Chapter 8: Fugitives
The Lord Denethor, Steward of Gondor, stared hungrily into the small orb that lay between his hands. It's flickering light struck eerie shadows across his face, deepening the lines of age and despair that marked it and darkening his eyes to midnight black. That same light struck the glazing on the tall windows of his tower room and sent an intermittent glow into the night, telling all who chanced to look at the Citadel that their Steward was wrestling with the Enemy once again.
Sweat dampened the silvered hair at Denethor's temples and trickled down his face. His hands were slick with it, his robe stained in great patches. And still Denethor's eyes bored into the glittering surface of the palantír, searching, ever searching, while exhaustion wracked his body and grief consumed his heart.
Boromir! Boromir! he cried, within his tortured mind, while he struggled fruitlessly to summon a single image of his lost son - an image to comfort or destroy him, he cared not, so long as it ended the uncertainty. My son, he wept, silently, show yourself to me! Spare you father this torture, this last and greatest burden. Let me see your beloved face again, even in death, I beg you!
Still, no image came. Only the thick, foul darkness of the Enemy to shroud his sight. Denethor shuddered in the grasp of his consuming need. He had never known the palantír to resist his will so strongly, and the knowledge that it would not surrender up this one, vital secret made him afraid. What power controlled the stone, that denied him this one request? And if it could blind him to the fate of his son, what other limits did it place on his sight? These questions flickered briefly through his mind, then vanished in the more immediate desperation of his search.
For many pain-filled days, since hearing the wild music of the Horn of Gondor upon the wind, Denethor had poured his will and his strength into the palantír, looking for his son's face among the stone's myriad images. And he had seen Boromir. He had seen him fall beneath an orc's blade, seen him dragged across the fields of Rohan, seen him tortured by the foul traitor, Saruman. The very last image he had seen was of Boromir lying, alone and broken, in a stone cell. This vision haunted him. It harried his dreams, flayed his heart and drove him ever back to this room, to this chair, to sit hunched over the palantír in misery and anger, hunting for another glimpse of his son.
Mithrandir claimed that he had seen Boromir brought alive from Isengard, and the perian said the same. Denethor had no trust in the word of the Grey Pilgrim - he knew that Mithrandir would use the truth for his own ends, twisting it to suit him - but he saw no guile or deceit in the halfling. Perhaps they spoke the truth, and Boromir had been alive when last they saw him. But that was many days ago, and even the subtle Mithrandir admitted that Boromir had been gravely ill at the time.
Denethor did not want to believe his son dead. He loved Boromir as he loved no other, and the fear of his loss was a gnawing torment within him. But the palantír had never lied to him, unlike the tongues of Men and wizards, and it had shown him his son shattered, abandoned and dying in a dark hell of stone. Since then, he had seen only the thickening shadows, and Denethor had become increasingly certain that those shadows portended death for his beloved heir.
He hated Saruman for his treachery. He hated the members of this so-called Fellowship, who had used Boromir's strong arm to defend them through their quest, then left him to suffer his life out in Saruman's dungeon. He hated Mithrandir for taunting him with baseless hope, to bend Gondor's Steward to his will. He hated and despised the ragged wanderer from the North, the upstart who dared to call himself Isildur's Heir, the liar who had seduced his son's heart into folly and hoped to take his birthright from him. And beneath it all, like an acid in his blood, he hated the one who should have died in Boromir's place.
If only he could see! If only he knew! The murky shadows swirled before his eyes, clouding the bright surface of the palantír. Death lay in those shadows, loss and pain, an emptiness too terrible to bear. His Boromir was lost, forever lost... Even should he ride back through the gates of Minas Tirith, he would not be the son Denethor loved beyond all else. He would be the creature of wizards and wanderers. He would be no better than his brother.
And yet, Denothor could not rest until he knew. His eyes aching from the strain, his body trembling with eagerness and exhaustion, he bent over the palantír and willed it to show him his son. The light flickered across his face again and lit the tall windows. In the Court of the Fountain at the feet of the tower, the Citadel guards looked up and saw that their lord was, once again, locked in a battle with the Enemy.
*** *** ***
Merry sat on the low, crumbling, stone wall and watched the Riders gather. Thousands upon thousands of them, all the might of Rohan mustered here to ride to the aid of Gondor. Horses stamped and snorted, chewing their bits, as they sensed their riders' eagerness. Helms gleamed dully in the dim light, lances rose in thickets toward the lowering clouds, shields clanked against mailed shoulders, and horns called men to their places in the mounted ranks.
They prepared to ride in a brown twilight, though it was already an hour past dawn. The sunrise had not come this day, and looking to the East, to the source of the murky shadows that blotted the sky, Merry wondered if any of them would live to see another true sunrise. It seemed to him an ill omen that so many proud and valiant warriors should ride to their doom under the Enemy's sky. At this moment, Merry was not so sure that he wanted to share that doom.
Beside him, Boromir shifted restlessly and asked, "Are those carts ready to move, yet?"
Merry twisted around to check on the activity in the field behind them. They had chosen this wall as their vantage point, because it divided the two fields where the Riders and the fugitives of Rohan gathered. On one side, the army paraded for its weapons take. On the other, the last train of carts and pack horses prepared to set out for Dunharrow. The hobbit and the wounded soldier were expected to leave with the baggage train, so their presence in the field occasioned no comment.
"They are still loading barrels of some kind. And the people are standing about, looking unhappy."
"Then we have time."
"Has Éomer forgotten us?"
"If he has, then we will find another way. But I think not."
Merry gave the grim, sorrowful crowd loitering in the field behind him another glance, then turned resolutely away. He was not destined to take his place among them today. Boromir had promised him that they would ride to Minas Tirith with Théoden's army, and Merry trusted him to make good on that promise. The fear in his heart would pass, when he was astride a war horse with his sword at his side and Gondor's greatest soldier at his back.
For the moment, both Merry and Boromir were dressed in the simple tunic and breeches of Théoden King's household, with no weapons or mail about them. In this garb, they blended with much of the crowd on both sides of the wall, and once they donned the gear lying hidden in the grass at their feet, they would look like any other soldier among the throng. Or Boromir would, at any rate.
Not that Boromir needed a sword or shield to make him look like a soldier, Merry reflected. It was plain in the way he stood and moved, in the way he lifted his head at the clash of arms or the music of a horn, and in the stern gladness in his face at the promise of battle. The only thing that marred the picture was the strip of black fabric bound across his eyes, a harsh reminder of why they were forced into lies and subterfuge to gain their place with the army.
Merry had wondered why Boromir wanted black cloth to replace the clean, white bandage he had worn since his rescue, and he had needled the man about this little piece of vanity. But when Boromir had tied the black fabric in place and put his borrowed helm on his head, Merry had understood. The helms of Rohan had long nose guards and came well down over the face, leaving only the mouth and chin exposed and casting the eyes into deep shadow. With the black bandage in place, and his helm concealing most of his face, Boromir's eyes were nearly invisible. Merry had to stand directly in front of him and gaze straight through the openings in the helm to see the bandage.
For the present, Boromir was not trying to conceal himself among the gathered Riders nor hide his injuries from curious eyes. He sat with his head bare, his bandaged gaze turned toward the martial clamor of the mustering army, and his posture stiff with the wounded dignity of a man who is not used to being shunted aside and does not accept it easily. Merry watched him and said nothing, but it hurt him to see so much pride and strength and courage cast off as useless. He could forgive these great lords of Men for overlooking an insignificant hobbit, but Boromir should be riding at Théoden's side, not kicking his heels on a crumbling wall, waiting on the favors of others. And if Éomer did not fulfill his promise, who then would rescue the son of Gondor this time?
He was distracted from his melancholy thoughts by the appearance of an unknown Rider. The figure picked its way toward them, following the wall to avoid the worst of the chaos, leading two horses. As he drew near, Merry saw that the man was really little more than a boy, with a slender body that had not yet reached manhood and a round, beardless chin. Yet he moved like a warrior, and he controlled the two fresh horses effortlessly.
The Rider stopped a few paces from where they sat, and his eyes gleamed from within his concealing helm. "Lord Boromir?"
Boromir turned swiftly toward the voice and got to his feet. "Aye."
The Rider drew himself up to his full height, as slim and straight as a lance, and gave a formal half-bow. "Éomer, Third Marshal of the Riddermark, sends his compliments and duty to his brother of Gondor," he called, in a voice as stiff and formal as his posture. "He prays that you will accept the gift of this noble steed from your friend and ally, may it carry you safely to Dunharrow and on any road thereafter that you choose."
Boromir nodded gravely in answer to this little speech, then he held out his hand for the reins. The Rider laid them across his palm and watched, narrowly, as Boromir drew on the lead and guided the horse close to him.
"Will you carry my thanks to Éomer?" Boromir asked, one hand absently stroking the animal's nose.
Merry could have sworn that the Rider looked nervous at this request. He lost his stiffness and became, instead of a proud emissary, a very young man uncomfortable with putting himself forward. "'Twas not the lord Éomer who charged me bring you the horse," he said, "but his lady sister. She is gone ahead to Dunharrow, to do her duty by her king and her people, else she would have come herself with her brother's gift. She it was who ordered provisions for your journey."
Merry eyed the full saddlebags and bedrolls in growing suspicion. The ride to Dunharrow was less than a day, yet the horse carried enough for a week's journey. "Does she think we'll get lost?"
"Be still, Merry," Boromir chided. "Then my thanks to you and the lady Éowyn. Do you ride with the king?"
"Aye." The Rider hesitated for a moment, then added, softly, "And you, my lord?"
Boromir smiled slightly. "Who charged you ask me this?"
"No one. I have done my duty and said all I was commanded to say. Now I ask, as one forgotten soldier to another, do you ride with us, Boromir of Gondor?"
The Rider nodded his satisfaction and gave Merry a wintry smile. "I would be honored if you would accept my company. You may call me Dernhelm. Ready yourselves, and I will take you to the place where my éored gathers."
Boromir and Merry wasted no time with further questions. Climbing over the wall to retrieve their weapons and gear, they hurried to arm themselves. As he belted on his own sword, in between helping Boromir with his various buckles and clasps, Merry asked,
"Does Éomer know where we really mean to take this horse?"
"He is no fool, Merry. He would not go tamely into hiding, were he in my place, and he will not expect me to do so. But what he knows or does not know, he keeps to himself."
"Then who is this Dernhelm, and how did he guess our plans?"
Boromir shook his head, smiling. "I know not."
"Yes, you do!" Merry protested, suddenly filled with the certainty that Boromir was keeping secrets from him. "Have you fought with him before? Is he in some kind of trouble, in disgrace with the king, that he talks of being forgotten and offers to ride with us?"
"We must hurry. The Rohirrim will not wait on our pleasure, Master Halfling."
Merry sighed in resignation and hitched his shield onto his shoulder. "I'm ready."
He ran a critical eye over Boromir and saw his friend transformed into a Rider of the Mark. Boromir now wore a hauberk of light mail beneath his tunic, a long cloak hanging from his green-clad shoulders, a sword at his side, and the helm that concealed both his injury and his identity from the eyes of the army. No one would take him for a soldier of Gondor, much less for Boromir, son of Denethor.
"Will I pass muster?" Boromir asked.
"Your own father wouldn't know you."
Boromir looked unaccountably grim at his mild jest. "I expect you're right," he growled. Turning abruptly away, he grasped the top of the wall and vaulted neatly over it. Then he offered Merry a hand over. "Come, little one, it is time. We ride to death or renown."
"As long as we ride together," Merry retorted, placing his hand in Boromir's.
The Rohirrim rode swiftly into the gathering storm, beneath the standard of Théoden King. Among them went three fugitives - the dour and mysterious Rider, the blind soldier, and the hobbit - and in the great mass of men, these three were swept along, unmarked, toward Minas Tirith and war. They spoke little to each other and not at all to the other Riders of the éored. It seemed, through much of the ride, as though they were an army unto themselves - silent and invisible within the larger host.
For Merry, the journey was a time of boredom, weariness and unwelcome reflection. He had little to do except think, and most often, his thoughts turned to the friends he had lost along the road from Rivendell. He was overwhelmed and frightened, depressed by the thickening gloom that shrouded the sky, and missing Pippin's cheerful laughter. Only Boromir's presence kept him from despair.
He sat before Boromir on their princely steed, his small hands resting over the man's much larger ones as they held the reins. Merry could not control such a beast himself, and Boromir could not navigate without the hobbit's eyes, so they rode - as they ate and slept and talked and remembered - together. And with every hour that passed, Merry felt himself settle more completely and trustingly into his role as friend and guide to the soldier of Gondor. He still missed Pippin dreadfully, and he feared for the welfare of all his companions, but he could not feel truly alone so long as Boromir was with him.
Dernhelm was not such a comfort, though he did take a keen interest in Merry. He seemed deeply impressed by the hobbit's pledge of fealty to Théoden and by his act of defiant bravery in following the king to war. In a rare, talkative mood, he said as much to a surprised Merry.
"You do well, Master Holbytla. There can be no greater honor than to bear arms in the service of your lord, and there is no lord more worthy of your sword and your love than Théoden King."
Merry blushed at his praise and fidgeted uncomfortably with the reins. He could not tell this earnest young man of his divided heart or the anguish he suffered over his oath to the lord of the Mark. For he did love Théoden, and he did long to show his love in some way more useful than the telling of tales or sharing of a pipe. It was the fear that his oath to Théoden would conflict with the promise he had made to himself that gave him pause. If serving the king meant leaving Boromir, how would he choose?
"I hope I may do him honor," Merry finally said, his voice soft and uncertain.
"I doubt not that you will," the Rider answered, giving Merry a grave, respectful nod of the head. "You have already, in choosing to follow him into certain peril."
Merry gave an uncomfortable shrug, and his blush deepened perceptibly.
From behind him, Boromir seemed to sense his discomfort, and he suddenly spoke to the Rider, distracting him from his solemn praise of Merry. "What of you, Dernhelm? Why do you ride to war, in defiance of your king?"
Dernhelm stiffened. His voice, when he spoke, was cold and reserved, but Merry distinctly heard the pain beneath its chill tone. "You, of all men, should understand my reasons, lord."
Boromir turned a questioning look in his direction. "What do I know of your reasons?"
"They are your own." When Boromir said nothing, Dernhelm went on, bitterly, "Your lord and king has discarded you. The love and fealty you lay before him he counts as naught. He judges you unfit and turns to others for support in his hour of triumph, leaving you to take the coward's road into hiding and darkness. And so, out of love and because you will not bear the name of coward, you find your own path to meet him, in battle, in victory, in death..."
Boromir rode in silence for some moments, letting Dernhelm's anguished words hang in the air between them. Then, in a voice full of sorrow, he asked, "Is it for your king or mine that you do this?"
"For both, and for neither. One owns my duty, the other my heart, and for either, I would have fought all the armies of the Dark Lord. But both have judged me unworthy and set me aside, so I will fight for an unacknowledged duty, an unwanted love, and my own release."
"For what release do you hope?" The tone of Boromir's voice betrayed that he knew the answer to this question and dreaded hearing it.
"To die with my sword in my hand, to the music of horns and the clash of battle. To bring honor to the Mark and to my house. To leave a name of courage and renown behind me. That is all my desire."
Merry opened his mouth to speak, but Boromir's hand on his shoulder silenced him. Obedient to the pressure of Boromir's fingers, he closed his mouth and let the conversation drop. Dernhelm turned resolutely away from the pair beside him, kicking his horse into a faster pace to leave them trotting behind, and any chance Merry might have had to comment on his dire pronouncements was lost.
Dernhelm rode ahead of them for the remainder of the day, and Boromir fell into a taciturn mood that did not invite speech from Merry. None of them spoke again, until the host broke their journey for the night. After a silent meal, Dernhelm took himself off to sleep in the shadows beyond the fire, while Merry and Boromir rolled up in their blankets and propped their heads against either side of Fedranth's saddle to rest.
Merry had discovered that, at this point each night, Boromir became suddenly talkative. No matter how gruff and reserved he was through the rest of the day, once they lay down to sleep, he wanted to talk. Merry obliged him, though his body ached with weariness and he longed to tumble into blessed sleep, because he guessed that Boromir's unusual need for conversation stemmed from fear.
Fear of the darkness, the quiet, the time alone with his thoughts - it hung around the man in a palpable fog, and Merry felt it brush cold against his skin. He knew that Boromir would not sleep, would lie quietly through the long hours of the night, seething with a silent and fiercely controlled tension, unwilling to betray his fear and unable to deny it. The only way he could find rest was to talk himself into exhaustion and oblivion, and Merry gladly put aside his own exhaustion to listen.
On this particular night, the fourth of their journey, Merry did not wait for Boromir to speak, but started talking himself the moment his head touched the warm leather of the saddle. In the low, private tone they always used for these nighttime chats, he asked,
"Why does Dernhelm seek death? You know something of him, Boromir, some secret. You understand why he wants to die."
"Aye, that much I understand." Boromir hesitated for a moment, as though weighing his words, then he said, "He is in despair, and despair can drive a man to folly. Or to death."
"Is it not folly to seek death, in the prime of his youth, for no better reason than that his king left him behind?"
"Have you ever tasted despair, Merry?"
Merry thought about that, remembering the deep, gnawing pain of those days spent chasing the orcs across Rohan, the torment of those hours in the dungeons of Orthanc, and the helpless misery of watching a friend suffer when he could do nothing to aid him. Then he thought of the bleak, empty desolation in Dernhelm's eyes, and Merry realized that he had never felt that kind of hopelessness. No matter how black his own road had seemed, the hobbit had always seen his way clear to the end of it - a mad and perilous way, perhaps, but yet a way.
"No," he finally answered, "not like that. Not so that I gave up hope."
"I have. And I have longed for death, as a release from the endless pain of it."
Merry propped himself up on an elbow and twisted around to stare at his friend. "Do you, still?"
"Nay. I cannot say that I have thrown off despair, for it haunts me at every turn, but I have chosen not to surrender myself to it. I have found hope enough to keep me alive."
"Is that all you have found?"
"Hope is no small thing, to a dying man. Give me time, Merry. I will find my way, eventually. And so will Dernhelm, I trust, if he lives through this battle."
Merry lay down again, but he felt no urge to sleep. His eyes were wide open, his mind busy with the implications of all Boromir had said or not said, and his heart aching with a now-familiar sorrow. Boromir had closed the subject, with his last, firm statement, but he could not stop Merry from wishing that he could take the pain from his friend's voice or hurting, himself, because he could not.
"You still haven't told me Dernhelm's secret," he grumbled, covering his real feelings with irritation.
"'Tis not mine to tell."
"Well, at least you don't deny that there is one."
Boromir gave a wordless grunt that, once again, declared the subject closed. They both lay in silence for some minutes, while Boromir's tension slowly mounted. He held very still, but Merry could almost hear his teeth grinding and his fists clenching with the effort it cost him not to spring to his feet and start pacing madly.
Into this charged silence, Boromir asked, abruptly, "Are there stars tonight?"
"No." Merry looked up at the murky sky and reflected that he was not at all sure it was night. For all he knew, the sun was riding high above the canopy of fumes and shadows.
"I always enjoyed sleeping under the stars. When I was a child, my brother and I used to sneak out of the city and spend the night on the slopes of Mindolluin, under the stars. When we were older, we would venture farther afield, into the forests of Anórien, and tramp endlessly through the trees until we lay down and slept where we halted, heedless of danger. Faramir knew many tales of Elves and woods and stars. I remember how his eyes shone in the darkness, as he told them."
"You weren't afraid of orcs or brigands?"
"We were soldiers of Gondor, afraid of only one thing in all Middle-earth."
"What was that?"
"Our father." Merry chuckled, and Boromir retorted, "You laugh, because you have never met the Lord Denethor."
"Was he an unkind father?"
"Nay, not to me. He was stern and demanding, preoccupied with the affairs of the city and little given to indulging his sons. But to me, he was always fair and, in his way, loving." Boromir paused then added, bitterly, "Not so to Faramir."
"He... he did not love Faramir as he did you?"
"I was always the favored son, though I know not why. We are not akin except, perhaps, in our pride. I have little of my father's subtlety and none of his love of statecraft. When I see men decked out in robes and jewels, my strongest desire is to chase them from the room with a drawn sword, rather than exchange honeyed words with them. My father despaired of me, and yet he loved me." Boromir fell quiet for a moment, then mused, softly, "I wonder what he will make of me, now?"
"Will he not welcome back his favored son?"
Boromir gave a humorless chuckle. "We shall see."
"Your father does not sound like a very kind man."
"He is a great man. It is hard to be both great and kind."
"Strider is both."
"Aye, but even Strider must sometimes make cruel choices."
"Like when he left you behind?"
Boromir paused, then answered, "Like that."
Silence fell again, until Merry said, hesitantly, "Boromir?"
"I'm sorry, if I said anything I shouldn't have - about your father or Strider or..."
"You did not."
"You're very quiet."
"I am thinking of home."
"Will you tell me about Minas Tirith?"
"Not tonight, little one. Take some rest while you can."
"What about you?"
"Don't worry about me, Merry. Go to sleep."
The morning brought strange tidings to the Riders of Rohan. In the mysterious way of armies, news of what lay ahead and what their leaders planned filtered down through the ranks of horsemen, until all knew that the road through Anórien was blocked by orcs and minions of the Enemy. Help had come in a guise both strange and unlovely. Wild Men of the Druadan Forest had offered themselves as guides, to lead the Men of Rohan safely around the ambush that awaited them.
Their march was delayed, while Théoden King parlayed with the chief of the Wild Men, and delayed again as more of the odd, gnarled little men crept out of the darkling forest to take up their places with each of the mounted companies. At last, they set out, wending their way into the brown gloom beneath the trees.
The first leg of their march had to be done on foot, leading their mounts over the thickly wooded ridge that separated the main road from the secret valley through which the woodmen planned to lead them. Merry scrambled up the steep, narrow path carefully, guiding Boromir, whose footing was not so sure as the hobbit's. Boromir led the horse, Fedranth, and behind him came Dernhelm with Windfola. It was hot and tiring work, and Merry was grateful when they topped the ridge and saw the long, winding, overgrown valley beneath him.
Through the rest of that day - if it was truly day - they rode down the valley. And along the ranks of horsemen, rumors ran apace. Minas Tirith was burning. The Pelennor was choked with the armies of Morder, massed with orcs and cruel Haradrim, a place of foul slaughter. Even as the Rohirrim picked their slow way through the hills, the White City was dying in flame and horror.
Boromir listened to these rumors, and his face grew hard and pale. Merry wished that he had comfort to offer, but the stories appalled him nearly as much as they must Boromir, and he could think of nothing to say that would soften the blow. Pippin and Gandalf were in that dying city, among the flames, and Merry saw little hope of rescuing them or the city with what now seemed a pitiful handful of Riders. By the time they halted again, for the final rest before plunging into battle, Merry had sunk into a black depression that could not, he thought, be any more consuming than it was. He was wrong.
Boromir made no attempt to prepare their camp, though Marshal Elfhelm, who led their éored, said they had many hours before they rode again. He merely pulled Fedranth's saddle to the ground, sat down on it, and began gnawing on one gloved knuckle in morose thought. Dernhelm offered to light the fire, but Boromir ignored him. Merry, who had no stomach for food or talk, sat down at his feet and assumed a matching dejected posture.
"One would think, from your manner, that we were riding away from battle and not toward it," Dernhelm remarked.
"It is not battle that I seek," Boromir snapped.
Both Dernhelm and Merry turned to look at him in surprise.
"Isn't that why we're here?" Merry demanded.
"I am here to help my city."
"Aye, by destroying her enemies," Dernhelm said.
Boromir turned his bandaged gaze on the Rider and spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "What use am I in a battle? What aid can I bring to Minas Tirith by dying on the fields before her gates?"
"What greater honor is there, than to die for your city? For you people?"
A sour grimace contorted Boromir's lips, and he growled, "I am no use to my people dead. Of course, I will fight if I must, but I had hoped to ride with Théoden to Minas Tirith, and there join in the defense of the city. Now I find all the armies of Mordor between me and the gate."
Merry shrugged and asked, in all innocence, "Is the gate the only way in?"
Dernhelm gave a disgusted snort, as if to dismiss such cowardice, but Boromir straightened up with a look of dawning hope on his face.
"Nay, 'tis not." He turned to Merry, smiling strangely, and said, "Where are we camped?"
"I don't know," the hobbit said. "Shall I ask Elfhelm?"
"We shall both ask him."
Together, they searched out the marshal and approached him where he sat at his campfire. Elfhelm looked mightily surprised to see two of his stowaways walking so openly toward him, and he quickly ordered his companions to leave the him. When Merry and Boromir reached the fire, Elfhelm was alone. He eyed the hobbit askance but gave Boromir a courteous nod.
"What would you with me, lord? Do you seek news of Mundberg and the battle?"
"Nay, I have heard all the soldiers' tales. I would know where our forces are camped and when we mean to march again."
"We are camped in the Stonewain valley, seven leagues distant from the Rammas Echor. With nightfall - or when our guides deem it has come in this devil's murk - we will ride for Mundberg. Théoden King hopes to join battle ere the sun rises." Elfhelm studied Boromir's face in the dim light, and Merry thought he saw both pity and respect in the Rider's eyes. "The morrow will show us whether the Tower of Guard lives or dies."
"She lives," Boromir assured him, "and I would stand once more upon her ramparts while I, too, yet live."
"If any force of arms can win through to the gates of Mundberg, the Riders of Rohan will do it."
"I do not doubt your valor, Elfhelm, but I cannot wait upon victory. My place is with the people of Minas Tirith, not with the Rohirrim, and with your leave, I will go to join them."
Elfhelm smiled. "You did not ask my leave to ride with us and need not ask it to depart. Go where your duty leads you, Captain of Gondor."
"Will you help me?"
The marshal's face turned wary. "What help can I give?"
"Find one of the Wild Men who speaks the common tongue, who will guide me through the forest, and bring him to me."
Elfhelm considered this request for a moment, then nodded. "That I will do. Await me at your own camp, lest Éomer find you here, and I will bring you your guide."
Some time later, Elfhelm strode up to the cheerful fire that Boromir had lit, one of the Wild Men at his side. He nodded to Boromir and waved the Wild Man forward. "He gives no name, but he speaks the common tongue well enough, and he claims to know every rock and crevice of these mountains."
Boromir started to thank Elfhelm, but the marshal vanished as quickly as he had come, obviously unwilling to be seen with his fugitive Riders. The Wild Man hunkered down next to the fire and turned his bright, nut-brown eyes on the man who sat across from him. After a moment's intent perusal, he grinned to show a mouth full of blunt, stained teeth.
"You go to Stone-city."
"Aye. I must get to the stone city, by the forest paths that lead into the mountains. Do you know these paths?"
"Know every path."
"Where the White Mountains end, there is a spur of rock. It leaps from the forested slopes of the mountains to the side of Mount Mindolluin, on which sits the stone city. This bridge is the only way to get from the forests of Anórien to Mindolluin, without crossing the plains."
The Wild Man bobbed his head. "Stone path. We know stone path. We cross."
"Will you take me to the stone path?"
The Wild Man lifted a finger, like twisted, polished wood, to touch the bandage over Boromir's left eye. "Man with no eyes need Wild Man."
"Aye. I know the paths of the Druadan Forest. I walked them as a boy. But now, I cannot find my way alone, and none among these Riders know it. If you will take me to the postern gate at the end of the stone path, the small door in the wall of Stone-city, by the houses of the dead, I will give you anything in my power as a reward."
The grotesque smile appeared again. "Man with no eyes can kill gorgûn?"
The Wild Man spat in the dirt. "Orcs."
"Aye, I can kill orcs, when the need arises."
"Good. Kill gorgûn, and I take you to city."
"You have my word. I will kill as many orcs as come my way, and gladly."
The Wild Man hopped to his feet. "Horsemen go in darkness. I find you. I take you."
Merry waited only until the small, scuttling figure had disappeared into the shadows, then he rounded on Boromir and half-shouted, "You cannot leave the Riders! What if this woodman leads you wrong? What if you are lost in the forest?"
"I'll be safer there than on the battlefield. Merry, I must go."
"Then, I must go with you."
"You cannot. You are sworn to the service of Théoden King."
"What does that matter?" the hobbit cried, desperation in his voice and tears starting in his eyes.
"It means your first duty is to him."
"I don't care about my duty," he insisted, though the pain in his voice belied his words. "I promised..." He bit off his words abruptly and flushed a dark red.
"What did you promise?"
Hanging his head in embarrassment at his own temerity, he muttered, "I promised I'd never let you fight alone, again."
A long, thoughtful silence met his words. Then Boromir held out his hand and waited for Merry to take it in his. "You do me more honor than I deserve."
"I mean it. I won't let you go alone."
"I am not going to fight, Merry, but to avoid a fight. It is you who are riding to war, and if honor allowed it, I would gladly take you with me to protect you from harm."
"Would it be such a bad thing to go with you, instead of with Théoden?"
A low, grim voice came to them from outside the light of the fire, saying, "You would be foresworn." Dernhelm stepped into view, stooping to hold his hands over the dancing flames. The eyes he turned on Merry were full of understanding but implacable and cold. "You pledged yourself to the Lord of the Mark, and you owe him your allegiance, even your life."
"I owe Boromir my life, too."
"Nay, little one," Boromir murmured, "you have repaid my feeble efforts a hundred-fold. And you can rest assured that you are breaking no promises by letting me take my own road to Minas Tirith."
Merry gave a doleful sniff. "What am I missing, here? What do I not understand that both of you see so clearly and that makes you so certain of what I must do?"
"It is a question of honor, Merry. Your honor is bound forever to Théoden King, and if you abandon him now, you will lose it. You will become what I am." Boromir held up a hand to forestall Merry's inevitable protest. "Think about it. Think about walking the battlefield, when the killing is done, and seeing the Riders of the Mark strewn about you, cut down by the enemy, knowing that you were not among them to fight for your king."
"Would you have me die in battle?" Merry asked, in a very small voice.
"Nay!" Much to Merry's surprise, Boromir pulled on his hand and drew him into a quick, fierce embrace. "Nay, never that. But I know what it is to lose your honor, to have all you value in yourself destroyed by your own evil choices, and that is a pain worse than any wound. I only ask you to think about it, Merry."
Merry did think about it. He neither slept nor ate, but sat beside the fire and thought of all the choices he had made through the long journey from the Shire to Anórien. He thought of allowing Boromir to ride away without him, and he wept. Then he thought of the looming battle, and fear gripped his innards. But always and anon, his thoughts returned to the moment when he had knelt before Théoden, his small sword held out across his palms, and bowed his head beneath the king's gentle hand in his curls. His own words to Boromir came back to him, declaring that he would be ashamed to stay behind, when his friends went to war. He knew that riding to Minas Tirith with Boromir was not taking the coward's way out, but it was not the same as fulfilling his oath and striking his own, small blow for the Fellowship and the Shire in this great, terrible war of the Ring.
He came to no decision and found no peace, through that long day. Many tears painted his cheeks. Many angry words rose to his lips, to be swallowed before they disturbed his companions. He watched Boromir pretend to sleep, and he wished for the hundredth time that the man would agree to ride with the Rohirrim and take this burden of choice from him. But Boromir would not change his mind, and Merry could find no argument that might persuade him.
When the horns sounded to call the Riders to their ranks, Merry went numbly through the motions of saddling the horse and sorting their gear. Boromir worked with him in silence. Just as they were finishing, the Wild Man appeared from the surrounding trees and came to stand at Fedranth's stirrup.
"We go," he said, without preamble or greeting.
Boromir nodded and turned to find Merry. The hobbit stood numbly in front of him, head down, scuffing one bare foot in the dirt.
"What have you decided, little one?"
"If you... if you believe I must go with Théoden, then I suppose I must."
Another horn call brought Dernhelm over to them, leading his mount. "Ride with me, Master Holbytla."
He swung himself into the saddle, then held out a hand to lift Merry up, but Merry ignored the offer. His eyes remained fixed on Boromir's face, looking for the grief that he knew must be there. With his eyes shrouded, only the tightening of his jaw and thinning of his lips betrayed the warrior's distress. He tossed Merry easily into Dernhelm's high saddle, then he moved to mount his own horse. His gestures were sharp, almost angry, and Merry realized that he was trying to shield himself from the hobbit's eyes while he mastered his emotions.
Once in the saddle, Boromir fidgeted with his stirrups, girths and weaponry, until finally, he lifted his head and turned an outwardly calm face toward the hobbit. Dernhelm guided his mount close to Boromir's, and Merry leaned over to clasp the warrior's arm.
"Let me go with you," Merry pleaded one last time.
"Nay, Master Esquire. Your duty is to your king, your liege lord. You must stay and fight at his side."
"He doesn't want me."
Boromir smiled in understanding. "And Aragorn does not want me, but they need us still."
"I would fight at your side, Boromir. I missed my chance at Parth Galen, and all that has happened since is my fault."
To Merry's surprise, Boromir laughed. It was the first laugh he had heard from the man in longer than he could remember. "None of this is your fault, Merry. Nor is it Pippin's, nor even mine, though it has cost me much pain and doubt to accept that. I do not like being the pawn of kings and wizards. I am a man used to deciding my own fate. But in this, I am only one of many pawns, one of many weapons, passed from hand to hand in an endless battle. All that I can do is strike where I may, where the blow will mean the most. And you must do the same."
Merry held tight to his forearm and blinked back unwelcome, unsoldierly tears. "Will I see you again?"
"I trust so, Merry. When the battle is done, and our armies meet upon the field, look for me."
"I will. I... I do not know how to say..."
"Peace, little one. Ride to glory with your king, and slay a foe or two for me."
Merry smiled through his tears. "Only two?"
"I have learned humility. Two will suffice me." His hand returned the pressure of the hobbit's, and his voice dropped to a low murmur. "Ride well, fight bravely, and remember what I taught you. My thoughts and hopes go with you, Warrior of the Shire."
"And mine with you, Captain of Gondor. Farewell."
"Farewell." Boromir gave Merry's arm a quick squeeze, then released it, and turned to his diminutive guide. "Let us go."
The Wild Man put a hand on the horse's bridle and clucked wordlessly to it. The beast moved obediently after him, while Boromir left the reins slack upon its neck. Merry watched him ride away, and he felt as though his last friend in all Middle-earth had just deserted him. Now he was truly alone, riding to war with an army that did not want him, a small piece of baggage strapped to Dernhelm's saddle.
As Boromir's horse moved among the trees, bearing the man out of sight and reach, Merry lifted his hand and called, shrilly, "Give Pippin my love, when you find him!"
Boromir checked his horse, turned, and nodded, a smile flickering over his face. Then he rode into the dense shadows of the forest and was gone. Merry slumped wearily, pulling his hood over his face to hide his tears from the slim, young Rider behind him. A hand dropped to his shoulder, and Dernhelm's voice sounded close in his ear.
"Take heart, small warrior. We go to war, where many private hurts may be healed in the fury of battle."
"I thought sword and lance were meant for causing hurts, not healing them."
"Forgotten, then. Or ended, as life ends, with the cut of a blade."
Merry said nothing. He knew that the words were meant to comfort him, but Dernhelm's solace was not his.
To be continued...