5. Chapter Five
Despite their weariness, the company did not sleep after their meal. They sat huddled around the small fire, and Legolas told them tales of Lothlorien that the elves of Mirkwood still kept in their hearts, of sunlight and starlight upon the meadows by the Great River before the world was gray.
After a time, while Legolas was still speaking, Aragorn rose and went to the edge of the clearing. The others, used to the Ranger’s restlessness and watchfulness, barely took notice, but both Sam and Merry watched him as he moved out of the circle of firelight.
Aragorn paced to and fro a bit, listening intently for any unusual sounds in the woods, especially towards the West. He heard nothing of pursuit, but the woods seemed to be poised, listening just as he was. He sighed heavily, shrugging his cloak more tightly around himself, as the night was cool.
Startled, the Ranger turned, and found Merry standing nigh, his blanket wrapped around his small shoulders, his face already robbed of innocence by the harshness of the quest.
“Merry. What is it?”
The hobbit came a pace or two forward, looking up at Aragorn with a question in his eyes, but not the one he spoke first. “Do you think it’s safe to have a smoke? I mean, I sure could use one, but perhaps the scent of it would put us into danger. All of us, the hobbits I mean, feel more at ease after a pipe full, but we we’ve learned well enough not to take unnecessary risks.”
With this the hobbit dropped his gaze, and seemed to be studying the tangled fur on his feet. Strider felt the urge to smile, but he didn’t, sensing that Merry had more on his mind than smoking.
“Best not to smoke tonight, Merry,” he said in answer, “If we find favor with the elves of this realm, we will have smoking and feasting and rest in plenty, but I still fear that the orcs will come tonight, and soon we must seek a better shelter than this clearing, and put out even our small campfire.”
“Aye,” said Merry, his face still hidden from the Ranger, “Sam thought as much, too, but I thought I would ask.”
Although his question had been answered, Merry did not go back to the fire, and Aragorn was keenly aware that the hobbit was gathering his courage for another question, the one that had been pressing behind his eyes when he first approached him. He wondered what it could be, and worried as well, for he did not trust himself to answer wisely or with compassion.
Grief lay heavy upon Aragorn. Grief, and sorrow, and doubt. He was the leader now, for good or for ill, and he felt unprepared for such a burden.
----“Lead them on Aragorn!”
Even if Gandalf had not said them, the words that burned now against his mind, Aragorn would still have felt the heavy mantle of leadership fall upon his shoulders – too soon, too soon. He was not ready. And Boromir? Though he said nothing, was he feeling the chafing of Aragorn’s position at the head of the company?
And over all of it, the grief. Heartrending, despairing sorrow that almost robbed him of hope. Mithrandir was not just a friend – he was a light in a growing darkness, and his importance could not be guessed by most of the company…
He pulled his thoughts together abruptly. Merry was still standing there, head downward, not speaking. How long had he been there? Aragorn sighed, and sank down to the ground, his back against a tree, stretching his legs out in front of him before turning and looking at the hobbit.
“Merry. You’ve more on your mind than pipeweed.”
Merry looked up, and doubt shone clear in his eyes like tears, despite the darkness of the wood.
“Strider?” he began, speaking slowly and gathering his courage with each word, “That great monster, at the gates, the one that grabbed hold of Frodo and nearly ate him?”
“The Watcher,” said Strider, watching Merry’s face, “so Gandalf called it, our second night in Moria when we were resting and speaking of it.”
“Aye. The Watcher.” Merry paused, pushing his hands deep into the pockets of his trousers and furrowing his brow. “Strider, do you think… Well, if the Watcher hadn’t come – after we found the mines were full of dead dwarves – would we have turned back? What I mean to ask is – if the Watcher had not chased us back through the gate, and torn down the walls, and blocked us in, we would have made for Rohan. Wouldn’t we?”
Aragorn looked at Merry with puzzlement staining his features. “Likely, yes, if we could have avoided the wolves, but the Watcher did come, Meriadoc, and we had no other choice.”
Merry sighed heavily. He sat down next to Aragorn, stretching his short legs out alongside the Ranger’s longer ones. For a moment they were both silent, and they could hear the melodic murmur of Legolas’ voice, telling yet another tale to lighten the heavy hearts of the company.
“I made him come.” Merry said at last, quietly. “I made the Watcher come.”
Aragorn started to reply, but Merry’s words tumbled out. “I should have had more sense, Strider. Tossing stones into the pool as if I was back in Bywater on a picnic. You stopped Pippin, but I had three good throws in before you told us what we should have had the sense to know.”
----“Do not disturb the water!”
“I know Pippin feels like it’s all his fault, tossing that stone in the well and such,” Merry continued, “but if I had had more sense, we would have never gone through the mines at all. And there wouldna been a well to toss stones into, and maybe…maybe Gandalf would still be with us” the hobbit trailed off at last, bringing his dirty hands up to rub at his eyes.
“Merry, “ Aragorn said, his head shaking involuntarily from side to side, “this is not your fault!” The Ranger was amazed. “Pippin’s stone into the well had more to do with it than yours at the gate, and…”
Merry jumped to his feet, turning towards Strider with an expression that rapidly transformed from sorrow to indignation. “Pip didn’t mean any harm! He’s had enough guilt and grief over this already, so don’t downtalk him!” his tone was fierce with love for his younger cousin, and fresh tears started in his hazel eyes.
“Merry.” Aragorn gripped the hobbit’s arms, speaking gently. “Please. Hear me. What I mean to say is that there were many things leading up to…to Gandalf’s fall. You cannot place the blame fully on yourself, and… Meriadoc, you cannot take the blame completely off any other.” He paused, searching Merry’s face for a moment before continuing.
“Throwing the stone in the pool at the gate was unwise. I will not say that it was not so. But you seek to lift the guilt from one you love by placing it upon yourself. Do you truly think you can succeed?” He shook the hobbit gently, and Merry was surprised to see, through his own, tears in the eyes of the Ranger.
“Fate has brought us to this place, for good or for evil,” the man continued, “and we must strengthen ourselves to move on to where fate would take us now.”
He sighed, and his hands slipped from Merry to the cool earth, followed by his gaze. “I wish I knew where to tell you to find strength.”
Merry looked at him. He had not known Strider long, but already he felt a bond to the man, much as he did towards Boromir, and both bonds surprised him. He had never had anything to do with “big people” before, and certainly never figured on being friends with any.
The hobbit gathered his blanket and turned to go back to the fire, sensing the Ranger’s need for solitude. But before he had gone more than a few paces, he paused, and spoke again.
“It’s not your fault either.”
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.