1. A Way Opens
Unexpectedly, a few moments earlier, a young Rider had offered him the opportunity to join them, and he had accepted. As Merry began to realize the implications of what he had agreed to - and he had been most grateful, since his pleas to remain with King Théoden had been gently but firmly refused - he felt somewhat dizzy. It was a sensation not dissimilar to when he and Pippin and his second cousin Frelibert had snuck off to the orchard with a bottle of a heady concoction that Frelibert had called dandelion wine. The trio had decided that it would be fun to climb the apple trees as they had in boyhood, then hang by their knees from a branch. At least now the ground did not spin as it had then.
He began walking toward the far side of the temporarily encamped Riders, staying out of sight as encouraged by the young man. Not that anybody would notice me right now anyway, he mused, suddenly thankful for being unobtrusive. Soon he saw Dernhelm, murmuring something to the large horse he had been sitting on when he had sought Merry out, then he turned, his expression serious.
“Come. This way,” he said in hushed tones, though Merry was convinced that with so much other activity, the Rider needn’t be so quiet. He followed Dernhelm and his horse a few paces to the side of the armory, where men were sharpening their blades and outfitting themselves with what shields and mail were remaining.
“I hope these will fit,” Dernhelm said, taking out a pair of worn leather boots from a pack on the horse.
Merry looked at them, then back at the Rider.
“I don’t need them,” he said, not wishing to insult the young man. “I have travelled this far on my own two feet. It’s unnatural for a hobbit to wear shoes.”
Stern grey eyes stared at Merry from under a copper visor, and for a moment he was reminded of Aragorn, and a shiver ran through him.
“You may not need them, but I cannot hide your sturdy bare feet under my cloak.” Dernhelm spoke slowly, as though Merry were a child and somewhat dense. “If you do intend to ride with me and not be discovered, you must cover them.”
Merry contemplated his words, and knew that although he didn’t like it, he resigned himself to the knowledge that Dernhelm was right. He nodded and took the proffered shoes. Sitting in the shadow of the grey horse, Merry reluctantly loosened the leather lacings on the boots and put them on. They were snug, but he suspected that any shoe would feel that way. For a passing moment he felt awash in panic, that his feet were being smothered, but he forced the sensation away as he stood up. What was it that Gandalf said in Moria? he thought, walking a few steps, trying to get used to the hard soles of the boots. “This is not a hobbit walking-party?” He shook his head and approached horse and Rider, who was now ensuring that his pack was securely attached to the saddle. No, indeed, it is not.
Aloud, he said, “Thank you.”
Dernhelm nodded brusquely in reply, then said, “We must get ready to leave.” He gazed down at the hobbit, then up to the horse and back again. “You should stand on my hands to mount her.”
By now Merry was rather comfortable riding a pony and had gotten used to being around the much-beloved horses of Rohan, but riding one of the tall creatures was another matter entirely. As he braced one foot awkwardly onto Dernhelm’s intertwined fingers, one hand on the Rider’s shoulder and the other on the saddle-front, he asked, “What is the horse’s name?”
Dernhelm grunted as Merry pushed his weight down on his hands, then clambered on to the saddle. Quickly the youth mounted the horse behind Merry, casting his cape around the hobbit.
“Windfola,” he replied.
As Dernhelm took the reins and guided the horse to the back of the growing orderly phalanx, Merry leaned forward to pat the steed’s neck.
“I’m sorry you have to carry two of us, Windfola,” he said, then shifted back again to retreat from sight.
Despite herself, Éowyn smiled.
Two nights later as Éowyn approached their bivouac, she was surprised to see that the hobbit was using his knife to cut two strips from his bedroll. She crouched near him, chewing on some dried meat.
“What are you doing?” she asked, perplexed.
Merry started. He had been so engrossed in his task that he had not heard the Rider approach. “I’m… I’m…” he stammered, then lowered the knife and his eyes. Speaking to the blanket, he said, “Well, to be honest, these shoes and the constant motion of riding on Windfola have chafed my shins a bit.”
Éowyn’s expression became grave. “May I see? I believe I have a salve in my pack; being sore is not uncommon if you are not used to such long rides.”
Merry looked up at the Rider. “I suppose. It’s nothing, really.” The last thing that Merry wanted was to be seen as weak, especially by someone as young as Dernhelm seemed.
He took the boots off and Éowyn gasped. The hair on Merry’s ankles had rubbed off, and his skin was raw and oozing. She swore softly. “Why did you not say something yesterday?”
A dozen possible answers raced through Merry’s mind, then straightening up, he said, “I am not a child, though I suppose I look like one to your kind.” A flash of memory of his treatment by the Uruk-hai assaulted him, and instinctively he traced the still-healing wound on his forehead. “I have suffered worse than this.” He continued to hold Dernhelm’s serious gaze as he continued, “I was just going to bind them with some of this cloth.”
Éowyn shook her head in admiration. “In truth, you must have been a most honorable swordthain to the King. It is unforgivable that his mind was set against your accompanying him to the upcoming battle.”
Merry looked down at Dernhelm’s hand as he placed it on his shoulder, and noticed that he, like Pippin, chewed at his nails.
“You should be at his side, clad resplendent in our livery, not skulking under my cape and sleeping on the outskirts of the camp.”
The hobbit was surprised at the indignation in the Rider’s voice. “That’s alright, Dernhelm. I’m here, regardless, and I will serve him to the end, even if he doesn’t know it.” Merry was stunned to find himself in the odd position of reassuring this young man who had plucked him from his former fate.
The Rider squeezed his shoulder, then said, “There are many who serve King Théoden of whom he is unaware.”
Merry wondered at the cryptic statement, then Dernhelm stood.
“I will look for that ointment. Do not wrap your ankles until I come back.”
The Rider strode off into the murky dark to Windfola and his pack after giving the rest of his strip of meat to Merry, who accepted it readily. After he finished it and had a swig from his waterskin, Merry sat with his arms around his knees, his eyes closed, willing his thoughts through the night to Pippin, wherever he was. He hoped that Gandalf had taken good care of him.
Merry snuck back to his thin pallet on the edge of the camp, his mind still reeling with the news that he had just heard, albeit surreptitiously. Minas Tirith, the home of Boromir, whom he had last seen trying to save Pippin and himself, was ablaze. The same city where his dear cousin now resided, if he had not fallen off the back of Shadowfax, his mind injured by looking into that cursed palantír. They were to leave at first light, but the hobbit could not sleep. He lay, stock-still, eyes shut, oblivious to the inky blackness.
He was surprised when Dernhelm walked quietly near to him, and, assuming that he was asleep, removed his boots. Merry was stunned, but continued to pretend that he slumbered. Salve was rubbed gently into his ankles, and then knitted socks were put on his wide feet. Merry opened one eye halfway to see the soldier tuck a stray bit of hair behind his ear, then he shut his eye again.
A few hours later, as a grey pall hung over the company, Merry rose from his bedroll, then quickly went through his morning’s business, trusting that none of the Riders would take notice in the murky pre-dawn light. He returned silently from the nearby woods, drops of water still falling from his hair after he had thrust his face into the nearby stream. Before rousing Dernhelm, he took out a last bit of carrot, now rather bruised, and gave it to Windfola, who gave a soft snort of pleasure. Merry rubbed under her chin.
“Not one bad look, even carrying two burdens.” He spoke softly as the horse chewed. “I hope that once this is all over you are treated to all the carrots and all the soft, warm hay that you could hope for.”
Windfola raised her proud head and shook it, her mane now a matted mess from days of riding with brushes nowhere in sight.
“If I survive this,” the hobbit continued, stretching for a moment as he enjoyed the feeling of his cloth-clad feet on ground before he put on his boots, “I’ll bring you enough sugar to make you sick, I will!”
Suddenly he heard an unfamiliar sound, and he ducked behind one of the horse’s strong forelegs. The noise stopped as quickly as it had begun. After a brief look around, he made his way to his bedroll and hastily put his belongings together, then put a hand on Dernhelm’s shoulder, shaking him.
“You must get ready,” Merry said, and the Rider groaned something in Rohirric, but nodded his head.
Though exhausted and almost beyond caring, after hearing Merry’s pledge to her horse, Éowyn had laughed.
After praising the cook’s skills so much that she had blushed and shooed him away, Merry left the small dining area that was attached to the healing rooms on the sixth level of the White City. Despite himself, he found that his unshod feet took him to the nearby unkempt gardens, a place of solitude, a place to smoke his pipe.
But he did not want to be alone.
He had never been patient, and this waiting, this ever-pressing anxiety about Pippin, about Frodo and Sam, about everything… it was making him mad.
Éowyn was there. He saw her sitting on a bench, and with the unspoken knowledge that can only come through the closest of friendships, he knew that she would not mind his company, and so he joined her, sitting to her right.
He puffed on his small pipe a couple of times, producing nothing save innocuous, bland smoke rings. He shut his eyes, then opened them, now noticing her pale hand, palm open, expectant. Merry looked questioningly at her, but she turned her head slightly, her commanding eyebrows raised in a way that he knew meant business after travelling with Dernhelm.
He passed her his pipe.
She inhaled, swirled the smoke around her mouth, then blew out a grey ring to rival the hobbit’s.
“What do your people do to mourn the dead?”
She asked as though she were asking about the weather.
Merry mulled over her question for a moment. “Well, it’s more that we celebrate them, than mourn them, unless they are children, of course.”
He found that his pipe was handed back to him, and he held it gently, thinking aloud as he spoke. “There is one graveyard in Buckland, where I come from, and that is where all from our area are buried. We have stone markers for each person, but even if they don’t have much in the way of means, the Master of Buckland has always hosted a kind of leaving-feast for everyone across the Brandywine.”
They sat in silence for a while, then Éowyn said, “But where do they go? What of their essence, their hearts, their love?"
Merry pulled up his legs to sit cross-legged, then dug around in a pocket to find his tinder box. He then relit the bowl of his pipe, which had gone out, but really, it was to have something to do. Through all that he had seen, and his own near-death experiences, what happened after that was not something that was really spoken of, and it made him rather uncomfortable, as he had no answers.
“Dern-” he began, then checked himself. “Lady Éowyn, I do not know.” He shook out the match, then dropped it to the ground, his brows furrowed. “What do those of Rohan believe? I would have followed Théoden anywhere. I pledged my life to him, and, I suppose, my death, too.”
Éowyn reached out her hand for the pipe again, drew in some of the pungent tobacco, then exhaled.
“We do not fear death,” she began, then handed back the pipe. Once he moved it to his right hand, she clasped his left, as her other arm was bound in a sling, but she did not look at him. “There is Béma, a guardian of the hunt, of horsemen, whom some say was a friend to our ancestors, but we do not worship him, and I do not think that we can follow him.”
“I do not believe that we shall ever leave this place alive, but if we do,” she turned, and Merry was stunned to see that the gaze of her grey eyes held only regret, “I want to take you to a hillock outside of Edoras, just beyond the eastern wall. You can see the stars so clearly there, and it is so beautiful.”
She continued to hold his hand. “It is said that when we die, the brightest and strongest part of ourselves is released from the earth, and that is why there are so many lights to show us the path when all is dark.” Éowyn’s voice was a whisper, but it still carried to her one listener. “The star for King Théoden should be a flaming torch; he was brave when all around him was blackness.”
Merry was about to say that if such were true, then her star would surely fall to earth with the blaze of her loyalty, but then the door to the gardens opened, and the Steward Faramir stood there. He looked both apprehensive and hopeful, as he had for the prior two days when he had come out to find Éowyn, as Merry was mightily sure that he was not there to plumb him for more information after all he had given him.
Instead, he squeezed Éowyn’s hand. “As long as Éomer and Strider and Pippin are out there, I’ll not plan to see their stars yet.”
Merry got up from the bench, and walked on the path past the tall Steward toward his own lodging. After bowing briefly to Faramir en route, he stood leaning against his closed door, tears running silently down his face. Of all things he knew about death, he knew that he did not wish to face it alone, but that seemed to be all that was left for him.
He wished that he had Dernhelm back. Despite the Rider’s resounding silences, Merry had felt that the young man had understood him, and while he admired Éowyn for what she had done, he still felt a sense of betrayal, or chicanery, no matter the honorable intentions behind it.
What possible light could he brandish in the onslaught of dark, alone?
“I wondered if I might find you here- the others said that you had begged off for an early night, but to me that did not sound like Meriadoc Holdwine, Swordthain of Théoden, slayer of the Nazgûl king.”
Merry turned slowly, a smile meandering across his face.
“Found, at the last. Do all Rohirrim see as well in the dark as in the light, as you seem to?”
Éowyn stood, holding out her hand. “Come. This way.”
Merry chuckled as he rose from his seat on the ground. “You will not force me into boots this time, will you? If so, I’m not following. I’ll be the laughing-stock of all in Buckland.”
She clasped his outstretched hand, and they left the fragrant newly-dug earth of Théoden’s funeral mound. “Do you remember when I so rudely asked you about hobbit beliefs?”
“How could I forget?” Merry replied, walking at Éowyn’s side, treading an earthen path around the city walls illuminated by the bright moon. “You will remember, I’m sure, how eloquently I answered your question.”
Éowyn laughed, almost snorting as she did.
“I’ll have you know, I’ve given it some more thought, but I’m afraid that I have no better answer,” Merry continued, thoughtfully. “Maybe when I have children…”
He winked at her, and as Éowyn grinned broadly, Merry stopped. “That noise!”
“What noise?” she asked, puzzled.
“It just came to me!” Merry exclaimed. “I was giving Windfola a bit of carrot while we were on our way to Gondor, and I heard this odd sound.” He looked sternly at Éowyn. “You heard me talking to our horse.”
Éowyn put on her most innocent expression. “Well, perhaps. But dear Windfola, she is still waiting for all of the sugar promised to her from that dark morning.”
Merry shook his head, a wicked gleam in his eye. “Before I leave tomorrow, she will be positively rolling in it. A Brandybuck keeps his word.”
Éowyn stopped, and Merry saw that they were approaching a small mound.
“As does Éowyn of Rohan.”
She looked down to him, and Merry nodded, remembering their conversation from only a few weeks ago, and yet, it seemed, half a lifetime.
The pair walked up the hillock, then took their time gazing round at the dark countryside, and up at the vaulted night sky. Though the moon was bright, it was not full, and glowing stars twinkled above, hanging as though low enough to touch.
Merry was surprised when something was put in his hands, and regretfully he turned his face from the skies back down to more earthly matters. He held the mirrored pair of foot-coverings, looked to Éowyn, then closed his eyes.
Éowyn’s infectious laugh echoed across the nearby plains.
“You are giving me socks?”
“My dear Meriadoc!” Éowyn was almost choking. “You must have something to remember me by, to show your children. They shall toast you at your leaving-feast with the fine ale that you have told me of, and say that not only were you the only hobbit to fight bravely on the Pelennor Fields, but you did so despite your feet being clad in Rohirric leather boots, cloth tied around your wounded shins.”
Merry stared at the socks, appalled at first, then realizing how ridiculous they were, he twisted them together and placed them under his vest near his heart.
“Oh yes, now all of the Brandybuck line shall be required to hand these lovely fine things down from generation to generation.”
Éowyn violently shook her head, waving her hands, suddenly serious. “Oh no! No, I shall send you a new pair each year on the anniversary of when we became bound to each other.”
Merry raised his eyebrows. “And how will the new Prince of Ithilien react to such a gesture?”
Even as he finished speaking, a streak of light crossed the sky, taking long enough to span from the inky heavens to the nearby mountains that both his and Éowyn’s gazes were forced upwards.
After a few quiet moments passed, Éowyn laced her arm through that of her companion.
“Were it not for your patience in the questions the he asked you, I doubt that he would be here now.”
They continued to stare at the swath of lights, the path of the shooting star still burning in their memories.
“I do think that I know how King Théoden feels about it, and your loyal service, however.”
She turned to look at him. As Merry returned her gaze, he was able to see both Éowyn and Dernhelm, and reverently he took her once-wounded arm and kissed her hand.
“Should you do me the disservice of leaving this earth before I do, I will teach my children to look for your light in the skies and honor it.”
Her voice caught slightly as she replied, “And should you do me that disservice, I will come to Buckland, and make your leaving-feast one that shall never be forgotten. Long will your progeny remember the Lady from the South who forced shoes onto their grand-sire, and who loved him as kin, and who believes that as such, his spirit, too, will be a shining star to be seen in dark of night.”
Merry released her hand, bowed his head, then looked back at her, an earnest expression on his face.
“It would be my delight to share your radiance, whether on solid ground, or…” he paused for a moment, “or later, above the earth, like the eagles who rescued Frodo and Sam.”
“With you and Théoden, I could not feel alone.”
She reached out her hand and touched his cheek.
“After what we have been through,” she replied, “we are not alone.”
While Oromë is the Elvish name for the huntsman of the Valar, the name of this much-revered immortal used by the Northmen, the ancestors of the Rohirric people, is Béma.
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.