Chapter 18: The Road Goes Ever On and On
At daybreak, the Men of Rohan brought the body of their fallen King from the hallows and bore him through the city in solemn state. To either side of the bier walked Éomer King and his sister, Éowyn, together with Meriadoc, swordthain of Théoden. Soldiers of Gondor and a grey company of Dúnedain followed behind, weapons held at the salute, as a guard of honor. Among them went King Elessar and his Steward, Gandalf, Legolas the Elf, Gimli the Dwarf and a small figure in the full livery of the Tower Guard. Éomer himself had asked that these companions join him on this, the last march of Théoden King, in memory of the marches and battles they had shared in darker times.
The streets were thronged with people, as they had been such a short time before when Minas Tirith turned out to welcome her Queen. But on this summer morning, there were no flowers or songs, only respectful silence and grave, sorrowing faces. None in that city had yet forgotten the sound of horns upon the wind or the sight of silver helms flashing bravely in the new light, as Rohan rode to the rescue of Gondor. None had forgotten the price Rohan paid for that victory.
Slowly, the procession passed through the gates and onto the Pelennor fields, where waited the rest of their company. At a word from Éomer, Théoden's bier was laid upon a great wain beneath the standard of the white horse of Rohan, and his arms were arrayed about him. Then the King of the Mark mounted his horse, and all the gathered host did likewise.
Merry quietly left his place at Théoden's side and hurried to where Boromir stood with his hand on Fedranth's bridle. In the chill hour before dawn, as they stood in the Silent Street before the doors of the King's house, Merry had begged Éomer for this favor - that he be allowed to forego his place upon the wain and ride the last mile to the Rammas Echor with Boromir. Éomer had smiled and placed a gentle hand on Merry's head, saying, "Théoden King would not begrudge you that mile."
So the swordthain of Théoden did not mount up beside his liege lord, but was tossed into a high saddle by the Steward of Gondor. And it was astride Fedranth that Merry turned his face to the north, away from the soaring, white walls of Minas Tirith, on the first steps of his journey home. His hands clasped Boromir's lightly, guiding their mount, and his eyes blurred with tears of mingled gratitude and pain.
The wagon that bore Théoden's bier set the pace of their ride. Fedranth could not stretch his long legs beyond a plodding walk, and Merry had ample time to look about him as they went. He and Boromir rode with the rest of the Fellowship, slightly apart from the greater company. Ahead of their quiet group rode Strider's Dúnedain and the sons of Elrond. Merry could just glimpse the flare of sunlight on gold beyond the row of grey-clad backs, marking where Galadriel and Celeborn rode with the Elves of Lórien. He could not see the Queen anywhere in the throng, but he guessed that she and Lord Elrond had drawn apart for some private talk together. Faramir and Imrahil, he knew, rode with Éowyn, close by the bier, and a company of the Tower Guard brought up the rear.
Indeed, all the greatest, wisest and most powerful rulers of Middle-earth were gathered in this august company. Had it not been for his experiences over the last few months, Merry might have felt overwhelmed by the pageantry around him. As it was, he could admire the brave livery of Gondor and Rohan, the graceful beauty of the Elves and the stern valor of Men without feeling more than a twinge of awe. And in truth, Merry had little attention for those who traveled with him. All his thoughts dwelt on the one who would soon leave them and the terrible parting to come.
Slow as their progress was, it carried them all too quickly across that fateful mile for Merry's liking. He saw the stone wall of the Rammas Echor loom ahead, and his heart grew heavy in his breast. The sun had not yet reached its zenith when the funeral wain halted before the gate that would take them from the fields of the Pelennor into Anórien. The gate where the nine companions, the Fellowship of the Ring, at last would take their separate roads. This was but the first of many such partings to come, but for two at least of their number, it would be the most bitter.
Gandalf and Aragorn urged their mounts through the silent files of Men and Elves toward the gate, and the rest of their companions followed. Merry kept his eyes fixed on the pale, dancing flames of the torches that flanked Théoden's bier, resolutely ignoring the pity and sorrow in the faces of those they passed. When he drew up before Éomer, he saw that the Elven Lords and Princes of Gondor were there before him, waiting to take their leave of the Steward.
Throughout the farewells that followed, Merry stayed seated upon Fedranth, silent, his head bowed. He cared naught for what was said of victory, of friendship and of parting. He cared only that each person who clasped Boromir's hand and bade him farewell was one less who stood between Merry and his own leave-taking. Most of those present spoke lightly, in anticipation of a swift return to Minas Tirith. Some, like Faramir and Aragorn, had said all that was needful at another time and sufficed themselves now with a swift embrace and a murmured word or two for Boromir's ears alone. Of the Fellowship, only Gandalf and the hobbits lingered over their good-byes, for it was they who traveled the farthest and with the least hope of ever seeing Gondor or her Steward again.
Merry endured it all without hearing any of it, lost in his own misery, groping fruitlessly for the proper words to part him from his lord and the strength to say them without faltering. He found neither, and his heart was aching when he lifted his eyes to find one last rider waiting before them. To his surprise, he saw that it was Éowyn.
When Merry's eyes met hers, she smiled, but there was sadness in her face. "Will you ride with me, Master Holbytla? I would be proud to bear you company once again."
Merry opened his mouth to answer, but no sound came from his swollen throat. He gaped at her for a moment, then turned to look at the Man seated behind him. Boromir put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it lightly.
"Go with her, Merry," he urged.
"We are fugitives no more," Éowyn said, "and we go not to war or death. Yet still we ride into an unknown future, with sorrow and loss behind us. Methinks that we might give each other comfort of a kind. Will you not ride with Dernhelm again?"
Merry looked at the lady, so proud and fair upon the back of her war horse, and wondered if she were, in truth, the Dernhelm he had known. There seemed no trace of that grim, despairing youth in this gracious lady, gowned in white, with a mantle of green about her shoulders and her pale hair flowing loose down her back. Slender she was and straight, keen and beautiful, but more like a flower upon a thin stalk than a killing blade. She had softened in the warm sun of the south. But then she looked at him with eyes that seemed to gaze back through countless shadowed years, heavy with grief yet too proud and too remote to acknowledge it, and he recognized his erstwhile brother-in-arms.
"Come, Merry. We will bear our fallen lord company on his journey home."
Merry still could give no answer, but Boromir took the matter out of his hands. Swinging himself down from the saddle, he reached up to catch the hobbit and said, firmly, "Come. 'Tis time."
Merry obediently slid into his grasp, but when his feet touched the ground, he did not turn toward Windfola. Instead, he caught Boromir's hands in his and pulled on them, drawing the Man down to kneel in the road before him. They regarded each other silently for a long moment, their heads on a level and their hands clasped between them.
"I've been trying to think of the right words," Merry said at last.
Boromir shook his head. "There are none."
Letting go of Merry's hands, he fumbled at his belt for something that hung there beneath the folds of his cloak. Slowly, he extended his hand, an object resting on his open palm, and Merry stared at it through a sheen of tears. It was a horn - not one of the great horns of Gondor's soldiery, but a small, graceful thing, bound with silver, hung upon a baldric of velvet and tooled leather.
Boromir extended his hand, offering the horn to Merry. The hobbit took it reluctantly. He knew it for a parting gift, and in the sorrow that overwhelmed him, he wanted no token to underscore the finality of this leave-taking. The horn felt cool and strong in his hand. It fit his grip perfectly. It shone and flickered in the bright sunlight, drawing his eyes to the delicate pattern chased into the silver. There, through the blurring of his tears, he saw etched the image of the White Tree and a single rune. He stared at the rune, too numbed by grief to recognize its import. Then slowly, painfully, he recognized it as the first letter of Boromir's name.
"This was mine, when first I donned the livery of Gondor and rode out to her borders to learn my trade," Boromir said. "Look at both sides."
Merry obediently turned the horn over. The silver on this side bore the same pattern, but the rune beneath it was an M, newly cut and unworn by age or use. He gave a small sob.
"It is yours, now, my friend. But I left my mark upon it, so you would remember from whence it came and the son of Gondor who once carried it."
"I... I will remember," Merry whispered.
"If ever you have need of me, sound the horn. I will hear it."
"And if you have need of me?"
"You will know it," Boromir lifted his hand to rest his fingertip lightly in the center of Merry's breast, "as you always do. Farewell, Meriadoc of the Shire. I pray that you will never have need of horn or blade again, but live in peace all your days!"
Merry cried out in pain and, catching Boromir's hand in his, kissed it, as he had once before. And as before, Boromir did not draw away, though his face grew more sorrowful and he bowed his head. "I cannot leave you!" the hobbit cried. "How will you manage without me?"
"It will be hard," the Steward of Gondor admitted, a twisted smile belying the tears in his voice, "but I must learn. And you must go home, my dear Merry. You must go, while I can still bear to let you."
Merry was weeping openly now, his face streaked bright with tears. All about him, the great ones of Middle-earth sat in respectful silence, their faces grave, their eyes turned away to afford him some privacy with his grief. Only Pippin met Merry's gaze, as he looked wildly about him for help or escape, but the pain in Pippin's eyes did nothing to ease his own.
He turned back to Boromir and said, desperately, "Let me ride back to the city with you... only to the gates! Let me be your guide that far, at least!"
"Nay, Merry, that is your place no longer. And I... cannot do this a second time." Breaking away from Merry's hold, Boromir rose to his feet, caught the hobbit beneath the arms and lifted him up into Éowyn's waiting hands. As she settled Merry in the saddle before her, Boromir turned away, reaching for Fedranth. The horse nuzzled him affectionately, and Merry saw him raise a hand to caress the velvet nose, his face hidden against the animal's neck. He stood thus for a moment, hiding his grief with his face, then his shoulders straightened, his head lifted, and he moved purposefully to find his stirrup.
When he was once again mounted, Boromir sidled his horse up close to Éowyn's and reached out toward the sound of Merry's weeping to rest his hand on the hobbit's head. His voice dropped to a murmur that carried no farther than the three of them - halfling, soldier and lady - and it was rough with unshed tears. "Be happy, Merry. Be full of song and food and joy, as you were always meant to be. And when you think of me..."
Heedless of the long fall from the back of the horse, Merry leaned precariously out of the saddle to fling his arms around Boromir. He buried his face in the soft velvet of the man's tunic, pressing his cheek hard against the mail beneath it, and cried, "I will remember the greatest man and the truest friend I have ever known!" he sobbed.
Boromir bent his head to whisper into the tousled curls, "If you remember that I love you, it will be enough." Then he gently broke Merry's grip on him and set the hobbit forcibly back in the saddle. Éowyn's arm came around his waist from behind, holding him as both a comfort and a restraint. "Farewell."
"I will come back! I will! I promise!" As if at some unspoken command, all the host of riders began at once to move. "Goodbye, Boromir!"
Éowyn urged her mount forward, falling in with the rest, and Merry found himself carried inexorably through the gate of the Rammas Echor. He twisted about in the saddle as they passed the wall, craning his neck to catch a final glimpse of the beloved figure seated, motionless, on the great grey horse of Rohan with a bright array of soldiers at his back. Boromir could not see him, he knew, but at that precise moment, he lifted a hand in farewell.
"Goodbye!" Merry cried, his voice shrill and despairing. "Goodbye!" Then he turned away, pulled his hood over his face, and wept.
To be continued...