38. The King's Banner
"Hush," murmured a voice, and the sound of it brought memory back. He was in Éomer's éored, riding east toward Minas Tirith, and he was not supposed to be here. Not so far as Éomer or Théoden know, he thought. His fellow conspirator and saddle companion, feeling him relax, released him just as another figure approached, and settled beside them. "Edrig," Greta said, speaking to the other, "any word about the orcs?"
"They are close," Edrig replied. "A mere few hours ahead of us. They will pick up our trail, no doubt of it."
"Bad luck, that," Greta sighed.
"I hope the old Woses have no worse than drums to offer, meanwhile," Edrig said and snorted softly, though he cocked his head as the throb of strange drums sounded once more. Merry, too, listened anxiously. They had sent scouts ahead of them on the road, only to have them return with news of a rampaging company of orcs nearing the beacon hill of Eilenach. Since it had not been a large company, Théoden had sent Elfhelm's éored on ahead to clear them away, and also to send out more out-riders. By the time the main host had arrived and taken shelter in the eaves of the Druadan forest, Elfhelm's company had destroyed the orcs, but the fear of still more of them had been borne out by the news of the returning scouts.
As if that were not enough, the entire company had become aware of watching eyes—the drumbeats had begun soon after Elfhelm had taken to the woods to wait for the king's arrival, or so word had it, and now they sounded nearer, more urgent. Merry did not know the Woses, but the Rohirrim certainly seemed uneasy at the idea that they were watching, although orders had gone round the camp that none were to shoot into the woods unless shot at. He supposed that might be taken as a hopeful sign, for surely the king had no desire to lose any Riders when all were needed on the road to Minas Tirith; that ought to mean that there was little risk of being shot at by these Woses, yet still, Merry worried.
As did they all, in fact, but Merry alone was bound to bite his tongue and say nothing. They had agreed on that, he and Greta, before they left Dunharrow.
"The captain wants you kept secret and out of the way, so say nothing. You will ride behind me, under my cloak, so none can see you," Greta had said. "And when we pause, you will stay with me."
"But what about everyone else? Won't someone notice?" Merry had asked.
"Leave that to me," Greta had replied.
So Merry had, and it had soon become apparent that his introduction of Merry to his friends had not been wholly without purpose. For they rode all together, one to either side of Greta, and two before, two behind; whenever the éored stopped, Greta would thrust a hand behind his back for Merry to grasp, and then lower Merry down as far as he could before letting him drop, then dismount himself. Only then would the others descend from their perches, and they would move then to make a little camp within the camp. No one spoke to Merry, yet they all worked to conceal him, to bring him food and drink, and they piled their saddlebags so that Merry could sit behind them, unseen. He did not know what Greta had told them, but he suspected it had not taken much to convince them to play along—after all, they had pitied him readily enough when they had thought him denied the chance to ride to war.
Even better, whenever news went about the camp that Greta thought Merry should hear, he made sure to talk about it with one of his friends in front of him. Eastfold border-lads all, they knew their Westron better than most, for which Merry was grateful. It had been a gloomy, stifling four days, with little to look at other than Greta's armored back amid the heavy folds of his cloak that blinded Merry to all else and muffled his hearing. It was good to have some news, some notion of what had happened in the world outside his green cocoon. It was nearly the only comfort he had: his rear was sore, and he was weary, and fearful, and wished he dared say a word, even if only, "Thank you," to his unexpected allies. With words forbidden him, he tried to convey his gratitude by smiling when he could, and he thought they understood. Otherwise, he worried much, fretting about Pippin, hoping that Aragorn was right indeed to dare the Paths, longing to see them both again and assure himself they were all right.
But perhaps they have less to fear than I do, he thought, as the drums ceased suddenly. No one had feared that orcs might be waiting for the Grey Company on the Paths of the Dead. If the orcs find us, we shall have to fight, and that would mean delay. No one was happy about that idea, and word had it the company coming on was large indeed. Possibly too large for the Rohirrim to break past it, which ruled out any effort to simply spearhead their way through their ranks and ride for Minas Tirith.
What shall we do? He longed to ask Greta, or Edrig, or any of the others in their little band of conspirators, to see if they had any idea, but he could not. And why should they know anyway? They are only lads themselves, not captains. The only thing that was absolutely evident to him was that if there were enough orcs upon the road that even the thousands of Riders could not manage them without a pitched and bloody battle, then Minas Tirith was in serious trouble. And Legolas with it!
"I shall return," Greta said, suddenly, and Edrig looked up questioningly at him in the gloom.
"Whither do you go?"
"Trust me," Greta replied, to which Edrig only sighed and waggled a hand. 'Be gone and have done with it,' that gesture said, and Greta, with a nod for Merry, rose and disappeared south, towards the slopes, where several lantern lights were passing.
Edrig, meanwhile, crawled over to his pack and rummaged about in it before coming up with a smaller sack. This he brought back with him and dropped on the ground at Merry's side. Seating himself hard by, he opened it, reached within, and withdrew a bit of bread. This he broke, and then placed half of it back into the sack. Edrig began tearing small mouthfuls off of his part of the loaf and chewing them thoughtfully. A moment later, he smoothly tipped the sack's mouth towards Merry, clear invitation to help himself. Merry wasted no time taking him up on that offer. Although he had some food in his own pack, it was hardly enough to satisfy a hobbit's appetite.
As he ate, he watched Riders passing in the gloom beneath the pines: men moving from one group of friends to another, or from human company to equine and back again. The horses, for their part, stood in clusters, heads down and grazing, their tails swishing, stamping occasionally. After a time, two other lads—Wulfgar and Oeric—joined them, greeting Edrig ere they fell to talking quietly amongst themselves, mercifully in the Common Tongue so that at least Merry could listen.
"Were you ever sent to Mundburg?"
"Nay, only so far as Halifirien, to the courier post there."
"To bring a message for the post-master from the Third Marshal. 'Twas during the orc-raids for black horses last year."
"You heard the news out of Lord Elfhelm's company, about the orcs and the beacon guard here?"
"Eh, who has not? But what good speaking of it?"
"None, I guess."
They fell silent, leaving Merry to his restless ponderings of the evidently ill fate of the beacon guard. Memories of Uglúk made it all too easy to imagine horrors, and he set his bread aside, appetite suddenly quenched. In the woods, the drums were sounding again, and he drew his knees up to his chest, clasping his arms about them; then he lowered his head onto them and closed his eyes, listening to the beat.
So it was that he heard Greta before he saw him: swift footsteps sounded, and he glanced up just as the young man came to a breathless halt among them, crouching down to beckon them all to bend closer.
"Where have you been?" Wulfgar asked.
"The king's council, where else?" Greta replied, and his teeth showed white as he grinned at his companions' dumbfounded murmurings.
"What do you mean, the king's council? How?" Oeric hissed.
"I followed the lights, of course. How else are we to know anything?" Greta demanded, and Merry shook his head. No wonder he and Éothain get on like they do! he thought, though in fact, he found himself rather admiring the young Rider. Born conspirator, clearly!
"Captain'll have your hide," Oeric said, and shook his head, but Edrig waved him to silence.
"So what did you hear?"
"Strange allies. The Woses have offered to guide us on an old stonewain path, around the orcs, and right to the gates of Mundburg," Greta replied.
"Why would they do that?" Wulfgar asked, with a suspicious look at the woods.
"From what I heard, they do not care for the orcs or their master any more than we do. A strange people, I tell you, but their chieftain seemed true enough. True enough for Théoden King and the Marshals, at least, and so we shall move soon—this very day."
"Night, do you not mean?"
"Nay, day," Greta replied. "The Wose chieftain seems sure of it."
"But will it matter much?" Edrig asked. "The orcs are close—they cannot miss us. This secret path seems likely to do us no good if we hope to get out without a fight."
"Well, that is why—"
But at that moment, he fell silent, for voices were calling out in the gloom: officers, calling men to readiness, and a figure loomed over them suddenly. Merry blinked to see Éothain there, his helm tucked under one arm as he looked out over the Riders.
"Men of the Eastfold, hear me!" he called. "We make for Mundburg within the hour, and we go by narrow paths. Form a line, single file, and keep your water skins at hand, for we may need to walk the horses for a time. We do not stop until we have all passed the road, and then we ride as swift and straight as we can for the City."
As men stood and began readying themselves, Éothain looked down at the group of young men at his feet, and he stared straight at Merry. All about their little circle, spines stiffened and faces paled. But then, nudging a saddlebag with his toe, Éothain said sharply, "Whatever it is you lot have in here, get rid of it. You will not be needing the extra blankets where we are going." His gaze drifted to Greta, who managed an "Aye, captain," ere he gave Merry one last meaningful look, and a nod, and moved on.
Edrig, Oeric, and Wulfgar were agape, and Greta was wiping his brow, relieved, apparently, that his latest adventure remained unknown to his captain. "He knows about—!" Wulfgar said hoarsely, and gestured to Merry.
"Aye, he does. So, since he is so liberal with his advice on how to handle matters," Greta replied, and reached for his saddlebags, "let us not ignore it!"
A little while later, Merry squirmed uncomfortably, and peeked out from beneath the flap of his new seat within one of Greta's saddlebags. Wulfgar, Edrig, and Oeric had divided up his belongings and stuffed as much as they could into their own bags, but some had had to be left behind, much to Merry's chagrin. But it had been necessary. In so long a line, without the concealment of companions, it would have been well nigh impossible to hide him if ever Greta had had to dismount.
From his present perch, his view was confined to a sliver, from which he could see only the trees that fell away behind them and the dim shape of the next Rider—Edrig, he thought. With a grunt, he clutched his sword in his hands, for they had decided it would be less uncomfortable if he did not wear it, and struggled to keep his mind off the cramped quarters. All this to follow Legolas, he thought, nevertheless. And to see Pippin again, and Strider, and keep my word to Éowyn. He wondered how she was, whether it truly eased her mind to think her brother watched over by him. On the one hand, clearly a warrior such as Éomer would need no assistance from him; on the other, though, there was no question of refusing to do exactly as Éowyn had asked of him, even if he doubted he would be of much help.
I told her I would do for her as for any friend, he thought, and sighed. In truth, he could be glad—indeed, was glad—she had held him to that, that she had taken him at his word to do a friend's duty. Strider could learn a thing or two about that, I think! Though to be fair, it seemed he had learned enough from Pippin to take Pippin with him. Still, it had been nice not to have to fight Éowyn so hard for it... Even if now I almost wish she had refused me, he thought, futilely squirming about once more, trying to find some more comfortable position. What I'd not give to be a bag, for they at least don't get cricks in their backs! Something—a knee or a foot—jostled the bag: Greta warning him to keep still, and so Merry ceased his shifting.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes once more, braced his forehead against the cool of the crosshilts, and endeavored to nap.
Some time later, the flap opened, and Merry, startled, looked up to find Greta staring back. "Back aboard," he murmured, and lifted Merry free of the sack, setting him once more upon his horse's back. Merry glanced around to find Wulfgar and Oeric to either side, and a glance over his shoulder showed Edrig behind him still. Other Riders were beyond him, but it seemed the company had abandoned the long files and was forming up again.
"We have passed down the slopes and through the valley beyond, upon the Stonewain road," Greta murmured as he quickly checked his gear and gave the cinch a tug. "Word has come back that we must reorder ourselves, now that we are through, but also to cover Elfhelm's men."
"Elfhelm's men?" Merry whispered.
"Aye, the king ordered a number of them to remain behind, hidden in the woods and brush just where the path enters the valley, for there it is very narrow. They were to trap the orcs there and stop them up. But that means Elfhelm rides light, and the king may wish to send some of us to his éored."
"But I have to stay with Éomer," Merry protested. "I promised Lady Éowyn I would stay with him!"
"Do not worry, the captain knows that, I am sure. He will keep us nearby. Now, hush!" With that, Greta mounted, and cast his cloak once more over Merry, who busied himself with buckling his sword-belt back on.
Some time they sat, waiting for the rest of the Riders to file up out of the trough, and orders did indeed come back for the ranks to reorder themselves, though not as Greta had supposed. In the end, the king broke Éomer's éored off from his own host to be its own command, and brought Elfhelm's reduced company under his own banner. As men and horses shuffled ranks, scouts who had been sent out hours earlier by the lead companies returned, bearing word of a clear road.
"And of a clear wall, too, thankfully," Wulfgar muttered. It seemed that the siege had drawn most of the orcs off the Rammas Echor, and that those who remained were too enchanted with their efforts to destroy it to pay overmuch attention to the approaches.
"Greta, what are you doing?" Edrig asked suddenly, and despite the muffling of the cloak, Merry could hear the sharp confusion in his voice.
"I want a closer look, that is all," Greta replied, urging his horse forward. A closer look at what? Merry wondered, and despite the risk, he pushed the cloak aside just a bit, so he could see if he leaned a bit.
Mostly, he saw the backs of Riders, but as Greta threaded his way through them, Merry realized they were moving steadily toward the front of the formation, and the group of Riders surrounding Éomer, whose distinctive white horsetail stood out even at a distance. "Greta," he whispered, "whe—?"
But Greta simply tugged his cloak back into place, effectively cutting Merry off. And it did not take long for him to realize why, as a familiar voice sounded close at hand. "Greta, what are you doing here?" Éothain said, his tone pitched low, though Merry could hear him well enough despite the cloak.
"I was told to stay close to the Third Marshal, Captain," Greta replied quietly. Éothain made a frustrated noise.
"You were close enough before," he growled. But then: "Guthláf is moving—the signal ought to come any moment now. Very well, stay here, but have the sense to keep your head down, both of you!" This last command was delivered in a hissing undertone, ere Éothain apparently urged his mount off to take up his own position within Éomer's personal guard.
Soon, they were moving again in the deep darkness, for the day had gone down while they walked in the Stonewain Valley, and waited for all their company to pass it. Now they slowly crept down the road, 'til some word or signal came that caused the Riders to pick up their pace, urging their horses on more swiftly. All about, Merry could hear the dull rumble of their passing, and the scent of bruised grass wafted up to him.
It was several hours later before they halted again, and to Merry's surprise, Greta shifted, standing in his stirrups to pull his cloak from off of Merry, ere he sat back down upon it. "The walls are nigh," the young man said, and Merry felt a hand pat his leg. "Look!"
Merry looked, and beheld a great, towering silhouette in the dimness: walls they were, or had been, for there were great gaps in them, and fire burned in the darkness, turning the air a dull, wavering red beyond them. It was as if the very heavens were sick, and when the drums sounded from the field, Merry felt its vibration as a dreadful pulse within him. All about, the Rohirrim gathered in hushed ranks. They were drawn up, it seemed in three companies: far away to the left was the banner of the Westfold, and but a few ranks forward of Merry and Greta, the boar and swords of the Eastfold; between them both and a little ahead fluttered the white horse of the king's household. Orders began being passed through the ranks: bear right as you pass the walls and drive for the gates.
"What should I do?" Merry asked, feeling foolish for not having asked before, but in the face of the reality of the coming assault, doubt reared its head on the cresting tide of fear.
"Draw your sword, but hold fast to me," Greta replied, his voice sounding a little tight as he settled his shield firmly in place and gripped his spear. "Just keep your seat until we slow somewhat, and if you must strike, slash, do not stab, or you may have your weapon ripped from your hand."
Merry only nodded at that, and on impulse, thrust his left arm up through Greta's belt, then grabbed a handful of tunic. I suppose this is as ready as I can be, he thought, swallowing hard around the queasy lump in his stomach. Just then, Théoden cried out. Staves he spoke, though Merry understood them not, but his voice carried clear and defiant in the heavy air, and then the horns blew, echoing off Mindolluin. Again they sounded, and then with a groan and rumble, the Rohirrim began to move, the horses picking up speed swiftly, as a few scattered arrows came down from the orcs who had been assigned to watch the wall. But though a few struck, the Rohirrim heeded them not at all, and with a burst of speed, they broke upon the fields like a storm crest in the dry season, overwhelming their foes, crushing them beneath the massed charge.
Hoofs thundered on the turf as the lines spread out, and Merry, clinging for dear life, could see the king's banner flying high and proud before all, as Théoden's company outstripped all others. He was not sure who started the song, but ere long, it seemed all men were singing it. Merry could catch only snatches of it above the roar and clash of battle, and what he could hear, he did not grasp, but it seemed a terrible song indeed to go so well with the work of battle. Greta stabbed downward with his spear, pinioning an orc, as he caroled at the top of his lungs, and Merry felt more than saw another go down to his horse's steel-shod hoofs. Still, they drove on, and the hobbit cried out as more arrows came raining down. Horses screamed, and he saw, in a blur of movement, a rider go streaking by, an arrow protruding from his chest. Greta had his sword out now, and was slashing at whatever drew near. Merry even managed one quick cut, when he caught sight of something small and dark in the corner of his eye. The orc fell back, clutching his face, and Merry lost sight of him, his only thought now that he had to stay with Greta, had to stay with Greta, had to keep Greta alive to stay alive himself...
And then the world heaved and went sideways. So it seemed to Merry, at least, and he cried out in pain as he slipped away from Greta, the belt tearing at his flesh ere he was thrown free. For a moment, he lay stunned upon the ground, watching as men and horses and darts flailed and fell and streaked overhead, and something was screaming—screaming fit to tear Merry's heart in two, he felt, or split his head open. Somebody nearby was cursing and weeping, and men seemed to be shouting in terror.
To one watching from above, perhaps from the walls of the City, what had happened was clear enough: when the horns of the Rohirrim had sounded, the Witch-king had abandoned the gates, and gone in wrath to his great, winged mount and taken to the air. Although the Rohirrim had swept through the field, cutting through the ranks of orcs like a knife, they had still met resistance: Théoden's company had come upon Haradric cavalry—perhaps the very same that had hunted Faramir's men back to the gates—and there had been matched. As the lead companies collided, the standard of Rohan had faltered, and then fallen. Its bearer, Guthláf, had taken a spear to the side, ere one of the Haradric champions had hewn his head from his shoulders.
Thus the Witch-king, seeing the white horse nowhere upon the field as he had circled above, had fixed his deadly gaze upon another: upon the boar and swords that rode nearest the walls, and might even win through to aid the defenders of the City. And so he had fallen upon them, descending from on high in a rage, and sending man and beast into a panic. The line broke, as horses bore their Riders away, heedless of their wishes, while others directly in the path of the Nazgûl were overborne and fell to the earth in their desperate efforts to escape, or else reared and bucked, throwing their masters to the ground.
Now, Merry rolled painfully onto his stomach, surprised to find he still clutched his sword and that he had not killed himself with it by sheer accident in the fall. Where is Greta? And Éomer? he wondered, remembering his charge. Looking up, he was in time to see the fell-beast toss a man aside as if he were a mere puppet, and the hobbit flinched in horror. But neither the beast nor its master had eyes for him, as the creature snapped at the unhorsed Riders, and Merry nearly threw up as its teeth and clawed wings found marks in men too stunned or terrified to flee or fight.
But in the midst of the carnage, one fallen soldier struck back at last: as the sinuous neck curved, then lashed outward, one Rider rolled swiftly to the side, then back, bringing his sword down upon its neck with a cry. The beast shrieked and staggered, swaying, and the Rider came to his feet: Éomer son of Éomund had lost his shield, but he still held his sword. But ere he could move, almost, the Witch-king wailed, his fell voice piercing, and Merry cried aloud in pain as he dropped his weapon to clap his hands over his ears. Éomer also blanched, one hand coming up as if to ward away the very sound; in that moment, the beast, perhaps obeying his master's will, lunged forward in a last effort, and one thick, clawed wingtip swept forward, hooking about the sword, while simultaneously knocking the Third Marshal to the ground.
Ignoring the convulsions of his dying mount, the Lord of the Nazgûl leapt down, and his sword was drawn and bloody as he stalked toward Éomer, who had just gotten to his knees, gasping and winded and weaponless now.
"My lord!" a new voice shouted, cracking with the strain, and something flashed bright in the air. Merry, despite his terror, jerked his head up, for he knew that voice by now. Greta was on his knees some ways away, his face dead white with fear. His hands were empty: he had thrown his sword, seeing his lord's peril, and it lay now close at hand. Éomer lunged for it, and somehow, managed to get it up to block the Witch-king's attack—not for long, not at such disadvantage. But he was not yet abandoned.
"No, Greta, don't!" Merry shouted. Or tried to—it came out a squeak of horror as Greta, moved by Merry knew not what madness or courage, grabbed a spear from the ground, lurched to his feet, and charged forward. If he had had any plan or idea beyond that, it was not apparent, but the end was predictable. The Witch-king turned on him, and moving now swift as a snake, struck with a dagger in his left hand. Wood shattered, blood sprayed, and Greta went down without a word, but it was time enough for Éomer to gain his feet and some distance at least. Then the Witch-king would brook no further delay, but he swept forward, intent upon his prey. The air rang as steel struck and scraped against steel.
For his part, though, Merry was nearly oblivious to that battle. He felt numb inside as he crawled forward to where Greta lay, bleeding. The knife had caught him in the face, tearing into one cheek, and through an eye to slice into the bridge of his nose. The hobbit reached out and patted his face gently with a trembling hand, and felt his friend's flesh clammy and chill. Horrified, he shrank back, and looked up to see Éomer stagger from the force of a blocked blow, for though the Third Marshal was a doughty fighter, against the terror of a Nazgûl's wrath, few can stand for very long: agony of a sort unknown to bodies was in his face as he desperately ducked another blow, reeling. Merry saw the Nazgûl lash out once more then, and the back of a mailed fist smashed into the Third Marshal's jaw. Éomer went down, but curiously, the Witch-king did not move to finish off his enemy. Perhaps he mocked him, or perhaps it pleased his fancy to toy with his prey, to drag death out instead of dealing it swiftly—who could say? But in that moment, a wrath kindled suddenly in Merry's heart, and outrage gave him courage, or else overpowered all else.
Not like this, the thought blazed in his mind. It cannot go like this! Clutching his own sword, he raised his eyes to the black-cloaked shape of his foe, then hastily lowered them. Not even righteous anger could bear the sight of the Lord of the Nazgûl unveiled in his power, but it lent strength to legs made weak with terror: Merry forced himself to his feet, forced himself to walk, one unsteady step at a time, toward his foe. For you promised her, continued a voice in his head; You promised to have an eye on him for her! He had no idea what he would do, poor warrior that he was, but it scarcely mattered; all that was in his head now was that Éowyn's brother must not go to lie with Greta.
And all the while that Merry tottered and stumbled forward, the Witch-king stood looming over his fallen enemy, and all his malice seemed bent upon the poor Rider who, groaning, managed to make it to all fours, though only barely. Almost, Éomer lay back down, his head drooping under the menace of his foe's unseen eyes. A moment he remained there, panting, and then in a last effort, he lunged to his feet, sword in both hands, and with a shouted oath that could not but be a prayer as well, struck, aiming to pierce his enemy's mail and stab through to the heart.
It was then the Witch-king moved. Not to evade the blow: rather, he simply ignored it, and as that deadly blade stabbed downward, Éomer's sword shattered in a glitter of shards. The Third Marshal cried out, and then again, as the Nazgûl pulled his sword free, but the Witch-king had not long to gloat. For in that moment, Merry's voice sounded shrilly: "The Shire!" And this time, it was the Witch-king who screamed, and in pain, as Merry thrust his Barrow-blade into the vulnerable spot just behind his knee. The spells that the smiths of old had laid upon that blade did their work then, cleaving the undead flesh and with it, the spell that had bound that flesh to the will of the Witch-king.
Still, even a wounded Nazgûl is a foe to be reckoned with, and Merry gasped as a terrible, stabbing pain blossomed, then died with surprising suddenness. A cold, tingling numbness suffused his limbs, spreading inward especially from his sword-arm, and without quite knowing how, he found himself upon the ground, on his back. His head lolled to one side, and he could see Éomer lying nearby, but his vision was going white—or was it? He squinted, and it seemed to him there was a light—The sun?—that shone down upon him, though it wavered, as if the air were disturbed somehow, or as if it shone through a fog. An immense weariness settled upon him, then, yet nevertheless, he smiled, for even as he watched, he saw men in strange colors and costume come sweeping forward, their spears aglitter in the new light, and one at their head wore a crown as he bore down upon the Witch-king, his sword raised.
Thus it was that the King of the Dead at last avenged his honor, fulfilling the prophecy, uttered long ago, that to the hand of no living man should the Lord of the Nazgûl fall.
But Merry, who knew nothing of prophecies, sighed softly, as a strange sound, as of music, filled his ears, bearing with it to his mind an image, as of trees and stars, though he knew not why. Later I shall know, he thought; But now, I am weary... I should so like to rest...
So he did not see the black sails, nor hear the cry that went up all around the field and in the City:
"Elendil to Gondor! The Tree and Crown return!"