The Return of the King (Page 14)
A little apart the Rangers sat, silent, in an ordered company, armed with spear and bow and sword. They were clad in cloaks of dark grey, and their hoods were cast now over helm and head. Their horses were strong and of proud bearing, but rough-haired; and one stood there without a rider,
Aragorn’s own horse that they had brought from the North; Roheryn was his name. There was no gleam of stone or gold, nor any fair thing in all their gear and harness; nor did their riders bear any badge or token, save only that each cloak was pinned upon the left shoulder by a brooch of silver shaped like a rayed star.
The king mounted his horse, Snowmane, and Merry sat beside him on his pony: Stybba was his name. Presently Éomer came out from the gate, and with him was Aragorn, and Halbarad bearing the great staff close-furled in black, and two tall men, neither young nor old. So much alike were they, the sons of Elrond, that few could tell them apart: dark-haired, grey-eyed, and their faces elven-fair, clad alike in bright mail beneath cloaks of silver-grey. Behind them walked Legolas and Gimli. But Merry had eyes only for Aragorn, so startling was the change that he saw in him, as if in one night many years had fallen on his head. Grim was his face, grey-hued and weary.
‘I am troubled in mind, lord,’ he said, standing by the king’s horse. ‘I have heard strange words, and I see new perils far off. I have laboured long in thought, and now I fear that I must change my purpose. Tell me, Théoden, you ride now to Dunharrow, how long will it be ere you come there?’
‘It is now a full hour past noon,’ said Éomer. ‘Before the night of the third day from now we should come to the Hold. The Moon will then be two nights past his full, and the muster that the king commanded will be held the day after. More speed we cannot make, if the strength of Rohan is to be gathered.’
Aragorn was silent for a moment. ‘Three days,’ he murmured, ‘and the muster of Rohan will only be begun. But I see that it cannot now be hastened.’ He looked up, and it seemed that he had made some decision; his face was less troubled. ‘Then, by your leave, lord, I must take new counsel for myself and my kindred. We must ride our own road, and no longer in secret. For me the time of stealth has passed. I will ride east by the swiftest way, and I will take the Paths of the Dead.’
‘The Paths of the Dead!’ said Théoden, and trembled. ‘Why do you speak of them?’ Éomer turned and gazed at Aragorn, and it seemed to Merry that the faces of the Riders that sat within hearing turned pale at the words. ‘If there be in truth such paths,’ said Théoden, ‘their gate is in Dunharrow; but no living man may pass it.’
‘Alas! Aragorn my friend!’ said Éomer. ‘I had hoped that we should ride to war together; but if you seek the Paths of the Dead, then our parting is come, and it is little likely that we shall ever meet again under the Sun.’
‘That road I will take, nonetheless,’ said Aragorn. ‘But I say to you, Éomer, that in battle we may yet meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor should stand between.’
‘You will do as you will, my lord Aragorn,’ said Théoden. ‘It is your doom, maybe, to tread strange paths that others dare not. This parting grieves me, and my strength is lessened by it; but now I must take the mountain-roads and delay no longer. Farewell!’
‘Farewell, lord!’ said Aragorn. ‘Ride unto great renown! Farewell, Merry! I leave you in good hands, better than we hoped when we hunted the orcs to Fangorn. Legolas and Gimli will still hunt with me, I hope; but we shall not forget you.’
‘Good-bye!’ said Merry. He could find no more to say. He felt very small, and he was puzzled and depressed by all these gloomy words. More than ever he missed the unquenchable cheerfulness of Pippin. The Riders were ready, and their horses were fidgeting; he wished they would start and get it over.
Now Théoden spoke to Éomer, and he lifted up his hand and cried aloud, and with that word the Riders set forth. They rode over the Dike and down the Coomb, and then, turning swiftly eastwards, they took a path that skirted the foothills for a mile or so, until bending south it passed back among the hills and disappeared from view. Aragorn rode to the Dike and watched till the king’s men were far down the Coomb. Then he turned to Halbarad.
‘There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least,’ he said. ‘He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.’
‘A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk,’ said Halbarad. ‘Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not.’
‘And now our fates are woven together,’ said Aragorn. ‘And yet, alas! here we must part. Well, I must eat a little, and then we also must hasten away. Come, Legolas and Gimli! I must speak with you as I eat.’
Together they went back into the Burg; yet for some time Aragorn sat silent at the table in the hall, and the others waited for him to speak. ‘Come!’ said Legolas at last. ‘Speak and be comforted, and shake off the shadow! What has happened since we came back to this grim place in the grey morning?’
‘A struggle somewhat grimmer for my part than the battle of the Hornburg,’ answered Aragorn. ‘I have looked in the Stone of Orthanc, my friends.’
‘You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!’ exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face. ‘Did you say aught to – him? Even Gandalf feared that encounter.’
‘You forget to whom you speak,’ said Aragorn sternly, and his eyes glinted. ‘What do you fear that I should say to him? Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras? Nay, Gimli,’ he said in a softer voice, and the grimness left his face, and he looked like one who has laboured in sleepless pain for many nights. ‘Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough – barely.’
He drew a deep breath. ‘It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure. And he beheld me. Yes, Master Gimli, he saw me, but in other guise than you see me here. If that will aid him, then I have done ill. But I do not think so. To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now. The eyes in Orthanc did not see through the armour of Théoden; but Sauron has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for I showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.’