Gimli almost missed Merry. His small body was covered by the larger bulk of an orc, an arrow sticking out of its back. The dwarf passed by the corpse, and only the glint of something more elegant and refined than anything Mordor could produce made him stop. A second glance revealed the now-dirty green of an elvish cloak, the leaf clasp sparkling in the moonlight.
He could not bring himself to identify the body, let alone roll the orc carcass off it. He simply stood there, his axe limp in his hand. His stillness alerted Legolas that something was wrong. The elf made his way over, not caring now about where he was treading. Orc bones crunched underfoot, but he didn’t care.
His paced slowed as he noticed what the dwarf had found. Dread curled in his stomach. Gimli glanced at him. The eye contact was enough to strengthen both of their resolves, one in their terrible anticipation. Together, they dragged the orc off the small bundle.
Gimli stumbled slightly, before sitting down heavily. Legolas could not stop the gasp that escaped him.
“Legolas?” Aragorn’s voice rang out in the silence, making the ever-vigilant elf jump. The Ranger was striding towards them, his steps quickening as he grew nearer.
Legolas stepped back to allow Aragorn to see.
Merry lay on his back, his eyes open, staring straight up, unseeing, to the dusky sky. There did not appear to be any obvious wounds that they could see, but his arm bore the same black scars as Éowyn.
It was almost too much for the ranger to deal with. He fell to his knees beside the small figure, tears spilling down his grimy face.
“No.” Gimli voiced the one word that was circling round and round Aragorn’s mind, like one of those dances the hobbits did for special occasions, but with storm clouds and blood instead of sunshine and laughter.
Aragorn had been with Boromir in his last moments, had been able to give the Gondorian warrior some peace as he left this earth. Merry had died alone, abandoned by his friends, unable to be reunited with Pippin.
“Gwannast vê, Aragorn. You could not have prevented this,” Legolas said, reading his friend’s sadness in the echoes on his face. The elf only half believed his own words. If only we had got here sooner. If only the Paths of the Dead hadn’t been a fruitless quest.
Legolas’ words did nothing to dispel both the grief and guilt that threatened to break down his already weakened barrier that kept his mask from slipping, preventing him from being overwhelmed and just giving up.
No. He would not – could not – give up.
As he did when he felt threatened or lost, Gimli reached for his axe - for the comforting metal and wood, the reassurance of protection. With the weight of it in his hands, the dwarf felt ten times taller, stronger, and more easily able to cope with the path of pain the three now found themselves on.
Aragorn gathered the painfully small body in his arms. Merry’s head lolled back, his curls matted and covered in blood. His eyes still gazed upon the world he would never again see.
The Shire, his home – never again would he drink with Pippin in The Green Dragon. Or see Brandybuck Hall. The vibrant colours of the rolling meadows and ploughed fields, gone. Replaced by the darkness of the battlefield. Instead of a wife, children, grandchildren, his last sight had been the hideousness of an orc, its clumsy weapon, so far from the grace of his own dagger, already caked in the blood of Merry’s friends and allies.
It was a harsh blow to them all. None of them had expected to find the hobbits alive, but it did not prepare them for the sight of another one of the Fellowship lying dead, the stench of orcs surrounding him.
There were no words that Aragorn could say. The body felt so light; Merry’s soul had gone to a better place, where white shores called him home. That was no comfort to the ones left in the land of the living.
“Aragorn,” Legolas warned, gently. “We must move. The Nazgûl will be back. Sauron is amassing his forces in Mordor, but he will want Minas Tirith to stay a dead city. Dawn will be upon us soon, and evil is in the air.”
But the ranger did not move. He stared into the glassy eyes of the once vibrant hobbit. On some level, Legolas’ words registered, but nothing, not even the Enemy himself, would have moved him from that spot.
“I have failed you, brave one. I am so sorry. May your spirit find peace.”
He spoke so softly that it was difficult for even Legolas’ elf ears to catch the words.
“Rest now, little warrior. Hí-eg maeth pol-thar. ”
As he spoke, Aragorn gently closed Merry’s eyes. The finality of the gesture caught him off guard and he threw his head back and screamed at the sky; a wordless, wretched lament that broke the hearts of any that heard it.
As if called by the sheer despair in his cry, the grey clouds burst, and rain came flooding down. Tiny, liquid pearls that drenched everything and everyone, without discrimination or bias.
Aragorn closed his eyes as the rain soaked into his skin. His face upturned to the sky, holding his dead companion, water running from every fold of his cloak – Legolas noticed that he still looked every bit a king. Even as Strider, the Ranger from the North, his noble blood showed in the way he moved, the way he held himself; it told those who noticed that this was someone to follow. An Elf and a Dwarf may not seem likely followers for a Man, but, looking at Aragorn, even now, Legolas felt his heart lighten. Not all the hearts of men are weak.
It seemed an age had passed when Aragorn finally moved. He laid Merry’s body down on the wet ground with the kind of reverent care that he usually reserved for Arwen. Legolas put his hand out, and Aragorn took it, getting to his feet with a fluidity that seemed so unlike him. His eyes stayed fixed on Merry.
When he did look up, his gaze was not the empty, broken stare that Legolas had envisioned; his eyes were aflame, the strength and valour of the warrior back again. Gimli could even swear he saw a tiny glimmer of hope in those eyes.
“We will be back for him, and the others,” Aragorn started, strangely calm. “But for now we make for the city. If any have survived, they would look for cover inside the walls.”
“Aye. I’ve never been to the White City before,” Gimli stated.
Aragorn stared at the rubble and stone that was all that was left of the outer City Wall. “I have.”
He recalled Boromir’s last words, his own promise to the dying man.
“I swear to you…I will not let the White City fall, nor your people fail.”
Aragorn placed Boromir’s sword in his hand, and his fingers tightened on the hilt. “I would have followed you, my brother…my captain, my King.”
“Forgive me,” he whispered.
“I do not like this, Aragorn. The city is the first place the Enemy will look for us, once he learns that we are not among the dead.” Legolas once again had an arrow on his bow, scanning the fields with trepidation.
“Savo amdir, Legolas. The day may dawn without light, but all is not yet dark ahead. I fear there is only one way in which we can still triumph. Frodo and Sam still have a chance, but for them to succeed, we must keep the Enemy’s eye away from Mordor. If he knows we are here, then he is not hunting Frodo.”
The death that surrounded them had only weakened Aragorn before, and yet here he stood, a King among Men. Something had snapped, seeing Merry, so small among the bodies of men and orcs, but with enough bravery to fill ten men. A synapse fires, something aggressively primal, and yet beautifully controlled – a warrior once again.
Legolas frowned. “I do not much fancy being orc-food, and yet I do believe I agree with you, Aragorn. Our lives mean little compared with the darkness that will fall if the Ring is not destroyed.”
“Three against thousands? No chance of success…certain death?” Gimli snorted. “What are we waiting for?”
 He died with bravery’
 ‘Now your fight is over’
 ‘Have hope.’