1. The Last Fight
‘Fog on the Barrow-downs’ – J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
“Frodo? Answer me! Where are you?”
The fog hangs thick about him, heavy and grave-cold. His cloak looks grey in the gloom, and is so sodden with moisture that it pulls at his neck, dragging him down, and resting heavily across his lap where he has pulled it for warmth. His hands are freezing, numb on the reins of his pony, and his cry falls flat into the dead air, swallowed as though it had never been.
Nothing. The pony walks on, although Merry is sure he has given it no guidance. Even the dull sounds of its hooves are muffled in the unrelieved greyness of this unnatural mist. Pippin had been just ahead of him, not a moment ago, and Sam and Frodo in front of Pippin. But then the fog had swirled, choking and cloying, as smoke will, although not a breath of wind stirs the air, and now they are gone. Gone.
The short springy turf of the Downs underfoot swallows all sound, and it seems to Merry that he rides in a drear grey dream, hoping against hope that his pony still follows the scent of its stable-mates. He tries another cry, “Hoy! Frodo? Where are you?” But not even an echo returns to him.
Merry can feel his heart beating hard, drumming almost unnaturally, and he takes one cold hand from the reins and brings it within his cloak, and clutches his breast. His fingers are icy through the linen of his shirt and he knows that he is afraid. He is afraid to be so alone.
Was it only that morning that they had said goodbye to old Tom Bombadil and his fair lady Goldberry? That they had laughed and taken their midday meal in the bright light of the sun in the meadow of that standing stone? That they had been stupid enough to have fallen asleep in its shade? Stupid of them, stupid. What had they been thinking? No, Merry thinks to himself bitterly, what had he been thinking? For surely, among them all, it is his responsibility to think of these things? He is the one who knows the most of these lands, who was guiding them all, and failing them, until Tom showed his welcome face in the shadow of the Old Forest. Tom with his merry tales and songs, with his peculiar ways, Tom with his power.
And now the others do not listen to him, since his knowledge has proved so lacking. And so this afternoon they ate in the sun and fell asleep in the shade, and now Merry is lost, deep in the fog, deep in this blighted land, and his cousins have left him behind. Perhaps they have not even missed him. The chill is bitter, his heart thumps with a ponderous intensity, and his fingers will not warm.
Then he hears it. The start of a noise. Not a real sound, more like the memory of a sound, if such a thing is possible. It is the jingle of a harness, surely? Merry feels a little flicker of hope and a creeping warmth spread through him at the thought, perhaps it is Frodo, or Pippin? He is not lost, he is not left alone in a blank grey world, his cousins are there, he just cannot see them, and he speeds the pony to a trot, towards the sound, and realises as he does so that he is climbing a hill.
There it is again. A clinking sound. And Merry strains to see, through eyes that sting in the cold, through lashes bedewed with moisture, and slowly the outline of a pony appears, almost ghostly in the gloom. Except… surely it is too big to be a pony? But the form wavers and swirls and Merry cannot be sure. He dashes water from his eyes and blinks, his curls plastered to his forehead, limp and icy. There is yet another shape, ears pricked forward, neck arched against the weather, its rider hunched. Merry nearly cries out for his friends, but the words stick in a throat turned suddenly dry and choking, as the fog swirls again, a curl of frigid air pressing him into the saddle, and it lifts the mists about him and lets him see…
My men are all about me, and our horses stamp in impatience, here gathered on the brow of the hill. Clouds of breath steam into the air, and harness, bright and polished, gleams gold in the burgeoning light. It is almost dawn. Swords are easing out of scabbards, and spears are being levelled. We will sortie today, and I will lead them. Let it never be said that the Men of Arnor turned or fled. We will face our fate today and every day with pride…
Merry takes a gasping breath, and shakes his head. The dream fades from his mind, although, for a moment, it was clearer than the enshrouded lands through which he now rides. He squeezes his fingers tight on the clasp of his cloak, and the edge of the brass button digs in, hard and solid in his hand.
It brings him back to himself, and he looks fearfully around. He no longer sees with other’s eyes, but the vision has not faded entirely. The Men stand ready in the dawnlight, but it is not dawn. Their horses stamp and sweat but he is still moving forward, his pony seemingly unaware of the figures around him. There are walls behind the Men but they are not real, Merry can see curls of fog behind their translucence, and through the army bravely readying for battle. Fear, pure and sharp as a knife, holds him in its grip and he cannot move, cannot even breathe, as the shades wait about him for the never-breaking day. His mind scrabbles with but one thought, to somehow hide himself away from their clear grey sight, so terrible in its innocence. But they do not seem to see one small hobbit, frozen into stillness, like a rat in a trap, and his pony walks on, oblivious.
The fog curls in, bitter as ice, and all is shrouded again. There is the almost silent thud of his mount’s hooves, and his own breath, expelled at last, but however he strains to hear, there is no other sound. No ponies, or hobbit cries, but no ghostly cavalry in their terrible beauty either. He could be lost in any autumn twilight, or hazy Yuletide mist. He could be riding towards a hot toddy pressed warm in his hand, or the sound of Pip’s sweet singing faintly heard from the snug confines of the Green Dragon, or the smell of Sam’s baking at Bag End, spicy with cinnamon. But he is riding towards none of these comforts. He is lost on the Barrow-downs, lost among the ghosts, and his heart quails beneath the pressing silence.
The pony paces on. There is a heaviness in the air now, like an approaching thunderstorm, but Merry does not believe that any cleansing rain will fall. They walk downhill, the grass short and tussocky, smooth beneath the hooves, but then, sudden as a shock, there is the crystal splash of water. Merry twists in the saddle, sure something is there, something stalking him, but he cannot see…
The banks of the stream are pale and silvery, all sharp black shadows and clear-cut light. I have been sent to scout the ground, there have been spies about this day but now night has fallen. Under the cover of darkness, I must discern who creeps about the fortress, discover their numbers and report back. But the moon is high tonight and offers too much light, although it is no friend to my enemies either. If I am fortunate, by this same light I will see their steps in the mud of the brook as it wends its way down the hill. I hope for that at least. Carefully I place my boot, and yet still it slips, and a tiny splash, louder than the clash of arms to me this night, echoes ominously across the still downs…
Violently Merry turns back and forth in the saddle staring blindly into the gloom. The pony stumbles at his sudden movement and its hooves catch themselves, thumping solidly into the grass. It pauses and snorts a little. With eyes wide and fearful, Merry watches ghostly grey water swirl around its fetlocks, silent and unreal. He can hear the bright chatter of water over stones but it is very far away, like a sound in a tunnel, distant as the just-faded dream.
With only a little urging the pony starts to walk forward again. Merry longs to dig his heels into the sides of his mount and spur it to run and run, galloping away from this shadow world and back to the Shire, back to Brandy Hall and a hundred chattering cousins, back to hearthsides and harvest-homes, back to chestnuts roasting on the open fire. But this is treacherous country, evil and haunted, and Merry knows he must resist the urge to plunge away to clearer air. Who is to say there would not be worse than ghosts to meet were he to give the pony its head? Or even that his Adventure would not merely end in a broken neck? That would be bad enough, when all is said and done. And there are his cousins to find, and Sam, and he knows he couldn’t face himself in the mirror in the morning, were he to abandon them all to danger and death, however tempting are the thoughts of home.
But the memories strengthen him a little. He lets go the mindless grip he has on the clasp of his cloak. He is not choking, however tight his throat feels. He stretches fingers, that still feel cold, and sees them too pale and white with traceries of blue veins under the skin. They have livid red marks where the button has pressed hard, where he has held it too tightly, all unaware.
Another hill, and the pony’s steps move them both slowly up its flank. Is there no end to this country? Is there no escape? Oh, where are Frodo and Pippin? Merry realises he no longer has any faith in the notion that the pony is following the scent of its fellows, yet he keeps going as it is the only thing he can do, the hope vain in his heart that he will find them.
The feeling of pressure has grown. Merry realises his neck is bowed as though beneath a burden, and he can see his breath misting in the air about him, lighter clouds to mingle with the grey miasma that still surrounds him. The chill has deepened too, he thinks, although he is so cold it is hard to tell. He shivers suddenly, a wrenching bone-deep shudder that wracks his small frame, and he instinctively curls his toes into the pony’s sides for warmth. It sidles at the touch, a sideways step or two, and Merry catches movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns involuntarily and cowers, a gasp forcing its way past lips gone pale and numb. A indistinct shadowy figure looms out of the twilight, and foul darkness swirls about it, but for two pale luminous eyes. Another ghost? But unlike the shades that came before, this apparition brings movement, and awareness, and a smell of rotting earth and dusty stone, and the pony rolls a frantic eye as it catches the alien scent.
Clutching fingers reach out, thin and bloodless, and Merry is choked with horror, his mind scrambling in fear. Is this how it felt when his cousins faced the Black Riders? This awful sense of helplessness, of pressing ageless malice? This creeping sense of dread, that freezes the marrow in his bones? Merry feels crushed beneath the weight of years, of death too long eluded. It bears down upon him and reaches to take him in its grip.
The pony bolts. Desperately Merry reaches for the slackened reins, and for precious seconds he holds on, but his hands are too cold, too numb, and his tenuous grasp slips. With a despairing cry he falls, landing hard and rolling on the turf, and with the speed of terror the pony vanishes into the mist. Frantically, he digs his fingers into the grass and looks around wildly. The fog is grey and impenetrable and the silence closes in. There is nothing to see but Merry knows he will not be alone for long.
Is this what has come upon his cousins? This spectre from the grave? Is this then a Black Rider, unhorsed and taken other guise? Or is this a being of this dreadful land, come to suck the marrow from his bones, as in all the children’s tales? Oh, where are Frodo and Pippin and Sam? Have they already succumbed? Has this terrible creature taken them? Merry was riding at their backs, the last in line, to protect them from what rode after, or so he had hoped, though it seems now that it was as futile and awry as all his guidance has proved of late, and bitter is the memory. So now, is he all that remains of their company? It is a paralysing thought, and Merry feels the ice creep a little closer to his heart as he contemplates it. Then, even in his despair, even as all hope seems to flee, he feels a stiffening in his blood, and a resolve to face the darkness, to put on as brave a face as he can, even if he is utterly doomed. No creature of evil, or unliving shade, shall find him scrabbling in the dirt, and take him as he crawls. No! He shall at least stand on his own two feet and stare his doom in the eye – it is little enough to be proud of, to take with him into darkness, this small feat. He will at least do this.
Merry pushes himself upright and stands swaying. His feet are numb, and his elbow throbs where he caught it as he fell, but he is defiant. Blindly, he stares into the chill gloom, his heart pounding, fists clenched uselessly at his side. And so he watches it come. There is a sound now, all pretence at deception gone, almost a hissing and the soft susurration of ragged cloth dragging the ground. The eyes are far above him, sickly luminescence bent upon him, but this time he stares back and ignores as best he can the icy chill that breathes from the figure before him.
“You are the last.”
It sighs the words, and Merry feels congealed, a gelid block, torpid with the cold. He can barely hear his heart cry out for his lost companions.
“But I have not forgotten you.”
And the figure reaches. Merry can scarcely move, though his spirit is stirred now, yet still he is determined that he will not be taken helplessly, like a coney in a snare. He staggers, a step merely, but it is enough, it is enough to see…
I am the last of them. The men of Carn Dûm came upon us in the night, and bravely my men have fought, but they have all succumbed at last. I watched them fall in my defence, and my heart has bled, even as my face has been as stone, for my resilience gave them hope. I alone know there is none. Our enemies seem endless and they fight with fear at their backs, stronger than the fear of their foes, for they have a dreadful master. But I am determined to meet my end as a Prince should, for I am the last, the last of my house, the last Prince of Cardolan. I will show them how to die. The moon glimmers on my blade as I raise it again, and the blood on the ground shines black as jet…
Unaware, Merry raises his arm, and if his hand did but wield a sword, in one sure thrust it would have cleanly struck the heart of the figure before him…
Their leader has come. If I had the breath left to laugh, I would. So I will be defeated by the very foe I sought to overthrow. It is fitting, somehow. Fitting. Angmar’s power grows but it will not last forever, the Men of Westernesse will rise again, the Dúnedain will yet prevail. This is not over. I will not be forgotten, and that is enough - it must be. I spit blood from my mouth and hold to that thought, as I raise my weapon and smile…
The barrow-wight stretches out its arm and grasps at Merry, and it feels as though a thousand splinters of ice are piercing him, and he cries out…
Ahh… The spear in my heart… It is cold, so cold. Ah, Tyrn Gorthad remember me… I loved you like life, like breath. Let my blood water your soil, let my flesh feed your earth. Remember me, I beg of you…
“Remember me…” Merry whispers, and crumples. All thought flees before him, and his memories mix and swirl like fog, but there is light even in the blackness – flickers of gold reflect from a crown and from a hearthstone; gleams of bronze chase patterns in a blade and in a tankard. His friends die around him, and yet he laughs with them at table. He falls into darkness, but he will remember, he will always remember… For his spirit, even as it flees, takes the imprint of this land, and his bones hold its secrets. Long ago it was begun, but now at last, at long last it shall be ended, and the land shall breathe again. Many days may pass until fulfilment, and Merry knows it not, but this fight, the last fight… this fight is now his.
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.