26. Against Advice
Young Merry is behaving in a most un-hobbit-like manner, Gimli thought, as he watched his companion pick half-heartedly at the only thing that usually got a hobbit's full attention: food. They had left the Golden Wood far behind, and had stopped for the night. Aragorn had allowed a small fire, for the night was damp and chill.
Merry had barely touched his portion of cured meat, a half-wafer of lembas and the last piece of fresh fruit they were likely to see in a while. His eyes strayed from the warm blaze to the two tall figures standing just outside the rim of firelight, their heads drawn together. They kept their voices down, but by their gestures, it was clear that Aragorn and Legolas were continuing the heated, private discussion they had begun almost immediately upon leaving Lothlorien. Gimli had not been taken into their confidence, but he figured he could guess the topic—and surely, so could the young hobbit.
Merry sighed and looked up at his companion. "They're talking about me again, aren't they?" he said.
Gimli frowned. He'd been right. Merry could guess well enough. "What makes you think that, youngster?"
"I may be young, but I'm not a fool, Gimli." The hobbit's round cheeks were bright red, and his warm brown eyes flashed. "Frodo persuaded Aragorn to allow me to come, but I know he regrets his decision. And I can understand why—what use will I be in a battle? He's trying to talk Legolas into taking me to safety somewhere, to get me out of harm's way. And Legolas isn't interested."
The dwarf grunted. "We're all a bit lost right now. We thought we knew where this long road was taking us; not that we liked the destination, but at least we knew. I, for one, am feeling befuddled at the moment. Likely Aragorn and the Elf are feeling the same."
"That may be, but at least they ought to include me in their discussion about me!" Merry said. He placed his food on the ground and stood. "And I'm going to go demand just that, right now."
Merry spun on his heel and took three steps toward the darkness, and halted. Aragorn and Legolas had emerged from the shadows and were approaching.
The Heir to the Master of Brandy Hall pulled himself to his full height—which brought the top of his curly head to just below Aragorn's breastbone—and planted his fists on his hips. Merry thought of Frodo's steely toughness when faced with an injustice, and his father Saradoc's commanding tone when running the Buckland Council, and Farmer Maggot's stalwart courage in the face of a Black Rider at his gate. He tried to emulate all three at once.
"All right, you two, enough is enough," he said, trying desperately to keep any piping shrillness from his voice. Sound strong, don't be pleading, he thought. You've every cause to be here. Gandalf defended your right to be one of the Nine Walkers. Stand up for yourself! "If you have something to say to me, then out with it. Enough secrets!" His chin rose stiffly. "Strider, before you decide my fate, I have the right to my own say in it! Legolas, you may be hundreds of years older than me, but that does not give you say over where I go and what I do!"
The Elf and the Man glanced at one another, then turned their intense gazes toward the hobbit.
"We had just come to the very same conclusion, Meriadoc," Legolas said.
Aragorn's expression was a complex mixture of contriteness, worry and a touch of amusement. "You've guessed right, we were talking about you; and that was most unfair. I take responsibility for it. Legolas has been in favor of including you in our discussion from the very beginning, and I resisted it…until now."
Merry felt himself suddenly overwhelmed with anger, and to his shame, hot tears threatened to overflow his stinging eyes, and his lip quivered. "You didn't trust me!" he said in a choked voice. "After all this time, you don't trust me to know what is best for me, do you, Strider?"
The suggestion of amusement vanished from Aragorn's face. "No," he said softly. "I did not, and I ask your forgiveness, my friend. All I could think was how you needed protection, Merry, and where I am going, I doubt very much that I can provide any such thing."
"But I reminded Aragorn that Mithrandir himself spoke on behalf of you and your kinsman accompanying the Ringbearer," Legolas said. "And the Lady Galadriel allowed you and Peregrin to gaze into her Mirror. They are wiser than either of us, and if they could place their trust in you, so should we."
Merry flushed as he looked into the Elf's deep green eyes. He didn't often find himself directly addressing Legolas; he found it disconcerting to peer into his ageless and astonishingly fair face. "Thank you, Legolas," he mumbled, as his eyes dropped.
"Shall we be seated and continue this discussion?" the Elf said.
The four companions placed themselves around the fire. Gimli watched in silence as light and shadows flickered on their faces. By Mahal, the Man looks grim. But that Elf…such implacable calm! Nothing ever seems to ruffle that one. I'd give a handful of gold to see him at a loss for words, or begging forgiveness from a friend…Not likely, as I suppose he'd never admit he could be in the wrong… And the youngster—the fire's flared up in him now. I think it does him good to face his future separated from his fellows. His thoughts to this point, I'm guessing, were all on how to help his kinsman, Frodo, or to keeping his younger cousin out of trouble. Now he'll have a chance to come into his own…
Aragorn opened his mouth to begin, but Merry cut him off.
"I think I should have my say first, Strider," he said.
The Ranger nodded once. Merry flushed, and went on.
"You said, Legolas, that Gandalf—Mithrandir—spoke on our behalf so that Pippin and I could come on this journey. I'll never forget that moment for as long as I live." He paused as he pictured that cold December day in Rivendell, when his heart had leapt into his throat. He hadn't dared to look at Pippin, but kept his eyes fixed on the old wizard's face, in profile as he spoke to the Lord of Rivendell. Gandalf had glanced toward him at last, and Merry saw the flicker of a smile cross his aged face—and a hint of worry simmering in his dark grey eyes. Merry had never told anyone what he saw—or thought he saw--that day. The hobbit went on. "But I have to admit that I've often wondered exactly what he had in mind by insisting that Pip and I come along. I meant to ask him, before we parted, in Lorien…but I suppose, knowing Gandalf, he wouldn't have told me, even if he had anything in mind at all. Maybe it was just a whim, or his way of getting in the final word with Lord Elrond…"
Aragorn snorted softly. "Quite perceptive of you. I quizzed him on this very topic, and he evaded my attempts to pin him down. I, too, would have wondered if his insistence on including the two of you were not some impulsive whim…or a fit of pique at the thought that the Company might be overwhelmed with Elves, more difficult creatures to control than hobbits…" Gimli grunted, and Legolas sat up stiffly and glared. But Aragorn continued. "…if I did not know him better. But I do know him better, and I can assure you that Gandalf the Grey is not prone to whims or fits. He would not have spoken in support of you if he did not truly believe you had some important role to play, Merry. Even, he would be the first to admit, if what role that would be was not immediately clear to him."
Merry nodded to the man with a tight smile. "Well, that's good to hear, especially from you." He drew in a deep breath before he went on. "And while we are speaking of Gandalf, I know he said that we should keep what we saw in the Lady's Mirror to ourselves. I feel a bit strange going against a wizard's specific advice. But I can't imagine that the knowledge of what I saw could possibly do anyone any harm. And so I'm going to tell you. I know exactly where I am supposed to go. I saw it, clear as day."
Merry looked around at the faces of his companions, all so much older, wiser and stronger than he. He swallowed hard and tried not to think of how out of place he felt among them.
"You see, I saw horses. Not just a few: hundreds; thousands, maybe. Galloping, with men on their backs, men with golden hair, armed with spears and swords, with flags of green, white and gold. And I was with them, riding on one of their great horses, sitting in front of someone—a warrior, or a knight." He paused and stared at Aragorn. "I might never have been there, but even I know where that must be. Rohan. I am supposed to go to Rohan. And aren't you going to Rohan, Aragorn?"
Aragorn gazed back at him. "At the very least I will cross that land. As we are disclosing visions, I might as well be clear about my immediate plans. I intend to make for the Gap of Rohan, in hopes of intercepting my kinsmen, the Rangers of the North, who ride south to my aid." Legolas gave him a searching look; Aragorn returned it. "I pried that much loose from Gandalf. He admitted that he summoned them, 'by means more swift and certain than riders,' he said. He also said I would need them, which is certainly true. I have never had more need of them. If I know Halbarad, my kinsman and commander in the North in my absence, he would ride south from the Angle by the swiftest path, and that would take them to the Gap."
"But won't that bring you near Isengard, which Gandalf said we should avoid?" Merry said.
Aragorn nodded at him with a look of approval. "I see you studied your maps, Master Brandybuck. But when Gandalf said that, his concern was primarily for Frodo's safety, and for the safety of that which he carries." He frowned. "I will have to take the risk that a lone rider might not rouse Saruman's interest."
Gimli sniffed. "Not a lone rider—for where you go, Aragorn, I go." The Ranger's frown eased. "That is what I learned in the Lady's Garden. My doom is to follow you, young man, wherever you go." Then Gimli frowned, and his eyes briefly flickered toward the Elf. But Legolas was gazing elsewhere; no one but Merry saw it. "At least, for the time being…" the dwarf muttered. Merry wondered what else Gimli had seen in the Mirror.
"I am honored, Gimli. Your axe shall be most useful." Aragorn turned to Legolas again. "But you do not plan to accompany me—us--that far, do you?" he said softly.
The Elf's placid features showed a flash of surprise before returning to his usual calm demeanor. "How did you guess, if I might ask?"
The man's face was stern. "Because you forced this discussion, tonight, as if a crossroads were soon to be reached. You intend to leave us, and soon, do you not? Perhaps as soon as tomorrow."
The others now stared at Legolas. He looked through the wavering, heated air above the flames at his companion's faces. "Very well. I too shall ignore the admonishment of an Istar, and tell you some of what I saw in the Mirror of Galadriel. My path takes me to the Realm of the Onodrim."
Aragorn's brows rose as he took in this news; but the others frowned in confusion.
"Translate, please," grumbled Gimli. "Where, pray tell, is this realm, and what are Onodrim?"
Legolas drew in a breath to speak, but Aragorn answered more quickly. "The Onodrim are the Ents. And their realm is quite near: the Forest of Fangorn. We cross the swift stream of the Limlight tomorrow, and its sources are deep in the north of that forest."
"'Ents!'" Gimli growled. "I thought they were a legend of the Elder Days, or died out ages ago!"
Merry looked perplexed. "What are Ents? I've never even heard the word before."
Legolas turned his bright gaze on the hobbit. "The Onodrim are known to Men as the Shepherds of the Trees. They are the oldest race of speaking creatures, save for my own people."
"Tree Herders!" Gimli muttered under his breath. "What ridiculous nonsense—as if trees would wander off without a shepherd to guide them…"
But a light dawned in Merry's face. "Tree Shepherds! There are children's tales of creatures as tall as trees that once walked the northern woods of the Shire. And then there's the Old Forest, just east of my home of Buckland. We passed through it on our way to Bree…"
"Frodo spoke of it at the Council," Aragorn said. "And it is a strange place, where the trees seem malevolent and more than partly awake."
"They are! One of them nearly cut me in half!" Merry cried. "If ever there were trees that needed herding, it would be the trees of the Old Forest." He looked at Legolas. "You know, the Mirror showed me more than just horses. The first thing I saw was an ancient woods, and I was walking through it… I thought I was seeing the Old Forest, and I couldn't quite figure out why the Mirror would take me back to a place I'd already been, and won't likely see again any time soon. But perhaps…"
A faint smile appeared on the Elf's face. "Yes, perhaps… Perhaps you and I are destined to travel together to seek for the Onodrim, Master Brandybuck."
"But why should you seek for Tree Herders?" Gimli said gruffly. "War is soon upon us, on all sides. What use are trees in a war, save as a source of wood for arrows, or fuel for fires?"
Aragorn and Merry frowned, for certainly Gimli's rather blunt question was a valid one. But Legolas peered at him coldly. "It was Mithrandir himself who suggested the seed of an idea of just how valuable an Ent… or an army of Ents… might be in a war. For, as he put it, when one wishes to topple a wall of stone, ask for assistance from a tree."
"Sounds like a mixed up version of something old Balin might have said," the Dwarf muttered suspiciously.
But the Man and the Hobbit were frowning again. Merry recalled seeing a brief glimpse of a ruined city built of stone, its walls all toppled and torn to bits. And Aragorn was remembering that a certain powerful, traitorous enemy had sheltered himself within an apparently impregnable stone fortress… and perhaps that fortress might not be impregnable, after all. A smile slowly grew on his features as one of the many worries that harried him was lightened a bit, and he nodded in silence toward Legolas.