The Return of the King (Page 22)

‘At the least we will do that,’ said Théoden. ‘But I myself am new-come from battle and long journey, and I will now go to rest. Tarry here this night. Then you shall look on the muster of Rohan and ride away the gladder for the sight, and the swifter for the rest. In the morning counsels are best, and night changes many thoughts.’

With that the king stood up, and they all rose. ‘Go now each to your rest,’ he said, ‘and sleep well. And you, Master Meriadoc, I need no more tonight. But be ready to my call as soon as the Sun is risen.’

‘I will be ready,’ said Merry, ‘even if you bid me ride with you on the Paths of the Dead.’

‘Speak not words of omen!’ said the king. ‘For there may be more roads than one that could bear that name. But I did not say that I would bid you ride with me on any road. Good night!’

‘I won’t be left behind, to be called for on return!’ said Merry. ‘I won’t be left, I won’t.’ And repeating this over and over again to himself he fell asleep at last in his tent.

He was wakened by a man shaking him. ‘Wake up, wake up, Master Holbytla!’ he cried; and at length Merry came out of deep dreams and sat up with a start. It still seemed very dark, he thought.

‘What is the matter?’ he asked.

‘The king calls for you.’

‘But the Sun has not risen, yet,’ said Merry.

‘No, and will not rise today, Master Holbytla. Nor ever again, one would think under this cloud. But time does not stand still, though the Sun be lost. Make haste!’

Flinging on some clothes, Merry looked outside. The world was darkling. The very air seemed brown, and all things about were black and grey and shadowless; there was a great stillness. No shape of cloud could be seen, unless it were far away westward, where the furthest groping fingers of the great gloom still crawled onwards and a little light leaked through them. Overhead there hung a heavy roof, sombre and featureless, and light seemed rather to be failing than growing.

Merry saw many folk standing, looking up and muttering; all their faces were grey and sad, and some were afraid. With a sinking heart he made his way to the king. Hirgon the rider of Gondor was there before him, and beside him stood now another man, like him and dressed alike, but shorter and broader. As Merry entered he was speaking to the king.

‘It comes from Mordor, lord,’ he said. ‘It began last night at sunset. From the hills in the Eastfold of your realm I saw it rise and creep across the sky, and all night as I rode it came behind eating up the stars. Now the great cloud hangs over all the land between here and the Mountains of Shadow; and it is deepening. War has already begun.’

For a while the king sat silent. At last he spoke. ‘So we come to it in the end,’ he said: ‘the great battle of our time, in which many things shall pass away. But at least there is no longer need for hiding. We will ride the straight way and the open road and with all our speed. The muster shall begin at once, and wait for none that tarry. Have you good store in Minas Tirith? For if we must ride now in all haste, then we must ride light, with but meal and water enough to last us into battle.’

‘We have very great store long prepared,’ answered Hirgon. ‘Ride now as light and as swift as you may!’

‘Then call the heralds, Éomer,’ said Théoden. ‘Let the Riders be marshalled!’

Éomer went out, and presently the trumpets rang in the Hold and were answered by many others from below; but their voices no longer sounded clear and brave as they had seemed to Merry the night before. Dull they seemed and harsh in the heavy air, braying ominously.

The king turned to Merry. ‘I am going to war, Master Meriadoc,’ he said. ‘In a little while I shall take the road. I release you from my service, but not from my friendship. You shall abide here, and if you will, you shall serve the Lady Éowyn, who will govern the folk in my stead.’

‘But, but, lord,’ Merry stammered, ‘I offered you my sword. I do not want to be parted from you like this, Théoden King. And as all my friends have gone to the battle, I should be ashamed to stay behind.’

‘But we ride on horses tall and swift,’ said Théoden; ‘and great though your heart be, you cannot ride on such beasts.’

‘Then tie me on to the back of one, or let me hang on a stirrup, or something,’ said Merry. ‘It is a long way to run; but run I shall, if I cannot ride, even if I wear my feet off and arrive weeks too late.’

Théoden smiled. ‘Rather than that I would bear you with me on Snowmane,’ he said. ‘But at the least you shall ride with me to Edoras and look on Meduseld; for that way I shall go. So far Stybba can bear you: the great race will not begin till we reach the plains.’

Then Éowyn rose up. ‘Come now, Meriadoc!’ she said. ‘I will show you the gear that I have prepared for you.’ They went out together. ‘This request only did Aragorn make to me,’ said Éowyn, as they passed among the tents, ‘that you should be armed for battle. I have granted it, as I could. For my heart tells me that you will need such gear ere the end.’

Now she led Merry to a booth among the lodges of the king’s guard; and there an armourer brought out to her a small helm, and a round shield, and other gear.

‘No mail have we to fit you,’ said Éowyn, ‘nor any time for the forging of such a hauberk; but here is also a stout jerkin of leather, a belt, and a knife. A sword you have.’

Merry bowed, and the lady showed him the shield, which was like the shield that had been given to Gimli, and it bore on it the device of the white horse. ‘Take all these things,’ she said, ‘and bear them to good fortune! Farewell now, Master Meriadoc! Yet maybe we shall meet again, you and I.’

So it was that amid a gathering gloom the King of the Mark made ready to lead all his Riders on the eastward road. Hearts were heavy and many quailed in the shadow. But they were a stern people, loyal to their lord, and little weeping or murmuring was heard, even in the camp in the Hold where the exiles from Edoras were housed, women and children and old men. Doom hung over them, but they faced it silently.

Two swift hours passed, and now the king sat upon his white horse, glimmering in the half-light. Proud and tall he seemed, though the hair that flowed beneath his high helm was like snow; and many marvelled at him and took heart to see him unbent and unafraid.

There on the wide flats beside the noisy river were marshalled in many companies well nigh five and fifty hundreds of Riders fully armed, and many hundreds of other men with spare horses lightly burdened. A single trumpet sounded. The king raised his hand, and then silently the host of the Mark began to move. Foremost went twelve of the king’s household-men, Riders of renown. Then the king followed with Éomer on his right. He had said farewell to Éowyn above in the Hold, and the memory was grievous; but now he turned his mind to the road that lay ahead. Behind him Merry rode on Stybba with the errand riders of Gondor, and behind them again twelve more of the king’s household. They passed down the long ranks of waiting men with stern and unmoved faces. But when they had come almost to the end of the line one looked up glancing keenly at the hobbit. A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.

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