As always, thank you, everyone, for your kind comments, they make my day! And thanks to TG for betaing.
Chapter 11- Deception
“Dernhelm?” I heard a familiar voice ask somewhat tentatively. It can’t be morning already! I silently protested. It seemed like I had closed my eyes only a moment ago.
I felt someone shaking my shoulder, then heard the voice again. “Dernhelm, wake up.”
I groaned and rolled over, trying to shut out the voice so I could go back to sleep. At least I didn’t dream this time, I thought. It was now the fifth day since we had left Dunharrow, and every time we had stopped to rest I had not slept much. I feared to take any of my armour off even to sleep; fortunately, no one thought it strange that I left my helm on, since we were under orders to be ready to move at all times. Still, more than once had been grateful for the little padding my hair provided inside my helm as I attempted to get as comfortable as I could.
Besides the physical discomfort, I had been plagued by troubling dreams every night. Often they would begin with Aragorn riding into the Dwimmorberg. I would try to follow, but would get lost and wander alone in the dark. Then I would see a figure in the distance and think it was him, only to find when I drew near that it was Gríma. I tried to tell you, Éowyn, he would say. I told you he wouldn’t want you. And this desperate plan of yours will fail as well. What are you trying to prove? Do you think that by falling in battle, you will make him think better of you? You are no warrior; all you will do is bring shame upon your house. I had no answer for him. The strain of having to guard my every action in order to maintain my deception was wearing on me, as well as the guilt that was starting to creep up on me from the realization that I had left my people in Dunharrow without a leader.
Sometimes it seemed to me that there was a third person there too. I could never see his face, but I could always sense him in the shadows as if he were waiting for me. The thought made me shiver.
“Dernhelm?” the voice came again. I reluctantly opened my eyes to see Merry kneeling beside me. I moved to sit up, and every muscle in my body protested at the action. Though I was by no means a stranger to the saddle, I was unused to riding so far in so short a time, especially in full armour. I gritted my teeth and forced myself up.
“Merry? What’s happening?” I asked, barely having the presence of mind to keep my voice low.
“We’re getting ready to leave. The Wild Men are going to lead us to the outer walls,” Merry said. “They say the Orcs have blocked off the road. The king and Lord Éomer do not think we will reach Minas Tirith today,” he added with a sigh.
I could understand his frustration. I just wanted to get this over with. I knew Merry was anxious as well; from what little we had spoken, I knew one of his kinsmen had gone ahead to Gondor, and that Merry was afraid for his safety. I had no words of comfort to offer him, nor did I wish to speak. The more I spoke, the greater the chance was that I would reveal myself. So I had remained silent for much of the journey, much to Merry’s dismay.
It did not help matters for him that the other Riders ignored Merry as well, though I was content with the lack of attention. He had been discovered during our first night at camp; Elfhelm had somehow discovered that I was responsible for his presence and had confronted me. The interview was completely nerve-wracking for me, but somehow he did not guess who I truly was. We finally came to an understanding that as far as he was concerned, Merry was not there, and whatever happened to him would be on my head. For that reason, I was determined to protect the Halfling as well as I could ere I fell.
Merry’s face mirrored my own grim determination as we silently prepared for the day’s ride, rolling up blankets and packing saddlebags. The darkness that had covered the sky since the beginning of our journey had grown ever deeper, until it seemed that we rode in perpetual twilight. Though I was glad that the dim light would help hide my features further, my sense of despair grew deeper every moment. I could tell that the other Riders’ hearts were troubled as well.
Finally we were on our way. The ride was much slower than that of the previous four days, as we were often forced to dismount and find paths the horses could take down into the valley. Not too far ahead of me I could see Elfhelm’s horse, with a short, stout figure easily leading him through the forest. I decided that must be one of the Wild Men that Merry had spoken of.
For hours uncounted we scrambled through the thick undergrowth. All other thoughts save the next step were pushed from my mind as I saw to the tedious chore of finding places where it would be safe for Windfola to walk. Finally, we passed through thick grey brush onto a little-used road, and the order was given to make camp and rest for what remained of the day. Though I can hardly see how they would know the difference, I thought ruefully as I looked up at the darkened sky.
After picketing Windfola and loosening his tack in order to give him a little more comfort, I rolled out my blanket and dug through my saddlebag. There was little left of the food I had brought; just enough for perhaps two more small meals. I pulled out a stale loaf of bread and broke it in half, then handed one piece to Merry. I had no appetite, but forced myself to choke the food down, chewing slowly and washing every dry mouthful down with a swallow of water. Merry sat silently beside me, though he ate much quicker. One thing I had learned about hobbits, as Merry referred to his people, was that they were quite fond of their meals, and that where he came from the day’s rations would hardly be considered sufficient for what he called “second breakfast.”
Merry was beginning to look increasingly uncomfortable as I finished my meager meal. Finally, I asked him, “What is it, Merry?”
“They say we’ll reach the city tomorrow,” Merry said. “I was just wondering…” I looked at him steadily until he finished, “When we come to the battle, will I just be in your way?”
I was silent for a long moment as I considered his question. I had not really thought of that before, and I had no way of knowing what would happen when the battle started. But as he looked up at me, I felt I had to reassure him somehow, even if I did not believe it myself. “No, I do not think you will be. You’ll ride behind me, and if you keep your sword low, I think we’ll be able to keep out of each other’s way.”
“I hope so,” Merry said softly. “I do not wish to be a burden.”
“You won’t be,” I said, hoping it would be true.
We fell into silence again until Merry looked up at me and asked, “Would you think me a coward if I said I am a little afraid?”
I gave him the best half-smile that I could muster. “Of course not. It is your first battle; I’ve heard even the strongest men get nervous on such an occasion.”
“I know…it’s just, I do not wish to die, if I can avoid it.” Merry looked down at the sword at his belt. “I would like to see the Shire again, if I can.” He glanced back up at me again. “Are you afraid?”
I turned my gaze back outwards. “To die? No, I am not afraid.” My voice dropped to nearly a whisper as I added, “An honorable death is the only hope left to me now.”
“Why’s that?” Merry asked.
“I have nothing left to return to,” I said, hoping my tone would end the discussion. It did, to my relief. But long after Merry had fallen asleep, I lay awake; his question kept nagging at me along with Wormtongue’s accusing words from my dream, until I was forced to admit that though I did not fear death, I was afraid. The quiet question kept echoing in my mind: What if you survive the battle?
I must have fallen asleep eventually, because the next thing I knew, we were preparing to leave again. The darkness had grown slightly darker, so I guessed that night must have fallen. The Wild Men had departed, but we were on the road leading directly to the city now and had no more need for a guide. All around me I could hear nothing more than the steady beat of horses’ hoofs and the clinking of armour; not a man dared speak as we rode. By some chance, Elfhelm’s éored had ended up riding just behind my uncle’s company. I signaled to Windfola to move a little faster, and was soon a little further up in the column. In this way, moving up a little then keeping pace with the surrounding Riders for a moment, I was able to move unnoticed until I was at the rear of the king’s company. If Merry noticed, he did not say anything.
The captains called for a brief pause, and from where Merry and I were, we could hear the report of the scouts. “There are great fires, lord,” one of them said. “The city is all set about with flame, and the field is full of foes.” For a moment, I felt a little shaky as I wondered what sight would greet us when we arrived. I could feel Merry tensing up behind me. Then the scout continued, “But all seem drawn off to the assault. As well as we could guess, there are few left upon the out-wall, and they are heedless, busy in destruction.”
I could hear another voice now. “Do you remember the Wild Man’s words, lord? I live upon the open Wold in days of peace; Widfara is my name, and to me also the air brings messages. Already the wind is turning. There comes a breath out of the South; there is a sea-tang in it, faint though it be. The morning will bring new things. Above the reek it will be dawn when you pass the wall.”
“If you speak truly, Widfara, then may you live beyond this day in years of blessedness!” my uncle exclaimed, hope in his voice. Then he turned and spoke to us in a voice louder and clearer than I had ever heard from him, and my courage was renewed at his words.
“Now is the hour come, Riders of the Mark, sons of Eorl! Foes and fire are before you, and your homes far behind. Yet, though you fight upon an alien field, the glory that you reap there shall be your own forever.” My heart leaped at this; that was my only wish. He continued: “Oaths you have taken; now fulfill them all, to lord and land and league of friendship!” The men around me clashed their spears against their shields, and after a moment’s uncertainty I followed suit. Théoden directed for my brother to lead the first éored, in which I now rode; the other two companies would go to either side of us. He gave one final call to us. “Strike wherever the enemy gathers. Other plans we cannot make, for we know not yet how things stand upon the field. Forth now, and fear no darkness!” And with a cry, he moved Snowmane into a full gallop.
“Hold on, Merry,” I said as Windfola snorted, eager to run. I could feel the Halfling clutch tightly at my sword-harness as I let the horse go. As we flew over the grassy plain towards the outer wall, I felt freer than I had for all the long years of waiting by my uncle’s side, and allowed my face to relax into a smile as I gripped the shield tighter.
I was surprised to hear a few inhuman cries and the sound of steel clashing together. I raised my arm in preparation to throw my spear, but both sounds soon ceased and the king halted. We had reached the outer wall, or what was left of it; a huge gap had been torn in the wall and piles of rubble lay where the gates had been. As the king’s éored crowded close about him, I found myself close to Théoden. The other two éoreds moved off to either side as we began to pass through the gate.
As we passed through the breach in the wall onto the Pelennor Fields, all was deadly still, save the lines of fire that lit up the distant silhouettes of the enemy. We silently rode unchallenged towards the east, closer to the siege-fires. The smoke-filled air seared my lungs and caused my eyes to water. In the distant gloom, I could see a shadowy mass towering above the field and the occasional flicker of flame–my first glimpse of the city of Minas Tirith. As I looked upon the city, I felt suddenly ill, and for the first time I doubted my decision to come. No matter what happened to me that day, it couldn’t possibly make any difference–it seemed we had come too late. I clutched at the hilt of my sword once again for reassurance, biting my lip to try to force down the terror and hopelessness that threatened to overwhelm me. Behind me, I could feel Merry shifting uncomfortably as he tried to see what was happening. Ahead of me, I could see the silhouette of my uncle, with Éomer by his side. He was staring straight ahead at the city, and it seemed that once again he had grown frail with despair.
Just when it seemed things could not grow any darker, I could see a far-off glimmer of light–the first glimpse of sunlight I had seen in days. Far away, the clouds ended and I could see the first rays of dawn. I could also feel a slight breath of wind on my face. At the same time, I saw a flash like lighting spring from before the city, followed by a peal of sharp thunder. As if the sound had wakened him from a spell, the king straightened up and turned to us, crying: “Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered; a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now! Ride now! Ride to Gondor!” He grabbed a horn from the Rider who carried his banner and blew a loud, clear note on it.
As the other Riders sounded their horns in response, the doubt cleared from my mind. This was exactly where I was supposed to be. My uncle flew over the field ahead of even Éomer, and with a cry, I spurred Windfola into a run towards the city. The battle had begun.