhere.
"What do you mean, he's gone to Gondor?" Pippin demanded, shocked enough that he paused in his kneading.
"Just that. He's gone—he came with some message from Lady Galadriel for Gondor, took a horse, and is gone now," Merry repeated, frowning prodigiously.
"But... Galadriel? How?"
"Quietly, Pippin!" Merry admonished, for some of the other cooks were looking their way now. Pippin blushed, made a slight bow to the room at large, and contritely pushed the dough a bit further up the board into a nice spot of flour. In the meantime, Merry continued:
"I don't know how. He said to ask Aragorn when he turns up, supposedly tonight," Merry said, pacing while his cousin looked on from his perch on a kitchen stool. "He gave me the slip, Pippin! Worse, he did it in broad daylight, right in front of me!"
At that, Pippin drew his hands from the dough, and heedless of the sticky mess, put his hands on his hips and retorted, "Well, he is an Elf! We likely used all our luck on Gandalf, you know—lucky we were he didn't slip past us with Frodo. But what's all this about Gondor and Strider arriving tonight?"
"As for Gondor and Strider, I don't know anything about that, either. Legolas said little more than that everyone was well, and that Strider would come tonight." Merry paused, glanced up at his cousin, and then scowled. "Aren't you supposed to be kneading that?" he asked.
"So glad you noticed. And I would be, but there's a Brandybuck making quite the scene, keeping folk from an honest day's work," Pippin replied, and pretended offense when Merry rolled his eyes.
"There's rich! But I'm worried, Pippin. Something has happened, that's plain enough. Something enough to make Galadriel send a message!"
"You don't think... Legolas would have said if it had been about Frodo. Wouldn't he?" Pippin asked, his voice sinking with his heart as a sudden cold grip him by the very innards. On any other day, it would've been gratifying to see his cousin pale at his words, and to realize that he had seen something before Merry had, but the sight brought him no joy at present.
After a bit, Merry shook himself. "No, I don't think it's—that. If it is, Legolas must not know himself what message he's carrying. If he did..." Merry paused, then shook his head furiously. "Frodo's our cousin—it wouldn't be right not to tell us." This seemed to reassure him, and Pippin found himself breathing a bit easier, for it did make sense. "At any rate, we can't worry about that now—we'll drag the news out of Strider if we have to tackle him by the campfire! We've got to make sure, though, that we're riding with him and the others to Gondor, Pippin."
"What about Lady Éowyn?" Pippin asked. "Wouldn't she help us? Didn't she tell us it was honorable to go to war if we went for our friends?"
"She said if we rode to honor our friends, it was reason enough," Merry corrected. "I suppose we'll find out soon if she meant it. I have to talk with her, for I'm done early today with the count, thanks to Greta. I'll ask her when we're done if she'll help us." He sighed, hefting the ledger in his arms as he gazed pensively at nothing. Finally, he nodded, as if he had come to some conclusion. "Yes, I'll be off, and as soon as I've got all the news and any help she may give us, I'll come right back and tell you."
Merry turned abruptly then, and without even a proper farewell, marched off at a determined pace, leaving Pippin to gaze after him, brow knit with worried frustration. Not even a day made, and our conspiracy's in danger of falling through! There was something humiliating in that. At least it had taken them a few months to find trouble in their last one! But then he sighed and turned back to his dough. Plunging his hands once more into the sticky substance, he tried to compose himself in patience, as his mother had always said, to await Merry's return with what news there was to be had.
But patience had never been something that came easily to Pippin, and particularly not in time of worry, which this certainly was. For what if Éowyn won't help us? he wondered, and could not leave the question be. What if Merry can't convince her? He did not think the King of Rohan would hear their plea to ride in his muster if his niece would not. And surely Éomer, who might remember them as Gimli's companions from that awful day beneath the Huorns, but who would have little other reason to think of them, even, would have no reason to help them.
Which left, he thought unhappily, Aragorn. "This is not a battle for infantry, unless very skilled," Strider had told them, and then left them in Dunharrow. I don't suppose he'll change his mind about that now that there are even more horses, Pippin thought unhappily. But if Éowyn refused them, then truly, there was no one else to ask.
There's something wrong about all this, he thought, with a ferocious scowl. Two hobbits, begging to go to war? The absurdity of it struck him forcibly of a sudden, and the sheltered Shire-lad in him laughed. I shouldn't even be thinking of this! Hobbits aren't made for these matters. Me especially! And yet, he remembered floating down Anduin, and questioning Boromir about Minas Tirith.
"What would we do, Merry and I, if we came there? As hobbits, you understand," he had asked.
And in his head, he heard Boromir's biting reply: "What indeed? Minas Tirith is an armed camp, Peregrin Took, and if you came there, you would fight when the enemy at last unleashed war."
But it's true, though,Pippin thought, arguing with himself. Boromir was right, even if he found it strange or silly—which it is! But we would fight, Merry and I. We've got to—it isn't right, all the others having to fight for us, when we're willing. The Enemy won't mind that we're not so tall as some, will he? No doubt, the Enemy would not, and Pippin shivered a bit, taken by a strange and sudden certainty:
There's something dreadfully unfair about all this fighting for us.
He only hoped that when Strider arrived, he would have the words for it. And if not, what then, Peregrin Took? demanded his sheltered self once more, as thoughts took a rather vicious turn. He doesn't have to listen to you, you know. Not even for his own good. And he already thinks he knows yours. Why should he hear you?
Pippin pounded the dough with more force than was strictly necessary, then reached for the flour jar again. And he breathed deeply, wrinkling his nose against the urge to sneeze in the mealy air. None of that! he berated himself. He had the afternoon. He would think of something. You'll see, he told that other voice. And so will he. He'll have to.
Despite that, somewhat to his shame, he could not help but hope that Éowyn would make all his efforts unnecessary.
Merry left his cousin to his cook's duties, and went in search of Éowyn. After a few inquiries, he learned that she had gone to the storehouses with Lady Derwyn, Dúnhere's wife. However, once arrived there, he was informed that the lady had but lately retired to her chambers to make tallies and records for the King.
Maybe we've still a little luck left after all, Merry thought, as he made for the keep. It would be far simpler to speak privately there, after all.
Dúnhere had settled Éowyn in a small suite of rooms just above the great hall, and Merry found the door ajar slightly upon his arrival, sign of the lady's presence within and that she was working and might be interrupted for matters of business. Merry knocked, and received a distracted invitation to enter.
Éowyn sat at a small table, where she had laid out parchment and ink and was busily scratching away with the pen. No other books had she, nor any list—just as many an old gaffer or gammer in the Shire got along without ever reading more than the sign on the inn's door, so Éowyn kept matters straight in her head, as did most folk in Rohan it seemed, even the very high. It seemed even late nights on towers did not hinder her recollection.
"Merry," she said, as she glanced up, and her eyes fell upon the ledger he held. "So swift today?" she asked, and he smiled.
"Well, that was mostly Greta's doing," he replied.
"Yes. Captain Éothain lent him to me. He said I would serve you better if I had him along to help translate," Merry explained. "And he was right. Here you are." Éowyn took the ledger in hand, and flipped through its pages, swiftly finding the end of yesterday's tallies.
"Another three hundred," she murmured after a minute.
"More or less," Merry confirmed.
"That is good news. Uncle should be pleased so many have come," she replied.
"Will he leave tomorrow, my lady?" Merry asked.
"I should think not. He will only just have arrived," Éowyn responded, and Merry blinked, surprised.
"But Legolas said Aragorn should come by nightfall," he said.
"They ride in separate companies," Éowyn replied, and to Merry's eyes, she seemed troubled. "Lord Aragorn shall arrive first, but the king's host shall travel more slowly, and arrive tomorrow afternoon."
"Oh. But... why?" Merry finally asked, after digesting this latest news. "Legolas said he was a messenger. Why would Aragorn leave King Théoden?"
"What did Legolas tell you, Merry?" Éowyn asked, frowning slightly.
"Only that Lady Galadriel had a message for the Steward of Gondor, and that he was the messenger." Éowyn nodded slowly at that, and he saw the tic, the clench of muscle as she bit down on some unhappy pronouncement, it seemed. Which did little to encourage Merry, who asked, "My lady? Éowyn, what is it? What's happening?"
"Some witchery, I fear," she said at length, and shook her fair head.
"So I call it, for I do not understand how such counsels come about and take root in hearts that should be more wary. The Lady of Dwimordene sent messages to the Lord of Rivendell, and he sent out riders—Lord Aragorn's kinsmen, 'tis said. And these riders have brought not only the words of the lady, but also of the lord, and none of them seem to me good. For by their words, they have set Lord Aragorn to ride the Paths of the Dead!"
"The Paths of the Dead?" Merry repeated in a small voice.
"An ancient road that begins here and goes through the mountains to some end in Gondor, or so it seems. The spirits of the makers haunt it, and none who live have ever passed it in all the years since the Mark began," she replied.
"And Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel are sending Aragorn there?" Merry asked, thinking furiously.
Black spots swam in his vision, and it seemed to Merry that his heart had plummeted right down to his toes. Visions of a shadowy shape in the fogs assaulted him, and memory of the cold heaviness of his limbs as the barrow had closed over him... Get a hold of yourself, Meriadoc! he berated himself, putting his knuckles in his eyes. Think! What are the dead? Are they worse than the way to the Fire? Didn't Elrond and Gandalf and Galadriel send Frodo that way, and did you argue with them? There must be a reason and a little hope! Which helped—truly, it did, and Merry took a deep breath, straightening as he lowered his hands.
"So Aragorn will go on the Paths of the Dead. He surely won't go by himself?"
"His kin will ride with him, for they are sworn to him," Éowyn replied.
"That is good, then," he said, with no little relief, and in the face of Éowyn's disbelief, added, "It may seem witchery to you, my lady, but bad as it sounds, I have to believe Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel wouldn't send him on a hopeless journey. They must have their reasons, and they must be good at that." So he said, and made himself believe it with those words. Éowyn's look was still skeptical, but there was, he supposed, little he could do about that. After all, if I hadn't heard it myself, if I hadn't seen Rivendell or Lórien, I suppose I'd think little differently from her, he reasoned. And so instead he reminded himself of his own mission, and said, "They will meet us in Gondor, then, I guess. And speaking of Gondor, I'd been hoping to have a word with you, my lady."
"About going to Gondor. We had hoped—that is, Pippin and I," he said quickly, "we had hoped that you could help us. You fought with the king—we've heard all about it since Edoras—and we were hoping, since you'll be riding with him, and have his ear, that you could put a word in for us. For I don't think he'll want us to ride with the Muster."
Éowyn blinked twice, and then she said slowly, "I see. But Merry, you must know that in a field of horsemen—"
"I do, Aragorn's already told us. That's why he left us here. But isn't it reason enough to go to war, whatever the risk, to honor our friends by fighting with them? Did you not say it yourself that day, Éowyn?" Merry asked quietly.
"I did say it," she replied, after a brief hesitation, and her eyes grew intent—More intent, Merry corrected himself. Finally, she said, "And my heart believes it still. Very well, I will do what I can for you and Pippin. I would bear you myself, but—" She paused, and then shook her head once more, this time as if in dismissal of some thought. "I shall see to it," she said instead, and reached out a hand. Merry took it, and she squeezed firmly, as she finished, "You will come to Gondor, if that is your will. You have my word."
"Thank you, Éowyn," Merry replied, and bowed deeply. Éowyn released his hand, but only to set both of hers upon his shoulders, and as he straightened once more, she smiled faintly at him.
"Although there is no need, if you would thank me, then do me this favor when you ride...."
The afternoon waned swiftly. Evening drew on, tables were set, and supper laid to the slow songs of the Mark. Night had fallen and was getting on towards being late when at last, a company of riders came to Dunharrow: thirty-two men in star-brooched cloaks, grey as the land beneath the moon. And they found their hosts prepared for them, for Éowyn had arranged for tents and blankets and water to be made ready. And since it was late, places were found in the hall, even, for the Grey Company to sup in some greater semblance of civility than a campfire might offer.
"Prince Legolas has told us of your errand," Éowyn said to Aragorn, as he arrived there last of all, unless it were his companion, who excused himself quickly after polite thanks to his hostess. "I would lodge you all within the walls in better comfort, if I could, but I thought you should go forth with at least the memory of our halls and not only of our fields."
"'Twas kindly done, my lady," Aragorn replied. It was also, though neither remarked upon it, evidently not what was in her eyes, and Pippin and Merry, who stood nearby, turned worried looks upon each other.
"You're certain she told you Elrond and Galadriel advised this journey?" Pippin asked in an undertone, watching as the two took a seat at the high table, nearest the side where the Rangers were clustered, a patch of darkness amid the remaining Rohirrim, who sat or stood listening to the songs still, singing along at times.
"Quite certain," Merry replied.
"Then why does she look like that?"
"Just because Elrond and Galadriel advised it does not mean it is safe, Pippin," Merry retorted, and Pippin sighed, though he hardly needed the reminder.
"You're not reassuring, cousin!"
"Neither is any of this," Merry shot back, ignoring, it seemed, the request implicit in that complaint. But then he laid his hands on Pippin's shoulders and gave him a bracing little shake, as he said, "But never mind for a moment. Come, let's join them before they get suspicious—it's not as if we haven't been watching the road all day since we heard the news. Just remember—we're promised a ride into Gondor. We'll find him there, Pippin. We'll find both of them there."
If Strider makes it to Gondor at all, Pippin thought, but did not say it. The news that Merry had brought that afternoon of Éowyn's promise ought to have greatly relieved him, and it had—at least until his cousin had told him the rest, about the Paths of the Dead, and the splitting of Théoden's host as Aragorn set forth to ride that ill-named route.
"But how does this help us?" Pippin had exclaimed, when Merry had finished at last. "There's nothing to say we'll meet again in Gondor, after all!"
"I know, Pippin, I know," Merry had replied, and passed him the salt. "But it's the best we can do, and you know it. There's no way Strider will take us with him; at least this way, we can be waiting and watching Legolas. And we'll know when Strider arrives, if he does."
Which did not help Pippin in pursuit of their original plan to keep an eye on their taller companions, but he supposed he should be charitable. Merry, after all, had already lost his chance in a way, thanks to Legolas going off as he had, and a promise from Éowyn to find a place for them among the Riders would at least put him in place to hunt Legolas down once the fighting had stopped. Which it would, of course, for Pippin refused to think of the other possibility.
But still, the fact remained that this arrangement did not put him anywhere near Strider. Looks like I'll need those words anyway, he thought, as he and Merry sat near their friends, listening as first Éowyn spoke of Dunharrow and their efforts to order matters and men there, and then, as servants began collecting dishes, Aragorn, at her prodding and the encouragement of the hobbits, recounted something of the battle for Helm's Deep and the coming of the Grey Company.
"Are they all your kinsmen, Strider?" Pippin asked at one point, seeking to divert himself a little, and at least got some chuckles from the grim-cloaked warriors near enough to hear it.
"No, not all," Aragorn replied. "Or at least, not as we count such things, although a hobbit would no doubt find some degree of kinship between any two Men in the Angle. As we keep count, Halbarad is closest in blood, and him only do I call kinsman."
"What are you then?" he asked, turning to the Ranger indicated, who replied, without hesitation:
"Third cousins through a distaff line, Master Took."
"Oh. Why you're nearly as close as Merry and I then, and not nearly so far as Frodo is from us," Pippin replied, and then paused a moment, struck by the other's turn of phrase. "Unless you count distaff lines differently, that is."
At which, Halbarad held up his hands, as if to hold the matter safely at arm's length, and smiling slightly, said, "I have patrolled the borders of the Shire and the Bree-land many long years—long enough to know that if we begin such talk, I shan't see the end ere dawn! Alas, we have a long road before us tomorrow." This last, it seemed, was aimed past Pippin at Aragorn, who spoke a word in Sindarin, and tilted his cup slightly towards the other, as if in acknowledgment. Then turning to Éowyn, he said:
"It is true that we must ride early, so I shall bid you a good night, and many thanks, my lady."
Éowyn nodded, rising as the company began to file out, though both Halbarad and Aragorn waited until all had left before they bowed to Éowyn and took their leave of her and also of the hobbits. "Perhaps another time, Master Took, we may speak further," Halbarad added, as he gave Pippin a nod. And also his best chance, Pippin realized. Thus:
"Or you could tell me quickly as you go," Pippin said quickly, sliding off of his chair. "I promise I won't ask any questions that would need more time to answer than the walk to your tent."
"If that is not a promise made to be broken, I know not what is!" Aragorn replied, but only a moment later, he beckoned: "Come, then, and walk with us."
"Thank you, I shall. Go ahead, I'll be a moment," Pippin replied, aware that over his head, the two Men were exchanging amused looks, but also that Merry was giving him a hard eye. "Merry," he muttered, as the two Men quit the hall, "whatever is it? I'm just going to walk a ways with them."
"You've got that gleam in your eyes, Pippin," Merry retorted. And at Pippin's effort to seem unwitting, elaborated, "The one that says you're up to something."
"I just want to ask a few questions. I've no wish to rob them of a night's rest, Merry, truly!"
Merry shook his head and sighed. But then he lifted his chin sharply, pointing after the pair, and said, "Better you hurry then if you want to catch up, or you'll be foresworn as Strider thought. And be quiet coming in, for I'm also wanting a night's rest!"
"I'll be to bed sooner than you can fall asleep, cousin. Good night, my lady!" So saying, Pippin dashed after Aragorn and Halbarad who, it seemed, were doing him a favor and walking slowly. At his arrival, Halbarad obligingly moved aside a pace, allowing Pippin to slip between the two.
"I am warned I shall end my days answering you, if I but respond once," Halbarad said by way of greeting. Pippin gave Aragorn an injured look at that, but was prevented from responding as Halbarad continued: "So be it. It is a better end than many, after all. So you wish to know how we count distaff lines?"
And so as they walked, Halbarad explained—succinct answers that usually led Pippin to another question, and thence to another succinct answer, with an occasional further comment from Aragorn, so that it was a rather more satisfying inquiry than time might otherwise have permitted. But at length, they arrived at the Rangers' encampment, and at a tent set a little further from the others. There they paused, and Aragorn asked:
"Neither foresworn nor unsatisfied, I hope?"
"No, thank you," Pippin replied, but then hesitated. And here again, Aragorn glanced sidelong at Halbarad, ere he lifted the tent flap, and said, simply:
"Come in, Pippin."
"I don't mean to keep you—" Pippin began, but his friend shook his head knowingly.
"Plainly, it was no simple question of relations that brought you hither. And you would not keep us, but that you persist in standing out in the cold." Which response admitted of no other reply than to dart within the tent. The flap fluttered closed a moment later, and then Halbarad was lighting a pair of lamps that hung from two tentpoles. When he had done, he took one lantern down from its hook.
"I want another look at the horses, ere I sleep," Halbarad said. "And I shall make a round among the men, I think. Good night, Master Took." So saying, he disappeared out into the night once more. Pippin bit his lip as he turned a guilty look on Aragorn.
"I didn't mean for him to have to leave," he said, apologetically. Aragorn shook his head, as he folded down to sit tailor-style before the hobbit, who, despite an invitation to do likewise, remained on his feet.
"Halbarad has been my lieutenant for nigh on forty-five years, Pippin—he makes it his business to know when to retreat. More than that, he is my friend, and does as a friend would. Nevertheless," Aragorn said after a momentary pause, "let us not keep him any longer than necessary. What is it you wished to speak of?"
And Pippin, who had spent much of his afternoon imagining what he might say in this very situation, found himself suddenly at a loss. Not that he had managed to store up a great many words for the occasion, or even terribly eloquent ones, but he had thought he might at least be able to respond promptly. But now that I am here, it is as if Strider has only to speak and I lose my tongue! he thought, frustrated.
Calmly, Pippin, he reminded himself, and drew a deep breath. It's a simple enough matter, after all, nothing like explaining Rings and the like. "Well, it's like this," he finally said, which was an awkward start, and he hurried past it. "I've been thinking, you see, about the war, and about, well, about what Legolas said, before you left. About hobbit-shaped instruments. And it's not that I want to be a warrior, or that I'm very good at fighting, or even that I'm very brave like some, but I did say I would go with Frodo. And I meant it. All the way to Mordor, if it came to that."
He paused a moment, gazing at Aragorn with rather flushed cheeks, to judge by the heat of his face. But Aragorn said nothing, only signed for him to continue, and so he did. "But it didn't come to that. And I... it... I don't want to keep watching you and Legolas and even Éomer and Théoden and everyone else ride off to war, and stand behind waiting for you to come back. It's awful!" He shook his head violently. "I don't want to do that again, Strider. I may not be very much good in a battle, but what good am I sitting in a tower somewhere?"
A protracted silence fell, and Pippin, unable to endure the look Strider was giving him, lowered his eyes, biting his lip. But at last, he heard the other sigh softly, and then Aragorn spoke in a low voice: "I had thought we might speak on this matter again, and for all that it grieves me, I am glad in one way not to have been disappointed. For you are braver than you believe, Pippin—and Merry as well, for I do not imagine he thinks differently than you on this matter, unless very much is amiss in the world."
"Isn't there, though?" Pippin dared to ask, and surprised himself and Aragorn as well, he thought, with the acuity of that retort.
"Which is why I would have you remain here," the other said, recovering himself quickly. "It is not a question of your courage, but this battle that awaits in Gondor is not a battle for you to fight."
"What about all the others, then?" Pippin demanded. "All the other lads who go to war in this muster with no more than I've got, save their size? Is it one for them?"
"Size is no small thing," Aragorn said, pointedly. "As little a chance as they have, it is more than you would have."
"Is it more than Frodo has?" Which was cruel, and he had no sooner said it than he regretted it. Gandalf was right, I am a fool! he thought miserably, for he realized to his horror that there was nothing to prevent Strider from saying "Yes"—that, indeed, all his argument needed that "yes"—but he most certainly did not wish to hear that. Alas, there was no unsaying such a question, and so he bit his tongue—hard—and awaited an answer.
Aragorn was silent quite a long moment before he replied at last and tautly, "Frodo's case is not one that I should judge—not in itself, nor beside yours. And as for yours, Pippin, you say yourself you have no desire in you to be a warrior. Do not then take up that mantle until it is thrust upon you, for there is other work to be done—"
"At home, yes, but I am not home, I am here!" Pippin protested, frustration bursting forth at last. "I can barely understand anyone here! Even Merry needs a translator. They don't have much in the way of records because almost no one writes anything, and although at least I've plowed a field before, there's not a plow in all Dunharrow to fit me. Not that it's even the season for that sort of thing anyway, with the ground so hard still.
But it was as if a flood had been unstoppered within him, and relentless as summer rain in a dry channel, the words came spilling forth with astonishing vehemence, heedless of all resistance: "There's nothing for me to do in Rohan, and I can't go home: even if I knew the way, Strider, what chance would I have? You said as much yourself when we first met you in Bree: between a month of lying in ditches by ourselves and being a Ranger, we'd die first. Ponies have better chances than a hobbit alone in the Wild!
"And it isn't fair," he continued, as the tremble in his voice spread to his knees; "I didn't ask you or anyone to stand in front of me. I don't want you or anyone to die for me, can't you see that? It's not right. Maybe I'm ungrateful. Maybe it's foolish to even think so, for I do believe that some folk need protecting, but I don't know—I don't think I'm one of them, even if it's not likely I'll come through it."
If he had thought the silence before was heavy, he was mistaken. Pippin thought his knees would give out under the sheer weight of it, but he feared that if he sat down, all his speech would be undone. And even as he struggled against that shaky silence, he marveled at himself. Where did I find all of that? Where did it even come from? He did not know, and it seemed a strange thing to him, that words he had but recently spoken could seem now so utterly foreign.
A veritable eternity seemed to pass ere Aragorn asked quietly, "What will you do if I refuse you?"
"Merry says Éowyn will help us ride with the Muster, so I'll go to Gondor whatever you will," Pippin replied. "I'll tie myself in a Rider's saddlepack if I must!"
"Then why should I take you in my company?"
"I don't know," Pippin admitted after a moment, and then shrugged helplessly. "Because I would rather ride with you? Or because if you took me with you, you could at least have an eye on me, if that would ease your heart."
At this, Aragorn sighed, bowing his head. But it was not long ere he looked up once more, and there was a rather peculiar gleam in his eyes as he said, "I should have spoken softer in Bree, mithril or no, I see. Go then and fetch your gear and return here for the night, for I warn you, Master Took—" this with a wagging of a finger, as that gleam grew the brighter, humor mixed with an unexpected tenderness that took Pippin aback "—this time it shall be a drink and a bite standing on the morrow, and no more, for we leave ere dawn."
A moment longer, hobbit and Man stared at each other, before Pippin felt a smile spread over his face, and he bowed then—a short, awkward gesture, for it felt strange to do it before Strider. And yet, he thought, as he made his way swiftly out, it was the easiest "Thank you" he had ever uttered.
Aragorn, for his part, closed his eyes once Pippin left, counting heartbeats. He had barely reached ten when the tent flap opened and as he glanced up, Halbarad appeared, having obviously been watching for Pippin's departure. His cousin returned his lamp to the tentpole and then came and dropped bonelessly to the ground to sit before him.
"And now we are thirty-three," Aragorn told him, without preamble.
"Is that wise?" Halbarad asked, and received a shrug.
"Likely it is quite unwise, but it is also necessary," he replied, heavily. And then he snorted, feeling the barest of smiles tug at his lips. "Gandalf was fond of saying that hobbits are extraordinary creatures. I am perhaps overlate to grasp the truth of his words."
Halbarad only grunted at this, there being little he could say on that matter. And so he said instead, "The horses are seen to, and all are abed. As we should be, if we wish to rise ere dawn tomorrow."
"Pippin will be joining us," Aragorn warned, and got a nod.
"Well, there are plenty of blankets, thanks to the lady's hospitality," Halbarad replied, even as he reached and caught hold of both their bedrolls. Tossing one to Aragorn, he then set about unrolling his own. Aragorn followed suit more slowly, thinking, until at length, he heard Halbarad ask in a low, rather worried voice, "Aragorn? Are you certain of this decision?"
Aragorn blinked, then gave Halbarad a quick glance, meant to reassure, ere he said, "I am," and began smoothing his blankets. This time, it was a hand on his shoulder that interrupted him.
"Then what is it that troubles you still?" Halbarad asked, cocking his head slightly.
At that, Aragorn sat back on his heels, and he turned to look towards the tent's entry, as in his mind's eye, he envisioned Pippin gathering up his doubtless scattered belongings as he explained to Merry whither and with whom he would travel. And what shall Merry say? Or shall we number thirty-four in the end? he wondered, and wondered whether he it was foolish to imagine it might be otherwise. But at length, feeling Halbarad growing uneasy beside him, he said slowly:
"He must come with us—it would be the greater blow to refuse him, and he has the right of the matter. I suffer nothing on that account." And then he grimaced, as he turned at last to Halbarad to finish, "Nevertheless, however right the choice, I fear that we may both rue it greatly ere the end."
"Perhaps he discerns, as from far off, the air of wizards"—cf. "The Window on the West", TTT, 369.
[W]e'll drag the news out of Strider if we have to tackle him by the campfire!—"The Palantír," TTT
"Between weeks of lying in ditches and being a Ranger, we'd die."—cf. "Strider", FOTR, 168
"[T]his time it shall be a drink and a bite standing"—cf. "A Knife in the Dark", FOTR, 174
"I should have spoken softer in Bree, mithril or no, I see."—cf. "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm", FOTR, 319
"Hobbits are extraordinary creatures"—cf. "The Shadow of the Past", FOTR, 61.
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