Originally written in 2005 for Marigold’s Talechallenge 22, using the following two starter questions: What are Éomer’s thoughts/reactions on learning that Merry saved his sister’s life, and effectively won the battle, by valiantly stabbing the Witch-king? And, what occurred in the camp the night before Aragorn entered into the City to become King?
From his place by the campfire, Merry could see the lights that were blazing out all over the City. The feeling of joyful anticipation was almost palpable, for at daybreak, Aragorn would at last enter the White City to be crowned King. Merry wondered what thoughts were going through Strider’s mind at this very moment, in the pavilion where he was keeping vigil with Gandalf, Éomer and Prince Imrahil. Whatever they might be, they were certain to be more than one small hobbit could comprehend. Pippin had been quite right: living on the heights was not something any Brandybuck or Took could do for very long.
He turned his gaze from the City to his companions seated around the fire. They seemed to have imbibed the celebratory atmosphere, and were laughing with delight as Pippin told a very funny story about a Tower Guard and a kitten that got stuck up a tree. Pippin, Frodo, Sam, Legolas and Gimli: how dear they were to him, and how happy they all looked with the firelight dancing on their faces and shining in their eyes.
But Merry could not help but feel pensive, and even a little sad. Not too terribly far from this spot, a most beloved King had lost his life in the great battle. Théoden now lay in state in Rath Dinen, and Merry hoped that he would be allowed to visit there on the morrow and pay his respects. He wondered if Théoden was lonely in the echoing quiet among the long-dead Stewards and Kings of Gondor, and knew that if Pippin could read his mind, he would scold him for being unnecessarily fanciful and gloomy.
“…young Éomer now, he has some very large shoes to fill, if you hobbits don’t mind me using the expression.” Merry’s attention was caught by Gimli’s words. The conversation had turned from the escapades of the Guards while Merry had been lost in his sorrowful thoughts.
“What say you, Merry?” asked Legolas, turning his bright eyes on him. “You know Éomer better than any of us. Théoden was a kindly and just man and greatly loved. Éomer, I deem, is an able leader, and one who can command men, but can he inspire love in those he leads, as Théoden did?”
The eyes of the others turned to Merry as they waited for his answer. Merry did not reply at once, however, but looked into the glowing heart of the fire, and remembered…
“Meriadoc Brandybuck,” Pippin scowled, his hands on his hips as he looked down at his cousin, “have you taken leave of your senses? What do you think Strider would say if he could see you now? It’s only two days since he called you back from the brink of death. I doubt this is what he meant when he gave you permission to go abroad for short periods of time.”
Merry held the reins of Windfola’s bridle across his lap and applied neatsfoot oil to the stained leather with a soft cloth and grim determination. Pippin had had no quarrel with him when he asked to visit the stables in the 6th level of the City after learning that the Lady Éowyn’s great grey stallion had been brought there in the aftermath of the battle. When Merry had asked one of the stable lads to bring him Windfola’s harness and some oil and cloths, Pippin had only stared at him as if he’d gone mad. But when Merry had seated himself on a bale of hay outside Windfola’s stall and begun to take the bridle apart in order to clean it, that was when Pippin had started to protest vociferously.
“'A good horseman takes care of his horse first, and himself last’. That is what Théoden King told me, Pippin, more than once,” Merry replied quietly as he bent his head over his work, ignoring the slight weakness and soreness of his right arm. “And the Riders do, you know, every last one of them. No matter how tired or hungry or sore, no Rider will go to his dinner or rest until he has seen to his horse’s well-being.”
“But Merry,” argued Pippin, “Windfola isn’t your horse, he belongs to the Lady Éowyn, and I’m certain she doesn’t expect you to rise from your sickbed to clean his bridle.”
Merry set his chin in a way that Pippin recognised well. “She asked after Windfola, did you know that? Despite her own injuries and cares, she asked King Éomer to try and find him. Were she well enough, I’m sure Lady Éowyn would be here tending to him herself.” He looked up at Pippin with eyes that held yet a lingering trace of the horror he had witnessed on the Pelennor. “Windfola carried me into battle, too, Pippin. It is only right that I should care for him since she may not.”
As if in response to Merry’s words, the stallion put his handsome grey head over the half door of his stall, tossed his silken mane and forelock, and whinnied loudly. The sound echoed in the enclosed space. In the stall beside Windfola, Shadowfax watched with grave dark eyes that seemed to understand everything that was being said.
Pippin sighed. “And they say that Tooks are stubborn. I can see you won’t listen to reason.” A bell began to clang in the Citadel. “I have to go on Guard duty, Merry. Won’t you return to the Houses with me first? I don’t like to leave you here alone.”
“I’m not alone, you silly Took,” Merry replied, and indeed, hovering in the background were several awestruck stable lads who were staring at the Pheriannath with fascinated eyes. “Besides, I have both Windfola and Shadowfax to watch over me. I’ll be fine.”
Pippin threw up his hands in exasperation. “You have clearly spent too much time among the Riders, Merry dear. Well, I give up. But you haven’t heard the end of this, cousin. I’ve half a mind to find Strider and send him here to lecture you on your folly.”
Merry grinned despite himself. “As long as you don’t send Ioreth, Pip.”
“As if I would.” Pippin grinned back, but quickly sobered. “Promise me you won’t stay too long or overtire yourself,” he said, “and that you’ll go straight back to the Houses and rest when you’re finished.”
“Goodness, and here I thought I was the sober, responsible cousin,” Merry teased, although in truth he was deeply touched by Pippin’s concern.
“Very well, I promise. Now go to your post, Peregrin Took, Guard of the Citadel.”
Merry watched as Pippin strode away, proud and upright in his Guard’s uniform. His baby cousin had grown, he thought, and not simply in height. There were some things even more potent than Ent draughts in the wide world outside the Shire. He bent his head again to his task, and tried not to think about them for a little while.
“'A good horseman takes care of his horse first, and himself last’.” Merry started as a familiar voice repeated his own words back to him. “You are a true Rider of Rohan indeed, Master Meriadoc.”
Merry’s eyes flew up. Standing before him was King Éomer. So absorbed in his task had Merry been, that he had not even heard his booted footsteps crossing the stone flags. He made to rise, but Éomer shook his head, and gestured with one hand. “Do not get up.”
“Have you come to see Windfola?” asked Merry. “He is very well, as you can see. They are taking good care of him.”
Éomer regarded Merry gravely. “It gladdens me to hear it. But I have not come to see Windfola. I was searching for you when I encountered Master Peregrin in the street and he told me where I might find you.”
Merry’s heart clenched with sudden fear. “The Lady Éowyn?” he asked anxiously.
“She is resting, and gaining strength hour by hour. Have no fear,” Éomer said. “I did not seek you out to bring bad tidings.” His gaze fell upon Windfola’s bridle, and upon the oil-soaked cloth in Merry’s hand. “You do honour to my sister and my uncle with your labours. And for that I honour you.”
A blush heated Merry’s cheeks. “T-there is little enough one small hobbit can do, my lord. I only wish that it was more.”
“More?” Éomer repeated the word in a strange voice. And then, to Merry’s utter astonishment, he knelt on the hard stone directly in front of Merry, and took his oil-stained hands, cloth and all, in his own. “You saved my sister’s life, Merry,” he said. “Can you possibly believe there is aught more you need do? You have proven yourself valiant beyond all measure, and therefore have I come to ask you for your forgiveness.”
“My- my forgiveness?” stammered Merry, bewildered.
“Yes, for I wronged you in my heart and mind. I did not believe, you see, that one so small had any place on the field of battle, and so I said to my uncle at the mustering. I urged him not to allow you to accompany us, and rejoiced when he bid you stay behind. I believed that you would be a burden, or run in fear from the enemy.” Éomer sighed heavily. “Yet my sister Éowyn knew better than I, and she has told me how you alone came to her aid and that of the King, when man and beast had run mad with fear of the Witch-king and its steed.”
Éomer paused, bowed his head and said humbly, “What would have befallen her, had one small hobbit been left behind as I had thought wise? I would now be mourning not only my uncle and King, but my dear sister as well, and this City might well now be in the hands of the Enemy. For my blindness and lack of faith, I ask your forgiveness, Meriadoc of the Shire.”
And Merry, though his voice trembled, and his eyes started with tears, said, “You have it, my lord. Please, trouble yourself no longer.”
“I thank you.” Éomer raised his head, and in his own dark eyes there were also tears, but as he released Merry’s hands, he looked as one who has been relieved of a great burden. “Now, have you an extra cloth at hand? Master Peregrin warned me that, Rider or no, you should be resting, not tending to Windfola’s harness. Two sets of hands will speed the work, and the sooner you will be returned to your bed.” A smile grew on his grim face, like the rising of the sun over the plains. “I dare not disobey your cousin, Master Meriadoc. Hobbits may be small, but they are fearsome warriors.”
Merry, smiling back at him through his tears, handed Éomer one of the cloths. And while Windfola and Shadowfax looked on with equine approval, the tall King of Rohan and his small hobbit Rider sat side-by-side on the bale of hay, and worked together in companionable silence.
“Well, Merry?” Gimli’s voice roused Merry from his contemplation of the fire. “You haven’t answered Legolas’s question. What say you? Will Éomer be a leader such as his uncle was?”
Merry looked up. The memory of that day in the stable had warmed him inside far better than any fire, and tempered the sadness he had been feeling. Théoden King, he thought, had left his people in the best of hands. “Yes,” he said firmly, a Rider of Rohan proud of his King, “yes, he will.”