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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 34. Setting the Board
At least, Merry thought, he was eating like a hobbit. Merry had filched a few extra rolls from the kitchen—the fruits of yestereve's final baking—and brought them to his cousin. Pippin had devoured them gratefully, and then the waybread, and was now only nursing the tea, and only because, Merry thought, warmth was hard to come by this morning. Merry certainly felt chilled.
He had felt so since Pippin had come bursting in last night, beaming, to exclaim, "Merry, I did it! Help me pack!" Which had needed some explanation, and Merry had had to draw it out one frustrating step at a time as Pippin had dashed about their room, quickly retrieving scattered belongings and clothes, folding them up and stuffing them into his pack. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he had listened, and by the time he had heard the whole of it, he thought his heart had fallen straight into his toes. Pippin had noticed his expression, and as he had shouldered his pack, had come, puzzled, to stand before Merry, who had sat huddled in the sheets.
"Merry," he had said, reaching out to squeeze his hands, "what is it? If Strider will have me, why, he'll have you, too, you know—just come with me. He'll relent—he'll have to or he'll have to go back on his word and leave me here, too. And you know he's not the sort for that!"
"I can't," Merry had replied miserably.
"What do you mean, you can't?" Pippin had asked. "Just tell Éowyn we got Strider to agree to take us. She'll be glad, I'm sure—it is one less thing for her to worry over."
"I can't ride with you, Pippin, because I'm already spoken for," Merry had said, and sighed. "I promised Éowyn I would ride in Éomer's company, to keep a watch on him. She's that worried about him, you see."
His cousin's face had fallen at that. For all their scheming, they had not truly thought to be separated on this venture. Not even Saruman's orcs had come between them after all. But oaths and other friendships could, it seemed, and so Merry stood now with Pippin in the thin fog, waiting for a sign, and he fretted, shifting from foot to foot. Beside him, Pippin clutched at his mug, blowing on cold fingers, and he gave Merry a look out of the corners of his eyes.
"Are you angry with me?" Pippin asked at last. Merry blinked, and then again, staring down at his toes.
"A little, I suppose," he finally said. "I knew you were up to something last night. I even guessed what it was, though I didn't say anything. I thought I wouldn't need to say anything."
"Because you thought Strider would reason me out of it?"
Merry nodded, then gave his cousin a rueful smile. "I suppose if I'm angry with anyone, it's him," he said, and kicked at the wet grass. "Here I was counting on him to be horribly sensible about taking you anywhere near Gondor, but ten minutes alone with you and sense goes right out of his head, it seems!" At that, Pippin grinned, and Merry, too, felt his smile broaden at the sight. He could not help it, even as he had to swallow the lump in his throat to ask: "You'll take care, Pippin?"
"As much as I can," Pippin replied stoutly.
"And a little more than that, I hope," said a new voice, and both hobbits looked up as a tall, grey form appeared suddenly, leading a horse. Merry needed a moment to put a name to the face revealed when the man pushed his hood back, but by then, Pippin was already asking:
"Are we to ride now, Halbarad?"
"As soon as we know all are ready," the Ranger replied, then gave Pippin a rather stern look. "Let's have a look at that blade, lad."
"My sword?" Pippin frowned over the unexpected request. But Halbarad merely raised a brow and held out his hand. And so Pippin drew the sword and offered it up for the other's inspection. Halbarad took it, hefted it once, ran a finger along an edge.
"When was the last time you sharpened this?" he asked.
"Er, sharpened?" Pippin glanced at Merry, who shifted uncomfortably. It was, after all, his blade.
"You can't go without a sword, Pippin," he had told him last night, and pressed the Barrow-blade into his cousin's hands.
"But what about you? You'll be riding to Gondor, too—" Pippin had protested, but Merry had shaken his head.
"I'll ask Éowyn about getting a new one. I've got time enough, and surely someone here has an extra dagger. But you've got to leave on the morrow. Take it."
And so Pippin had, and Merry had felt the better for it. But being no warrior himself, and having no use for swords in the midst of all the confusion and worry of the past few days, he had not thought to check the edge. He supposed he had thought it well enough—after all, hadn't Strider said he had used Pippin's blade on an orc back in Edoras? Then again, he supposed that at need, one used whatever was at hand, and from what he had heard and seen of the battle of Edoras, dire need had been the one thing the besieged had not lacked.
"I don't know," Merry said at last. "I think I must have done it last before Parth Galen."
Halbarad grunted. "Aragorn thought it might be so when he saw Pippin with it this morning. Here." He returned the weapon—not to Pippin, but to Merry, who received it with some chagrin. "'Tis a good blade, and with some care, will serve you more than well. But we have no time for such labor who ride this morn. So for you, lad..." Halbarad trailed off and twitched his cloak aside slightly to reveal a dagger, the hilt of which was just visible past his elbow. With the ease of long practice, he undid the strap that kept it in place at his back, all without looking, and handed it then to Pippin. Pippin hesitated a moment before accepting it, then very gingerly slid it out of its sheath. Merry, who came to look over his shoulder, grunted.
Though there was little tracery on the hilt, and none upon the blade, still, even Merry could see that the make was not unlike that of his Barrow-blade, though he thought it seemed newer, perhaps a little lighter. Or no, not lighter, but something is missing, Merry thought, but wondered what, and wondered too what made him think so.
"We have not the art we once had," Halbarad said then, seeming to guess Merry's thoughts, and the hobbits looked up at him. "But it has saved me before."
"But will you not then miss it?" Pippin asked, concern furrowing his brow. "I should just ask a Rider—"
"Nay, for the hour is struck," Halbarad replied, and pointed. Merry and Pippin turned to see Rangers and their horses moving now, hurrying to form ranks. "And I shall not miss it, for you ride with me. Come!"
Merry felt his back stiffen and his stomach knot at that, and he drew a deep breath, even as Pippin sheathed the dagger, stuck it under one arm, and hurriedly swallowed the rest of his tea. Then he pressed the mug into Merry's hands. For a moment, they stood thus, and Merry felt his cousin's fingers warm upon his chill ones. This is farewell, I guess, he thought, and saw the fear in Pippin's eyes, too. Which wouldn't do at all, and so Merry cleared his throat, essayed a smile, and took the cup. He embraced his cousin quickly, and murmured into his ear, "Take care of yourself. And take care of Strider."
"I'll see you in Gondor," Pippin whispered back.
"In Gondor." Merry repeated, then drew back. But as Halbarad lifted Pippin into the saddle and made ready to mount behind him, Merry quickly caught at the Man's cloak.
"Master Brandybuck?" the Man replied, a trace of impatience in his voice now.
"You take care, too," Merry said in a low, urgent voice, and stared up at the Ranger, willing him to understand. And after a moment, Halbarad's face seemed to soften slightly, and he nodded.
"As best I can, I will." Just that, and no more, ere he swung up into the saddle. With a word to his mount, they were off, trotting swiftly to the head of the column, where Aragorn now sat his horse. Halbarad drew up beside him, and it seemed the two conferred a moment. Then came a horn call, and of a sudden, the company was moving. Merry dashed after them, past a row of deserted tents, past the Rohirric guards who watched and shivered and made signs of warding in their wake.
"Farewell, Pippin!" he cried, and waved, knowing Pippin could neither see nor hear him now. Not that it mattered. When at last he came to a halt, and stood panting, hands on his knees while he craned his neck to gaze after the Rangers now far down the fields, he wiped at his eyes and did not bother to pretend it was just the cold that made them tear. And when he had finally blinked them dry, he found that the mist had closed in over the great sward, and the Grey Company was no more to be seen.
'Twas there that Éowyn found him, staring into the fog. She must have been speaking with Aragorn ere the departure of the Dúnedain, and she, too, had a cup in hand—or rather, a goblet, and empty as Pippin's was. Laying a hand on his shoulder, she said softly, "Come, Merry, we've work to do."
And so he followed her to a tent, where he was greeted once more by Captain Éothain, his hair loose, standing unarmored in his shirtsleeves and breeches at so early an hour, seeming to Merry's eye rather dour. At his side slouched a rather sleepy, worried-seeming Greta, whose expression lightened considerably when he saw Merry. In spite of himself, the hobbit could not help but wonder what the young man had said or done that he imagined this early summons to his captain's tent to be a matter of discipline. Of course, for that matter, Merry was unsure what he was doing in the captain's tent at this hour, either—"work" was vague as the morning's fog after all.
"My lady," Éothain said respectfully, then glanced down at Merry. "Master Holbytla, it seems you are well-claimed."
"Sir?" Merry asked.
"I have told Éothain that you are to ride in his company, since he is my brother's captain and closest to him," Éowyn explained.
"Then you have my thanks, sir," Merry said, and bowed, which courtesy seemed to make little impression upon the captain.
"Were I in your stead, lad, I would not be so free yet with my thanks," he replied, darkly. Éowyn laid a hand on Merry's shoulder at that, and Éothain's eyes flicked to it, then up to his lady's face, ere he sighed and gestured to Greta. "Nevertheless, 'tis not me whose opinion you need fear, but Éomer's. So, since you seem well-suited to each other, I am giving you into Greta's care once more. And when I say 'care', I mean it: you will ride with him, eat with him, sleep with him—in short, you are his shadow henceforth, or better, his baggage. 'Twill be his task to keep you out of the Marshal's sight, Master Holbytla, and I expect you will not seek to make this difficult, for him or for me. Understood?"
In the face of the captain's narrow-eyed scrutiny, there was but one response to make: "Yes, sir!" Merry replied quickly, and bowed again.
"Good. Then go see to your gear. Greta can help you with it," the captain ordered, and after a glance at Éowyn, who nodded encouragingly, and added, "I have had some things delivered to your room, Merry, that you will need", Merry scampered from the tent, Greta on his heels.
"Now that," the Rider declared once they were out of earshot, "was worth getting up for!"
"Were you wakened?" Merry asked, contritely, craning his neck up at the young man. "I am sorry! I don't mean to be trouble for you."
"Nay, 'tis no trouble—fortunately," Greta replied, and made a sign for good luck. "But the captain is not one to bow to many—not even to the Third Marshal, or at least, not without arguing. I've not seen him so put in his place for quite some time! But come," he said, dismissing such matters with a wave of his hand, "we should see to readying you for the ride. Have you any needs in particular you know of?"
It was thus that Merry made his acquaintance with the smithy of Dunharrow, where, following Halbarad's instructions, he had his sword sharpened properly. Greta then went with him to the small chamber he and Pippin had shared to discover that Éowyn had sent up a small, round shield with a white horse upon it, a stiff leather jerkin that likely was meant to be a short jacket for a Man but which came down to Merry's shins, and an array of tough leather helms. "Where did she find these?" Merry wondered, as he tried one on.
"Likely from the stables," Greta replied. "They are for children, when first they learn to ride. The shield though—" and he hefted it, testing its make it seemed "—that I do not know."
Once Merry had decided which of the leather riding caps fit him best, the two of them departed to see to Greta's gear. They spent an hour oiling tack, sharpening Greta's weapons—and Merry, for some reason, found himself taken aback by the deadly array that this rather cheerful young man carried—and the Rider had showed him the sand barrels and how to clean chain mail. By the time they had got their rations filled by the sharp-eyed ladies of the keep, noon was nigh upon them.
And then there was nothing for it but to wait. For the first time since he had arrived among the Rohirrim, the hours seemed to drag by, as colorless and slow as the morning's fog, and they weighed on his spirit. Greta introduced him to his friends, though he was wise enough not to say that Merry would be riding with them. For his part, Merry found it was not difficult to pretend his gloom was due to disappointment that he would remain behind in Dunharrow. For missing a friend gone to war was easily misunderstood as missing a friend who had gone to war when he himself could not, and he found the Riders sympathetic to his imagined plight. A little too sympathetic, even, for they seemed alarmingly eager to try themselves in battle, and Merry had sometimes to bite his tongue.
But for the most part, he found himself between worry and boredom, too disheartened by Pippin's absence to pay much heed to the idle chatter of soldiers, and yet too weary with the waiting—all alone, as he felt it, despite the company of Greta and his friends—for even discouragement to prick sharp. He thought of all the long days walking with the Fellowship, and wondered why he had never noticed before just how long the miles were, and how empty the world seemed.
Not until late afternoon did aught break through the listlessness of his mood. The guards began crying out, and even Merry knew the words: Théoden cyning! A cheer went up among the waiting Riders, who abandoned their chores or their conversations and gathered to watch as the long lines of weary men and horses passed through the camp under the king's banner. Merry, however, could see nothing, short as he was, and after a few frustrated attempts to work his way to the front of the crowd, he surrendered and tugged Greta's hand. Greta glanced down at him, then considered the broad, armored backs of his countrymen, and shook his head.
"Nothing for it!" he shouted to Merry, and so saying, caught Merry up and swung him up onto his shoulders, like a father with a young son. Merry clutched wildly at the other's braids for balance, but Greta's hands on his knees were firm, and after a moment spent catching his breath, the hobbit gazed out over a sea of flaxen hair and bright helms, to the stream of Riders passing before him. Their tabards were stained, their faces dirty, and some bore the cracked remains of shields, but they held their heads high for all of that, clattering into Dunharrow under two banners: the royal emblem, white horse on green, and the other a white horn upon a red field.
Helm's Deep, and the long-delayed Westfold levies, had arrived at last.
But if Merry or anyone had expected that with the arrival of the final companies of Riders, they would leave immediately for Gondor, he was mistaken. For the companies of Helm's Deep and Westfold and the King's éored had fought too many battles and ridden hard with scarcely a rest. Blown mounts and men too dull-eyed with exhaustion to hold a line would do no one good, and so word went round the camp: tomorrow would be a rest day, and the day after, they would set out for Gondor.
For his part, Éomer was ambivalent about the delay. On the one hand, he chafed to be away after the grim council in Helm's Deep; on the other, seeing how stiff and exhausted his uncle was (and the effort it took to hide it), he could not but agree that a day off the road was needed. Still, he was uneasy and for all that he, too, was weary, he slept but fitfully that night, waking often with a start and a gasp, convinced he was falling or else drowning, 'til at last he threw aside the blankets and sat up in bed. The floor was cold beneath his feet, despite the warmth of the fire in the hearth, and Éomer leaned his elbows on his knees and hung his head, gazing tiredly at his hands through hair still damp and now rather stiff from a hasty wash ere he had gone to his (thus far not terribly restful) rest.
After a time spent counting horses in hopes of numbing mind and senses into a stupor, he sighed and gave up. Rising, he pulled on his shirt and a woolen tunic over that, jammed his feet into his boots, and left his room, pulling his hair into a messy braid as he went. It was not, he discovered, nearly so late as he had thought—the third watch of the night had not yet begun, and as he passed by the stairs that led down to the great hall, he could hear men's voices singing still.
But he did not pause to listen; instead, he made for the outer court, seeking his sister. For although they had spoken earlier that day, when the company had first arrived at Dunharrow, it had been a brief conversation before Éowyn had chased both him and Théoden away.
"You must see to the men and then rest; I will see to Dunharrow," she had said, and would hear no objections.
Which had left him uncertain how matters stood with her after the tumultuous events of the past eight days. It had been awkward, even cold, between them since the argument after the battle of Edoras. Wormtongue's poison was not so easily purged from them, it seemed, as from the kingdom itself, and his death had not improved matters. Yet Éomer had thought that afternoon that something had changed with her, though he could not find words for it. Supper had unfortunately placed him too far from her to try that perception, even had there not been too many listening ears, and weariness had sent him seeking his bed early. But it seemed that he was doomed to restlessness, and perhaps in part because he had not yet spoken with her, and so he went in search of her now, hoping for a word.
But he did not find Éowyn along the walls, nor upon the towers; she was not in the stables nor behind the kitchens. Frustrated and puzzled (and in fact, a little fearful), he finally made his way back to the great hall, up the stairs, and took the short corridor down to stand before his sister's door. There were no guards before her chamber, and he hesitated a moment ere he knocked gently, then stood back, fighting the urge to fidget like a guilty boy.
And he waited. And waited. And knocked again and frowned as fear grew stronger. Where is she? he wondered, and was about to leave to interrogate the guards at the end of the hall when the door opened, and there stood Éowyn, a shawl about her shoulders, blinking the sleep from her eyes still. "Éomer?" she murmured, her voice soft and confused. "What are you—never mind. Come in, please," she invited, stepping aside for him.
"I did not mean to wake you," Éomer said by way of apology as he obeyed that summons, and his sister closed the door behind him. The chamber beyond was dark, save for a candle she had set on a table near the door, and he quickly took it and moved about the room, lighting lamps while Éowyn got the bar into its brackets. When he had done, he turned and scrutinized her in the new candlelight. There were shadows beneath her eyes, her hair was unbound and rumpled, and beneath the shawl she wore only her nightshift. Her mouth seemed thin and tight as she gazed back at him, and it was with some concern that he said, "You were never one to retire so early."
"We are all weary, Éomer," Éowyn replied, clutching her shawl closer as she settled carefully into an overstuffed armchair.
"Is there no one with you?" he asked, frowning at the emptiness of her chambers. "You have not even anyone watching your door."
"I dismissed the maid for the evening, but there are guards at the end of the hall."
His frown deepened. "Is that wise?"
"Éomer," his sister sighed, and he protested quickly:
"I ask only after your safety, Éowyn."
"Then you need not fret over me, brother," she replied rather primly, impatience coloring her tone. "What have I left to fear for myself, after all?"
Blunt truth had ever been a weapon Éowyn could turn to her advantage, but in the later days of the court, with Gríma at the heart of the kingdom, it had grown rare and Éomer had found himself always two steps behind where his sister's well-being was concerned. Perhaps that was why it struck him so hard to hear it now, delivered so coldly and with a logic that could not but wound anew. Éomer flinched, and as he looked away, folded his arms over his chest, hugging himself against the shame he had carried since that morning in the dungeon.
In the silence, his sister sighed again, but then in a rustle of skirts, she stood suddenly before him, and rough hands cupped his face as she forced him to look at her. To his surprise, there was dismay in her eyes—not the simple contrition that usually mended their periodic quarrels, but a rather wrenching horror stared back at him, ere Éowyn laid her head on his shoulder as Éomer rather awkwardly gathered her into his arms, having no other choice as she leaned heavily against him. Her arms slipped about his neck, and her breath tickled as she murmured, "Forgive me. I should not speak so to you."
"Éowyn, I—" Words failed. Éomer swallowed hard, moved one hand up from her back to stroke her hair, tried again. "You were always the braver one of us," he husked. "A good thing, for I could never protect you as a brother should his sister." A pause, then fiercely: "I should have had you out of that hall years ago!"
"I would not have gone," Éowyn replied. "You know this."
Which, too, was truth, and left him feeling rather adrift and bewildered by what seemed the inevitability of it all and just—raw. He closed his eyes as he pressed his face against her hair, breathed in the scent of grass and her skin, and a faint whiff of lilac—their mother's favorite scent, and he wondered that he had never noticed her wearing it before. Then again, there is so much I have overlooked. So much we have overlooked," he amended, remembering his uncle's words to him.
Éowyn was shivering now. Her shawl lay where it had fallen when she had risen, pooled on the seat of the chair. So he walked her towards it, bent and retrieved it, then drew it about her shoulders. But despite that and her brother's arms about her, the shivers did not cease, but rather increased, and with a kind of wonderment, he felt hot tears dampen his shirt and the hollow of his throat.
"Éowyn?" he asked, amazed and rather at a loss at this quite unexpected turn. Yet at least he was free of his cage this time, and buoyed by that knowledge, he forced down panicky incomprehension and instead drew her down to sit nestled against him on the chair. "Dear one," he murmured, rocking her gently; "'Tis over. You are free of him now, free of all of it."
"But I am not," she protested, shaking her head vehemently, and drew away from him then to gaze up at him from red-rimmed eyes. "I thought I was, but it was no more true than Wormtongue's lies."
"He is dead, Éowyn—"
"Aye, and more fool me for thinking that to kill him would make an end of it," Éowyn interrupted bitterly, and bowed her head. "It but gave him reach beyond the grave—made me a murderer, a usurper of our uncle's judgment, and you and he liars for me!"
Éomer stared at her a moment, ere he reached to take one of her hands in both of his. The hand of a shieldmaiden did not sit soft in his, and he gently ran his fingertips over the sword-calluses, seeking some response. Finally: "What will you do?" he asked quietly.
"I spoke with Uncle earlier," she replied. "When the Muster rides, he will need a regent again. I have said I would stand for him in Dunharrow until he returned." She lifted her eyes once more. "A sword once sullied cannot regain its shine by spilling yet more blood. But perhaps keeping the law will at least wash it clean once more." She sighed, and laid her free hand atop his, squeezing firmly as she finished in a low voice, "And perhaps then I shall be free of him. 'T'would be good—I am weary of life in his shadow."
With that, she fell silent, but it was not the cold silence of previous days. Rather it was pensive, and in the flickering light, Éomer could see for the first time the hints of lines about her mouth, the slight squint to her eyes and the furrow to her brow, the marks that care had worn too early into her face and would but deepen with time. Of a sudden, he was seized by a vision of her—still in her white, but with her hair gone dull with grey and her face riddled with the seams of age and duty; the hand he held now was swollen and roughened with rheum and weather as she reached out to some unknown other. Her body was bent and her looks age-ravaged, and she was... radiant. There was no other word for her, even as the image faded and he found himself faced with but the beginnings of the long journey towards that day. A strange feeling took him, then, and moved, he slipped from her grasp to take her face in his hands as she had done to him not long before.
"Blessed be the bold that bend to serve, great in glory they that grow old in duty." So he spoke, and kissed her brow tenderly.
But Éowyn shook her head. "Make of me no Eldride, brother, for I would not have you be Eorl only to praise me above my worth!"
"I do not praise you overmuch, nor am I Eorl," he replied, as he drew her unresisting into his embrace once more.
"Good," she murmured as she resettled her head upon his shoulder. And she slipped a hand down to grasp his once more. And he, responding to the implicit request in that touch, sank back with her into the comfortable depths of the chair, and drew her shawl across both of them. Éowyn lay limp and warm in his arms, and as he held her, tucked beneath his chin, that odd feeling filled the hollow of his chest that grief and shame and rage had made. She had ever been fair to his eyes, and dearest to his heart, and now after the wreckage of so many lives, their own not least, seemed precious beyond telling...
"I love you," he whispered, and closed his eyes then. The silence of the room grew heavy, seeming to seep into his flesh, quieting his heart, stilling thought as oblivion crept in. Still: "I love you," he repeated.
And in the night at last, there came a reply: "Come home to me first, brother, and then you will speak true."
But Éomer made no answer—it seemed he slept already.
Nonetheless, the day after next, when the Riders stood ready to depart with the dawn, and Éowyn brought the stirrup-cup to uncle and brother, Éomer drained his portion and as he handed the cup back to her, said:
"Until our return. For I would not be a liar a second time." So saying, he kissed her cheek, then leapt into the saddle. "Take care of yourself, Éowyn!" And then, as the horns sang out, he was gone as the vanguard wheeled about for the road. Amid the crowd by the gates, Éowyn stood watching until at last the dust hanging in the air was all that was left to tell of the Muster of Rohan.
Then mustering her own spirits, she turned and in silence made her way through the ranks of the people who parted before her, their White Lady of the House of Eorl.
Make of me no Eldride, brother, for I would not have you be Eorl only to praise me above my worth!—Eldride is the completely uncanonical wife of Eorl. He obviously had one, so I just gave her a name and a fragment of a verse. The name itself means "wise counselor."
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