"Pippin, don't be silly. They're your spoils. Besides, if you and Gandalf can smoke on the way, I imagine he'll be a bit less grim."
"We've gone all this way without pipeweed. I imagine Gandalf and I can live a few more days without a smoke. Minas Tirith is a big city! They've got to have pipes. How can you have a proper city without pipes?
"Pip, Big Folk don't smoke. Except for the Rangers, and I think they learned the custom from hobbits. I don't expect that you'll find pipeweed in Minas Tirith.
Instead of looking disappointed, as Merry expected, Pippin looked annoyed. "Well, that's just, just uncivilized, it is. When my pipeweed runs out, then– "
"Runs out! Here, I thought you were giving me your pipeweed. So, you give me a pipe and nothing to smoke, is that it?"
"Of course not, Merry! What do you think of me! I'm giving you half my pipeweed. That way we both will have something to smoke. Not much, mind you. In fact, it's only a few smokes worth, but it'll do for those moments, you know, when the Shire feels so far away, it seems we'll never get back?"
Merry sobered suddenly and looked appreciatively at his cousin. Indeed, he knew those moments; he'd had many in Orthanc. Their smoke the night before had brought the Shire closer than it had felt in weeks.
What truly struck Merry was Pippin's acceptance of the coming separation. He had indeed grown into a great and brave hobbit. Merry was proud to be his cousin. He promised himself he would make Pippin as proud of him as he felt now.
"Merry? Are you going to just stand there with that silly grin and think about pipeweed? Or are you going to take it?" Merry's grin grew as he accepted Pippin's gifts.
Pippin's smile faded and Merry's followed, sensing their parting was near. His stomach flipped and he tightened his lips, refusing to waver in his composure.
"You will find your way to Minas Tirith, won't you, Merry?"
"You can be certain of it, Pippin. The Rohirrim plan to continue to Gondor after they do combat with Sauron's Orcs. I shall be with them. Even Gandalf thought it fitting that I accompany Rohan as they ride to war. He knew I was ready and fit to do battle against those Orcs. And this way, he says I might find my way to Minas Tirith. Lady Éowyn said it's very big. So I imagine the city will be easy to find."
"Yes, Gandalf said the same. I only hope it is not so big you cannot find one small hobbit within it."
Though a bit forlorn, Pippin did not look frightened, to Merry's amazement. His affection and pride swelled in his chest.
When Gandalf picked his cousin up and deposited him on his horse before him, Merry forced himself to remember Orthanc. Pippin was not in the hands of Orcs. He was with Gandalf. He could be no safer. It eased the pain in Merry's heart a small bit.
Éowyn soon arrived to take Gandalf's place before him and told him he must prepare to ride with the Rohirrim. He looked behind him at the bustle of activity and wondered if he should be more worried for his own safety. He turned back to Éowyn as she prodded him on, and noticed a sharp look of determination in her eye. Merry decided it must be the look of war.
As dawn approached, the Rohirrim prepared to set out to meet an army from Mordor, while the three from the Fellowship, with the sons of Elrond and the Dúnedain, prepared to take a road untraveled.
His hand finally free of the sling, Legolas carried his pack to Arod, the horse the Rohirrim had provided for him. He turned at the sound of someone approaching.
Éowyn's white raiment glowed faintly in the dark. The tension and worry were clear in her eyes. Legolas left the horses to meet her, and Éowyn granted him a brief smile. "My lady, you should smile more often. The dim halls of Meduseld would be brighter with it."
Éowyn looked at him but did not respond. He found he could not discern her thoughts, and his curiosity and concern for this woman grew.
"You leave with Lord Aragorn by the way of Dunharrow?" As he nodded, she looked as if she held back great emotion. "It is a Path of Death," she said, grief heavy in her voice. She mourned them already.
"I am not a man. I do not fear the dead."
"That you do not fear them does not mean the dead cannot take you. And what of those who go with you?"
"It is their choice to make."
She looked intently at him, as if reading him. "Why would an elf fight beside men?"
"I swore an oath to the Company I will not abandon. This battle is only part of a war to come. It will spread throughout Middle-earth if we do not fight here. I fight for my people and your people."
"You are hardly healed. You cannot yet wield a bow."
"For a short time more. Until then, I shall yet serve Aragorn. I am more than my weapon." He continued over her look of disapproval and doubt. "Furthermore, I use a short blade as well as a bow. And it will not be long before I shall wield a bow again, thanks to you." She rewarded him with another small smile. "Your healing hand has done all it could. I now do what I must." The smile faded from her face.
Éowyn looked at him inscrutably, then looked off into the distance. "Have you not ever wanted to change your destiny, shrug off the weight of duty?" she said in a whisper. Legolas thought of his years in his father's court and thought perhaps he knew of what she spoke. "Have you not ever wished to do what your heart tells you instead?"
Legolas saw in Éowyn's face a desperation that spoke of more than his leaving. He could only speak of himself, though it might not serve her. "Indeed, Lady Éowyn, it is what I do now. For my heart tells me, despite the advice of healers and that of even my own body, that I should accompany Aragorn on his new path."
"But none have ever returned from that path!"
"Perhaps our path shall lead elsewhere. And perhaps you shall see us again. We cannot say. But Aragorn believes this is his path. And I believe my path is by his side. My heart tells me this is so, and I must follow it."
Éowyn looked at him long, and slowly a deep sadness came over her. Finally she nodded. "So you go to battle then," she said quietly, and turned from him, and her voice turned bitter. "While I remain to tend the hearth."
He realized his estimation of her had not been far from the mark. Legolas reached out and grasped her arm. "You would rather hold a sword than a ladle, would you not, Lady?"
Her expression was fierce. "Would you not wish the same?"
Silenced by her retort, he looked at her in admiration. He wished to assure her once more they might meet again, but the words sounded empty. She pulled from him, and with one more glance to him, she left.
Then Aragorn appeared at his side, as Rangers are wont to do, watching silently as Éowyn retreated. Legolas had only a word for him. "Formidable." He walked away into the night to contemplate destiny and duty.
They soon began the ascent to the Gate at Dunharrow, Aragorn on Roheryn, a gift from the Rohirrim. Behind him followed the Dúnedain, led by Halbarad, then Elrohir, Legolas and Gimli on the horse Arod, gifted to them by the Rohirrim, and finally Elladan in the rear.
As they climbed, Aragorn mused over their two small friends for whom they had come so far, but who would not now accompany them. He would never ask the hobbits to suffer this path, and while they were in safe hands for the moment, he missed them, plain and simple. Regret yet gnawed at him for his inability to spare them the ordeal they had suffered at the hands of the Orcs and Saruman. No doubt much time would pass before he no longer rued his poor decision. That is, if he had much time left to him.
His thoughts ran away from him to the Company and their Quest. Was the Fellowship broken? Could they consider themselves a Company as they strode off in different directions? Merry rode with the Rohirrim to war, as Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli did by a far different path, a path from which none expected them to emerge. Pippin accompanied Gandalf to meet the Steward Denethor of Gondor, and Aragorn prayed the Steward would not be too harsh with the hobbit. But then he smiled as he remembered Pippin's refusal to be brushed aside by Gandalf at yesterday's morning meal. The hobbit had grown much. Besides, he was with Gandalf now. Aragorn would not concern himself overmuch.
His thoughts went unbidden to the other hobbits, for whom they had all suffered. Their paths as well were their own. He wondered where they might be and how they fared. As an unfamiliar ache began to grow in his chest, he drew his mind from those whom he was forced to admit held a special place in his heart.
When they set out from Rivendell, he had never imagined they would not finish this Quest as one. Surely he knew there were dangers, lethal ones in fact. But for all who survived, he had envisioned them together, supporting Frodo.
Was Gandalf right, then? Had they yet aided Frodo, though not in the manner they had expected? Had all their suffering served? And would their future suffering, sure to come, likewise serve Frodo?
Aragorn sighed. He could not manage to resist the creeping doubt that yet haunted him. He prayed he had chosen rightly once more. He would have felt more at ease had his prayer not been so akin to that which he had made when they had set out from Parth Galen. Once again, he – and the lives of his friends – relied on his judgment.
He must learn to trust his judgment again – the judgment of a king. At the moment, this Ranger felt no more competent than a child. Must he learn the lesson at the expense of friends' lives? Though Gandalf had returned, Boromir would never rejoin the living. Perhaps this was a lesson only the Dead could teach him.
Author's note: I must thank all my readers and reviewers who stuck through this till the end! Thank you for all your support. But most of all, I must thank Thundera Tiger! Without her fantastic beta work and unending support, this story would not be what it is. And likely would never have been completed!