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Before the Gate
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
Before the Gate

"In the midst of the field before the Hornburg two mounds were raised, and beneath them were laid all the Riders of the Mark who fell in the defence, those of the East Dales upon one side, and those of Westfold upon the other. In a grave alone under the shadow of the Hornburg lay Háma, captain of the King's guard. He fell before the Gate." ("The Road to Isengard, The Two Towers)


~~~

The wind was biting and a cold drizzle had begun to fall an hour past. Merry pulled his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. He swallowed the bile rising in his throat and bit down on his lip -- hard -- to distract himself. A slow trickle of blood made its way down Merry's jaw, but he did not raise his hand to wipe it away. His arms felt heavier than granite.

"How fare you, Master Bag?"

Merry looked over his shoulder at the newly-named Marshal of the East-mark. Elfhelm had ridden with the Fellowship's escort from Edoras after Théoden's funeral but had not spoken much with any of the hobbits, and Merry was surprised to see him there now. He did not even attempt a smile; it was a poor joke and an unwelcome reminder, and he was not in a jesting mood. He opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. Finally he shrugged his shoulders mutely.

Elfhelm opened his belt-pouch and produced a linen cloth. He reached over as if to dab at Merry's lip himself but stopped himself and offered the hobbit the kerchief instead. "Did you ever meet him?"

Merry shook his head. He felt the raindrops trickle from his limp hair down his nose and chin, through the blood and onto his elven brooch. He lifted his head and caught Elfhelm's gaze for a moment, then looked down again at the wooden board. It bore a simple carving of a horse's head and a barred door.

"This marker will rot in time," Merry said at last. "Will you replace it with a more lasting one? My folk have some skill in working stones, and we could ..."

Elfhelm laid a hand on Merry's shoulder and the hobbit looked up again. "Look around you, Meriadoc." He motioned to the causeway leading up to the gate and the great walls of the fortress towering above them. "We are not wholly without skill in masonry. Leave that to us."

The hobbit nodded slowly. "I did not know him," Merry admitted. "Who was he?"

Elfhelm's hand on Merry's shoulder tightened for a moment in what the hobbit took for surprise. "You stand in this weather by the grave of one you never met?" Merry shrugged free of Elfhelm's grasp and pivoted around so he faced the Rider, but there was no hint of laughter in Elfhelm's eyes. And that was more respect than many would have given him. Merry decided that deserved an honest answer.

"No, I never met him. My kinsman and I were away in Isengard. Safe." Merry felt his heart beat faster in his chest, and the words came before he fully realized he thought them. "We were as safe as anyone could be in those days. Well-earned spoils of war, indeed! I see those burial-mounds by the road. We fought orcs from the shelter of walking trees, if fighting you would even name it." He stuffed his fists in his pockets and looked away lest the Marshal see the beginnings of tears glistening in his eyes. After a moment he said, "But this one is laid apart from the rest. Why?"

"It was no small thing to lay waste to Isengard," Elfhelm said. "Long had Théodred and I dreamt of doing just that, but we had not the men. Even here Saruman's hordes would have broken through the Gate if not for Gandalf Greyhame and Erkenbrand's valiant men." He knelt beside the marker and ran his knuckle over the barred gate. "Here lies Háma son of Hroþwulf. He guarded Meduseld's door and would not let even Isildur's heir pass while armed. And when his King at last rode to battle, he fell before the Gate rather than surrender it."

Merry crouched down and dug his fingers into the hard earth. "We Bucklanders think of ourselves as gatewards, of a sort," he said softly, almost to himself. "We stand on the edge of the Wild, and we sometimes congratulate ourselves -- if not for us, the whole Shire would be overrun with romping trees and worse things, I've heard our Bounders say ..." Elfhelm looked at the hobbit, and Merry realized how terse his voice had become; he jumped to his feet and began pacing around the grave. "... but we have no great burial-mounds even in Buckland. There is a meadow behind Brandy Hall with row after row of gravestones like the one you'll give Háma, each marking one hobbit's final bed. No Brandybuck would ever worry that we had to earn our own grave, and even less so a Boffins or a Bolger."

"Neither do we Éorlingas, in the normal course of things," Elfhelm said. "Before this year we had fought naught but skirmishes since Folcwine's sons fell at the Fords of Poros, and that is more than two centuries past. Too many good men have fallen to Uruks and Dunlendings, 'tis true, but it has been over a long course of years. Until the last each had his own bed." Elfhelm frowned. "'Tis no dishonour to die in a great battle, but I would give every slaughtered Rider a plot of earth all his own - if only so his wife and mother could know it was hers and hers alone."

Merry nodded silently. He had felt a taint on his heart for some time; now he knew better what dark blemish he hesitated to bring back to Buckland. He had seen too much. Could he speak with this great man of his doubts? Perhaps not, but there were other questions that needed asking.

"Why did you come here? You have no horse, so you couldn't have been going far."

"I wondered when we would come to that. I have watched you since the ride from Dunharrow, Master Bag, as often as duty would allow. First for concern, for I knew not what Théoden cyining saw in you that he would accept the sword of an untried warrior. But then I saw how Éowyn's - yes, I knew Dernhelm was she - how Éowyn's heart lightened when she spoke with you. And you lifted my own." For the first time during their talk Elfhelm smiled. "We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it, may we not?"

Merry forced a cough to hide his surprise. "So you would have me play the jester, and sing a merry song for you true knights?" He scowled. "Perhaps I shall dance you a jig for good measure?"

Elfhelm quickly shook his head. "Nay, nay, Meriadoc! Do not doubt your valour. You came to the aid of our White Lady when a whole éored quaked at the Witch-king's cry. And for all your pains, you still smile in the company and hide your scars. I would not wish to clash swords with one so brave of heart."

Merry laughed aloud at that. "Are you telling me, gallant Marshal, that you would think twice at facing down one no taller than your stable-boys?"

"It takes more than height to make a Rider of the Mark."

Elfhelm crossed his arm upon his chest, palm flat, and Merry returned the warrior's greeting. But no sooner had Merry lowered his hand than a grumble broke the solemn moment. They both glanced at the hobbit's offending belly. "Shall we return to the Keep?" Elfhelm asked. "They will have breakfast laid out by now."

"How little you know hobbits," Merry laughed. He nodded toward the rucksack lying against the wall. "Bread, jam, cold sausage, and a flask of ale - it's good enough for first breakfast at least." Merry felt his smile fade a little. "I came out here for the air. All of the cheer within makes my heart sink in my chest, and I can't let my smile fade before Frodo or the others. I knew I wouldn't want to return for some time - so I came prepared." He retrieved his meal and slung it over his shoulder. "There is enough for two. But first, wilt þū wadan bi mec?"

"I can spare an hour," Elfhelm replied. "But tell me, where did you learn our tongue?"

Merry wondered for a moment if the Marshal's question was simple courtesy or if he was truly curious. Gandalf had warned Théoden about hobbit's long tales when he had asked after their smoking habits at Isengard; did Elfhelm know what he was asking for?

Yet Merry found he didn't much care. It would be nice to speak of everyday things, and if Elfhelm would lend his ear, then Merry would gladly share a tale or two. Respect might turn to friendship, and at the least they would forget the past months for a while. "It is not so different from our own," he began as the two of them walked along the length of the wall. "I noticed that much on the ride to Dunharrow..."

~~~

Note: There are a few phrases borrowed from Tolkien, most notably Elfhelm's comment that "We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it", which is spoken by Denethor to Pippin in "The Siege of Gondor", The Return of the King. Some canon details are culled from the Rohan portions of The Two Towers as well as "Many Partings", The Return of the King. Most importantly, Elfhelm is the captain under whom Éowyn and Merry ride to Gondor. His "Master Bag" name for Merry always suggested to me the man had a sense of humour, deep down.

Elfhelm's being named Marshal of the East-mark after Théoden's funeral is from Unfinished Tales, Part 3, Chapter 5, The Battle of the Fords of Isen: Appendix. Poros is a crossing in Ithilien contested between Gondor and Harad after Castamir's followers fled Gondor in the Kinstrife; the Gondorian steward Túrin eventually won the ford with the help of the Rohirrim. This was (to my knowledge) the last major battle the Rohirrim would have seen before the War of the Ring. The Tale of Years puts this at 2885 TA. I have tried to keep obscure references to a minimum - but, as always, have not wholly succeeded.

For the curious, "wilt þū wadan bi mec?" is my attempt at the Old English for "Will you walk with me?" And Hroþwulf (Háma's father) is my own invention; the name means "adorned wolf". Corrections gladly accepted if you catch an error with my translation, or a canon error anywhere in the story. :-)

This story was written for Marigold's Challenge #37. Thank you to annmarwalk, Llinos, and Marigold for their beta assistance, and to Branwyn for the language help.


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