Merry gripped the front of the heavy saddle with hands numbed by cold and peered ahead into the mist. He felt lonely and afraid, surrounded by a great host of warriors proud and stern, moving stealthily forward through the trees, the only sound the rustle of bracken under the horses’ hooves. For all Merry’s desperate attempts to be brave, a hot tear fell onto his cold hand….
He missed Pippin dreadfully. In all the time they had been friends, Merry had always been the leader, the wiser of the twain. He had always held Pippin back from foolhardy escapades. But now Merry himself felt small and foolish. He wondered if he had done right to smuggle himself into the host of the Rohirrim and ride to war. His arms and back ached from the strain of staying on Dernhelm’s horse. Did King Théoden know he had disobeyed him, and was he angry with him?
Merry also felt desperately lonely. Éowyn – or Dernhelm, as Merry carefully schooled himself to call her in case anyone was listening - was kind to him but seemed herself apprehensive and preoccupied with her own thoughts. Merry had much time to ponder the battle that lay ahead, and to wonder would he be slain, or badly hurt and left to die on the battlefield….he wished he was with Pippin. Hobbits need to be with their own kind, and Merry thought it would not be so bad if they were together. He worried about Pippin, and imagined him all alone among tall stern knights in the great city of stone. And the mist that lay on the woods below the beacon of Eilenach was icy cold. Merry shivered miserably….
‘Do not be afraid, Meriadoc!’ said Éowyn in a low voice, putting her arm round Merry’s shoulders. ‘It will not be much further now, a day’s ride or less. We will camp here tonight, and that will be our last rest before we ride for Minas Tirith…’
Merry shivered, but this time not with cold but with fear…
When the Rohirrim were on the march Merry noticed that Dernhelm, although in the éored of Elfhelm, had moved steadily up through the ranks till they were almost in sight of the king, and Merry was afraid Théoden might see him and ducked whenever the King looked back at his army. But once Éomer, leading his éored on the king’s right flank, spied him with his sharp eyes. Merry for a long, agonised moment felt the Rohan lord’s fierce gaze scrutinise him. Then, to his surprise and great relief, Éomer smiled as if pleased to see him there, then winked and turned away and spurring forward was lost to view among his men….
It was a gloomy and dark camp that night. Fires were forbidden, in case they alerted orc scouts along the borders of Gondor. Men sat and lay in the misty dark, eating their cold rations and talking in low voices. Every man knew the next day would bring a great battle, and they knew the odds were against them….
‘I will return shortly, Merry..’ said Éowyn, getting to her feet and laying a reassuring hand on the hobbit’s shoulder. ‘Stay here and rest and be of good cheer….’
When she had walked out of earshot of the hobbit, however, Éowyn gave way to tears. The long ride was just as lonely for her, although she found some strange comfort in the company of the brave little warrior. But her heart was with Aragorn. Again and again her thoughts went back to their parting, and the legends of the Dead within the mountain. Oh why had he gone on that fatal road, and taken all their hopes with him! All her hopes too….
The coming battle held no fears for her. For one who had lost all joy in living, what terrors could death bring? Éowyn glanced guiltily across at the King’s encampment; she regretted disobeying her uncle and King. But to stay behind with the women and the servants, when she could find glory in battle at last and end the suffering and the shame…Éowyn thought if her uncle knew what pain was in her heart, he would not ask her to stay behind…
When Éowyn left him, Merry lay down and tried to sleep, but it was impossible. All around men were wakeful and restless. Merry began to think of Pippin again….
‘You might find it easier to sleep if you drink this’ said a soft voice beside him, and Merry sprang up in surprise. He had heard no-one approach; then he looked and saw it was the Elf who had played the harp and sung for King Théoden. What was his name? Líofa, that was it…
‘It’s very good, try it…’
The Elf was kneeling beside him, holding out a horn cup from which a little tendril of steam rose. Merry’s eyes were round with surprise.
‘You lit a cooking fire!’
But Líofa put a finger to his lips and smiled.
‘Elves know the secret of fire without smoke…now drink it before it gets cold…’
Despite his fear Merry was hungry, as usual. He took the cup and drank a sip. His face broke into a smile; hot milk with honey and spice, just the thing to thaw him out. He took a draught and nodded to Líofa.
‘Thank you, lord Elf, thank you very much….’
‘I am not a lord, Meriadoc. Just an Elf in the service of King Théoden’
Merry did not argue. He drained the cup of hot milk to the last dregs, smacking his lips.
‘That was good!’ he said. Líofa laughed again and Merry studied the Elf. He reminded the hobbit of Legolas rather than of the Elves of Lothlórien. His dark hair was tied back with a length of red silk and his pale face was white in the starlight. His leaf mail was of fine workmanship, but old and rusted at the edges. Nor was it of Elven make, but was ancient Gondorian armour. It was what he had been given by the Dunlendings when Marfach had taken his Galadhrim armour. But he bore the Ranger sword still….
Líofa was aware of his gaze and said;
‘Do not be afraid of the battle tomorrow, little hobbit. Fortune favours the brave…’
‘I am afraid’ admitted Merry ‘but mostly because my cousin Pippin is not with me. We are always together, you see, and I miss him. I am dreadfully worried about him in the city under seige…’
Líofa listened with a look of sympathy on his face. He replied.
‘You will be reunited. Great friendship draws one to the other….’ he stopped, thinking of himself and Callanach...
‘But..’ broke in Merry ‘King Théoden was right, little hobbits do not belong in war. I just don’t want to bring any into danger on my account….’
‘No!’ said Líofa ‘you are here because you want to protect those you love. You are not out of place….’
‘That is easy for an Elf to say’ replied Merry. ‘Elves are great warriors, like the Galadhrim…’
‘I am not of the Galadhrim’ said Líofa gently. ‘And I never went to war; I was carried off by orcs, and came here by accident. I am a harpist of King Thrandúil’
Merry nodded, thinking of the sweet singing of the Elf in Théoden’s feast-tent before they set off. He said with another sigh;
‘I wish I was back in the Shire, and Pippin with me! If I ever return home I will never leave it again. I won’t ever pine for adventures, or foreign lands. I will endure all the visits of the Bracegirdles, Boffins, Chubbs, Grubbs and Sackville-Bagginses, at whatever inconvenient time they might decide to call. Oh to be bored again!’
Líofa threw back his head and laughed, a clear silver sound that made the horses raise their heads. Merry smiled at him and went on;
‘We hobbits know little of war, or even of the outside world…’
Líofa stopped laughing. He gazed at the stars for a while, twisting a strand of couch grass in his fingers. Then he said;
‘When you were in the Shire, bored as you say, did you not realise that living as you did, caring only for the earth and the rivers and the trees, being just and happy and free, showing only kindness to each other, was itself fighting the darkness? Holding back the power of evil with good?’
Merry thought about it for a few moments. Líofa added;
‘Not all warriors carry swords and spears…’
Merry nodded then said;
‘But sometimes you have to do more to protect what you love’ he gestured to Líofa’s chain mail and said; ‘look at you! A harpist, but going to fight in a great battle!’
Líofa smiled and shook his head; the hobbit had a point. He said;
‘If wars were won by songs, I would sing forever.’
Then he grew serious and Merry saw in his grey eyes a keen silver light, the light of the Elves. He said to Merry;
‘I do believe you will find your kinsman and come safe home to your Shire…’
‘It is strange, I have always come to Pippin’s aid before, but somehow this time I believe that he will come to mine…I can’t understand it…’
Líofa’s eyes flashed. He said;
‘That is your heart speaking to you. Listen to it, Merry…’
And then, in a gesture of both friendship and benediction, Líofa placed his hand lightly over the hobbit’s heart and spoke some words in Elvish. Then he smiled at Merry and said;
‘Farewell, Meriadoc Brandybuck of The Shire. I will look for you on the field of battle tomorrow….’
And then he was gone. Merry however felt suddenly drowsy from the warmed drink, and laying down had no trouble falling asleep…
He was woken by Dernhelm.
‘Come, Merry…’ she said. ‘this is our last journey….’
A sun like a sullen red disc hung low in the Eastern sky. All about men bustled to saddle horses and mount, keeping as quiet as possible. Líofa sprang lightly onto the back of his tall rangy grey and took up position beside Tiarna under the banner of the Red Boar of Grimbold. Callanach rode up and stopped beside them, giving the Elf a wink and a smile. But from the éored behind them keen grey eyes watched them with hatred; Íarnaí, the man Callanach had wounded in defence of Marfach, was just behind them in the host. But his thoughts were not of slaying orcs….
‘Just one clear shot, my little Ranger.’ He said to himself as he gazed at Callanach and fingered his short Rohan bow..
‘One clear arrow-flight and you will be dead, although no-one will notice in a battle. They will think it was the orcs, or a stray arrow from the walls. Through the neck or in the back, to pay you for the disgrace you brought upon me….’
Íarnaí was not allowed back into King Théoden’s éored until his wound was healed but he had ridden out to fight nonetheless, for no man could be left behind in the Mark who could bear arms at all. Certainly not a man bent on vengeance…
Meriadoc looked about and felt reassured to see Líofa with Tiarna and Callanach below the Red Boar banner. Then he started as King Théoden, mounted on his snow-white charger, Snowmane, called his chieftains and army to attend to his words. He shouted in a great voice;
‘Ride! Ride now for Gondor….’
And slowly at first, then gaining speed, the great host of the Riddermark moved out through the misty trees and broke into a gallop, up the slopes, over the passes, and on to Minas Tirith and war.